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Following the Paul Pogba Money

Manchester United just broke the transfer fee record for the midfielder; here’s how other teams are spending their money

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After months of cycling through dozens of permutations of the same rumor, world soccer’s worst-kept secret has been made public, and almost official: Paul Pogba is leaving Juventus, and heading back to Manchester United, for a world-record fee. When a player this good changes teams for a sum of money that big, the deal reverberates way beyond the two sides of the transaction. Let’s follow the money.

Manchester United Sends €110 Million to Juventus for Paul Pogba

And it may cost even more. Four years after letting him leave for free, and watching him walk into the Juventus starting 11 and become one of the 10 best players in the world, United dropped a small fortune to bring Pogba back to Manchester. Normally, this would be terrible business — quite literally a nine-figure mistake — but the normal rules don’t apply to United.

Much like Michael Baumann wrote about the Los Angeles Dodgers in MLB, United don’t have to beat the house; they are the house. They make so much money from the United brand that they can absorb the kind of loss that would crater most professional clubs across the world. Transfers aren’t a way for them to make money; they’re a way for the club to bring in players who’ll make them money elsewhere. In essence, United have paid for Pogba to be developed in Italy for the past four years. Considering how dry the club’s youth pipeline has been since Pogba left — no, Marcus Rashford does not count — maybe they know themselves better than we do.

United will reportedly pay Pogba £11M per year, and he’s worth every shilling: There’s a good chance he’s the best player in the Premier League from the moment he steps on the field. Plus, he’s one of the brightest personalities in world soccer. After a few years of narrative dissonance — England’s spending power trumps all, but the best players in the world still don’t play in England — the Premier League has finally landed itself a bona fide superstar.

Super-Agent Mino Raiola Gets a 20 Percent Fee

If you think about the soccer transfer market for long enough, you’ll convince yourself that the actual playing of the sport is just a cover for one gigantic, imaginary, near-monopolized, barely regulated global shadow market controlled by a handful of agents like Raiola. Unlike in American sports, where the main job of an agent is to get his or her client paid, much of a soccer agent’s value comes from brokering deals between teams. The incentives are totally misaligned, as agents often stand to benefit from constant player movement.

With the Pogba deal, Raiola reportedly gets 20 percent of the transfer fee. In this case, Raiola (who also represents two other players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who moved to United earlier this summer) benefits from his client going to the most desperate bidder, and United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward was the thirstiest. Pogba is leaving a Juventus team that won five straight league titles and were the runners-up in the 2015 Champions League. He is joining a United team that took fewer shots per game than Sunderland last year. So, why is this happening? Because it benefits all the parties involved: Raiola maxes out his take-home, Juventus gets 100 cents on the dollar for their best player (maybe even more than that), and Pogba gets a bigger salary than he’d get anywhere else.

Juventus Sends €90 Million to Napoli for Gonzalo Higuaín

Beyond all of the Instagrams and squad-number sleuthing, this was the one palm-size tea leaf.

Two weeks before the Pogba transfer, Juve bought Higuaín, presumably with the money they knew they would eventually get from United. Now, if your soccer viewing habits can be summed up as “international finals only,” then you’re probably wondering if you can get paid to not score goals, too:

But when he isn’t playing with Lionel Messi, Higuaín has been one of the most consistent goal scorers in Europe. Last year, he nearly lapped all of Italy with a Serie A–record 36 goals (the next closest was Higuaín’s new teammate, Paulo Dybala, with 19), and his 1.1 goals per 90 minutes also led the league (among players with at least 500 minutes of game time). A guy who can do that every year is worth that kind of money.

Except, it’s unlikely Higuaín replicates last season’s numbers ever again. For one, he turns 29 in December, and that’s right when forwards typically start to decline. He hasn’t scored more than 0.45 goals per 90 in either of his other two seasons in Italy. Plus, Higuaín’s shot numbers last year (5.5 per 90) look like a major outlier compared to his previous two seasons at Napoli (3.7 in ’14–15, 3.3 in ’13–14). He’s always been a great finisher, but unless Higuaín has figured out a way to suddenly ratchet up his shot volume this late in his career, Juventus just dropped a club-record fee on a guy whose best season already happened.

