Why selling Cole Palmer was a mistake City need to learn from

While there are often plenty of subplots when City play Chelsea, the standout this Sunday is Cole Palmer. His sale is arguably the most controversial made by City for years. Why? Because City have never willingly sold a young player of such ability who had been nurtured by the club since they were in primary school.

Sure, we’ve lost talented players before, but it was always a bit different. Jadon Sancho was very highly rated, but was determined to leave. Going back further, Shaun Wright-Phillips also left for Chelsea, but that was at a time when we needed the money and weren’t competing at the highest level. Most recently Lucas Lavia was tipped for the first team and may be one we regret selling however, Lavia had only been with City a couple of years. Palmer was “one of our own”.

So let’s look at a few questions relating to the sale…

1) Firstly, why selling Palmer was a bad decision

We were told the Palmer fee was a great one, yet I’m not sure it will look that way for long. The view that £40m is a huge amount for someone who had played so little first team football is a fools way of looking at a transfer. You pay the fee for what the player is going to do for you, not what they have done in the past. £40m is not a crazy fee for a creative player good enough to play in a top Premier League side, especially one who has been a regular goalscorer and assist provider. We would expect to pay more, as we have with Grealish and Doku.

Remember, Palmer was the standout player in his age group, at the heart of teams that won the Youth Cup, Premier League Division 2 and U-21 Euros for England. Before a growth spurt he had been nurtured as the next David Silva. That perhaps wasn’t apparent in his first team appearances at City, yet when playing centrally for Chelsea against Brentford it was noticeable how he was demanding the ball, dictating the pace of the game and playing incisive passes. He’s looking a Pep player all over.

2) What should City have done?

Palmer both wanted to play first team football and needed it. He either needed some Kyle Walker style assurances from Pep or, more likely, a loan to see how he fared with regular first team football.

Only after that regular first team football, should a decision have been made on whether to keep or sell.

Sure, if he’d done badly, we may not have got £40m. That was a gamble worth taking with a player of so much ability, one who could have been a first team player for a dozen years or more.

It’s not like there was a shortage of potential takers. With recruitment experts like Brighton and Dortmund sniffing around, you would have thought alarm bells might have sounded.

3) So why did City sell Palmer rather than loan him?

Clearly the money offered matched City’s asking price. £40m for a player who had played so little first team football would have sounded good to the execs.

Look deeper and there were other factors at play.

City have followed the Chelsea method of hoovering up quality youngsters, coaching them expertly in a superb environment, then selling them on to ease FFP issues. The club has received many plaudits for the success of this in recent seasons.

There’s a video (which unfortunately I have lost the link to) of Soriano giving a talk where he describes how important it is to judge the right time to sell players. Sell too soon and you might not get maximum profit; hold on to the player too long and his value will drop if he hasn’t kicked on. As always with these Ted talk style presentations, the underlying message is one of how great a genius the speaker is. I remember thinking when watching it, that I bet Soriano doesn’t use Lavia as the example in his next speech.

That’s the risk, when the game becomes all about maximising the sale price. Buying clubs have their own agenda and Southampton were happy to get Lavia on a permanent deal, with City’s buy back clause becoming redundant after he was sold to Chelsea. Even with the sell on clause, City got less than half the £40m Chelsea paid. More importantly, we never got to see if Lavia was good enough for us.

This selling model can too easily see players sold too soon, when cash is needed to fund a signing the manager wants. The Palmer sale can definitely be put in this category.

The summer transfer window had a messy feel throughout. It began with 3 clear targets in Bellingham (global star in the making), Gvardiol (ball playing defender to replace Laporte) and Kovacic (squad addition). Having missed out on Bellingham, we never seemed to have a clear alternative in mind.

To make matters worse, a number of first team players were considering leaving and City were seemingly happy for them to take as long as their agents to find a deal. The club should have insisted players decide whether or not they wanted to stay before the transfer window opened, giving the club time to plan replacements and spending.

When Gundogan and Mahrez finally left, it was late in the window, with deals like £40m for Maddison having been done and City faced with paying twice that amount for Paqueta or Eze.

