Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Shut that window, mother, it's freezing out

For those of you who didn't get the memo, we are still in the grips of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Despite the cartoon snowballs of optimism rolling down the Davos mountainside from last week's World Economic Forum - at which Very Important People talked up a bright, new, post-recession future - we remain in deep cack.

Governments everywhere have instigated ruthless austerity measures to reign in spending. Everyone has had to tighten their belts. Why, even Wayne Rooney, who earns a pitiful £200,000 per week, has wisely opted to give his Range Rover a vinyl "wrap" makeover, turning his grey motor into a white one rather than trade it in for a new one of the preferred hue.

With these desperate times calling for such desperate measures, it's heartwarming to see the English Premier League splashing out a record £225 million in the January transfer window. I say "window" but by the time Monday's limo rides and helicopter flights began, it had closed to little more than a slight opening for ventilation.

As usual, the bigger clubs played the game of waiting until the dying hours of the month before concluding business with a staggering £120 million of wheeling and dealing, ensuring that the January 2011 window beat the previous record - set in 2008 - by an incredible £50 million. That's an entire Fernando Torres.

Significantly, just four clubs - Manchester City, Aston Villa, Liverpool and Chelsea - represented 80% of the spending during this year's window. This quartet all have something to prove: for City, it's their continuing determination to challenge the old order with financial clout; Villa's controversial poaching of Darren Bent from Sunderland, and the loan of Michael Bradley, gave Gerard Houllier a sporting chance of dragging a moribund side out of lower-half mediocrity.

Though no more about confidence and progress, Liverpool and Chelsea's respective exploits in the window were as much about credibility as they were about bringing in new players. Whether Liverpool were resigned to losing Torres or not, they didn't mess around in coughing up £60 million to bring in Luis Suarez from Ajax and Carroll from a noticeably unreluctant Newcastle.

Torres, for his part, had been hinting at a move since last summer, and with Chelsea making eyes at the Spaniard for some time, the question wasn't about "if", or even "when", but "how much?". Comfortably wrapped in the blue blanket of Chelsea's welcome, Torres diplomatically (and clearly on-message) made his statement to his new club's fans with only a hint of a barb at the Liverpool he was elsewhere more desperate to escape. Kenny Dalglish, being a marginally better English speaker, used the full power of his native tongue to wither a snipe at Torres' departure, but based on the maxim that an unhappy player is not much of an asset to a manager, the parting is for the best of both parties.

All-in-all, the Torres/Carroll transactions actually represent good business for the three clubs involved: Newcastle get £35 million for an at-best £20 million player which means, if Mike Ashley applies his allegedly good business acumen, Alan Pardew might have a very healthy purse to open in the summer. Or maybe not. Liverpool, for their part, get in Carroll and fellow newcomer Luis Suarez a new strike duo to ripen things up and plant a large red flag at the North Pole of intent that they want to be seen as an undisputed and justifiable Top Four team.

Chelsea have demonstrated an almost penurious nature in recent transfer periods. Now they have, potentially, the No.9 they've needed and craved for years, and have spent handsomely to get him. If he can be kept out of the treatment room, a Torres playing alongside Drogba, with Anelka off the front pair, could scare defenders witless.

The £75 million Chelsea has spent in the last week on Torres and Benfica's David Luiz is not, as one commentator lazily contrived, "a return to the bad habits" of the early, profligate Abramovich era (i.e. carelessly spending obscene sums on players no longer worth their boot laces). The club has filled two badly vacant positions, and in Torres invested in a genuinely exciting star player. Yes, £50 million is a preposterous amount of money for a football player. Yes, that money would go a long way if spent on more worthy things elsewhere. But it is what it is. It pains me to say "market forces", but if that's what it costs to prize a star player (and the proprietor is happy to stump up the cash), that's what it costs, irrespective of the relative morality of the cost.

Enticingly, we'll get to see if things, as D:Ream optimistically predicted, will only get better for Liverpool and Chelsea when they meet on Sunday at Stamford Bridge. With Torres fully eligible to face his former club, it promises to be a mouthwatering test of who will get the return on investment sooner.