Exclusive Ben Jacobs column: Chelsea star’s MLS links, Arsenal’s ambitious transfer targets + more | OneFootball

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·8 February 2023

Exclusive Ben Jacobs column: Chelsea star’s MLS links, Arsenal’s ambitious transfer targets + more

Article image:Exclusive Ben Jacobs column: Chelsea star’s MLS links, Arsenal’s ambitious transfer targets + more

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Aubameyang was a ‘band aid’ signing for Chelsea, and the MLS could be next

It has been a really tough 12 months for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. This time last year he was unveiled as a new Barcelona player and he really only left the Camp Nou because ex-Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel came calling. Xavi wanted to keep him, but Aubameyang was convinced he’d get game time and goals at Stamford Bridge.

Sadly, it just hasn’t worked out. Just before Aubameyang’s move he was attacked in his home in a horrific robbery, so arrived at Chelsea with a broken jaw. Then shortly after joining Tuchel was sacked. Aubameyang just hasn’t settled and has scored only one Premier League goal.

It’s pretty obvious he’ll leave this summer, and could theoretically go before if a deal is agreed with an MLS club. This is because although he can only represent two clubs in one season, MLS’ new 2023 season begins in February. Aubameyang has been linked with Los Angeles FC, but there is nothing advanced to date and I understand Aubameyang would ideally prefer to stay in Europe. It’s one to watch whether a club in America can change his mind.

Aubameyang knows he’s out of the picture at Chelsea. This was shown by his exclusion from the Champions League squad and omission from the matchday squad for the 0-0 draw with Fulham.

In stark contrast, Hakim Ziyech, who was minutes away from joining PSG on Deadline Day – and only didn’t due to paperwork being sent late – made the 25-man list for the UCL and started against Fulham. It felt like Graham Potter wanted to show Ziyech he was still valued. It will be interesting to now see if Aubameyang is given a role against West Ham and a chance to prove himself. But Potter can’t keep rotating to give individuals chances. With key players returning from injury and a host of new signings, he has to start picking a more consistent starting XI.

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The truth is Aubameyang was a very ‘un-Chelsea-like’ signing when you consider their current project. The owners, and new recruitment team, have clearly learnt a lot and adapted from a frantic summer.

January shows the long-term strategy in play, which in the most basic terms is to invest in youth on long-term contracts and view transfer fees as investments not expenses. Aubameyang doesn’t fit that strategy. He was more of a ‘band aid’ signing given Romelu Lukaku had been loaned to Inter and even Armando Broja’s future wasn’t entirely clear when he arrived.

I don’t think there’s been some big fall out. Nor is it fair to allege Aubameyang has an attitude problem. It’s just been hard for him. Yet every time I see Aubameyang train, he’s smiling. It’s now a test of Potter’s man and squad management.

One final point worth noting: Barcelona couldn’t re-sign Aubameyang in January. Had they been able to get him on free, there might well have been an appetite, but rules prevented him being re-registered even though he would have only played for two clubs this season. So for now, presuming he wants to stay in Europe, Aubameyang is stuck at Chelsea and is firmly down the pecking order.

Jorginho deal doesn’t change Arsenal’s big plans for a summer midfielder signing

Arsenal will definitely add another central midfielder this summer. The arrival of Jorginho in January from Chelsea doesn’t change that. That move is more one for the relatively short-term. Mikel Arteta views Jorginho as a strong fit and a player who can add depth with Mohamed Elneny injured.

The Jorginho transfer also came about because Arsenal realised they couldn’t land Brighton’s Moises Caicedo following two rejected bids. Arsenal are notorious for being methodical and disciplined with their negotiations. They didn’t want to go above their £70m offer for Caicedo and risk damaging their relationship with Brighton if a deal was simply not possible – and it wasn’t so late in the window.

