Commentary

Manchester's derby is now the center of soccer's transfer universe

By Samuel Charles
@SoccerIsArt

Old Trafford is hosting one of the most anticipated Manchester derbies ever played Saturday, it will include two of the world's best coaches, and a pair of teams that bought half of the most expensive players purchased anywhere in the world since the start of last summer.

On Tuesday I touched on how the immense cash flowing into England is affecting the rest of Europe, which includes exacerbating the lack of competition in other top leagues, even as the Premier League helps subsidize them.

Just this summer alone the EPL's purchases of players outside England exceeded its sales by over $900 million.

It has yet to translate to success in European competitions, but if the early displays are any barometer, the awesome purchasing power of England is finally bringing the quality of Premier League teams closer to the level of attention they receive.

Manchester City is a slight favorite to win this year’s title, but Manchester United looks markedly improved, and the Red Devils will be afforded the luxury of focusing on the Premier League trophy without Champions League obligations. While Man City looks to duplicate its success from last season, when it reached the UCL semifinals for the first time, before losing to eventual champion Real Madrid.

TV: Manchester United-Manchester City (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN & Telemundo)

Saturday's key to success: Cash, what else? Of the 50 most expensive transfers in soccer history, 16 occurred since the start of the summer transfer window in 2015 (according to Transfermarkt.com).

China’s Super League bought three of those 16 players. Gonzalo Higuain's recent move to Juventus from Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain’s purchase of Angel Di Maria from Man United in 2015 were the only two among them bought by teams in Europe outside England, and Di Maria was the only player sold by a team in England.

English clubs bought all 11 remaining players, but clubs outside Manchester bought just three. Arsenal's Granit Xhaka, while Liverpool bought both Christian Benteke and Sadio Mane (Benteke was since sold to Crystal Palace).

The two teams in Manchester bought all eight other players -- or half of the most expensive soccer players purchased in the world since the start of last summer.

Manchester United bought Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, along with its record splash for Paul Pogba. This does not include Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who arrived on a free transfer.

Manchester City's haul included Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, John Stones, Leroy Sane and Nicolas Otamendi.

Ilkay Gundogan’s transfer fee did not even make that list, though he is said to be the first player Pep Guardiola identified as key to implementing his system at Man City. An exceptional deep-lying playmaker with a history of injuries, he has yet to play since arriving from Borussia Dortmund, but he could debut for the Citizens on Saturday.

Leroy Sane was on that list, and he’s a prime example of yesterday's transfer fees holding little bearing on today's transfer market. Man City paid Schalke 50 million euros ($56.5 million) for the 20-year-old attacker, breaking the record for a German player, set by Mesut Ozil just three years ago.

Ozil, who began his career at Schalke 04, arrived at Arsenal from Real Madrid as a two-time German player of the year who’d led both Germany and Spain in assists. Sane's resume on arrival included 11 goals in 47 Bundesliga games.

"I don't think that any footballer on this planet is 'worth' €50 million. But we are talking about market that developed as such. In the end we are the ones responsible for the fee because of our asking price," Schalke's sporting director Christian Heidl told German press agency DPA.

One of the craziest financial figures from this summer's market was among its smallest, $18 million.

That was the entire proceeds of player sales by Manchester City and Manchester United. Even as the pair combined to spend nearly $500 million on incoming players -- which found Financial Fair Play lobbying arriving from places you wouldn't expect.

"UEFA and FIFA have to implement a way of regulating [spending]," the Barcelona sports director Albert Soler, said at a news conference. "When FFP was created, the Premier League didn't have as much money as it does now, so it needs to be adapted."

"If it continues like this, with one club able to spend €120m [$135 million] on one player, it's going to cost more and more all the time to get the best players," Soler said. "Our most expensive recent signing was Luis Suarez and even then the club had to make economic adjustments."

Players are worth what teams are willing to pay. Calculating a player's transfer value is nowhere near an exact science. Fees are not a direct reflection of talent, or even the utility the club expects to get out of a player on the field, and the rationale behind a player's value to a club goes far beyond ability, contract length or age.

Manchester United and the Premier League as a whole, reaped millions in publicity before Paul Pogba even took the field. With a team in England buying the world's most expensive player for the first time since Newcastle United bought Alan Shearer in 1996 for over $24 million. Pogba cost over five times that.

Pogba's protracted purchase and name recognition brought ad campaigns and revenue streams to Old Trafford the casual fan would never even bother considering. (Adidas claims it sold $250 million worth of Pogba's jerseys, in three weeks, after selling over $80 million worth of Ibrahimovic's jerseys in his first week at United.)

Nationality can be a factor; players satisfying homegrown clauses see their prices inflated. The recent transfer rumors regarding 17-year-old Christian Pulisic suggest teams pricing in his enormous off-field potential -- with America’s brightest young star delivering unique access to a country of over 300 million people that isn’t fully saturated, and new consumers representing soccer's financial Holy Grail.

Rivalry resumed. Jose Mourinho and Guardiola headline an elite quartet of recent hires being celebrated by the Premier League’s purveyors of publicity, which also Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, 49, and Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, 47.

Mourinho is the elder statesman, at 53, and despite having accomplished so much, and probably feeling the most mature, Guardiola is the youngest, and doesn't turn 46 until January.

Guardiola has already become the first coach in Man City's 122-year history to win his first five games (three EPL wins and two Champions League qualifying victories to reach the group stages), and his influence is already clear.

It's early, but as you might expect, Guardiola's team leads the EPL in possession, at 62.2%, up from fourth and 55.2% last season. But City's work rate has also increased. Man City's players ran 10 miles farther in the 4-1 win at Stoke City than they did in that same fixture last season under Manuel Pellegrini.

The improved quality at Manchester United is unmistakable, but the biggest change at Old Trafford seems to be the renewed confidence accompanying a coach who has never been shy about raising expectations, and to the consternation of his critics, Mourinho's met them more often than not.

One would hope that Saturday's pregame handshake commences a new rivalry that doesn't become toxic like it did in Spain, where El Clasico -- perhaps instigated by Mourinho's insistence on winning at all costs -- devolved from the world’s greatest soccer spectacle into a circus.

In spite of all the anticipation, we could easily see a cagey affair once the ball is kicked, as both coaches may be happy with a tie.

Guardiola's team is playing on the road without Sergio Aguero's 105 goals in 152 EPL games; the Argentine was suspended for an elbow in the win over West Ham. Mourinho is famously pragmatic, and it would surprise no one if he looks to avoid the kind of loss that could penetrate the new sense of optimism surrounding Old Trafford.

That said, if the Premier League is going to hoard all these players, and go through all the trouble of garnering the world's attention, the least these coaches can do is let them put on a show.

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