A strange lull has fallen over the Premier League at the moment. Almost eerie. I can feel it, and I know a lot of my fellow Liverpudlians can too. Blame Real Madrid I suppose. And Carlos Tévez. If it wasn’t for that amalgamation of characters, chancers and crackpots, we wouldn’t have this feeling. This fear of the unexpected. Everyone else may be penning the obituaries for Sir Alex Ferguson’s “greatest ever squad”, but the cynics amongst us are waiting. And expecting.
Of course we have read all the names. Franck Ribéry, David Villa, Karim Benzema, Sergio Agüero, Luis Antonio Valencia. All these names, stars, set to fill the chasm left by the departed duo of Ronaldo & Tévez. Figures of £80m banded about. Sir Alex Ferguson. £80m. Manchester United. Does that not scare you? It does me.
Because we have seen it before. Bryan Robson. Paul Ince. Eric Cantona. Jaap Stam. David Beckham. Ruud Van Nistelrooy. All stars of United sides from days gone by. All seemingly irreplaceable. All left.
And guess what? Life went on. Ok there were ripples- United’s first game after Ince leaving was a 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa after which Alan Hansen made the now-infamous assumption that “you win nothing with kids”, whilst the first seasons post-Cantona, Stam & Beckham passed without a League Title as their replacements (Teddy Sheringham, Laurent Blanc & Cristiano Ronaldo) were bedded into a side well drilled in the art of winning- but in the end, Ferguson rebuilt the side, altered the dynamics, and sustained the success. He will do it again too.
Which means that when you read newspaper stories like the one featured in yesterday’s Times about his supposed interest in Grêmio’s 18 year-old wonderkid Douglas Costa, it makes you worry. Unless of course you happen to be a Manchester United fan.
Costa was rather lazily labelled by the newspaper in question as “the new Ronaldo”, but it should be quickly pointed out that this is a player with a sum total of sixteen senior appearances under his belt, who is just the latest in a long, long line of young Brazilians to be burdened, often prematurely, with the tag of “the next Ronaldinho / Ronaldo / Romario / Pelé / Garrincha”.
Anyone remember the original Denílson for example? As James Ducker wisely points out in his Times article, he was proclaimed as a future superstar when he left São Paulo for Real Betis in 1998, but little more than five years later his career had been derailed, and he now plies his trade in the less-than-glamorous Vietnamese league with the less-than-pronounceable Xi Măng Hải Phòng FC.
In Costa’s case, there certain similarities with the big names; Ronaldinho began his career more than a decade ago at Grêmio, playing fifty-two times for the Porto Alegre outfit before earning a lucrative move to Paris Saint-Germain in 2002. And like his predecessor, Costa is an attacking midfielder who currently operates best from an advanced station wide on the left, using his dazzlingly quick feet to bamboozle defenders and creating goals with his creative and intuitive passing ability and his accuracy from set pieces.
The BBC’s South American expert, Tim Vickery, is certainly a fan, but voiced words of caution when reviewing his performance at the South American Under-20 Championship in February, saying “He had an uneven tournament, initially losing his place in the side and inconsistent even after winning it back. At present he is a player for moments rather than matches- but the moments are of remarkable talent”.
Certainly, Douglas is creating headlines in his home country, and reports of late suggest that his club has, surprisingly shrewdly for a Brazilian club, inserted a clause that will ensure that any move to a big club in Europe will net them a cool £21m. But Ducker reported in yesterday’s Times that United’s chief Brazilian scout, John Calvert-Toulmin, recommended the player to Ferguson a year ago, and the player’s agent Cesar Bottega revealed that initial discussions have taken place.
“There have been informal conversations and I believe United would match those values. At the end of the Brasileirão [the South American league championship that ends in December], Douglas will be worth at least twice that.”
This protracted move is just the latest in United’s ever-increasing South American project, led by Calvert-Toulmin. With Anderson a first-team regular, and perhaps able to move into a more advanced position with the absence of Ronaldo & Tévez next season, and twins Rafael & Fábio Da Silva coming on leaps and bounds in their debut English league seasons, as well as the neat and tidy Rodrigo Possebon hovering around the fringe of the first team, United have a strong Brazilian contingent.
And with further reports suggesting that Corinthians’ 17 year-old defender Dodô is set to seal a £5.5m move- arriving at the club next February- this is set to be increased further.
So ignore Villa. Ignore Benzema. Forget Tévez. Even try to forget Ronaldo (just don’t tell him). United have a bright future. One filled with the sound of the Samba beat no less.