It’s smart in many ways because placing a third bid, and effectively doing so ‘blindly’, would have irked Brighton, who directly told Arsenal to stop wasting their time. And more damningly, it would have provided a new and even higher yardstick for Caicedo’s summer valuation.

Arsenal could be back for Caicedo, but not necessarily at the same price. There are a lot of midfielders available this summer and that might actually mean Caicedo’s value drops. It will all depend on demand. Chelsea, who also had a failed bid in January, could also return.

Arsenal’s midfield priority will be Declan Rice and West Ham are resigned to losing him. David Moyes, as you’d expect, has been quick to argue if Rice leaves it should be for a British-record transfer fee. But suitors are hoping for a fee of £70-80m. This is ultimately because Rice’s contract expires in summer 2024.

But Chelsea’s big-spending could inflate the market and thus Rice’s price. You can understand why selling clubs, especially for top-tier central midfielders, will point to Enzo Fernandez’s £107m fee and ask for something similar.

I still think Rice will go for cheaper than that, but how much so will depend on whether West Ham get a bit of a bidding war. Chelsea also really want Rice. Manchester United and Newcastle United can’t be ruled out either, although I understand Rice’s preference is to stay in London. That won’t be a deal-breaker, but Arsenal and Chelsea can certainly use it to their advantage.

Rice also wants Champions League football. Whether or not that means instantly remains to be seen, but Arsenal can clearly use this to their advantage given where they are heading. Rice has also spoken glowingly about Arteta. So it’s probably fair to term Arsenal the favourites right now, but as we saw with their pursuit of Mykhaylo Mudryk that doesn’t always mean a huge deal this far out. If Chelsea offer big or above market value money, Arsenal would have to go against their transfer-market principles.

Article image:Exclusive Ben Jacobs column: Chelsea star’s MLS links, Arsenal’s ambitious transfer targets + more

Declan Rice in action against Arsenal

Youri Tielemans is also expected to leave Leicester this summer on a free transfer, barring a U-turn on signing a new deal. Leicester would love to keep him, but Tielemans has been clear for over a year he doesn’t want to extend.

Arsenal still haven’t ruled out signing him on a free transfer. They were reluctant to pay a transfer fee over the past two windows, but now the Belgian midfielder is a bargain. Newcastle also really like Tielemans and Manchester United are one to watch as well.

Real Sociedad midfielder Martin Zubimendi will draw plenty of summer interest, too. He’s so calm on the ball and an intelligent defender, who also wins his fair share of aerial duels and second balls. Suitors in January were told to pay Zubimendi’s €60m release clause or no deal would be done. And the player himself wasn’t really pushing for a move. He only signed a new five-year deal at the club in October. But a transfer is very possible come summer, especially considering Zubimendi wasn’t willing to have his release clause raised. That makes him attainable on the market.

Barcelona coach Xavi also admires Zubimendi, though it remains to be seen if the finances are workable to proceed. Keep an eye on Tottenham and Manchester United as well.

And Edson Alvarez is another name who could be on the move this summer. Chelsea came close to signing the Ajax midfielder last summer, but the club refused a move despite Alvarez pushing for it. Todd Boehly did tell Alvarez at the time he’d be back, but never returned. This is understandable given a new recruitment team came in and the club became obsessed with Enzo Fernandez. Plus, Denis Zakaria impressed before his injury and will return to full fitness soon. It will be interesting to see, if Zakaria finishes the season strong, whether Chelsea try to buy him from Juventus.

Arsenal considered Alvarez in January to a degree, but it became quickly clear Ajax didn’t want to do mid-season business. Liverpool have looked at Alvarez before and chose not to proceed and Newcastle are another club to have him at least loosely on their radar.

Cancelo exit came as a surprise, but trouble had been brewing

Joao Cancelo’s loan switch from Manchester City to Bayern was a real surprise. Cancelo has since claimed it was a move motivated by game time, which is the PR thing to say and true to a degree. He only started three games for Manchester City since returning from the World Cup with 18-year-old academy graduate Rico Lewis increasingly preferred ahead of him.

