A Case Against Buying Tchouameni

I'm going to be upfront and state that the headline is clickbaitish. This piece is less about the pros and cons of acquiring Aurelien Tchouameni this summer and more of an excuse to lay out my thoughts on changing soccernomics.

The reported cost to acquire Tchouameni is 80 million euros. That is a lot of money to spend on a defensive midfielder, and with PSG playing spoiler, might even increase by the time a deal is agreed. Before Mbappe got cold feet, Real Madrid's public stance was not to get Tchouameni at all this summer. It was Mbappe, Rudiger and a left back for now and hope Tchouameni is still available next year.

This apparent reluctance over a talent whom almost everyone agrees is a can't-miss prospect is largely about the cost, but may also be attributed to squad composition concerns. Valverde and Camavinga have surely earned more minutes, and Kroos, Modric and Casemiro will all still be there. Adding a sixth midfielder to this group (already assuming Ceballos leaves) means one of the six will play less than Ceballos did this season. Staying on the football side of the analysis, a Tchouameni-Camavinga-Valverde midfield while filled with mouth-watering potential individually might arguably lack enough creativity as a unit.

These concerns are as valid as the argument to just "buy talent now, figure out minutes later" but I don't intend to go deeply into the debate other than to say that creating a good dressing room atmosphere is crucial.

The narrative going around is that after Mbappe's renewal, Real Madrid is sitting on a pile of cash and also nursing a bruised institutional ego. Those are red flags right there already when you enter into any negotiation. But the broader point I wanted to bring up is how the twin forces of increasing player power and sovereign sportswashing projects are making this a more and more dangerous time for Real Madrid to make rash economic decisions.

In case you haven't noticed, there is an increasing trend of stars playing out their contracts and going on free transfers (or in Mbappe's case, renewing in exchange for an emir's ransom). These fee-less transfers mean higher salaries for the players, and also takes the transfer decision completely in their hands and out of their current club's. One can argue that in this new normal, a "final destination" club like Real Madrid, whom the best players have historically gone out of their way to join, are at an advantage. But an arrogant mindset like this can be dangerous. Money talks, and if twenty years ago, no one would have thought of PSG or Man City as a destination club, well, they now are. Incrementally but increasingly so. Kevin De Bruyne isn't exactly passing napkins to Florentino asking him to get him out of City is he?

So Real has some advantage, but a smaller one than most think, in terms of attracting players on a free. On the other hand, Real have a big money disadvantage vs oil clubs for whom staying profitable is not important at all. If we take these parameters to its logical endpoint, Real Madrid will only be able to get star players if both the following conditions are true:

1. The player is out of contract.

2. The player wants to go to Real Madrid enough to reject a higher salary offer from a sovereign nation.

Mbappe's rejection shows that small prestige advantage Real Madrid has is hanging by a thread, which brings us back full circle to why buying Tchouameni could be a mistake. In a world of player power and profit-agnostic sportswashing projects, high transfer fees are a trap.

When players increasingly can and do use the threat of leaving you for free, anyone paying a high transfer fee is playing a very risky game (See the utter debacle that is Manchester United and Paul Pogba). If you intend on recouping your investment by selling on, finding buyers will be increasingly hard when the free option is available if they wait a year or two. That's if the player plays well enough (and on a decent enough salary) to attract interest at all. If you bought a dud, well, Luka Jovic says hi. It is a trap also in the sense that if you insist on acquiring a player by paying a transfer fee, you are bound to overpay. When there are reckless bidders in an auction who don't care if they lose money, everyone pays a higher price.

In a football world like this, the advantage lies within clubs who can spot and produce world-class talent early who the moneyed clubs can fight over (just make sure you sell while the player is under contract) - think Dortmund, Ajax, Sevilla, (gulp) Barcelona. If you are a buying club who thinks you can compete financially with oil clubs (and Real Madrid falls in this category unfortunately), you better hope you have an omniscient scouting team or that the world stops buying oil.

Tchouameni can end up being worth it. He can be so good and so loyal that he ends up playing a decade of top level football for Real Madrid, anchoring the next all-conquering Real Madrid side, in which case 80 million plus would have been well-spent. But Real Madrid needs to be aware that for transfers of this magnitude, the cost of being wrong is increasingly devastating. It is certainly not a decision they want to take while drowning in their feelings.