Forget the merry-go-round - transfer business is high stakes poker

By Paul Stewart, Fri 17 April 2015 15:21

Forget the merry-go-round - transfer business is high stakes pokerA look at potential transfer targets for City this summer

Spring has sprung, summer is on its way and as is traditional at this time of year, a young man’s fancy turns to the transfer market. With the stakes higher than ever in the Premier League, given the enormity of the prizes on offer, it is no surprise that the summer is shaping up to be less of the traditional merry-go-round, and more of a cold-eyed game of poker.

There is an awful lot of bluffing and counter bluffing going on as the biggest clubs vie for the best of the limited talent out there and as players’ agents do their bits to rake in a slice of the action.

The shenanigans at Liverpool, with Raheem Sterling doing his bit for the good name of professional footballers everywhere, are just the introduction to a summer of dealing and negotiating that is likely to have as many twists and turns as Lionel Messi might get through on the pitch in an entire season.

City, of course, are on the lookout for fresh talent. This season is petering out in a way that points to Manuel Pellegrini’s side having slipped from the standards of last season. And what is more, European glory is still elusively out of reach. They are a team in need of rejuvenation. More creativity from midfield and more top-quality defensive cover at centre-back look like the priorities. But, as ever, everyone has their own different opinion. 

A recent poll in the Manchester Evening News put Juventus’ midfielder Paul Pogba at the top of the fans’ wanted list. The former Manchester United youngster was identified by 40 per cent of those polled as being the key target for City this summer. His old fashioned box-to-box energy allied to a statuesque physicality and a hugely impressive technical repertoire make him one of Europe’s biggest catches. If City are to sign him, they are going to have to play their cards spectacularly well.

In the first place, Pogba is part of a side that is galloping clear at the top of Serie A. He is under contract until the end of June 2019 and Juve - unlike City - are still in the Champions League. Even though the Frenchman will be forced to sit out the quarter-final with Monaco with a hamstring injury, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Juve might win the thing and that Pogba might see

Turin as the place to be for the next season or two.  And that’s before the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich - not to mention the Salford branch of the Louis van Gaal appreciation society - start to get involved.

Mention of Real Madrid inevitably invites discussion of a certain Welshman. Gareth Bale, along with Dortmund defender Mats Hummels was not a million miles behind Pogba in that list of whom the fans wanted to see gracing the Etihad in blue next season. But this is where things get even more complicated. Aside from the difficulties of negotiating such a high-profile signing, we are bound to ask, do City actually need Bale? 

If we go back to our poker analogy, we have to stop for a minute and weigh up just how much such a signing would cost - how much would City have riding on the deal? - and what they might stand to benefit against that risk. What would Bale bring to the squad that it currently lacks?

Good management, like good poker, is a matter of developing and executing a strategy that can enable you to keep each side of the equation in a positive balance. Money might once have been no object, but with FFP to consider, it is worth asking what City would have to give up if they were to go all in on a player who is only ever going to get slower and who has so conspicuously  failed to win over the fans at the Bernebau. Bale is damaged goods. It’s a deal with a distinct downside potential.

There is a sense that such a marquee signing would mean more elsewhere  - Old Trafford, maybe - where the need to impress the watching millions that they are still a major European force seems to be as much about their acquisitions as what happens on the pitch. A glamour signing like Bale would be just what they would need commercially, especially if they were to miss out on a top-four finish - perish the thought!

That sort of consideration is worth bearing in mind as City cast their eye across the market. As the publicity surrounding the unfortunate Angel Di Maria’s lack of marketability has shown, players have different types of value. And it’s a value that United need more than ever right now.

City’s priority is more concrete than that. They are not playing to the crowds of would be shirt-buyers in the Far East or anywhere else. What they need is talent on the park that can keep them improving.

On that basis the fans identification of Hummels as a prospective signing makes a lot more sense. The fact that the Borussia Dortmund player is said to have reached a preliminary agreement with United takes us back to the chicanery that is likely to be such a feature of this summer. Maybe Hummels’ presence on that list of City fans’ top targets was as much about spoiling someone else’s party as anything else.

To be fair, City’s own hand is not as strong as it might once have been. Not the least of the reasons for that is the question of Pellegrini’s future. He may not fear the sack, but getting rid of a manager is not usually a great way to go about team building. There is all that talk of Frank Lampard’s exit and Yaya Toure being a target for Inter Milan. It is worrying that the big man himself has done nothing to quell those rumours. 

And of course, there is the Roberto Mancini factor. Is he just playing games at the expense of a club who he feels treated him badly? The summer’s transfer back and forth offer plenty of scope for those with their own agendas to address over and above the simple matter of putting football teams together.

In the world of move, counter move, bluff and ever raising stakes, it takes a keen eye and a steely nerve to be able to get ahead of the game. There were other names on that MEN list of City targets: Ross Barkley, Danny Ings, John Stones and Kevin de Bruyne all featured, as did Lyon forward Alexandre Lacazette and one Sterling of Liverpool.

The last in that list has put down a marker for the summer ahead. His name has been linked in certain quarters with a move to City, but in a world where being able to read the political signs is as important as what you do with a ball, Sterling looks to have played a losing hand. Whatever Sterling thinks he might have done, Brendan Rodgers now has his entire credibility staked on the 20-year-old staying put. The one absolute banker this summer is that Sterling will not be signing for Manchester City... unless of course Rodgers is bluffing.