Power struggle between players and clubs set to continue in summer of discontent
The summer has finally arrived with the country now in the grip of an extended period of hot weather. Even the traditionally rain-soaked Glastonbury was scorching last weekend. However, it is football‘s transfer market power struggle where things are really heating up.
Three sagas in particular are threatening to rumble on until the end of the transfer window and the winner of each will strike a decisive blow in the ongoing war for power between players, agents and clubs.
Paul Pogba’s attempt to force a move away from Manchester United is the highest profile of the three. Real Madrid seem the likeliest destination, with Pogba’s compatriot Zinedine Zidane once again in the Bernebeu hotseat, though his former club Juventus also retain an interest.
United broke the world transfer record to bring Pogba back to Old Trafford in 2016 but, in the subsequent three seasons, his form has fluctuated wildly. At times the Frenchman has looked like a £90 million player but, far too often, he has just been a passenger.
Such was his clash of personalities with former manager Jose Mourinho that Pogba ultimately downed tools before enjoying a brief resurgence under Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer, as United whimpered to sixth place.
He was bizarrely included in the PFA team of the season, a decision that bewildered even United fans. However, seemingly believing his own hype, he declared at a recent promotional event: “After this season and everything that happened, with the season being my best season as well, I think for me it could be a good time to have a new challenge somewhere else”.
United have privately insisted that the midfielder is going nowhere but, if a sufficient bid arrives, they must question whether he is worth the hassle.
Meanwhile, in London, two very different stories of players attempting to manufacture moves are unfolding. Another perpetual nuisance, Marko Arnautovic, handed in a transfer request to West Ham on Tuesday in a bid to force the Hammers to accept a derisory bid from an unnamed Chinese club.
Arnautovic has form for such behaviour, having only ended up at West Ham after doing the same to Stoke two summers ago. It isn’t even the first time this year, as he attempted to force his way out of the club in January following a seperate bid from China. Ultimately both were rebuffed but, whereas on that occasion he went on sign a new contract, this time he has officially asked to leave.
Whereas you could argue that the West Ham move was due to footballing as well as financial reasons, following Stoke’s relegation, there can be no pretence that Arnautovic wants to go to China for anything other than a payday, despite already earning £100,000 a week.
The fans are angry with Arnautovic and will be experiencing de ja vu as the situation has distinct similarities with Dimitri Payet’s departure from the club in 2017. Both were popular and hugely talented figures but ultimately attempted to force departures from the club with whom they lacked a fundemental affiliation. The same isn’t true across London though, where a potentially uglier story is developing.
Crystal Palace’s academy product, Wilfried Zaha, is currently four years into his second stint with the club, having briefly departed for a wholly unsuccessful stint at Manchester United, for whom he only made two senior appearances.
His time at United is significant as, what was deemed to be a dream move at the time, ended up becoming a nightmare and massively set his career back. Palace brought Zaha back into the fold and rebuilt him, affording him the chance to re-establish himself as one of the brightest stars in the Premier League, an opportunity he grabbed with both hands.
The Ivorian has since achieved cult status at Selhurst Park, terrorising defenders and becoming widely recognised as the best player in the club’s history. Yet, despite their close links, Zaha is no longer happy at Palace, having recently discussed his desire to prove himself in the Champions League, a reasonable request for a player of his ability and age.
Yet the situation has escalated this week after Arsenal submitted a £40 million bid for Zaha which they wanted to pay in instalments over a five year period. Palace immediately rejected the bid, deeming it insulting and a deliberate effort to unsettle the player. However Zaha’s brother, Judicael, then threw fuel onto the fire by saying:
“Given all Wilfried has given to Palace to help them remain a Premier League club, I hope Palace will be able to see their way to agreeing a deal with Arsenal that allows Wilfried to realise his dream of playing European football for the club he’s supported since childhood.”
The statement has incensed supporters who understandly object to the notion that Palace owe Zaha anything, with the club having displayed unwavering loyalty to the winger over the years. Additionally, they are bemused that Zaha would state that he wants to play in the Champions League before suddenly realising a life long ambition to play for Europa League-bound Arsenal.
Though Zaha, away on AFCON duty, hasn’t endorsed his brother’s sentiments, he hasn’t denied them either and that silence has been interpreted as meaningful. The situation is becoming a mess and the enormous goodwill Zaha has built up with the club is at risk of ebbing away.
Whereas clubs were once all-powerful in these scenarios, the Bosman ruling and the rise of the super-agent has firmly tipped the balance in the favour of the player. Even the biggest clubs are now largely powerless to prevent a player from engineering their own exit once they have dug their heels in. Social media has allowed players to become powerful brands in their own rights with Pogba, for example, having more followers than Manchester United.
Yet it isn’t hopeless for the clubs who still have two powerful tools in the battle for power; fans and contracts. Ultimately without the supporters, the commercial power and influence of the players dwindles significantly and, in turn, so does their bargaining position.
Whilst in these scenarios it is usually mutually beneficial for both parties to come to a resolution, Manchester United, West Ham and Crystal Palace have more at stake than the fate of a single player. The manner in which each of the three scenarios are resolved will send a profound message about whether they can be taken advantage of or not. Yet, with the players also determined to get their own way, it could be a long summer.