Pundits often ask what sort of signing an elite team will be able to make outside of the Champions League. These examples give Tottenham hope.
Roy Keane rubbed it in for Tottenham at the weekend, pointing out: “The difficulty is, what top players are going to go to Spurs? Particularly in January, or in the summer if they don’t get in the Champions League.”
It is a common punditry refrain to feign concern about the standard and quality of player an elite club can hope to attract if it cannot offer Champions League football. The frustrating thing is that there are numerous examples of teams that have tumbled out of the Champions League yet are still capable of pulling off the same sort of moves they could have managed beforehand.
10) Cristian Romero (Tottenham)
It is at this point that an important distinction must be made: in the context of this list, “top players” do not necessarily equate to brilliant signings. The description is more a reflection of their status and reputation at the time they were bought, regardless of how much of a success or failure the move turned out to be. With regards to Keane’s quotes on Tottenham, the following purchases are examples of a team outside the Champions League punching above their supposedly restricted weight in the transfer market.
And while Cristian Romero has struggled to displace Eric Dier as the most important defender at Tottenham due to injuries and an understandable adjustment period, the centre-half was certainly the settler in this relationship. A 23-year-old with Champions League experience, who had spent the summer winning Copa America without conceding a single goal and being voted Serie A defender of the year, should not have been in a conversation that involved the Europa Conference League and Japhet Tanganga. Yet Tottenham snared Romero from Atalanta while speculation raged around interest from Barcelona, Liverpool and Manchester United.
9) James Milner (Liverpool)
The free transfer of a positively callow 29-year-old James Milner did not set pulses racing or minds wandering at Anfield in July 2015. But it was a striking statement nevertheless. European Cup regulars Arsenal had been sniffing around after it emerged the England international had rejected a £165,000-a-week offer from Manchester City, whose promise of more regular first-team opportunities over a four-year contract was rebuffed. Manuel Pellegrini was “Milner’s No. 1 fan” and understandably loathed losing his “big balls”.
It was ostensibly the prospect of playing in his preferred position that coaxed Milner to Merseyside. “I want to play football and play more centrally if I can,” was his opening gambit in red, “and that’s where the manager said he sees me playing.” Brendan Rodgers might have but by 2016/17, Jurgen Klopp shifted Milner out to left-back for an entire season in the justified hope he would plug an Alberto Moreno-sized gap. The vice-captain continues to develop his game under the German well into his mid-30s and it all began when he jumped ship from second place at the Etihad to sixth and the Europa League with a Liverpool side that ended the previous season losing 6-1 at Stoke.
8) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal)
Things have not worked out in a way that suits any party. The deposed captain somehow feels further from Mikel Arteta’s mind after four goalless games than he did before. Arsenal have contrived to attach another £350,000-a-week millstone around their neck for the foreseeable. Yet for a time, there was talk of statues, proof of leadership, the glory of trophies and the scoring of more Premier League goals than Alexis Sanchez in fewer appearances than Philippe Senderos.
It is a truly imperious record for Arsene Wenger’s last signing as a manager. A club-record fee was needed to extract Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund, the Gabon international departing as the Bundesliga’s Player of the Year in 2016 and Golden Boot winner of 2017. By the time it came to leaving Germany in January 2018, Arsenal were sixth in the Premier League and locked in the existential crisis that was their first year outside the Champions League since 2000. Aubameyang’s last two appearances in that competition were scoring efforts in defeat to Real Madrid and Tottenham as his goals have delivered the FA Cup and Community Shield to north London but nothing more.
7) David Luiz (Chelsea and Arsenal)
Twice has David Luiz been tempted into leaving the Champions League behind by a Premier League club looking from the outside in. In August 2016 it was Chelsea that persuaded him to eschew Paris Saint-Germain’s domestic quadruple and European capitulation in favour of coming home to a team that had just finished tenth and gone no further than the sixth round of any tournament in that disaster of a Stamford Bridge season six years ago. The Brazilian centre-half was then minded to jump again when Arsenal came calling in 2019 with little more to offer but hubris and a few months of working under Unai Emery.
“We know that if we win they will not be in the Champions League. This will be better for us because we put a fantastic team out of the Champions League,” Luiz had said the previous May, discussing the extra motivation for his Chelsea side to beat Arsenal in the Europa League final. He was excellent in a game that ensured his future employers would not taste Gazprom for at least another year. The Gunners have since successfully managed to wean themselves off the fizzy European stuff to the extent that they are about as close to playing in the Champions League as Luiz’s Flamengo.
6) Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
The world-record fee has been used as a stick by critics with which they can relentlessly beat the haircut out of Paul Pogba. His reign as the most expensive footballer ever lasted a solitary year before Neymar made the £89.3m Manchester United paid Juventus look like a Willian Prunier clean sheet bonus. Yet often forgotten is one of the many wrinkles in that deal: the pull of home, Jose Mourinho or infuriating Graeme Souness on a weekly basis persuaded one of the best young players around to abandon a recent Champions League finalist and serial Serie A title winner for whatever state Louis van Gaal left Old Trafford in.
From December 2015 until September 2017, Manchester United’s last addition to their estimable European Cup history was to bring on Nick Powell against Wolfsburg. In between, they spent more on a player than any team ever before. Pogba remains the last player to open the scoring in a winning continental final for the club, putting Ajax to the Europa League sword to ensure Champions League qualification for a club that finished seven points off fourth in his first season. Pogba had his pick of clubs as a precocious and prodigious 23-year-old; both he and Manchester United might choose again if given the option.
5) Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
“I always tell players if, when you are 35 or 36, you look back on your career and think about the one year you didn’t play Champions League, then you are really a poor boy. There are so many things you can do and reach if you go together with the team. You can qualify for the Champions League, play Champions League, maybe win it or whatever. That is a much more satisfying thing than all the rest. That is what I would say to players: ‘It is about pushing the train, not jumping on a running train.’ That is what we need here. If somebody says: ‘But you don’t play Champions League next year’, then goodbye and thank you, have fun next year wherever you will be. We will find players or we have players already that will go our way. That is not my way, that is the normal way for a club not playing in the Champions League.”
Liverpool signed Sadio Mane 88 days later and Jurgen Klopp secured one of the strongest pushers of his Champions League train. Not only were the Reds out of Europe altogether in summer 2016, but they had finished two places below the Southampton side they were buying from. Mane bet not only on himself but the Klopp vision. A Premier League, Champions League, Super Cup, Club World Cup and Golden Boot suggests he was right.
Sadio Mané has been the best ever Klopp signing btw. Just putting that out there. I know the likes of Salah and Virgil were crucial but they’d never have happened if it wasn’t for this fella pic.twitter.com/TairGjpURS
— Roopa (@LFC_RV) June 28, 2020
4) Angel Di Maria (Manchester United)
Once more for those in the back: this is not to say Angel Di Maria was the sort of roaring Manchester United triumph that demands the erection of a fourth statue to stand alongside the Holy Trinity outside Old Trafford. He was an ill fit, a ‘complete fanny’, the polar opposite to what his manager sought and emblematic of a period during which the club favoured style over substance in the transfer market. Manchester United made a loss on Di Maria less than a year after his purchase for good reason.
But it was a monumental capture at the time, albeit a flexing of superficial muscles to stroke an ego bruised by one failed post-Sir Alex Ferguson season. Manchester United finished the 2013/14 campaign in seventh and under the caretaker guidance of Ryan Giggs; Di Maria ended it as man of the match in the Champions League final and leading assist provider in La Liga with 18, having scored in a Copa del Rey final win over Barcelona. The closest he ever got to playing European football for the Red Devils was the trip to lose 2-1 to Swansea in February 2015, before departing for Paris Saint-Germain that August.
3) Luis Suarez (Liverpool)
While he would win the Champions League with Barcelona in 2015, Luis Suarez had only graced the competition proper in one prior season. He scored a solitary goal during the 2010/11 campaign, which Ajax exited at the group stage. He joined Liverpool later that season and by the time he had finally dragged them to European Cup qualification for the first time in half a decade in 2014, the Uruguayan forewent the fruits of his labour to rock up in Spain.
Liverpool had finished seventh before Suarez joined, then sixth, eighth and seventh with him. But the forward was not tainted by those years of stagnation, scoring more than 50 goals. Among them were his efforts in the Europa League as Suarez netted four times in seven appearances in the 2012/13 season, which ended with him imploring Liverpool “to honour our agreement”, namely: “Last year I had the opportunity to move to a big European club and I stayed on the understanding that if we failed to qualify for the Champions League the following season I’d be allowed to go.”
The Emirates was smoking to the tune of £1 but Suarez caught fire in 2013/14, rocketing Liverpool to a Premier League title tilt that faded in spectacular fashion for a runners-up medal. He left for Barcelona instead of sticking around long enough for Brendan Rodgers to put him on the bench at the Bernabeu.
2) Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United)
From his humble beginnings at Ajax in 2002/03 to the understated modesty that helped steer Paris Saint-Germain in 2015/16, Zlatan Ibrahimovic did not miss a single Champions League campaign. He played at least six games in every season including and between those two quarter-final appearances, failing to score only when Igor Biscan belittled him in 2004/05. But it was neither injury nor under-performance that snapped that remarkable streak. Ibrahimovic instead vacated his seat at the European top table entirely of his own accord – by joining Manchester United.
Louis van Gaal had sidestepped the first sign of the Pardpocalypse by quelling any Wembley dad dancing in the FA Cup final. The Dutchman also took Manchester United to within goal difference of the Champions League places but that was not enough and so Jose Mourinho was appointed. One of his first moves was to orchestrate the arrival of Ibrahimovic, who proceeded to talk the considerable talk while actually walking the quite brilliant walk. But the significant knee knack he suffered in the Europa League quarter-final meant he would play only one European Cup game for Manchester United. He holds the record of most Champions League appearances for different clubs at seven, even if his solitary match in the competition for the Red Devils was as a second-half substitute in defeat to Basel.
1) N’Golo Kante (Chelsea)
A peculiar set of circumstances meant the £30m departure of the midfielder most vital to a Premier League title win was able to move to the team that had finished 10th without much consternation or controversy. Leicester resigned themselves to the idea that N’Golo Kante would be the first noteworthy cab off the King Power rank and Chelsea duly obliged after Arsenal pulled out of the running over seemingly extortionate agent fees.
Kante thus had to wait until September 2017 for his first taste of the Champions League, missing out on Leicester’s journey to the quarter-final the previous year and instead busying himself winning a consecutive Premier League title. The Frenchman would claim his European Cup by 2021 as man of the match in the final, cementing a legacy of making up for lost time and receiving the ultimate award for what was quite the leap of faith five years previous. Chelsea were out of European competition completely but still signed the epitome of a Champions League calibre player as Kante called “the opportunity to work with Antonio Conte, a brilliant coach… simply too good to turn down”. Someone let Roy Keane know. And Tottenham, while you’re at it.