Few managers win in the great transfer lottery
The relief was palpable when Fernando Torres and Edin Dzeko scored their first Premier League goals this week. But the star strikers know they have a long way to go before convincing Chelsea and Manchester City fans they are anything more than expensive mistakes.
It was appropriate that Torres ended the drought on a rain-sodden night at Stamford Bridge. With his speed and sharpness noticeably reduced since his Liverpool heyday two years ago, the wet pitch seemed his best friend, along with the porous West Ham defence.
Of course, it's too early to say if January arrivals Torres (GBP50 million, or HK$647 million) and Dzeko (GBP27 million) will be remembered as shrewd or silly signings. These two seasoned internationals are good enough to find a way to fit into the systems of their respective clubs.
But with the end of the season in sight, many of last summer's recruits can now be judged. For every bargain buy like Javier Hernandez or Rafael van der Vaart, there is also a Bebe and a Balotelli. In fact, the players with poor-to-moderate form outnumber those who have become an instant success.
The failure of the Liverpool trio of Joe Cole, Paul Konchesky and Milan Jovanovic hastened the departure of former manager Roy Hodgson. But for every big club spectacularly striking out in the recruitment area, there are many smaller teams having an equally frustrating time.
Just ask Wigan manager Roberto Martinez. He thought he had the answer for his goal-shy side when he signed Argentina forward Mauro Boselli on a four-year deal last June for a reported GBP6.5 million. He scored in a League Cup tie against second-tier Swansea in October but found premiership defenders harder to break down. Without a league goal in eight games, he was shipped off to Serie A club Genoa on loan.
Overseas players are often seduced by the glamorous image of the English game, but the reality may be different when the new arrival finds himself stuck in a small, rugby-centric town like Wigan.
'The most important man in any football club has become the head of recruitment because they are worth every penny you pay them and more,' said ex-West Ham midfielder Peter Butler, who is head coach of Thai club BEC Tero Sasana. 'So much money is going to recruitment officers and scouts because if they do their job right, they can make the manager's life a whole lot easier.'
Butler is proud to be remembered as one of the good-value signings of the early 1990s before wages spiralled out of control. Joining West Ham from Southend United for a mere GBP175,000 in 1992, the feisty midfielder helped the Hammers earn promotion to the Premier League under Harry Redknapp. Three years later, Butler was sold for GBP400,000.
Then, like now, Redknapp had an eye for a bargain. So when he saw Real Madrid were willing to let Van der Vaart go for just GBP8 million, the lovable Londoner pounced on August 31, the last day of the first transfer window. The Dutchman has produced 12 league goals ahead of tonight's trip to face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
'Van der Vaart is a very good player, but let's not hope he's a one-season wonder,' Butler said. 'Harry almost always makes money in the transfer market.
'Gareth Bale is worth more than double his original price tag and Redknapp also picked up Aaron Lennon cheaply, who has turned out to be another great bargain.'
The fact that Tottenham may not finish in the top four this season will take the edge off Redknapp's shrewd purchases. Not allowing Bale and Van der Vaart to strut their stuff in the Uefa Champions League is a bit like driving the Ferrari to the shopping mall instead of along the coastal highway.
Alex Ferguson will be licking his lips at the prospect of seeing an older and more seasoned Hernandez perform on the European stage for years to come.
With 19 goals in all competitions, including the match-winner in half a dozen crucial games, the 22-year-old is the buy of the season. He was picked up from Guadalajara for a mere snip of GBP8 million before he scored twice in last year's World Cup. Had Ferguson signed him post South Africa 2010, the price tag would have probably been double.
England's longest serving manager is another canny customer on the transfer market as the acquisitions of Hernandez, Nemanja Vidic and Nani testify. But his recent failures do include the abysmal Bebe. The Portuguese striker, who was signed this season from Vitoria Guimaraes for Euro8 million (HK$92.28 million), even looked out of his depth facing non-league Crawley Town in the FA Cup.
But a Manchester United fans' website this week nominated Serbian winger Zoran Tosic and Angolan striker Manucho as Fergie's worst recent signings. Manucho's Old Trafford highlight was heading home an equaliser in a reserve team match against Everton in 2008. Now with Turkey's Manisaspor, he famously vowed to score 40 goals in a season for another of his former clubs, Valladolid, yet managed four.
'Sir Alex has a great knack of knowing when a player is at peak value or past his sell-by date before moving them on,' Butler said. 'He does not always get it right as shown on numerous occasions, but is a clever dealer in the transfer market.'
Again, it comes back to the old motor vehicle analogy. Just like buying and selling used cars, it is only the wise and lucky ones who end up ahead when it comes to the unpredictable commodity that is professional players.