There’s always one transfer story that never dies every summer. It starts in June, and usually takes until somewhere around the window closing at the end of August to come to a conclusion one way or the other, though it feels like years have passed when it does. Even by the time teams return for preseason training in July, most everyone is sick of it, and the players and managers having to answer questions about it all the time certainly doesn’t help. It’s the interminable book you had to read in high school English in the digital age (so, for me, To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s boring as shit, folks).
Somehow these stories in recent years always seem to involve Barcelona or Manchester United, so it’s not a huge surprise that when these two basketcase clubs actually got together and had to attempt to work together while also trying to pull one on the other was going to turn into a laughable example of how transfers and clubs can turn colors in the sun.
First the Barca side of it. Yes, this is still the same Barcelona that, thanks to their debt and spending levels, couldn’t re-sign the greatest player of all-time last season. And they’re still $1.57 billion in debt. That’s billion, with a B. So you may be wondering why they aren’t just taking what they can get for anyone who comes calling on any of their players, given how hard they have to paddle in their sea of red ink just to get to any sort of port. But that’s really step No. 2. Step one is wondering how they’re still buying players. Raphinha arrived today from Leeds for $57 million. Franck Kessié and Andreas Christensen arrived on free transfers, but can’t quite be registered yet thanks to that cap imposed on them by La Liga. There’s still the Robert Lewandowski talk that won’t go away. How are they doing this when they literally have a negative spending cap?
So how have they managed it? Well, if you live in any metropolitan area in the US, you’ll be familiar with Barca’s ploy of selling off future income for a current splash of cash that ends up looking like a felony three to four years down the road. Here in Chicago, it’s known as the “Parking Meter Deal.” In other places, it’s toll roads. You probably have one close to you that’s special. Well, that’s what Barca did, as they sold off a quarter of their TV revenues and half of their marketing and licensing wing. It’s a cash infusion that just might, might keep them street legal for this season. What it will do in the future…well, you’ve seen it closer to home, haven’t you?
Even this desperate flogging of whatever isn’t nailed down might not be enough to get Barca out of the muck, which is why they’re trying to push Frenkie de Jong out the door. But it’s not as simple as getting his wages off the books and whatever transfer fee they can pry loose from the red side of Manchester. De Jong, like all the Barca players, took a pay cut during the pandemic as Barca’s finances collapsed around him and the club. According to Marca, he had his salary reduced to about $3 million two seasons ago and $6 million last year. But he didn’t give up that money, just deferred it. This means he’s due somewhere in the hood of $89 million over the next four years. And he naturally isn’t really about to give that money up. Barca is hoping United would just pay it for them, and United is understandably in the “this ain’t how this works, fam” position. De Jong just wants the money he’s owed and that he put off to bail Barca out of their own jam.
Meanwhile, on the United side, on the surface, you can see why manager Erik ten Hag wants to work with a player in de Jong whom he had at Ajax and achieved so much with. And as ten Hag stated to United and fans before he took the job, this is a long-term project. De Jong is still only 25 and can be part of an overhaul. Except this is still MANCHESTER UNITED, even if it’s only in their own head, and they’d probably still like to be in at least the conversation of top four spots and Champions League. They can’t just bottom out. And de Jong doesn’t fill their biggest need, which is security in the midfield, not creativity. They already had this guy, his name was Paul Pogba and they hated him.
De Jong at Ajax was something of a marvel, as he played as one of the deepest midfielders if not the deepest (he actually started as a center-back), but would carry the ball through two or three opponents almost every time he touched it to trigger attacks the other way. The reason he’s been something of a misfit at Barca is that’s not how they traditionally play, preferring to pass their way through the field. De Jong also can’t be relied on to do any defensive work, and even if he could that’s where Sergio Busquets lives anyway. So he was shoehorned into being a No. 8, though showed some flashes once Xavi took over as manager and gave him more space.
Where does he fit at United? Keep in mind that they’re also reportedly signing Christian Eriksen and already have Bruno Fernandes around. All three of these guys basically play in the same spot. And it’s still Scott McTominay and his wandering elbows as the only holding midfielder around. A midfield that was constantly scorched and turned over and scorched again by anyone with a clue last season. This is like when NBA fans ask if a team is going to use multiple basketballs during the season if they’ve put together too many ball-dominant scorers. If Eriksen or de Jong or Fernandes don’t have the ball, what exactly are they doing? Mostly watching teams counter the other way from afar, it would seem.
On one side, you have a club so desperate to raise cash they have to try and weasel out of money they owe to a player they never really should have bought in the first place. On the other, you have a club that can’t seem to learn the errors of the past and wants to drop cash on a player that doesn’t fit. These two clearly deserve each other.