Inside the Di Maria and Balotelli deals
Angel Di Maria said farewell to his Real Madrid teammates at the weekend and is apparently on his way to Manchester United. There will be time to evaluate where he might fit in at Old Trafford once the deal is done (if it gets done), but in the interim, there are some basic considerations to be made.
First and foremost, Di Maria's departure has been telegraphed all summer. He was offered a new deal, but asked to be moved on, ostensibly because, with James Rodriguez joining Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale (not to mention Isco and, when he returns, Jese), playing time would be tough to come by.
Players fundamentally want two things: money and playing time. You can satisfy some people by giving them one and not the other. Di Maria evidently isn't like that, and it's to his credit: A new, improved deal wasn't going to be enough to keep him around.
Stop and think about it for a second. He has just had a career-defining season and played a key role in a Champions League win. He could easily have sat on his rear end and counted the cash, while telling the world that he was going to fight for his place in the team.
Instead, he's prepared to move to a foreign country, to a team not involved in the Champions League (or even the Europa League). That shows character and a willingness to challenge yourself.
Meanwhile, once the world found out that Di Maria was hell-bent on going, Real Madrid's negotiating position should have weakened considerably. You had a player they needed to sell who wanted to leave. And as the clock counts down to the final hours of the transfer window, it should -- in theory at least -- have depressed Madrid's asking price.
Weirdly, that's not what's happening. And this is where things get mysterious.
Di Maria was on the verge of joining Paris Saint-Germain a month ago, but the deal did not go through because PSG, who have been hit with transfer limitations as a result of their settlement for breaching Financial Fair Play regulations, said the asking price (65 million euros) was too steep.
And what is Di Maria's asking price now?
It's reportedly Cristiano Ronaldo-type money. A base fee of around 75 millions euros, plus another 15 million based on performance.
By all accounts, Manchester United don't want to pay that. They hope to do the deal for a flat fee of around 75 million, with no bonuses.
We will, no doubt, look at whether that kind of money for a 26-year-old makes sense and -- crucially -- whether it makes sense specifically for United. But in the meantime, you have to ask: Why would his price rise?
What transpired in the past month for the player to suddenly be worth so much more? Since the World Cup quarterfinal against Belgium on July 5, he has played just 14 minutes of competitive football (against Atletico in the Spanish Super Cup first leg). We can safely say, I think, that while he played well, that's not what bumped up the price.
The fact of the matter is that Di Maria could have been signed a month ago for the 65 million euros that PSG deemed "too much" (if not less; remember, that was the asking price). Now, United are on the verge of spending far more than that. It feels like the Marouane Fellaini deal all over again: sitting on your hands and eventually being forced to pay more than is necessary.
Maybe Louis van Gaal should have brought a director of football with him to help out Ed Woodward.
The Balotelli numbers game
So Mario Balotelli's move to Liverpool looked done and dusted on Friday, but it was not rubber-stamped until Monday.
Why the delay?
It's been interesting to note the wildly disparate reports regarding his compensation. And the confusion in the media is only multiplied by the fact that, in Italy, numbers are expressed in net (i.e., after-tax) euros per year and in England it's customary to do it in gross (pre-tax) pounds per week. That, and the fact that different sources have an interest in reporting different numbers, and people aren't always truthful when speaking to the media.
If you assume English media talk to Liverpool sources (or, in any case, give more credence to what Liverpool sources tell them) and Italian media speak to Milan sources (and those close to Balotelli's agent, Mino Raiola), then it's not tough to understand why each party might have an interest in inflating or deflating the numbers.
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OK, deep breath, everyone ...
Italian media put the figure at 5.8 million euros a year net, which, if you like your numbers gross, is around 8.84 million pounds (if you're of a British persuasion) or $15.3 million.
Reports in England range from 4.16 million (The Guardian) to 5.2 million pounds (Liverpool Echo), plus a range of bonuses that could earn him an additional 2 million a season. Again, doing the math and turning it back into take-home euros, that's 2.6 to 3.7 million annually.
