Chelsea did not get any of their top transfer targets in January, but no one else bought those players, either. Maybe they were not as available as everyone wanted to believe.
If the transfer rumours were to be believed – always a frightful proposition – Edinson Cavani had his bags packed and the Uber waiting to take him to the airport so he could leave for London, Madrid or anywhere else a club would rescue him from Paris Saint-Germain. His transfer request was in, we were told, and Chelsea and Atletico Madrid were head-to-head in the bidding for the desperately wanting away Uruguayan.
When the Blues could not secure Cavani by the last week of the window, they were in luck! Dries Mertens was now even more available than Cavani for a fraction of the fee and wages, and Chelsea had the Jorginho connection to facilitate both the rumours and the ultimate deal.
Then February 1 happened, and Edinson Cavani and Dries Mertens were still at PSG and Napoli, respectively. This prompts two likely explanations: either all clubs and agents involved were in a multi-way tussle for the title of most incompetent, or Cavani and Mertens were never really for sale.
But incompetence tends to evenly distribute itself amongst the outcomes. Clubs will make as many bad signings as they will miss out on good signings. Agents will make the wrong deal as often as they’ll blow the right one. When all the outcomes involving overlapping parties are the same, it’s probably not due to incompetence, however incompetent those parties may be.
Agents and clubs have always used the media to manipulate the other and gain more leverage in various negotiations. That used to take a little bit of effort, as the agent or the club’s PR flack would need to have a relationship with someone reasonably trusted in the media, and maybe engage in some horse-trading by exchanging an inside scoop for exclusive access.
These days, with the proliferation of anonymous Twitter accounts building #brand #influence as in-the-know’s (are we within 48 hours of Callum Hudson-Odoi signing an extension yet?), it requires much less work.
Cavani and Mertens were equally ripe for manipulated transfer rumours with a layer of credibility. Both are over 30 and out of contract at the end of the season. Cavani fits the profile of exactly the sort of player the Blues need, and he has been marginalized at his current club. Mertens is still a regular in Napoli’s XI, but Napoli is a club that Chelsea have a tortured history of failed negotiations and the ostensibly successful Maurizio Sarri and Jorginho moves.
For an agent trying to get something more for his clients, mooting a January transfer to Chelsea creates buzz, and buzz creates leverage. If PSG and Napoli don’t rethink the desirability of these players before their contracts expire, the fact that Chelsea or Atletico Madrid saw their value could help the agents wring a larger wage packet out of whichever clubs sign them on free transfers in the summer.
Because neither player ended up moving, we have no way of knowing if they were ever actually interested in moving nor if Chelsea held any level of talks. The proof of their desire to leave would have been them leaving. Had one of them transferred it would have been believable that Chelsea were in the mix but ultimately lost out.
For all we know, they were content enough to stay for the remainder of the season and may be interested in extending beyond this season. If that is the case, the transfer rumours might have been more about them staying than about them leaving.
The Cavani and Mertens rumours were far from the silliness that gives the summer and January “seasons” their name. This is what allowed the rumours to progress so far. But the plausibility of the rumours can be separate from their veracity. These rumours could have started with the agents, the clubs, rando ITK accounts or, who knows, Frank Lampard himself. Each could find an advantage from the football world putting the pressure on two clubs and a player.
In the absence of any activity, we should look back on the rumours with the skepticism that is missing from the transfer windows in the first place.