Premier League the biggest winner as talent pours in
LONDON - For Manchester United, the answer to a slump in form or a crisis of confidence comes in 50 pound notes. Millions of them.
The giants of Old Trafford hemorrhaged almost 150 million pounds ($247.9 million) in the last few weeks, dressing the likes of Angel di Maria, Marcos Rojo and Falcao in red shirts.
The huge spending has given new Dutch manager Louis van Gaal an embarrassment of riches with which to fix his team's on-pitch struggles, even though critics suggest the money could have been spent a little more wisely.
Still, though, theirs is a glittering squad, its make-up largely mirrored across the city at their blue-shirted rivals, and at Chelsea, who either spent big on new superstar names or forked out to renew the contracts of their most influential players.
Liverpool, too, leaned heavily on their history and spending power to lure one of the biggest names in soccer to Anfield, snapping up Mario Balotteli from AC Milan for what is these days a paltry 16 million pounds.
But for the mortals of the English Premier League, it takes a little more creativity to secure the talent required to challenge in the top flight of English football.
Southampton finished last season in eighth position - one below United in the league.
Then, in the space of a handful of weeks, one of the most exciting teams in the league was asset-stripped by bigger, richer rivals, who cherry-picked the Saints' jewels.
The first to go was manager Mauricio Pochettino, who quit for Spurs.
He was followed out the door by Luke Shaw, to United; and Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren to Liverpool. Shortly afterwards Calum Chambers set off for Arsenal.
The spine of the team was sold off, and Southampton again dominated back-page headlines - this time generally attracting the word "exodus" twinned with the phrase "relegation candidates".
The club appointed a Dutch footballing heavyweight of their own, Ronald Koeman, in what may well prove to be a masterstroke, as the former Barcelona superstar has already proved as influential in attracting talent to St Mary's as he was on the pitch in his heyday.
On transfer deadline day, Koeman's latest coups were the capture of Toby Alderweireld and Sadio Mane. Both owed more to his powers of persuasion than those of Southampton's chequebook.
"I told him about our plans and our ambition... and the way we play is a little bit Dutch," Koeman said of his conversations with Alderweireld.
A World Cup quarter-finalist with Belgium and a La Liga winner with Atletico Madrid, Alderweireld hardly fits the profile of a typical signing for Southampton, the modest club best known for selling on its promising players.
"I knew Toby had some different offers, from bigger clubs... but he took some time, thought about our conversation and that gave him confidence to join us," Koeman smiled.
The Belgian, weaned at Ajax's academy, agreed. "I really want a trainer who believes in me, and he called me and said 'I really want you to come'... That's important to me," the 25-year-old Alderweireld said.
Senegalese international striker Mane was a similar story.
"He had interest from big clubs," Koeman said. "But the way we play, it is a good step for him. The future will come, he is only young," Koeman added, hinting at the power of the Premier League as a shop window for talent.
Koeman was by means alone in bringing exciting new overseas talent to modest English outfits.
Steve Bruce proved himself a master of the manouevre, garnishing Hull City's squad with the likes of Mohamed Diame, Gaston Ramirez and Hatem Ben Arfa. That trio was signed from fellow Premier League sides, but the biggest signing was that of Uruguay World Cup striker Abel Hernandez from Serie A side Palermo for a reported 10 million pounds.
"Abel is a fantastic signing and highlights just how far the club has come in such a short space of time," said manager Steve Bruce, with customary understatement.
Queen's Park Rangers boss Harry Redknapp famously railed at being described a "wheeler-dealer" by a TV interviewer while managing Spurs some years ago, but did little to dispel that label with shrewd moves in the transfer market this time round, bringing in players on loan from Juventus, Dynamo Kiev and Napoli, as well as buying Brazilian Sandro from his old club Tottenham.
Unfashionable Stoke City also played the lure of the offer of Premier League minutes to great effect, capturing talent from Hanover, Barcelona and Dukla Banska Bystrica while Sunderland boosted their ranks with names from Inter Milan and Estudiantes.
Swansea, too, scoured far and wide to clinch signings from Ostersunds FK, Espanyol, Napoli, Lyons, Gothenburg, Morelia and the less-exotic Falkirk.
In total, English Premier League soccer clubs spent a record 835 million pounds on hiring players during the summer transfer window as they reinvested cash from the latest round of broadcast deals.
But more than anything, the pipeline of footballing talent flowing from the biggest leagues around the world into Britain underlines the attraction of the Premier League rather than simply the clubs' financial might.
Many of the signings were for small sums, and a lot of the incoming players arrived on loan deals.
It soon became something of a mantra on Monday night for new signings to describe their transfer as a dream come true, and they should not be doubted, even if that dream is based on the league in which the players now find themselves, rather than the hue of the strip they will wear.
(1 US dollar = 0.6051 British pound) (Editing by: Neville Dalton)