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Big Name Transfers Are Heroin. Don't Be An Addict.

Turns out Manchester City are doing this transfer season right, at least according to the Guardian.

Sure, he's a big name, but will that be enough?
Sure, he's a big name, but will that be enough?
Antoine Antoniol

In every sport, everywhere, fans value the big name transfer, trade, or free agent signing, or whatever mechanism your particular sport uses to allocate its resources. It's easy to see why - big names are instantly recognizable, they're extremely talented, and they can help make the difference between winning and losing. They also tend to act as a salve for a wounded fan base - we were bad last year, but this year with Big Name Dude we'll be awesome!

Yeah, go ahead and ask the Los Angeles Angels Of Anaheim Which Is Not Los Angeles how that's working out this year.

The problem with the big name signing is that many times, it's not a solution to an actual problem, it's a solution to a perceived problem. A team having an off year is perceived as "not doing enough to win", so they go out and buy the biggest name available on the market, so they can then say "LOOK WHAT WE DID WE BOUGHT THIS GUY WE ARE DOING SOMETHING". Which is sound enough logic, until you realize that the big money committed to one big player could be used to buy two or three "no name" players, which might do more to address the actual problem of the team not playing well.

I mean, it makes sense emotionally - if your car's dying and you need a replacement, you go to the lot and you see the 2000 BMW in your favorite color, which just looks all sexy and powerful and like it'll be your best friend for life, even though the Carfax indicates it's probably got some serious work looming in the not-so-distant future. Your eye will linger on that beautiful shell for a long time before it wanders over to the five year old Jetta with a big scratch on the front bumper but impeccable mechanicals and good mileage, available for a significantly lower price, which is great because you also need to relandscape your yard, which will also cost money.

In the real world, most of us would choose the lower-cost car so we can have the economic freedom to do other things; in sports, though, teams almost always choose the sexy-but-aging, super-expensive option, because, let's face it: to the casual fan, it's easier to sell tickets to see Albert Pujols play than it is to sell tickets to watch Justin Smoak.

In no sport, however, is this tendency more pronounced than soccer. With its unfettered (for the most part) player movement and its no salary limitations and its purely capitalistic player market, teams are always tempted to pay top dollar for the biggest names as a response to a bad season, or even as an augmentation to a good one. "The fans love a big signing!" the teams always say, and while that may be true, it also could be the worst thing a team could do as far as roster construction goes.

There is a horrible sense of clubs rushing around buying anything they clap their eyes on: a Mies van der Rohe chair here, a Turner seascape there, chuck in a Le Corbusier sofa, a Persian carpet and an Isamu Noguchi table – does it all fit together? Never mind, that's what Claudio's for.

In soccer, the cliche goes, it's the team that's important, not the individual. And unlike with most team sports, a notable exception being NFL football, the cliche is actually true - soccer is such a flowing, improvisational game by nature that a group of players trying to do the same thing absolutely have to be working in harmony in order to do it. This requires two things: A coach that has a clearly articulated philosophy and system, and players that can all get on the same page and, at least temporarily, subjugate their individual desires for the good of the group.

If you are a soccer manager and you have built a fairly successful team, the question that needs to be asked when looking at adding this summer's Next Big Thing is twofold: will this big player put us over the top, and can this big player function as part of what we've built here?

For a lot of clubs at the elite level of European football, the answers tend to be "yes" and "I DON'T CARE BRING HIM IN". But if you look at the last six Champions League winners - the CL being the elite of the elite - you see Bayern, Chelsea, Barca, Inter, Barca, Manchester United. While those teams do absolutely have big names, which have of course helped them to succeed, they also have something else - a philosophy, a plan, a mode of thinking, whatever you want to call it, that does not reward the "we need to add one star and we'll win!" way of thinking.

For teams at that level, it's not enough to throw a big star in; those teams tend to add the big players very strategically, as opposed to having that be their default transfer-season mode. It may not be sexy, but - and this is admittedly the worst kind of results-based analysis - it also tends to work, if only based on the last few CL winners.

But if you look at Manchester City this summer, they're buying very strategically. Sayeth the Guardian:

Fernandinho adds a creative edge from deep and can release Yaya Touré; Jesús Navas adds pace and penetration on the right; Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic relieve the pressure on Sergio Agüero, Negredo offering muscularity and goals and Jovetic technical ability and cover not just at centre-forward but as a second striker or a wide man.

This, if you're a fan, is what you should want for your club; not just chasing after the big name, but actually signing the effective maybe-most-people-don't-know-him-but-he's-awesome names. When you combine the clear philosophy being implemented by Manchester City with their bottomless resources, which allows them to buy five or six players every summer, it's very, very scary for the rest of the Premier League.

The reason I'm less scared than maybe I should be about that is that Arsenal are also combining a clear strategy with, if not bottomless, then very significant resources; Arsenal have largely grown from within, while Manchester City have looked to the market, but the clubs seem to be operating in the same way this year, by building from a philosophy rather than by reflexively throwing cash at this year's big thing.

That's why, if Arsenal miss out on Suarez, I'm much less panicked/annoyed about it than a lot of fans seem to be; Arsenal are building a team, and Suarez was identified as being someone who could help that team. I would really love it if he did come to Arsenal, but, as has been pointed out by many, Arsenal are more than a Luis Suarez away from winning the championship this season; if he doesn't arrive, the team is still what it was, and will continue to evolve and improve while Arsene and the board pick their spots to jump in to the acquisition pool according to their plan for Arsenal's long-term success.