Over the past couple of years, Juventus have become soccer’s San Antonio Spurs — their success rate on transactions is so high that they get the benefit of the doubt on every move. But buying Higuaín is a departure from a strategy that consisted mainly of signing undervalued, out-of-contract veterans and splashing on sure-to-grow youngsters. Unless they get bailed out by a desperate team in China, Juve won’t recoup much of the fee from the Higuaín transfer.

There is some “hidden” value here, though. The move should clinch a couple of more Serie A titles for Juventus. Roma came in third last season, and Juventus bought their best player, Miralem Pjanic, in June. Meanwhile, Napoli finished in second, but the team that finished first now has their best player, too. Unless Roma and Napoli nail all their replacement buys, this pair of moves should consolidate Juventus’s grip on the Serie A trophy. That’s certainly worth something, but maybe not worth paying Neymar-type money for an aging striker.

Napoli Sends €32 Million to Ajax for Arkadiusz Milik

Speaking of those replacement buys. After all the success they had with Higuaín, Napoli went out and got themselves another striker tainted by the stench of international embarrassment. Milik took 19 shots for Poland at the Euros this summer … and he ended up with only one more goal than I did. Most notably, he tried to kiss the ball against Germany rather than head it into an open net.

With close to two expected goals at the Euros, Milik was likely the victim of some bad luck, but frankly his wayward finishing didn’t hurt his value. Last season, Milik scored 19 non-penalty goals for Ajax, and assisted on seven more. For a 22-year-old, that’s not bad production, but Vincent Janssen, who is the same age and who essentially matched Milik’s attacking output in the Eredivisie last year, moved to Tottenham for €10 million less. And last summer, Memphis Depay, who was younger than Milik and was arguably the best 21-and-under prospect in Europe at the time, went to Manchester “We Don’t Feel Alive Unless We’re Overpaying by 20 Million Pounds” United for just €2 million more euros than Milik.

With Higuaín and Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi before him, Napoli have a history of signing the right young attackers, watching them blow up, and then selling them on at a major profit. Maybe that will happen with Milik too, but this doesn’t profile as the kind of move that’ll make Juventus worry that they gave their closest rival enough money to close the gap.

But €5.6 Million of the Milik Fee Goes to Bayer Leverkusen

When he was 18, Milik moved from Polish club Górnik Zabrze to Bayer Leverkusen for €2.6 million. In Germany, Milik made just 24 appearances and scored two goals. Then, last summer, after a series of loans, Leverkusen sold Milik to Ajax for €2.8 million. Seeing him move again for close to 12 times what they sold him for would be crushing — except Leverkusen negotiated themselves a sell-on fee from Milik’s next transfer. Reports suggest they’re getting around €5M from the move, so here’s a different way to look at it: In buying and then selling a guy who barely created any attacking output for the club over two and a half years, Leverkusen made more than a 100 percent profit.

Ajax Considers Acquiring Mario Balotelli

If Leverkusen scraping some fat off of Milik’s moves doesn’t tickle your tinfoil antennae and convince you that the transfer market is one giant shell game, then how about this?

Four years ago, Mario Balotelli looked a step or two away from superstardom, but the voice inside his head that says, “Yes, indoor fireworks. Good idea,” took over. His €20 million move to Liverpool didn’t work out, and neither did his loan move back to AC Milan last season. There’s a good chance Balotelli won’t ever be able to function in a top-notch offensive unit; he just takes too many bad shots for effective attacking patterns to consistently develop. Now, he has one year left on his contract with Liverpool, who would offload him to whoever is paying.

Nothing about this is concrete, but of all the rumors concerning Balotelli, the most smoke seems to be billowing from the ones linking him to Ajax.

Who’s his agent? Mino Raiola.