Or, in gross euro terms, 5.2 million to 6.5 million euros (income tax is higher in Italy) plus bonuses of up to 2.5 million. That adds up, potentially, to a total of 7.7 million to 9 million euros per year. Or, if you want to compare apples to apples, assuming Balotelli gets his full bonus, 6.24 million to 8.32 million pounds or $10.15 million to $11.87 million.
Did you follow that? Apologies if you don't like numbers, but I figured some clarity would be needed.
Who to believe? I'm not sure. I spoke to one of the parties involved -- one who would know, but who won't mind me describing him as somewhat self-serving -- who simply said that at the end of the day, barring some meltdown, Balotelli will get the equivalent of $10.6 million, more if he does really, really well.
That number, maybe not coincidentally, is roughly what he was earning at Milan in base salary, though he had bonus clauses that could get him an additional $1.1 million a season.
As if all that weren't complicated enough, there are conflicting reports about the bonuses and how difficult it is to earn them. There's obviously a big difference between getting an extra $1 million for winning the Ballon d'Or or scoring 30 goals in the Premier League and getting it for simply showing up to work on time or not getting sent off.
The reason it has taken this long has to do with his contract, which proved to be more complicated than was first thought. And maybe leaking different numbers was also a way of getting the upper hand in negotiations while burnishing your image with fans and media.
Simeone needs to channel his emotions
At some point soon, Diego Simeone may want to take a deep breath and remind himself who he is: one of the hottest coaching commodities around, after winning La Liga, not to mention the Europa League and Copa del Rey and coming within minutes of conquering the Champions League. One of the reasons is the "controlled fury" he preaches.
Atletico Madrid are as high an intensity team as you'll see, but most of the time, that rage is channelled positively. That's how they overachieved the past few seasons and that's how, incidentally, they won the Spanish Super Cup last week: After taking that early lead at the Vicente Calderon, they didn't sit back and invite pressure, but outworked Real Madrid, especially in the second half, and deservedly beat them for the first time on home soil since the last millennium.
The blight, though, was Simeone's red card after 25 minutes and the grandstanding that followed. He was sent off because Juanfran wasn't allowed back on to the pitch quickly enough, prompting him to give the fourth official an earful, and then, when he turned away, tapping him on the back of the head.
This was followed by ironic applause after being given his marching orders and then waving his arms frantically, trying to rev up the crowd. And if that wasn't enough, he then took a seat in the crowd but directly behind the Atletico bench.
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For that last one, he can get a pass. If the rules don't mandate that he needs to disappear down the tunnel, so be it. But the rest is just foolishness, and he's better than that. Further, if maybe you could understand him getting caught in the moment in the Champions League final -- which also saw him get sent off -- this was 25 minutes into the second leg of the Super Cup. Not quite the same thing.
Some in Spain have said he's turning into Jose Mourinho, which, I guess, they mean in a derogatory way. But Mourinho never came close to the reported eight-game ban Simeone is facing. This isn't him. This isn't what got him where he is. The rage and fury must be channelled. The quicker he realizes this, the quicker he'll be back on track.
Guardiola's formation snafu
Can you be a little too clever for your own good?
That's the impression that Pep Guardiola gave for Bayern's curtain-raiser against Wolfsburg. The desire to find new combinations and formations is commendable; it's what has made him one of the very best managers in the world, after all. At the same time, though, it can blow up in his face.
On Friday, he was without the suspended Jerome Boateng as well as Javi Martinez, Rafinha, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thiago Alcantara and Franck Ribery, who are all injured. Not that Bayern often get sympathy, but it's a big ask for any team to spot the opposition half a dozen players.
Guardiola's solution? An exotic back three -- Philipp Lahm, Dante and Holger Badstuber (making only his second start after nearly two years out through injury) -- with a recycled fullback (David Alaba) partnering a 17-year-old in his debut (Gianluca Gaudino) in midfield. Out wide were Arjen Robben and the newly signed Bernat. Three front men completed a highly unorthodox 3-4-3.