Cancelo only signed a new five-year deal in February last year and has essentially been an automatic starter for much of his time at Manchester City. He’s also made the last two PFA Premier League Teams of the Season.

But there was a clear breakdown in the relationship between Pep Guardiola and Cancelo. Pep looked frustrated with Cancelo at times and Cancelo reacted angrily to being dropped. And I also don’t think he enjoyed playing on the right wing against Chelsea in January.

There wasn’t just one flashpoint. More like lots of small ones. Guardiola is quite prepared to rotate his squad and Cancelo didn’t deal well with being benched, especially against Arsenal in the FA Cup. That was arguably the final straw. After that match, Cancelo posted a picture on Instagram alongside the quote, “Don’t let anyone dim your shine.”

It can be tough for footballers used to playing every week to deal with less playing time, especially if it catches them by surprise. And the feeling within Manchester City is Cancelo didn’t respond well, losing a bit of focus, concentrating less in team meetings and being a bit of a negative influence. Of course, there’s two sides to every story and Cancelo would no doubt argue he remained professional and was just disappointed to lose his place to a teenager.

Article image:Exclusive Ben Jacobs column: Chelsea star’s MLS links, Arsenal’s ambitious transfer targets + more

Joao Cancelo in action for Bayern Munich

But it was probably lucky Bayern came calling. And Pep and Cancelo both agreed an exit was best. Had the Manchester City boss known things would have transpired this way, I also wonder whether he’d have let Oleksandr Zinchenko leave for Arsenal last summer.

Bayern have an option to buy Cancelo at €70m, which is quite a steep price tag. That’s why Cancelo has said (at least publicly) his time at Manchester City hasn’t necessarily ended. Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic has also conceded Cancelo’s transfer fee is high. But there is still a very real chance Cancelo joins permanently and that Bayern don’t activate the option, instead trying to negotiate a deal for a lower number come summer.

Will Manchester United have new Qatari owners by summer?

There is a lot of excitement about Manchester United having new owners in 2023. It’s clear the Glazers prefer a full sale if their price is met – and that’s not a given considering they are hoping for in excess of £6bn. That’s almost three times the £2.3bn Chelsea sold for.

Raine Group are overseeing the sale as they did for Chelsea, so they are used to handling speedy takeovers. The Chelsea sale was quite a prescriptive process, with Roman Abramovich keen to safeguard the club. There were specific areas for suitors to address, including pledged internal investment and initial stadium redevelopment plans.

The Manchester United sale process is still relatively rigid with an important mid-February deadline to submit initial offers. But the timeline is not quite as fixed or urgent as Chelsea, whose very existence was under threat – and, as importantly, the Glazers could just sell to the highest bidder.

The Qatari interest, as revealed by the Daily Mail’s Mike Keegan, is genuine, but sources say several individuals or groups are still basically assessing the market. This may not appear to quite marry with a mid-February deadline given it’s just days away, but as the Chelsea sale proved dates for submissions often get pushed back. More than one interested party has told me they want more time to properly assess the club before committing.

What’s important to understand is a takeover is not like a transfer. You don’t just swoop in with a bid. Due diligence informs valuation, and with multiple suitors there’s potentially a bidding war aspect which is not usually associated with a traditional takeover.

The Qatar interest is complicated because any group or individual would still effectively (even if not formally) need government and Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) backing. That’s just how business works out there, which I know first-hand from living there.

QSI themselves, owners of PSG, won’t be directly involved. They remain committed to PSG. But QSI-chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi is still likely to be a key figure nonetheless.

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Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) have refused to comment on stories linking them to both Manchester United and Liverpool, but their CEO Mansoor Bin Ebrahim Al-Mahmoud has hinted they are exploring the sports market. Al-Khelaifi also sits on the QIA board, again underling how influential he is in the region.

