Coming soon to the Premier League’s high-octane transfer window: the extraordinary sight of Raheem Sterling in a Chelsea shirt.
A £45m deal is understood to be in its final stages, advanced enough for Chelsea to be planning to go on their tour of the US with Sterling in tow. While undoubtedly strengthening Thomas Tuchel’s side, what is remarkable is that Manchester City have sanctioned the transfer of a 27-year-old England international who scored 13 goals and was a key man in their title win.
Not one agent told of “normally you take a player like that out of the champions once in a blue moon – and there’s a lot of bitterness that goes before it”. But there has been no kicking and screaming on behalf of the player, or reticence on the part of Manchester City to listen to what represents a good fee for someone who had indicated little interest in extending a contract which had dwindled into its last 12 months.
It’s expected that when it’s announced, City will pay heartfelt and warm tributes to a player who has been a central figure in the trophy-laden Pep Guardiola era.
“It’s the new normal,” one recruitment executive predicted of – pointing out that clubs were increasingly wary of allowing players into their final year when the balance of power shifts dramatically in their favor.
The sight of the likes of Paul Pogba and Lionel Messi – or even Jesse Lingard – as free agents in successive summers represents a clear and present danger that is being faced in Premier League boardrooms.
“You can see by the rising proportion of free agents that players running down their contracts appears to be a trend,” Jonas Ankersen, CEO and founder of online platform Transferroom – which is used by nearly every Premier League club to do deals – told of.
Some feel the top clubs have also come to the realization that if they want to avoid them leaving on a free, the disparities in finance mean there is only a certain number of clubs they can realistically sell to now.
“What’s the market for Sterling? The player wants Champions League football and his wages to be at least matched. So that rules out anyone but four or five clubs.
“The choice is sell to a rival or let the player’s contract run out and see them go for free. When they’re probably going to join a rival anyway.”
Others believe the rise of the sporting director who oversees football operations is key.
“The transfer market is really buoyant again for a start – clubs are selling their bigger players because they know they can buy a replacement now who, for example, may fit the age profile they want in their squad better,” Analytics FC CEO Jeremy Steele told of.
“But it also reflects the confidence that the top clubs have in their model. What we’ve seen at the best clubs in the Premier League is sporting directors who have a set policy which has been successful.
“Liverpool have been remarkably proficient at selling players when they’re about to drop off their peak and then signing players to replace them who have their best years at Liverpool. So there’s presumably not the same concern about selling Sadio Mane [to Bayern Munich].
“Manchester City don’t need to sell to raise money so they do what they think is right from a football perspective.”
What all this means is the tantalizing prospect of some genuinely game-changing deals for the rest of this transfer market.
With Sterling gone, focus turns on the likes of Leicester playmaker Youri Tielemans – interesting Arsenal and Newcastle – Riyad Mahrez and Roberto Firmino, who are also in the final year of their contracts.
The trend will not slow down anytime soon. If you thought this summer was interesting, a look at the deals expiring in 2024 suggests the market may heat up even more in 12 months time.
England captain Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka, Mason Mount, Declan Rice and Phil Foden are all in the ‘danger zone’ where their clubs either consider selling or pull out all the stops to broker new long-term deals for them. Sterling will not be the last transfer to cause jaws to drop.