If it’s possible for Premier League clubs to pause for a brief moment of reflection in the maelstrom of the transfer window, an important lesson might be learned. As Manchester United draw ever nearer to signing Paul Pogba from Juventus and Chelsea pursue Everton’s Romelu Lukaku, they would benefit from considering how they ended up in this position, splurging tens of millions of pounds on players they previously allowed to fly the nest.
The lack of foresight in these particular negotiations is one of the most galling aspects of spiralling Premier League wealth. While paying exorbitant fees to bring in new, marketable talent can be explained to an extent – although not by offsetting the cost against shirt sales, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic would insist – shelling out huge amounts to bring back former players is a transfer policy no-one should be comfortable with. Are clubs really so detached from financial reality that they can afford to shrug off such careless expenditure?
United were left with very little choice when Pogba departed in 2011. Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to overlook the Frenchman in favour of playing Rafael in central midfield for a league game against Blackburn extinguished their chances of persuading him to stay, and a pre-contract agreement with Juventus – for a paltry reported compensation of £800,000 – was quickly agreed.
However, had there still been a couple of years remaining on Pogba’s United deal at the time Juventus expressed an interest, and assuming the frustrated youngster had tested Ferguson’s patience enough to be allowed to leave, would United have thought to insert a buy-back clause in the transfer which would now have saved them millions? When it comes to the prescience of English clubs, the answer almost certainly would have been negative.
Buy-back clauses often appear to be an alien concept to Premier League chief executives rushing to get their business done before the start of the season signals ‘spend, spend, spend’ demands on the terraces. Players are either loaned out or sold for good; the idea of coveting them again in the future is lost in the chaotic immediacy of the transfer window. ‘Who do we want now?’ is the abiding question when there’s TV money burning a hole in Premier League pockets.
But even Real Madrid – arguably the most grotesque transfer window operators – appreciate the value of buy-back clauses. While Juventus will profit healthily on Pogba, they have also lost out this summer in Alvaro Morata’s return to the Santiago Bernabeu for £24m. In the current market – where it is costing Juventus £75m to replace the Spaniard with Gonzalo Higuain, six years his elder – it is clear Morata’s real value is much higher.
It is not the first time Real Madrid have demonstrated relatively shrewd negotiating skills either. Daniel Carvajal has developed into one of the finest right-backs in Europe after being sold to Bayer Leverkusen for a season before returning in 2013, while it has also been reported, though a somewhat different scenario, that Real have first refusal on Mesut Ozil should he ever grow tired of Arsene Wenger’s reluctance to sign a new striker and wish to leave Arsenal.
Elsewhere at the top of La Liga, Barcelona’s use of the buy-back clause has seen them recently reacquire Denis Suarez following an impressive year at Villarreal. Everton supporters, meanwhile, are still fretting over the pre-arranged fee inserted into Gerard Deulofeu’s contract should the Spanish champions want the winger back at Camp Nou.
This basic level of contingency planning continues to be ignored by Premier League clubs. Money may not be an issue to Roman Abramovich, but his fingers will still be burned by the fee required to re-sign Lukaku. In just two years since the striker was sold to Everton for £28m, his value has more than doubled – with the Toffees apparently now holding out for £75m. Lukaku even warned Chelsea at the time: “If I take a step forward, I’ll be worth even more.”
It was the same situation with Kevin de Bruyne, who joined a direct rival last summer when Manchester City paid Wolfsburg three times their outlay only 12 months before. Such was Chelsea’s absolute commitment to Jose Mourinho once upon a time, that they abandoned all consideration of what might happen in the future. But for a club that prides itself on sensible business practice – underpinned by the model of sourcing and signing young talent often to be sold at a healthy profit – the De Bruyne and Lukaku sales will go down as seismic errors, especially considering how quickly that faith in Mourinho disintegrated.
There is nothing to stop English clubs from adopting a similar policy to their Spanish rivals, and indeed there are examples from more prudent eras. Juninho eventually returned to Middlesbrough in 2002 for a fraction of the fee they received when he joined Atletico Madrid, while Liverpool made sure to include a buy-back clause in Kevin Keegan’s transfer to Hamburg in 1977. Club secretary Peter Robinson was unsure about the legality, however, quoted in the Guardian as saying, “I would not like to say whether this agreement is legally binding. It could possibly be considered a restraint of trade.”
Perhaps that suspicion of whether buy-back clauses are the done thing – or even too good to be true – has always remained. The benefits, though, are clear. The buying club may insist on paying a reduced fee knowing they could lose the player within a couple of seasons, but given the current rate of inflation it should be a simple decision – something which can rarely be said in the complex world of football transfers.
If Pogba and, especially, Lukaku make their moves it may signal a long-awaited change in approach. It would be a wise development. In the relentless discourse of modern football, taking note of what we learned is a recurring theme; for Premier League clubs, this summer transfer window has offered a genuine valuable lesson.