EPL champs are mostly built, not bought
There is a continued, slightly odd trend in many previews of the upcoming Premier League season -- the idea that if a club hasn't made any expensive new signings, it had a bad summer.
It's most frequently the case with the likes of Tottenham and Everton. Similar sides in terms of stature and average league position over the past five years, their main aim for the transfer windows is often to keep hold of their best players, rather than look to recruit any new ones. Granted, there are still a couple of weeks to go before the end of the transfer window, but so far, Tottenham and Everton appear on course to do that.
If there's one lesson to take from Barcelona's continued dominance of European football, it's that having a group of players that has played together for a long period of time eventually reaps rewards. That's not to say Pep Guardiola hasn't signed players -- he has. However, it's difficult to argue with the theory that his success has largely come down to the core group of players that emerged through La Masia, rather than expensive additions to the squad. Indeed, the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa have sometimes looked something like outsiders on the squad. As winger Pedro Rodriguez admitted last year, sometimes in training it's easy to tell which players haven't emerged through the Barca system -- they're not quite on the same wavelength. Besides, some of Guardiola's signings -- Alex Hleb, Dmytro Chygrynskiy -- have simply been flops. The strength is in the unity of the group.
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With that in mind, it seems strange that not strengthening during a transfer window is immediately recorded as a black mark. Every club should seek to improve, of course, but an expensive new recruit is not the only way. Players can return to full fitness, youngsters can step up, managers can change their tactics, last year's signings who took a year to adapt can finally become comfortable.
Unfortunately, the nature of the football news cycle means fans are conditioned into a state of mind in which signings are the most important thing. For two months each summer, newspapers have little to report on, so every possible transfer is covered in minute detail. Transfer fees carry an astonishing amount of weight when considering how important the player's arrival is. As Arsene Wenger said last summer after the addition of Marouane Chamakh, "The job of a manager is not to spend as much money as possible. To get Marouane Chamakh for free, instead of getting credit, you get accused ... 'Why did you not spend 20 million euros on him?' ... If I bought him two years ago for 20 million euros, it's OK. But when you get him for free, it is, 'Oh, he didn't spend money.'"
Wenger's summer transfer activity can be criticized -- if Arsenal loses Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, it will unquestionably be weaker in that area of the pitch without new signings. But Wenger's point is, of course, entirely correct. Manchester United has spent 19 million euros on David De Gea, a very promising young goalkeeper. However, considering United had the best goalkeeper in the league last season in Edwin van der Sar, has the club gotten any stronger at that position between last season and this? Probably not. De Gea will be a great goalkeeper, but to expect him to perform as well as van der Sar in his debut season is unreasonable. On the other hand, Tottenham has signed Brad Friedel on a free transfer, a key addition after the inconsistent performances of Heurelho Gomes last year. Friedel won't be around for too much longer, but he almost guarantees an improvement on Gomes' form going into 2011-12. Yet which side is considered to have been strengthened? United, because it shelled out 19 million euros.
History shows the biggest recruiters over the summer transfer window are not always the teams to beat. Manchester United won the title in 1995-96 having not bought anyone. In fact, it sold three regulars -- Andrei Kanchelskis, Mark Hughes and Paul Ince.
Four years later, the club triumphed despite having added only a squad player, Quinton Fortune. Often, only one signing has done the trick for United -- Fabien Barthez going into 2000-01, Rio Ferdinand ahead of 2002-03, Michael Carrick just before 2006-07. Chelsea's victorious team of 2009-10 had been strengthened by only two players, Yuri Zhirkov and Daniel Sturridge -- neither of whom were anything like regular starters during that campaign.
There are exceptions -- Chelsea's two titles under Jose Mourinho came after huge outlays of cash, whilst United's purchases of Nani, Anderson and Owen Hargreaves in 2007 resulted in it winning the Champions League as well as the league. Nevertheless, there's enough evidence to suggest preserving and improving an existing side can be equally effective as buying big.
If both can get to September without losing any key players, Tottenham and Everton might surprise people. If Harry Redknapp can get Jermain Defoe to return to his form of 2009-10, if Gareth Bale turns his great potential into more assists, if Kyle Walker continues the form he showed on loan at Aston Villa, plus Friedel plays well, Tottenham will have improved without spending. The same goes for Everton. If Louis Saha remains fit and if Jack Rodwell and Seamus Coleman improve, it will be an extremely difficult opponent.
Football isn't about big names or money, it's about the concept of a team. And a quiet transfer window can be a blessing in disguise.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He also runs zonalmarking.net.
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