Perhaps there was an overconfidence about being able to pick up a good deal late in the window after we signed Akanji last season. The counter argument is that after letting Zinchenko take his time to decide to leave, we signed Gomez as his replacement. Gomez is technically good and an excellent crosser, but his defending makes Zinchenko look like Pablo Zabaleta. Of course Pep baled out this recruitment failure with the use of four centre-backs, but that hadn’t been the plan.

This summer, Palmer’s situation hadn’t been resolved. Would Pep want to keep him for squad depth if we didn’t get a Mahrez replacement? Instead of being set up with a good loan, he was kept waiting, while no doubt his agent was getting plenty of offers.

You’d have thought that with recruitment experts like Brighton and Dortmund being keen on taking him, alarm bells would have sounded.

From Palmer’s perspective, he’d spent most of last season on the bench, while lesser team mates like McAtee and Doyle were having a great time getting promotion with Sheffield United. Now aged 21, it’s no wonder he didn’t want a repeat this season.

City finally alighted on Doku as a Mahrez replacement, a player we would have had a file on for years. The gamble on whether Pep could turn the master of the take on and turn him into someone with consistent end product is looking like it may pay off. Yet it shows something of the unplanned nature of this deal that after being signed to replace Mahrez on the right, Doku has performed much better playing on the left and cutting in. You’d have thought our elite scouting might have spotted that!

Foden’s much talked about move into the centre is again on hold. Ironically, with Foden and Silva both looking for central positions, there would have been more of an opening for Palmer on the right this season. If he was on loan, we’d just bide our time before bringing him back and everyone would be happy.

Instead, with Pep wanting another midfielder, time running out and prices going crazy, our net spend was going to take a big hit. In that light, Chelsea’s £40m offer eased the pain of paying £55m for Nunes and Palmer was on his way.

I saw one comment that there had been some debate about whether to accept Chelsea’s offer. Khaldoon had favoured keeping the player, while Soriano wanted the money. I don’t know if this is true, but it does seem believable.

Why are Chelsea so happy?
Well look at the deal from their perspective. One view would be their summer business with City amounted to 29 year old Kovacic and £15m for 21 year old Palmer, who is on an eight year contract and only going to improve.

Alternatively they got £65m for Havertz and replaced him with Palmer who is already delivering more. Why wouldn’t they be happy.

Perhaps their greatest joy is that having been reminded for years of their mistakes in selling de Bruyne and Salah, they have now benefitted from City making a similar mistake. This, I believe, is the greatest fear of City fans. We could be about to spend the next dozen years watching “a baller” who we nurtured as one of our own showcasing his skills for a rival.

What can City do?
Well there isn’t much in the way of options to get him back. The only chance could be when Chelsea get hit with FFP (very likely after their annual finances are out in December), miss out on Champions League qualification and need to cash in on a player or two.

Even if this was an option, it’s hard to see City executives eating humble pie and admitting their mistake.

With Doku doing so well playing off the left, City might find themselves looking for a right sided player once again. Who would be the outstanding candidates? From the Premier League, Saka is probably the only one who I might put ahead of Palmer and Saka isn’t likely to be going anywhere.

Otherwise, I think the best way to ease the pain is to ensure we have someone better in our creative areas. A Wirtz or Musiala could do it. I’m not convinced Olise, Eze or Paqueta are better players than Palmer is going to be, so getting one of them for a fee well north of £40m would be dispiriting.

The old consumer saying about buying in haste and repenting at leisure is always applicable at the end of a transfer window. For Cole Palmer, the fear is that City sold in haste and will be repenting at leisure for many years to come.

4) What lessons can be learnt?

While City continue to do so well and Pep’s tactical genius continues to overcome any issues in the squad, then there is unlikely to be much questioning of City’s transfer policy. This doesn’t mean that behind the scenes, questions shouldn’t be asked. Pep won’t be here forever and you can’t bank on a fresh crop of outstanding talents every year from the youth team.

  • City need to resist the temptation to sell outstanding talents too soon, particularly before they’ve played regular football (preferably in the Premier League).
  • Decisions on loans need to made earlier with business NOT being done at the end of the transfer window – no matter how many clubs or agents come calling.
  • Sales for the best young players need to have stronger buy back options, even if it reduces the fee.
  • Contracts need to be extended rather than allowed to run down. The fee we got for Tosin Adarabioyo at the end of the 2020 window was pathetic after he’d been with us so long. There was nearly a repeat with Harwood-Bellis this year.
  • Regarding first team players, City need to clarify who wants to go a lot earlier in the summer and not wait for their agents to bring in an offer at their leisure.

