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Stratospheric fees are here and Juan Mata belongs in that league

Saturday, 25 January 2014 - 8:08am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Football is now a game for billionaires and signing the Chelsea playmaker will be a brilliant buy for Man Utd, says Michael Owen in his column for The Daily Telegraph.

Juan Mata will be Manchester United's David Silva. He is a fantastic buy who will bring new attacking dimensions to the side and help restore lost confidence. United's attacking options remain strong, with Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and now Mata. Out wide, Adnan Januzaj has been a revelation and Antonio Valencia, Shinji Kagawa and Ashley Young still have much to offer.

The Mata buy was solid and logical and if they are to continue improving, the surgery must now extend to other parts of David Moyes's team especially at full-back, centre-half and in central midfield. It is no secret that Moyes has been looking for a left-back as a long-term replacement for Patrice Evra and they are thin in central midfield, where they need a commanding presence.

With Rio Ferdinand playing less and less and Nemanja Vidic getting on in years there is also room for another top centre-back. But nobody could fail to be excited when Mata walks into the training ground for the first time. To the average fan, transfer fees now look extortionate, but the 37 million pounds United will pay for Mata makes good business sense. Football is no longer a game for millionaires. Power has passed to billionaires.

As the fight to sign the most iconic players intensifies there will be no end in sight to the spiralling of fees and wages. The inflationary pressure is now stretching to 20-year-olds with big potential. I saw a figure quoted for Julian Draxler of 37 million pounds. Here at home astronomical sums are mentioned in relation to Southampton's Luke Shaw and Ross Barkley, of Everton. If I were a manager I would be gravitating towards those younger players, rather than a 28-year-old, provided I felt sure the scouting reports were reliable. A  20 million pounds 20-year-old gives you resale value and chance to shape the player in the team's image. Longevity is hugely valuable.

Equally, to not compete with the big spenders is seen in our culture as a sign of weakness and attracts scrutiny for the owner and directors. The fans almost implore them to put an extra nought on the fee. There is a terror of being left behind, and often suspicion about the motives of the owner if he applies restraint. A 3 pounds million player who the fans have never heard of is met with shrugs.

A 30 pounds million buy who the fans know only vaguely is assumed to be a superstar just because of the price. It is like an arms race, and I keep going back to Arsene Wenger, who resisted the temptation to play this game for many years, even when the success dried up. Either he had so much faith in his youngsters that he saw no need to splash out or he found the sums grotesque. Either way it changed when Arsenal smashed their transfer record to buy Mesut Ozil.

If Arsene was the last one to crack - and United are paying 37 million pounds for Mata - then everyone has now joined the chase for those players who will win you a tight game. We seem to have left the era where clubs will agonise over the odd million or two. The logic nowadays is that the very best, most famous players bring a commercial and match-winning power that will always justify the outlay.

Florentino Perez, the Real Madrid president, pointed out the other day that "the most expensive players turn out to be the cheapest" because they guarantee you such a high return. The big barterers tend to come out of the transfer window with nothing. While they haggle, other clubs jump in. I have always agreed with Wenger that the long-term health of the club must always be considered. Value for money still matters.

Sir Alex Ferguson also believed that a player's price must match his ability But the real stubbornness is disappearing now, as the business becomes more crazy. If everyone around you is going mad, you have to go mad too. The household names have a global value. They guarantee worldwide recognition and income. The pounds 80?million Real Madrid paid for Cristiano Ronaldo looks like the biggest snip in the world. The latest football business league demonstrates how much he has generated for them through merchandising, advertising, sponsorship and media activity.

Mata is in the top category of players in the new-found floating role. He is up there with Silva and is one of only two or three players of that calibre. I also think he is as good, if not better, than all the other players Chelsea have in that position. The fashion now is to have two or three of those floating players behind the striker, with two holding midfielders. Mata is one of the very best at making things happen from a midfield three. Whatever the price tag, nobody is questioning his creative ability and everyone understands why United moved for him.

The big surprise is that Chelsea are willing to sell someone of that quality. Their reasoning will be that the fee more than compensates them for the loss. And Mata has barely featured recently for Jose Mourinho so the team will roll on without him. These huge buys tend to work out. I know Andy Carroll did not work at Liverpool and Erik Lamela has yet to establish himself at Spurs. Generally, though, you are buying proven talent from a top league, so the gamble is small.

The old concern with big foreign signings was whether they would settle and "adapt to the English game". English football has its quirks, but the style of play is no longer out of step with the Continent so there is less chance of disorientation. Mata and Silva, for instance, are not inhibited by Premier League football. When I first came on the scene, to play a game in Italy or Spain was like playing a different sport. The risk has disappeared as the game becomes more global. Luis Suarez was the biggest bargain of this era. Bought for 23 million pounds, he might be worth 100 million pounds now.

The biggest transfer fee I attracted was 16 million pounds, from Newcastle. These icons of the game are now raking in so much money for their clubs that the fees from my era will continue to be eclipsed. I can see it going only one way.

A 16 million pounds buy these days makes few waves. A 20 million pounds is only moderately newsworthy. The stratospheric fees are the ones that catch our attention. Mata belongs in that league.

Michael Owen is co-commentator on BT Sport's coverage of 38 exclusively live Barclays Premier League Football matches. BT Sport is free with BT broadband, to find out more visit www.btsport.com


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