When the wheel was all whirled out and the usual blur of rumors, misinformation, signings and non-signings wound down, it was Manchester United of all clubs that seemed to be left empty-handed when Europe's transfer deadline passed.
But when the smoke cleared, United hadn't made out so badly after all.
In the heady and twisted and often depraved world of transfers, United's move for Athletic Bilbao central midfielder Ander Herrera was apparently undone by their own failure to locate the player's proper representatives, to prevent imposters from representing the club to the Spanish league, and to navigate the murky waters of Spain's buyout clause and tax regulations. Consequently, that deal fell through.
Not an hour later, United looked like it would fail to land Everton 's Marouane Fellaini as well. Negotiations had reportedly dragged on for weeks on end and grew acrimonious towards the end. A deal for the multifunctional Belgian almost never did get done and went down to the wire. After an entire summer of chasing central midfielders - reportedly starting with Barcelona 's Thiago Alcantara (who went to Bayern Munich ) and Cesc Fabregas (who stayed at Barcelona ), then moving on to Madrid's Luka Modric, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira - new United manager David Moyes didn't land the badly needed reinforcement until the last minutes paying $42.7 million.
Manchester United made shockwaves late with the £27.5 million acquisition of Marouane Fellaini. (Photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
For a time it seemed like United had even signed a second player, sneaking in marauding Real Madrid left back Fabio Coentrao on loan just before the deadline buzzer at 11 PM local time. Paired with Fellaini, Coentrao might have salvaged the window for United, addressing the need for depth in the back and in midfield. Without him, the Red Devils' off-season was a resounding failure.
There's a certain kind of momentum that rules the transfer window. In a very finite market for talent, all deals are invisibly but inextricably linked, one always orbiting another. Never was this more true or as easily demonstrable as in European soccer's 2013 summer transfer window, which closed at 6 PM ET on Monday.
But the momentum never seemed to swing in United's direction this summer. For all the machinations and dealing happening all around them, for the longest time the Red Devils managed to make no move beside the buy of little-known Uruguayan right back Guillermo Varela. Their only other accomplishment was to hold onto the unhappy Wayne Rooney, who counted Arsenal and Chelsea among his suitors. It was all rather inexplicable, really, given the club's ample pockets and cachet. Somehow, their dominoes never seemed to get knocked over.
FIVE DEALS CONFIRMED: McCarthy, Lukaku and Barry arrive, while Fellaini and Anichebe depart. http://t.co/fsNaHV7qyA
-- Official Everton (@Everton) September 2, 2013 Much of the market was held up by the lingering negotiations between Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid over Gareth Bale. The transfer of the 24-year-old Welsh winger, who may well be the world's best player not named Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, seemed an inevitability. But for weeks on end, haggling dragged on between Spurs chairman Daniel Levy, famous for extracting all that he can for his players, and Real chairman Florentino Perez, famous for spending whatever it takes on his players. In the end, the fee either just eclipsed Ronaldo's 2009 world-record $130 million arrival from Manchester United, or fell a hair short. That depends on whom you believe, Real or Spurs - the former downplay the figure, probably not wanting to set a precedent or insult Ronaldo; the latter talk it up, perhaps eager to send a message that their players won't come cheap.
In anticipation of the impending deal - and having already sold American Clint Dempsey and Englishmen Tom Huddlestone, Scott Parker and Steven Caulker - Spurs went on a spending spree. Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Roberto Soldado, Etienne Capoue, Vlad Chiriches, Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen were all expensively acquired in anticipation of the Bale sale, as clear a sign as any that it was going to happen eventually. On balance, Spurs just about broke even in spite of spending heavily in the market.
But even the Bale deal happened in the context and aftermath of another. Earlier in the summer, Real's arch-rivals Barcelona had secured the world's most-hyped prospect in Neymar from Santos, a deal years in the making and reportedly moved up a season. Real, and its abiding quest to land so-called "galacticos," surely couldn't stay far behind. Even if it had all the wingers and attacking midfielders it needed in Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil, Kaka and Isco, freshly signed for $40 million.
So Bale came anyway. And Real shrewdly flipped Ozil to Spurs' own North London rivals Arsenal on Monday for a figure on which reports vary from $60 million plus incentives to $71 million. That helped recoup about half the money spent on Bale, whether it be less than Ronaldo's $126 million or $132 million as the English claim. On Sunday, the day the Bale deal was announced, Real had already dumped Kaka back on AC Milan . Kaka had joined along with Ronaldo in 2009, for his own $85 million fee, but had been a flop, never settling properly in Madrid. He was allowed to leave for free, but will pay Real through the attrition of his immense salary.
Kaka's arrival, in turn, allowed Milan to ship Kevin-Prince Boateng to Schalke 04 for some $13 million and buy a badly-needed striker in Alessandro Matri from Juventus for about $15.5 million. Juve had a few to spare, having already signed free agent Fernando Llorente from Athletic Bilbao and liberated Carlos Tevez and Manchester City from each other.
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Tevez's departure helped make room for City's own reinforcements, namely strikers Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic, joined by midfielders Fernandinho and Jesus Navas. And all that action by City and Spurs made their Premier League rivals Arsenal, Manchester United and, to an extent, Chelsea appear fairly inert by comparison.
Chelsea couldn't let such a wretched fate befall it though, and the ever free-spending club reacted by snatching Anzhi Makhachkala's Willian from under Spurs' noses for $46 million. With Andre Schurrle and Marco van Ginkel already signed, they completed their summer transfer action by snapping up Anzhi's veteran striker Samuel Eto'o for free as well.
Arsenal, in spite of having cleared out all the flotsam in its squad and announcing that it had piles of cash to spend, left it late, to the annoyance of its fans. Until Tuesday, all they had to show for their efforts were the free-agent signings of Frenchmen Yaya Sanogo and Mathieu Flamini. An attempt to sign Real's Gonzalo Higuain failed when the Argentinean got caught up in Napoli's swirl of cash, unloosed by their earlier sale of Edinson Cavani to Paris Saint-Germain for $85 million - he was the second world-class striker to head to France, by the way, after AS Monaco bought Radamel Falcao from Atletico Madrid for $80 million in their own flurry of high-profile buys.
Arsenal also lusted after Liverpool 's last best player, Luis Suarez. But their efforts to unloose him from a club he'd clearly grown bored of failed again and again. (So did Real's, for what it's worth.) So instead, the Gunners were left with a once-promising goalkeeper in Emilio Viviano and Ozil who, while very good, is a creative midfielder - the one position Arsenal isn't thin in. Yet so starved of good transfer news is their fan base that they seemed wholly sated regardless.
Liverpool, meanwhile, probably lacked the means - and, in truth, the prestige - to land any truly elite players without pawning Suarez off. Henrikh Mhitaryan opted for European vice-champions Borussia Dortmund instead, to replace playmaker Mario Goetze, who left for European champions Bayern Munich . So the Reds settled for solid contributors like Luis Alberto, Iago Aspas, Simon Mignolet, Kolo Toure, Tiago Ilori and Mamadou Sakho, having unloaded unworthy Englishmen Andy Carroll, Jonjo Shelvey, Jay Spearing and Stuart Downing at a significant net loss.
In spite of losing Fellaini, Everton nevertheless had a good day. They retained England left back Leighton Baines, who was also a United target, signed City's Gareth Barry and James McCarthy from Wigan Athletic, from whom they'd already bought Arouna Kone. Mega prospect forwards Romelu Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu joined on loan.
Proud Manchester United, meanwhile, became the victims of the sort of brinksmanship required to thrive on deadline day. And they'll have to make it through January understaffed.