There aren’t many burdens in football greater than a price tag. For players at an elite level, the pressure to perform and entertain on a weekly basis is already intense, without adding a record transfer fee into the mix. It has become something of a recurring trend for footballers to wilt, for myriad reasons, under the relentless speculation of their performances. It’s not easy. There is no sense of liberation or riposte. When you’re a record signing, there is nowhere to hide.
Angel Di Maria signed for Manchester United in the summer of 2014 amid a wave of renewed optimism around Old Trafford. David Moyes was gone, Louis van Gaal had replaced him after taking Netherlands to the semi-finals in the World Cup and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward was the man promising an era of dominance, bankrolling his manager’s success with a raft of expensive recruits. Of course, there were several eye-catching signings that summer, including the loan capture of formerly devastating Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, but Di Maria was viewed as the first ‘Gaalactico.’
The Argentine was fresh off helping Real Madrid claim their decima Champions League triumph that May and had been exhilarating at times during his country’s run to the World Cup final. Indeed, his absence through injury was sorely felt in the loss to Germany. His £59.7m price tag made him the most expensive in British football history but United fans were excited at the prospect of a rejuvenated team with this dazzling talent at the heart of van Gaal’s attacking philosophy.
Di Maria expressed delight at joining one of the biggest clubs in the world and donning the legendary number 7 shirt but, looking back, his heart never seemed to be with United. He never fully settled in Manchester, for a variety of reasons, and he left in fractious circumstances after forcing through a move to PSG. When he departed, United fans were seething with hatred for a player they viewed as a coward and a disappointment. He had been hailed as the ultimate acquisition, but he left being ridiculed as the most extravagant flop in the club’s history.
Stability and consistency can often trump flashes of brilliance and Di Maria’s natural gifts were often overshadowed by stuttering form and a propensity for indiscipline. His debut came in the 0-0 draw at Burnley – the first scoreless stalemate in van Gaal’s now extensive portfolio – but Di Maria shone, lighting up Turf Moor with plenty of invention and zest as his teammates struggled. Then, Di Maria dazzled in United’s 4-0 hammering of QPR which featured a goal and a performance that seemed to suggest he was destined for great things in the Premier League if – and it was a big if – he could replicate that level of performance.
Sadly, he didn’t even come close. Di Maria’s form was erratic and his buccaneering style directly contradicted van Gaal’s philosophy, who came to mistrust the winger. Di Maria’s style is characterised by a penchant for dribbling and risky passing, two elements that are at odds with van Gaal’s possession-oriented process. Van Gaal often withdrew Di Maria in key games and left him out of the starting eleven in others. While van Gaal’s tinkering didn’t help – deploying him out wide, centrally and up front alongside Wayne Rooney – Di Maria couldn’t hide from his own critics after a series of sub-par performances. He was United’s worst passer that season, with his nadir coming against Arsenal in the FA Cup when he was sent off for pushing referee Michael Oliver. Van Gaal was angry and Di Maria didn’t get a look in following that indiscretion. It was over – a single season of failure left the player desperate to leave, waving good riddance to the Premier League in favour of Paris-Saint Germain. His legacy is a stain on Manchester United – a record signing who failed to live up to the expectations.
However, Di Maria’s case is only one in a long list of record signings that have crashed and burned throughout the years when money has talked in football. Fernando Torres notoriously looked a broken man at Chelsea, following his high-profile £50m capture from rivals Liverpool in one of the most memorable deadline day transfers of all time. Torres had been the darling of the Kop at Liverpool for four years, scoring 81 times in 142 games. At Anfield, the Spaniard was often unplayable, a prolific marksman who terrorised defences with his pace, positioning and insatiable appetite for goals but, at Chelsea, he floundered under the weight of his own price tag.
What exactly is going through a player’s head at such torrid times of fragile confidence is never fully known, but Torres offered insight into his Stamford Bridge nightmare in a revealing interview with El Pais. He likened his struggles at the club to ‘swimming with wet clothes on.’ It was accurate – Torres often seemed inhibited at Chelsea, lolloping anonymously through games and lacking the menace he possessed at Liverpool. He was a broken player haunted by a failure to live up to great expectations bestowed on him by Roman Abramovich and the demanding Chelsea fans. Torres himself admitted he hadn’t justified the money spent on him to Chelsea TV and one startled at such refreshing honesty.
There can be no denying that it will always be the way in football. As long as money talks, players will sometimes whimper. The psychology of mega-money football is difficult to appreciate, but it’s easy to predict that there will be many cases similar to Di Maria and Torres. It’s not confined to the heavyweights, of course. Look at Afonso Alves at Middlesbrough, who had everyone in England wondering how on earth he boasted a record of a goal-a-game for Heerenveen in the Eredivisie before flopping at the Riverside. Or what about Konstantinos Mitroglou, who appeared to be a shadow of the excellent Olympiakos striker at Fulham, not coming close to justifying the £13m splashed out on him in the expectation he would fire the Cottagers to safety in 2014.
Bargains can be hard to come by, but they’re out there. For every Andy Carroll, there’s a Michu. Footballers enjoy a freedom to be expressive and enjoy their football, without having to worry about the money exchanged between clubs. It’ll never change, we know. If a striker scores 40 goals in a season, there’s an inevitability that his fee will veer dangerously towards the astronomical. Some players can handle it. Cristiano Ronaldo has well paid back the £80m Real Madrid coughed up to pry him away from Manchester United in 2009, but, then again, Ronaldo is an exceptional specimen. Record fees can make or break a player. They can often be the reason for confidence plummeting and leaving reputations in tatters. In the cut-throat world of top-level football, there is nowhere to hide for a record signing, whether they choose to run or not.