Lessons of the transfer window
Transfer deadline day is the soccer equivalent of the Oscar red carpet buildup or a Kardashian wedding, a maddening maelstrom of rumor and intrigue as to what the stars will be wearing when their limousines finally roll up. It's a day that turns most semi-rational soccer observers into buzzing hyper-caffeinated Hollywood gossip mongers, our hearts soaring and deflating all day over the destinies of C-listers like Tara Reid and Peter Crouch.
That said, there are storylines that have emerged from this primordial ooze that flowed from the EPL offices on Aug. 31.
The value of addition by subtraction
Conventional wisdom holds that a club is judged by its influx of talent during the window. But sometimes the best deals involve jettisoning the flotsam and jetsam on $90,000 a week, and purging the lawn loungers who are either too entitled or too germaphobic to kiss the badge.
So let's raise a pint in honor of Kenny Dalglish and Harry Redknapp, who managed to scrape the expensive rot from their boots. Christian "End of Move" Poulsen, He-is-the Next-Great-English-Midfielder-I-Promise Joe Cole and the perennially underwhelming David N'gog all skedaddled out the Anfield door this week. King Kenny even managed to keep his regal word to Cole about Champions League soccer by loaning him to French champs Lille, where the former West Ham wonder boy will finally get quality time in his desired central midfield role. (Because, you know, it's common knowledge that the only thing holding Cole back all these years was playing slightly out of position on the flanks, but it will be weeks before Lille figures out why it was so easy to lure him onto the mainland.)
Similarly, Danish deadweight Poulsen skipped across the Channel to Ligue 1, relieving the Reds of the final two (and most egregious) remnants of the Hodgson era, and leaving one less Scandinavian for Craig Bellamy to brain with a nine iron. (Look out, Daniel Agger!) Alas, the loss of Raul Meireles to Chelsea just as the fax machines were about to shut down for the night will likely cost Liverpool the league title in neck tats.
Meanwhile, Ol' 'Arry lived up to his flinty reputation by misdirecting the English media with a string of amorous noises toward Kaka while slyly offloading a quartet of walking punch lines from his bloated payroll. Alan Hutton, David Bentley (on loan), Wilson Palacios and Peter Crouch will no longer be objects of derision at White Hart Lane, although they might be elsewhere. Even though Redknapp failed to pry Gary Cahill from Bolton to fill the Ledley King-sized hole next to Michael Dawson in central defense, he did land two marquee midfielders -- one genuinely new, West Ham firebrand Scott Parker, and another who, as managers like to say, feels like a new player, in Luka Modric, whose head "hasn't been right" since Chelsea spun it wildly over the summer. Yeah, so Redknapp and chairman Daniel Levy stared down Roman Ambramovich and his £40 million offer for Modric, though in retaining the gifted Croat, Spurs may have unwittingly lit the fuse on what shapes up to be the most tedious transfer travesty of the January window. Ask any Arsenal fan how that game turns out.
Look! Arsenal bought some actual players!
What can I say about Arsenal's tightwad manager Arsene Wenger signing on loan Israeli captain Yossi Benayoun other than "mon dieu." When I heard the news that Israel's greatest player was headed to the Emirates (oh, the irony!), I nearly aspirated my Dr. Brown's Diet Black Cherry. You see, Yossi is not just a 31-year-old mercenary soccer player with a bad Achilles to me, he's a role model. (True story: When my company's soccer team had a playoff game on Yom Kippur a few years ago, I asked myself: What would Yossi Benayoun do? I played -- and tore my ACL. Maybe I should have listened to Sandy Koufax.)
But I digress. Wenger actually signed five players in 24 hours, which surely breaks all previous Gunners records for deadline day. But I'm keeping that fourth-place Champagne on ice for a while. As much as I was elated to see two creative, stylish midfielders in Mikel Arteta and Benayoun swanning through the door last night, let's not book those 2012 Champions League finals tickets just yet. They, along with the decisive swoops for German international Per Mertesacker, South Korean captain Park Chu-Young and marauding Brazilian left back Andre Santos, are the moves of a desperate man staring many frigid Icelandic nights of Europa League soccer square in the face. If it really took the worst Arsenal defeat since before the car was invented to jolt Wenger to his senses, he should dispatch a case of '82 Mouton to Sir Alex as a token of appreciation for the 8-2 bludgeoning.
