Welcome to the age of pragmatism in soccer.
Also, welcome to the age of super cash.
And the age of a few other things, surely.
On Monday, Manchester United and Arsenal swapped players they no longer had any use for. One because his unshakable inconsistency had dumped him a bit far down the pecking order. (He was still playing regularly, making 22 appearances about halfway through the season, but not as regularly as anyone would have liked.) The other because his contract was expiring and he refused to renew on terms deemed reasonable by his current club, while generally acting petulant off the field and on it.
So they flipped them straight up, a kind of move that’s always being suggested in the tabloids but hardly ever actually pulled off.
And now Alexis Sanchez plays for Manchester United and Henrikh Mkhitaryan plays for Arsenal. Which brings us to the second act in the whole play, where everyone pretends this was the residue of some grand design and that all their prior moves had led up to this. As if this totally wasn’t just a marriage of convenience brought on by Manchester City abandoning its pursuit of Sanchez after a year-long pursuit.
As if Sanchez hadn’t been aching for a move to City all this time. As if Mkhitaryan hadn’t very badly wanted things to work out a little better in Manchester, after his expensive move there just a season and a half earlier.
Now, of course, Mkhitaryan always dreamed of playing for Arsenal.
— DW Sports (@dw_sports) January 23, 2018
And Sanchez “always said that my dream was to play for Manchester United.”
“And I’m not just saying that because I’m here now and today it’s come true,” he added to the club’s website, sensing that what he was saying didn’t sound believable even to him.
Alright then. Makes you wonder what he would have told City’s website if his long-rumored transfer there had gone through.
Everybody dreams of playing everywhere.
trips and falls into a pile of mud
I'm very happy to be here. It's a dream come true because I've always dreamed of falling into this pile of mud. https://t.co/iYQtU4oDQs
— Aaron W. Gordon (@A_W_Gordon) January 22, 2018
Sanchez could, naturally, play the club’s “Glory, glory Man United” anthem on the piano.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 22, 2018
Sanchez got the big raise he’d wanted all along. Mkhitaryan probably got a bigger number on his contract as well, or at least an extra year or two. Never mind that both men are 29 and have given hints in their play that they’re trending downward from their respective primes.
Welcome to the age of cynicism in soccer.
In a time when words matter less and less, soccer players seem to pay lip service when they make a move. They say what they’re supposed to say, and that’s good enough for all parties involved. His new fans feel like he really wants to be there. His old fans don’t much care, because they’ve moved onto the next shiny attacking midfielder. And the PR department is happy so long as nothing casts a cloud.
Did Mkhitaryan secretly pine for a chance at Arsenal during those 18 dark months he had to suffer through at hated rivals Manchester United? Maybe.
And did Sanchez sigh deeply and peer into the distance from some London penthouse, wishing United would come after him, rather than having to settle for City? Possibly.
But likely not.
That’s OK. It’s hard to blame them. Because we also live in a time when soccer teams throw unfathomable piles of money at marginal problems. The top-end of the winter transfer ledger makes for interesting reading if you dig between the lines.
Barcelona chucked $147 million at Liverpool for Philippe Coutinho. He’s the second-most expensive player ever now, even though Barca doesn’t currently have a spot for him in its lineup. He’ll eventually succeed Andres Iniesta — probably — but he’s ineligible to play in the Champions League this season and Barca has already run away with the La Liga title with an 11-point lead and a 19-point jump on Real Madrid. Barca didn’t really need Coutinho right now.
Liverpool sent about $97 million of its Coutinho money to Southampton for defender Virgil van Dijk — sort of, since the latter move actually happened first. Is he an upgrade on the central defenders the Reds already had? He ought to be, yet van Dijk missed most of the second half of last season to injury and, after a Liverpool transfer fell apart over the summer, spent the first few months of this season in an extended sulk that took a bad toll on his form. Liverpool, then, dropped all that cash, making van Dijk the most expensive defender ever, in something of a gamble.
Keep on reading that list. Next up: Diego Costa to Atletico Madrid from Chelsea for $81 million, almost double the $43 million Chelsea paid Atletico in the summer of 2014 to make the reverse move. That’s a 188 percent markup for an injury-prone 29-year-old with an attitude problem. And one who hadn’t played a single minute for Chelsea this season at that, because its manager Antonio Conte inexplicably decided he had no more use for the striker.
And what had Costa done to deserve Conte’s ire? He’d hoped to move to China for a mind-boggling payday a year ago, a transfer scuppered by his Italian manager. But the Spanish-Brazilian had also delivered 20 Premier League goals in Chelsea’s title-winning season, taking his three-year competitive tally at the club to 59. When Costa saw a better opportunity to exploit his full earning potential, the club stood in his way. When it was done with him, it held onto him until someone made him the 18th-most expensive player of all time.
Can you really blame players for saying what they need to say to get by?
Call it the age of pragmatism. Or call it the age of cynicism.
Or just call it soccer in 2018.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.