Kyle Walker for £50m. £50m for Kyle Walker. There’s no way of saying it that doesn’t sound a bit, well, odd.
That’s not to do down Walker, who was probably the best right-back in the Premier League last season. But still: £50m for Kyle Walker.
In part, of course, it’s to do with the changing role of the full-back. Gianluca Vialli used to say that the right-back was invariably the worst player in a team, the one left over when the good defenders had been moved into the centre and the technically gifted players had been moved into midfield. Left-backs, being left-footed and therefore having a scarcity value, were somehow a different case, something exemplified in the way the first three great attacking full-backs were left-sided: Nilton Santos, Giacinto Facchetti and Silvio Marzolini.
That’s not true any more. The full-back, even in a back four, has become an attacking presence and that means he must have not merely pace, stamina and defensive qualities but also the ability to beat a man and deliver a cross.
Walker can do all of that – even if there are some at Spurs who feel Kieran Trippier, who averaged 50% more accurate crosses per game last season than Walker, is the better deliverer of a ball. Having missed out on Dani Alves, a high-class, low-cost option, Walker is an understandable alternative for City; he hasn’t won as much and he, to put it bluntly, isn’t as good a footballer, but he has Premier League experience. Whether he has the technical qualities to operate in that tucked-in, defensive midfield role Pep Guardiola often demands from his full-backs is debatable, which perhaps signals that City will return to a more orthodox understanding of the full-back role, but Walker will clearly be an asset to the squad.
But that doesn’t address the central point, which is that he cost £50m, with potentially more to come in add-ons. Perhaps that is what the market demands but the market is coming increasingly to seem like an ass. Walker is only the latest of a series if extraordinary deals this summer: Romelu Lukaku for £75m, Alexandre Lacazette for £53m, Mohamed Salah for £37m, Jordan Pickford for £30m. It’s usually a cheap dig at football to point out how many hospitals or schools could be funded for a player’s weekly wage but, really, how are historians of the future going to explain a society that has dragged itself on under austerity for seven years and yet smiles benignly at a decent right-back going for £50m?
Even within football’s gilded bubble, though, this is a deal that stands out. Walker is 27. He’s only ever scored five goals (now, perhaps this is a sign that football has at last realised that goals are not the be all and end all of a player’s worth, but the point is that Walker is not merely not Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, he is not even Stuart Pearce or Steve Nicol). He’s won only 27 England caps (he may be the clear first-choice right-back now but a year ago nobody would have been overly concerned if Roy Hodgson had preferred Nathaniel Clyne). And yet now he’s the most expensive defender in history.
It feels as though a collective madness has gripped the Premier League, which can now boast the most expensive back five in history: Walker, John Stones, David Luiz, Eliaquim Mangala, Luke Shaw. In part, of course it’s a result of the latest broadcast deal, which means that every one of the 20 Premier League clubs ranks in Forbes’s top 30 clubs in terms of annual revenue. And in part it’s because to the sheikhs, oligarchs and hedge fund grandees who own Premier League clubs, £50m isn’t actually that much money. The old scale, whereby a club’s wealth was in direct correlation to gate receipts and therefore had some grounding in the everyday world of fans, simply doesn’t apply any more.
But still, the money has some value and if last season’s fall in viewing figures is a sustained trend, if Sky’s relaunch of its sports channels is a response to anxiety about the economic future, some of the transfer fees paid this summer could come to seem impossibly inflated.
In the early 17th century, the trade in tulip bulbs in the Netherlands reached unprecedented levels, particularly after the infection of some plants with the mosaic virus led to an exotic streaked effect on the petals. For years, despite warnings from guilds and the church, prices went up and up, seemingly without end until, abruptly, one day in February 1637, perhaps because of an outbreak of bubonic plague, buyers didn’t show up at a market in Haarlem. The bubble burst, the outrageous sums bulbs fetched suddenly seemed nonsensical, and hundreds of investors were ruined overnight.
There’s a danger always in being scandalised by transfer fees. Some of the reactions to Sunderland breaking the £1,000 barrier to sign Alf Common from Middlesbrough in 1905 look laughable now. The football boom has outlasted the financial crisis. Perhaps the sport’s internal economy is robust and these fees do make sense. Perhaps the Haarlem moment will never come. But on the other hand, Manchester City have just signed Kyle Walker for £50m.