The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
I spent €125,000,000 on one player during the January transfer window. Meet Alessandro Polenta, 23-year-old Italy left winger, ex of Barcelona, and in my estimation, The Best Player In The World.
Here’s Alessandro Polenta’s transfer history, just to give you a sense of the shape his career has taken. He started as a 15-year-old at the youth academy of Novara (technically one of our fiercest rivals, though as they play in Serie C1 it’s been a while since we thought about them). After a year, during which he made seven starts with the senior team, he was bought by Ancona, also of Serie C1, for €40k. As a 16-year-old, he made 29 starts for Ancona, scoring a goal and racking up six assists, before Genoa came along and took him for €650k. He made 21 starts for Genoa in Serie A as a 17-year-old, at which point Ajax snapped him up for €9.5 million. After his first season with Ajax, Barcelona appeared and bought him for €28 million. He spent three and a half seasons at the Nou Camp, during which he made 113 appearances—and effectively ended the career of Ahmed Vaz, one of the great wingers in modern football history—before we showed up and made him the most expensive player in the history of the world.
Is he worth it? No, he isn’t. Let there be no ambiguity about this: He absolutely is not worth it. No single player could ever be worth €125,000,000. I haven’t done the math, but I’d guess that we won our first scudetto without having spent that much on the entire team. €125 million is fully 25% of the total sum I’ve spent on transfers since coming to Pro Vercelli, and I’ve bought 95 players. From a prudent, dollar-maximizing, bargain-genius perspective, this can only go down as the worst transfer I’ve ever made.
So why did we buy him? Well, let’s look at it from another side. We were curled up around a transfer budget of €156 million and a total bank balance of around €250 million. We’re making money faster than we can spend it, and right now, the money isn’t going to any use. I love watching the balance grow, because it means security: in a worst-case scenario, we can do a full Real Madrid thrash-about and buy ourselves a whole new team. But there’s a level of wealth at which even that aim becomes superfluous. €125 million won’t pull on a kit and go play for us on the pitch, and there’s no real reason to sit on a quarter of a billion inert euros when I want to coach, and I’m pretty sure the fans in Vercelli want to watch, the best players around.
On top of that, Polenta has spent the last few years in my mind as the unquestioned One That Got Away. I first spotted him when he was at Genoa, when I thought about picking him up for €8-10 million and ultimately, for reasons that have since escaped me, decided not to. Watching him shine at Ajax and Barcelona obviously made me rue that decision, and now, as I’m relishing our new crop of talented young Italian players—Martini, Caprioli, Proietti, Carbone, Capuano, et. al.—seemed like a good moment to put things right.
So in another sense, he is worth it, because even though the money was absurd—Barcelona really didn’t want to sell him, and the only thing that saved us was that he really wanted to come—the money was also, by itself, completely meaningless. And while we’re trying to lay down a message for the rest of the world with our adoption of the 3-4-3—roughly, that message is run—a concise display of our financial power can’t help but underscore the point. I don’t expect him to have an impact on the club that’s proportional to the transfer fee, but I think he’ll be fun to have around, he’ll make us measurably better, and he’ll fit into the core of emerging youth players whom I hope to have around for many years to come. I give you, then, young Alessandro Polenta:
His personality is “Professional.” His right foot is “Strong.” His left foot is “Very Strong.” I think he might get a bit better. He plays as a left midfielder, instantly improving the weakest part of our attack (David is just not at the level of most of the rest of the team, Ahmed Vaz is 35, and Michael Dogan is better as a defender). Finally, since he allows us to move Dogan to centerback, he helps us cope with the injury crisis we’re currently undergoing: Riccardo Caprioli (our best defender) is out for three months with a torn calf muscle, and Hugo (who we brought in specifically as a backup for the defense) has broken his collarbone. With Polenta on the team, we can move Dogan to the back line, where he’s better anyway, without losing anything from the attack.
The injury epidemic has slowed down our feverish goalscoring pace—we’ve also lost our leading scorer, Andreas Andersson, for three months—and made it significantly tougher to win games. But we’re still leading Serie A and, in Polenta’s first three matches, we beat Inter 2-1 in the 1910 Derby, Juventus 3-0 in Turin, and Inter again, 2-0 this time, in the Coppa Italia quarterfinal. We’d opened an eight-point lead over Inter through 20 games, but we were held to draws by Empoli and Lecce, and we lost a maddening game against Milan at the San Siro (we dominated the match, but gave up a fluke goal on the point of halftime and went down 1-0), which has helped Inter cut the lead to three with 11 games left to play.
That’s worrisome, and it could make for a terrifying end to the season. But our injured players are starting to heal, and as Polenta blends into the squad, I’m counting on a swift return to form. To make things that much more dramatic, we’ve drawn Barcelona in the quarterfinal of the Champions League, after smashing Liverpool 4-1 in the first knockout round. Barça, don’t forget, broke their own transfer record when they bought Tim Hauk from us last summer, making this a sort of Battle of the Endless Strings of Zeroes. To make things that much less dramatic, however, Polenta is cup-tied for the Champions League and won’t be able to play in the tie.
Other news of note: The arrival of Alessandro Polenta gave us no choice but to sell David, who went to Atlético for €11 million. He was excited to move back to Spain, he’s still in his prime (still just 27, actually), and after 371 appearances, 81 goals, and 65 assists for Pro Vercelli, he deserved to go someplace where he’d be able to play consistently rather than languish on the bench for us. He was a huge part of our promotion from Serie B and of our early successes in the top division. Spare him a fond thought.
We also sold Ander Irureta, the Spanish striker we bought just a few months ago, to Roma for €40 million. He was a crushing disaster for the club—two goals in 13 appearances, an average rating of 6.59, and an unchangeable motivation level of “nervous.” At 30, he was too old to keep around in the faint hope that he’d improve, especially when that kind of cash was on the table. I didn’t sign a replacement (possibly a mistake, given Andersson’s calf tear) but decided to let our youth star Luca Leone take over Irureta’s minutes. I don’t expect Leone to contribute much at this stage, but Irureta was doing absolutely nothing, and if I want a player to do absolutely nothing, I might as well use the one that’s free.
by Brian Phillips · August 26, 2009