A make or break gamble

A make or break gamble

Ozil's sudden move to Arsenal has turned the focus on cut-throat nature of players' transfer in Europe

A make or break gamble

The team owners and their agents have left the casino. After the deadline for buying and selling players ended, some 64 players had arrived or departed from English clubs in a single day. The turnover on Monday amounted to more than $218 million worth of transactions on the final night, and that does not even include Real Madrid’s ?100 million, or $132 million, purchase of the Tottenham winger Gareth Bale that was agreed to on Sunday. The total spent over the summer in England alone ended up just a player’s agent fee away from breaking the billion-dollar barrier.

Every penny of it is a gamble. Nobody can guarantee that a player plucked out of one club, one league, one country will fulfill his potential in a fresh environment.

I doubt that any player put his innermost feelings better on Monday than Mesut Özil. He awoke that morning to hear that Real Madrid needed to sell someone to compensate for the outlay (the salary, and not simply the transfer fee) for Bale. Arsenal was offering top dollar, and so the expendable Mr. Özil was rushed into discussions, and then into a lunchtime medical examination in Munich, where he happened to be holed up with the German national team as it prepares for a World Cup qualifying game against Austria this Friday.

“I look forward to my future with Arsenal,” Özil emerged to say.
It was past midnight in Germany when he said that, as the deal was finalized moments before the deadline. “In talking with Arsène Wenger,” Özil said of the Arsenal team manager, “I immediately sense what had been missing - the wholehearted trust in me. I will pay back the club and the fans in each game. Now I want to help the club to finally win a title.”

A 24-year-old, speaking like a veteran. The last time Arsenal won a trophy was nine years ago, when Özil, born to a Turkish family in Gelsenkirchen, was just an apprentice beginning his climb up German soccer.

His breakthrough had been the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where he devastated England, among others, with his dancing feet and pinpoint passing. He looked then like a breathtaking left winger, but the knowledgeable Germans said he would be much more than that. His youth team coach, Horst Hrubesch, likened him to Lionel Messi, and others said that, with his eye for a pass and his innate sense of movement and moment, Özil would become a true No. 10, the fulcrum of a side’s inventive capability.

Arsenal obliterated its reputation for financial prudence in its deal for Özil, and if there are any questions about his ability to repay that high fee, they are about his stamina to run the full 90 minutes, especially in England, where the speed and physicality are higher than in Spain, where he seldom finished a game.

His technical qualities, and his soccer knowledge, are not in question. His adaptability might be, and to that extent Arsenal has gambled many years of frugal housekeeping to break out and buy the fifth most expensive player in this summer’s market.

In a sane world, Özil would be given time to adapt, and the fans and the industry in which he is in would take that time to assess him. In harsh reality, there will be critics who, long before the next trading window opens in January, will have judged him a success or a failure.

It is Wenger’s last chance, some are already writing, to prove he can move Arsenal in the modern game.

Meanwhile, Manchester United has changed managers and its boardroom structure. United won the English league title just 31/2 months ago, but as all its rivals bought heavily in the window, its efforts to sign a new playmaker to replace the retired Paul Scholes festered. Cesc Fàbregas, the player most wanted by the new coach David Moyes, was deemed not for sale, at any price, by Barcelona. This was translated - by a media that whips up the summer sales to fever pitch - as United’s failure, a signal that neither Moyes nor Manchester’s new chief executive, Ed Woodward, knew how to cut a deal.
Minutes before the window shut, United did make a significant purchase. Moyes took from his former club, Everton, the towering, combative Belgian, Marouane Fellaini.

Manchester ended up paying almost $43 million for Fellaini. Many in the news media deemed this as panic buying because a clause in the Belgian’s contract of employment had, until the end of July, a release figure that was $6 million less than the price United finally paid.

If United knew that, the agents knew it, and obviously Everton knew it. Everton’s owner, the theatrical entrepreneur Bill Kenwright, waited out the contractual loophole and gained the upper hand in the negotiations.

No doubt United paid over the odds for a player who uses his height and reach to good effect, and who sometimes displays surprising dexterity and a warrior’s determination.
Fellaini will not give United what it lacks, someone to make the incisive passes that turn midfield into lightning attacks with enlightened creativity.

Özil has it. Luka Modric has it.

And Modric might be the warning to all those who switched sides at the last possible moment. He was last season’s bartering chip, held by Tottenham until the final hours to push up the price.

Modric became Real Madrid property, but he spent much of the year on the bench. It wasn’t simply a case of the competition from Özil, or the occasional competition from the Brazilian Kakà. It wasn’t necessarily that the coach did not rate Modric highly. “I missed the preseason,” Modric himself reasoned. “It’s very tough trying to get on track when you haven’t had preseason.” He meant integration, the player trying to win over new teammates, and trying to get up to speed.

In the opening weeks of his second season, fans are singing Modric’s name at the Bernabéu. Madrid therefore sold Özil, and let Kakà return to his old team Milan. Timing the big moves can make or break careers.