This summer, Manchester United bought left back Luke Shaw from Southampton for £30 million. Luke Shaw is 19 years old. If you're not familiar with soccer's transfer fees, that is a staggering amount of money for a teenager. It's more than the fee paid for Wayne Rooney, another English talent of great ability and the prior most expensive teenager in the world. But more to the point, it's the same fee Real Madrid for Fábio Coentrão, a world-class player just entering his prime in the same position.
After being hobbled by injury, Shaw is finally healthy and set to play. He's is good, with the potential to be even better. A left back at Southampton in their hard pressing style of soccer, he led the league in tackle percentage at his position in the 2013-14 season and never sacrificed an ounce of defensive solidity, despite also having extremely robust attacking numbers (you often get one or the other, so being good at both ends of the pitch is a good sign). In terms of young left backs, he's firmly among the best in Europe in terms of his stats.
But he's young. Super young. Those stats which sparkle on the page and the play which dazzles the eye have come in only a season and a half. It's the definition of a risky signing, the sheer magnitude of the transfer fee making the otherwise equal parts sure thing and potential flash in the pan transfer one of real magnitude for both Shaw's career and United's future.
The only way that this makes sense is if United don't believe they're signing Luke Shaw, highly-rated English left back and towheaded teenager. Rather, United may well believe they're signing Gareth Bale, Welsh superstar and one of the very best players in the world.
The parallels, at least on paper, are striking. Both men got their starts for Southampton, a scrappy, small club on the south coast of England with an unrivaled youth academy. Both moved on to big clubs at the same age. Both play (or played, in the case of Bale) left back, working a very similar style at the same stage in their careers.
It's the last bit which is most intriguing. It wasn't until Bale moved to Tottenham and switched to the wing that he became an offensive juggernaut. His physical gifts, not least his speed, made him an excellent winger once he transitioned away from the back line. From there, the rest is history: he became scintillating, a man with a rocket shot and a direct, angry dribbling style who, unlike a lot of other scorers, saved his goals for the biggest, most stressful games. Eventually, he moved on from Tottenham to Real Madrid for a fee in the vicinity of €100 million euros; depending on who you read, his was the highest fee in history.
But Bale occupies a strange space in soccer's imaginary hierarchy of world class players. He's simultaneously over and underrated, curiously forgotten when the names begin to be ticked off after Messi and Ronaldo are called out, only to elicit nods of "of course, yes, Bale" when someone brings him up. It's a curious blend which can only really be explained by his Britishness, as opposed to his Welshness.
The Brits, and particularly the English, have an absolute mania for British players. They love, specifically, English players in their sports, but the Welsh and Scottish will do in a pinch. One only has to look at the love in for Andy Murray when he won Wimbledon to see how true it is. When it's time for national pride in individual athletic achievement, there's a lot of pining for Great Britain and a lot less for England; more than one pundit or writer has pointed out that a British World Cup team would include both Bale and his fellow Welshman, Aaron Ramsey, another exceedingly bright talent on the verge of that heady category of "world-class player." There's a reason that Arsenal have been flogging their British, rather than English, core for well over a year: it's in order to include Ramsey, their brightest talent.
If Bale isn't loved in the sense that the more traditionally British (in terms of attitude, looks, and playing style) Wayne Rooney is, he's still respected. Bale is clearly the best British-born player in recent memory. Rooney has too many miles on him to keep going at a high level much longer. Gerrard has always been nebulous grit and determination, the sort of player Gregg Easterbrook would gush over if he cared, having arguably cost his teams both a league title and a World Cup knockout round berth when his steely nerves were tested. Scholes' game was on point but he was too quiet, too awkward in front of the media, to make him the British superstar the public wants. Beckham was never, ever as good as his marketing machine would suggest. Sturridge is the best pure striker on the English team, but he's too black and too liable to dance out of the blue for those pining for a Brave English Lion to really be comfortable.
And so it's Bale, he of the 150-foot high posters and the insane price tag, the angry running, heavily marketed, red-faced, ghost-white, British superstar who occupies pride of place in the current British soccer pantheon.
And yet it's all seems rather muted, as if his Welshness supersedes his Britishness just as he's right at the cusp of real adulation in Britain. He's so nearly there, and was never closer than in his last season in the Premier League, but something holds him back from the sort of rock star status enjoyed by the game's biggest talents. The talent is there, as is the marketing machine, but it just never seems to come together into the juggernaut it should.
Which brings us back to Manchester United and Shaw. United, more than any other club in the league, are set up as a ruthless, take no prisoners capitalist operation. This is the team traded on the stock market, the one which stated, forcefully, that it would run friendlies during the upcoming season to replace the revenue lost by missing out on European competition (new manager Louis Van Gaal quickly scuttled this proposed plan upon arriving at Old Trafford). The one run by American businessmen.
Anyone would take a Gareth Bale clone for sporting reasons, alone. It's a no-brainer. If United could have an English clone of Gareth Bale, then it would be a marketing bonanza the likes of which soccer fans haven't seen in their lifetimes. How long has it been since England has had a legit top-five player in the world?
Luke Shaw will be converted to a left winger within three years. United's coaches and staff will do everything they can to mold him into a carbon copy of Bale. I'd bet real money on it, if I had any to spare. And, yes, it will be done because players like Bale win you trophies (even if he didn't win them for Tottenham), but it will be done for business reasons, too. Maybe even primarily for business reasons.
And what of poor Southampton? They were been raided by United, Arsenal, and Chelsea in an unprecedented feeding frenzy, having most of their top talent snatched from them. Outside of clubs which have gone bankrupt, no club has been practically eaten alive over one summer like this. They bought more players, but they're not remotely comparable in terms of quality to what they've lost.
The catalyst for the dismantling of Southampton's starting lineup can be found by looking at the national flags next to the names: of the five biggest names sold by Southampton this summer (and the five biggest fees received), four are English. Every single one was sold for well above a rational market value.
Most leagues have some sort of home grown player rule, whereby a certain number of spots on a club's regular season roster have to go to the home nationality. Only the English take these restrictions and use them to explain all manner of issues with the league, from the failures of the national team to the sinking feeling which is collectively experienced when another Dutch or Uruguayan striker wins the Golden Boot. The solution is more Englishmen playing more minutes and it's so self-evident as to be ridiculous to even contemplate otherwise.
The French don't do this, nor the Spanish. Even we Americans don't do this. The heady mix of gallows humor and entitlement English soccer fans experience every time the Euros or World Cup roll around is truly unique. And that mix, with the perceived solution, means that English players are snapped up at high prices. Sporting matters aside, there's serious money in it, just as there is with Luke Shaw.
The next World Cup comes fast, and the Euros even faster. England is smarting from a humiliating exit from the World Cup group stages. There just aren't enough talented Lions on that team, and Rooney's not going to be there to suck the oxygen out of the room forever. The weight of a club and a nation, then, is on the slender shoulders of a kid named Luke Shaw. He'll buckle; nobody can hold up the weight of unrealistic English soccer expectations for long. But a whole lot of money will be made if he ends up even half the player Bale is, and that's really what counts these days.
Ian Williams is a freelance writer in Raleigh. His work has been featured in Jacobin, The Guardian, and Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brock_toon.
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