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After all, without that humiliation, Gunners are sitting here on Sept. 1 with the same old squad, nothing but fresh-faced promise and boundless potential, and the same old rationalizations that all is well at the Emirates. So give Le Stubborn One credit for good, if insanely belated, business. But don't look too closely at the tarnished goods. What happened to all those sexy brand names linked to North London? Let's face it, these lads weren't the Arsenal faithful's first, second or even third choices -- Eden Hazard, Marvin Martin and Yann M'Vila all proved too rich for Wenger's Gallic blood. That said, when you turn up at the mall on Christmas Eve five minutes before closing, these are the kind of dog-eared merchandise you're likely to find.
Arteta's once vaunted inventiveness and dead-ball menace has ebbed in the past year or so and the Spaniard comes bundled with the kind of injury-prone track record that would make Robin Van Persie's hamstring tear just reading about it. And Mertesacker gives Arsenal actual depth at its hobbled, hapless non-Thomas Vermaelen center back position, but I find him to be an oxymoron (a ponderous German?) who anchored the Bundesliga's fourth-leakiest defense last season -- Werder Bremen shipped 61 goals en route to a dismal 13th-place finish out of 18 teams, just five points above the drop. Still, you don't earn 70 caps for Germany at the age of 26 if you're truly a terrible player. Plus, he cost only £8 million, or less than half of what Bolton and Everton were holding out for to secure Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka, respectively. If nothing else, Wenger avoided paying "the English premium" like so many clubs have done this transfer window. With any luck, he is keeping his mad money safe until the January window, when, God willing, he will make the kind of marquee buy that can be the difference between Arsenal being eight or 28 points behind one of the Manchesters by season's end.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
As of now, that player remains at large.
Have angry fans? Spend money like Snooki at a spray tan convention
Maxing out the credit card is the new opiate of the masses, if the screaming hordes are soccer fans who moan endlessly about the paltry depth of their respective teams. (Arsenal supporters are, of course, the exception because when you lose 8-2 you're pretty much allowed to whine about anything.) To shut them up, just spend money, whether it's borrowed, stolen, leeched from an offshore bank account or simply handed to you by an oil-money billionaire.
Take last season's Npower Championship-winning side QPR. It wasn't enough that for the first time since 1996 the Rangers had returned to the top echelon of English soccer. Instead, earlier this summer, their fans were parked outside Loftus Road, pitchforks at the ready, eager to impale their mega-rich owners for their penurious business practices. And yet, on Aug. 31, with a new billionaire in charge, they put the finishing touches on enough new signings to pad out what had been your basic relegation-bound starting XI: the peripatetic forever-underperforming Shaun Wright-Phillips, Joey "Aristotle" Barton, ex-Arsenal fullback Armand "Emasculated At Old Trafford" Traore and Aston Villa reject Luke Young all touched down in London in the final 48 hours. It doesn't matter that none of them is going to save QPR from returning to Championship purgatory by Easter; getting them to slip on a blue and white jersey is enough to mollify their fans who have endured the double eye-gouge of massive ticket price hikes to go along with early-season losses to Wigan and Bolton. It's a clever bait-and-switch -- like disappointing your child by not letting him set the cat on fire but permitting him to stuff his face with a chocolate cake to stop the blubbering.
But deadline day's ultimately a mirage because these new reinforcements will struggle like the rest. That is, until a half dozen more bargain-bin saps are hauled in to replace them in January.
Further north, Stoke's fans are fiercely proud and protective of their team's agrarian style and were all too thrilled to camp out all night to welcome Birmingham's beefy striker Cameron Jerome and the Spurs duo of angularly unreliable beanpole Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios, who'll undoubtedly fit right in with the Potters' tibia-fracturing midfield. Then there's Blackburn, whose season-long relegation fight led them to some smart upgrades like Simon "Poor Man's Modric" Vukcevic, who'll appease their quality-starved supporters even though none of them possess a whiff of the Ronaldinho-esque panache and pedigree that the Venky's owners once crowed about bringing in. It's this same restlessness that convinced Sunderland to make a deal for Arsenal's self-proclaimed great Dane Nicklas Bendtner, who can now show the EPL all those world-class skills he's been bragging about for years despite scoring just two goals in 17 league games last season.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."