Why selling Cole Palmer was a mistake City need to learn from
Sell in haste, repent at leisure. The sale of Cole Palmer was 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 Romeo 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 assess what happened…
1) Firstly, why selling Palmer was a bad decision
We were told the Palmer fee was a great one, yet given his talent the risk that feeling might not last was high. The view that £40m is a huge amount for someone who had played so little first team football is a foolish 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 goal scorer and assist provider. We would expect to pay more, as we have with Jack Grealish and Jeremy 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 limited first team appearances at City, yet wtih regular first team football, it was soon noticeable how he was demanding the ball, dictating the pace of the game and playing incisive passes. He’s looked 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.
Those who say City were right to sell as Palmer wouldn’t play ahead of Foden or Silva miss the point. Loaning him to say Brighton, where he would likely have performed as well as he has at Chelsea, would have enabled City to make a more informed decision on whether he was good enough for us. If not, well how much would Palmer be worth if you wanted to buy him next summer? A lot more than £40m.
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.
Soriano once gave a talk where he described 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 can 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 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 significantly 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. As Jack Gaughan wrote:
Why did City need the money? They had just enjoyed a treble winning, revenue breaking season. Palmer himself said at the start of the summer, he and City had been looking at a loan. There was a host of options including the likes of Brighton and Dortmund. Palmer didn’t know what changed, but we can hazard a guess…
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 Lucas Paqueta or Eberechi 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. 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 was 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.
City’s net spend for the transfer window in the summer of 2023 was £53m. Without selling Palmer, it would have been a whopping £93m. In these days when clubs are a lot more mindful of FFP that’s a big difference.
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, 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.