It lasted about 15 minutes for the simple reason that it didn't work. Robben as a theoretical wing-back found his path blocked by Thomas Muller up ahead, while the back three against a Wolfsburg side playing one up front was overkill. Likeliest to push up was Lahm, who couldn't because he was behind Robben AND Muller.
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Guardiola made the switch to a more familiar 4-2-3-1, and Bayern went up 2-0. Some jitters came later as Ivica Olic pulled one back and Junior Malanda had an early miss, but still, Bayern held on. It was a deserved win (Robben hit the woodwork and Sebastian Rode's goal was incorrectly disallowed), but it was a bit nervier than you'd expect.
Things should settle down as the starters return. In the meantime, Guardiola can treat those first 15 minutes as a "teachable moment" while taking strength from the realization that he has an extra weapon in Gaudino, the son of former German international Maurizio.
Barca's kids are all right
So while Barcelona wait for Neymar to get fit and Luis Suarez to serve his ban, they have the luxury of chucking in kids without missing a beat.
Call it the La Masia effect all over again as Munir El Haddadi, who scored a peach of a goal after a beautiful pass from Ivan Rakitic, and Rafinha, Thiago Alcantara's little brother, joined Lionel Messi up front against Elche and, once the opposition ran out of steam, it was a comfortable 3-0 win.
Messi scored two and while we'll wait on the "He's back!" headlines, it was his best performance in months. The only blot on the night was Javier Mascherano's red card at the end of the first half when he clipped Garry Rodrigues from behind as the Cape Verdian cut across him.
It was vintage Mascherano in the sense that it took an eagle-eye ref to spot the contact and it's the sort of "old dog" trick expert players pull. It just wasn't the right time to do it, not at that stage of the game. But El Jefecito makes very few such mental errors over the course of the season. If he got one of them out of the way early, in a 3-0 win, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Sanchez will get more chances as striker
Alexis Sanchez didn't have a great time in the 45 minutes he played up front for Arsenal at Goodison Park -- so much so that Arsene Wenger sent on Olivier Giroud at halftime, and the Gunners battled back to 2-2.
But it doesn't definitively mean the Chilean can't play as a lone striker. There are certain games -- perhaps when Wenger opts to play a more counterattacking style, primarily on the road -- where his skills on the break will be invaluable.
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Forget the seasons at Barca -- playing alongside Messi is unique and can't be replicated elsewhere -- and think instead of what he was like the last time he played on a counterpunching side. At Udinese, together with Antonio Di Natale, Sanchez was devastating on the counterattack, both as provider and as finisher. I expect it's an experiment we'll see again whenever Wenger wants to give Giroud a breather.
Goalkeeper goal denied
OK, referees make mistakes; they're only human and all that. However, sometimes, they're above all party poopers.
We've all seen the drama of keepers coming up on set pieces late in matches, and we know how rarely it works.
Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz thought he'd scored a dramatic late equalizer against Malaga on Saturday, but alas, it was disallowed, for reasons I can't quite work out. Shame, because it was a sweet header.
More than a number
I was at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, and it felt weird seeing the No. 8 jersey out of the corner of my eye and not seeing Frank Lampard's frame in it. Retiring numbers is commonplace in U.S. sports but less so in football, though there are examples: Diego Maradona at Napoli, Bobby Moore at West Ham, Johan Cruyff at Ajax, Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi at Milan.
Lampard's shirt now belongs to Oscar. Chelsea haven't officially retired any numbers, though nobody has worn Gianfranco Zola's 25 since he left the club. You wonder if maybe this wasn't a missed opportunity.
Donetsk stadium shelled
Every so often real life intrudes on football. And it's usually distressing.
News that Shakhtar's Donbass Arena in Donetsk, Ukraine, was shelled last week served as a reminder that the team have emigrated to Lviv, in the western part of the country, because of unrest in the region.
During times like these, you remember the long list of things that are more important than football. But you also recall that where there's sport -- in the sporting, Corinthian, De Coubertin sense of the word -- there's usually peace.
You hope that when the football returns to Donbass Arena, it will be because peace has returned to that part of the world.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.