It will be interesting to see whether lessons will have been learnt next summer. In the meantime let’s hope Pep can get a tune out of Nunes and convince us that the Palmer money was at least put to good use.

City and United treble talk makes for surprising comparison

With City chasing a treble, there have been inevitable comparisons with the United side of 1999. Inevitably there’s a romanticised look back to Fergie’s team, with it viewed as a purely footballing triumph, while City’s bid is often viewed as something more. A state backed, money no object, inevitable conquest played out on an uneven playing field. Guardiola may be a great coach, but his triumphs come with the asterisk of money (or Messi).

Back in 1999, City and United were in different financial worlds, but what about United and their rivals for trophies? A quick look at the Deloitte Money League comparing then and now makes for interesting viewing.

Compared to their rivals, United were far more financially dominant than City are now.

Deloitte Money League 1999 for football clubs
Deloitte Money League 2022 for football clubs

Looking at the latest figures, City are now top and have been for a couple of years since the pandemic reduced matchday income – which had a bigger impact on other top sides. Former number one, Real Madrid still has 98% of City’s revenue, while domestic rivals Liverpool and United have 96% and 94% respectively. Bayern Munich, who City played in the Champions League, are just below on 89%.

Compare to 1999, where United were top, but the next highest were Bayern, well behind with 75% of United’s revenues. In the Premier League, United’s dominance was greater still as they enjoyed more than double the revenue of every other club apart from Chelsea – who still only managed just over half United’s revenues with 53%.

In fact, United’s dominance over Premier League rivals in 1999, is more comparable with Bayern’s current dominance in the Bundesliga, where Borussia Dortmund have 55% of the revenue of Bayern.

This feels like a surprise and the interesting question is why? With all the talk of state funding and super clubs, there is the view that top level is more financially distorted than ever. Yet that distortion was already in place with United during the 90’s.

City’s bid for a treble has also been described as the inevitable culmination of all the years of investment since Sheik Mansour bought the club. However, Fergie also enjoyed many years of financial domination prior to 1999. Neil Webb was signed for the then huge sum of £1.5m in 1999. A few weeks later, Gary Pallister was signed for the record sum of £2.3m. Nobody could compete with that. Roy Keane’s signing was another which broke the transfer record as United continued to dominate in the years prior to ’99.

This throws up the question of why weren’t United getting 90+ points in a season, like City and Liverpool have done? Well, City fans might like to say Fergie wasn’t quite as good as was made out. He could simply afford more expensive players. Another view might look at changes in modern coaching, squad building and scouting of signings. For example, the analytics and global scouting systems help top English clubs ensure less money is wasted on poor signings with no resale value. The hoovering up of young talent by the academies of big clubs will help too, although you may have heard it mentioned that Fergie benefitted from a class of ’92.

The only time United were threatened financially in this period was by the owner investor model of Jack Walker at Blackburn. Unfortunately for Rovers, this proved to be a relatively short blip and United were back on top by 1999.

There’s a tendency now to look at owner investor clubs as the evil that created the financial inequality within football, with Blackburn and Chelsea as the instigators. Yet United with their commercial deals and matchday revenues from all those corporate boxes were the greater financial powerhouse. Their longevity normalised the dominance, while there was less attention paid to club revenues in those days. What went wrong? Well, put simply, the Glazers draining money and making dodgy managerial appointments, while the influx of funding for City and Chelsea saw them compete for signings. With United off their perch, others like Liverpool have been able to step up.

Some will point to the charges of financial malpractice at City that might have boosted the club’s finances. Well, we have no idea what the outcome of the charges will be, but we do know they only go up to 2018 and all the contracts for City’s current players were signed after that. The accounts of recent years have all been signed off.

The good news for City’s rivals is that Pep isn’t as likely to stick around as long as Fergie did after winning his treble, and City aren’t as far ahead in terms of revenues as is often made out. Despite what all the doomsters might have you believe, City’s revenues are eminently catchable by a United punching their weight and Real Madrid once they complete their stadium upgrade.

So City fans should enjoy these days. They’ve been a long time coming and they probably won’t last forever. It truly is a special time to be a City fan.