Whether a consortium is private individuals, or an existing singular group, it doesn’t really matter. Any bid would ultimately be aligned with government goals.

But there shouldn’t be any issues with PSG and Manchester United, since QSI would not be directly involved and haven’t held any talks with Manchester United. There is also no direct link (contrary to Wikpedia!) between QSI and QIA. It’s a common misconception that QSI are an affiliate of QSA.

There is a real feeling it’s a big year ahead for Qatar in sports investment. But multiple sources still say it’s “premature” to call anything advanced between Qatar and Manchester United yet, although there is a broad acceptance different investors are circling. But interest, or even entering the process, doesn’t necessarily mean anything concrete will materialise.

And there is still a sense a Saudi-led consortium may enter the race for Manchester United as well. This would actually be a perfect scenario for the Glazers since it would probably give them the best chance of getting the price they wish.

Coming back to QSI specifically, they have only held exploratory talks with Spurs over a stake to date and remain open to minority investment in the Premier League, further illustrating different groups from Qatar are very much exploring the market.

But the fact that Qatar have been linked with Manchester United, held talks with Spurs and are rumoured to be interested in Liverpool (there’s really nothing significant there to date), only shows post-World Cup different groups and individuals are intent on getting a foothold in the Premier League. Over the next few weeks and months, there will be some alignment on what route to take since, as I explain above, whoever moves forward will need wider support and alignment.

The names to watch in a Manchester United fire-sale this summer

Manchester United are expected to have a number of outgoings this summer. Erik ten Hag is clearly intent on a clear-out. Outgoings for Manchester United are actually easier to predict than incomings due to the ownership situation.

United’s football department can plan right now for who they want to let go, whereas it’s premature to say they’ll try for players like Harry Kane or Victor Osimhen, since that would either be pre-spending money from an unknown new owner or reliant on the Glazers (if still there) spending big. Plus, with Kane, as I have reported since October, his priority remains to sign a new Spurs deal if the project goes to plan, and the win over Manchester City certainly helps.

Harry Maguire could leave Manchester United this summer because Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez are keeping him out of the team. But Ten Hag still appreciates Maguire and his overall influence on the dressing room. That’s why he didn’t want to let him go in January.

Maguire seems to be linked with a new club every day: Inter Milan, West Ham, Aston Villa, Chelsea, even a return to Leicester… but there’s not always a great deal of substance. The first consideration with Maguire will be how much game time he gets between now and the end of the season.

Anthony Martial and Alex Telles are two possible exits. Martial has had a torrid time with injures and despite scoring in the League Cup semi-final win over Nottingham Forest, is back on the sidelines again. Martial has missed over 20 games this season and although Ten Hag has been impressed by his attitude, his injury record might be a factor in letting him go. Lyon are still quite keen on bringing him back, especially under ambitious new owner John Textor. West Ham and Newcastle have looked in the past, too.

Meanwhile, I would be surprised if Alex Telles isn’t sold and Sevilla, where he’s on loan, are hopeful of buying him, but they’ll potentially need a cut-price deal.

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Another interesting outgoing could be Scott McTominay, who has fallen down the pecking order following the arrival of the excellent Casemiro. Ten Hag didn’t want to let him go in January, but the summer may well be a different story. Newcastle have a genuine interest and could have moved in January if they thought Manchester United would have sanctioned a sale.

Donny van de Beek is another potential outgoing. But it’s tricky now since the Dutch midfielder is out for the rest of the season with a serious knee injury. It’s hard to instantly sell a player returning from a long-term injury. And, during rehabilitation, it can be demotivating for the player if they sense they’ll be straight out the door when fit.

Van de Beek is clearly available on the market if the right offer comes, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he sticks around through pre-season and tries to show what he’s capable of. That’s the beauty of how ten Hag is handling all his players. He is frank but fair with them and that creates far more of a ‘player meritocracy’ than Manchester United have had under recent managers. So even those out of the starting XI still feel they can earn a chance.

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