The £85 million team
Building a title-winning team often takes time and involves huge skill. It needs the ability to assemble a squad and to select the first 11, the organisational prowess to set a side up, and the coaching talent to improve footballers. It needs the tactical expertise to perm the right players and choose a suitable system. It requires the right personalities in the dressing room, an appropriate blend of youth and experience, with sufficient leaders but not too many egos. It can depend upon having the right personnel off the field, whether the chairman and chief executive or the scout and goalkeeping coach.
But for the purposes of this exercise, it only entails money and the facility to spend it well. The task is to construct a side capable of lifting the Premier League trophy. The complication - because the taskmaster is neither Sheikh Mansour nor Roman Abramovich - is that the 11 men to take the field must come in for a total amounting to no more than the £50 million Chelsea spent in making Fernando Torres the costliest player in the country. And, because this is a squad game nowadays, the rest of the 25-man squad must be brought in for no more than the £35 million Liverpool paid for the most expensive Englishman ever, Andy Carroll. The aim is to see how far excellent economy buys can take a team.
Rather than invented figures, and to try to make prices topical, it is compiled using the fees clubs paid in the last five transfer windows, from January 2010 onwards. As such, players bought before then are ineligible. So, too, are loanees and those who progressed through the youth ranks at their respective costs. So, whatever their value, Ryan Giggs, Micah Richards, Ledley King, Jack Wilshere, John Terry and Steven Gerrard are not available for selection.
Instead, for the purposes of argument, imagine our imaginary club had sufficient allure to tempt each of the players below to sign for us instead of their actual employers. The fees remain the same but the XI - after the idea of choosing Torres and ten free transfers was swiftly discounted - consists of:
Goalkeeper: Shay Given (Aston Villa, £3.5 million).
Defence: Danny Simpson (Newcastle, £750,000), Younes Kaboul (Tottenham, £5 million), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal, £9.7 million), Jose Enrique (Liverpool, £6 million).
Midfield: Rafael van der Vaart (Tottenham, £8 million), Scott Parker (Tottenham, £5.5 million), Yohan Cabaye (Newcastle, £4.3 million), Craig Bellamy (Liverpool, free).
Attack: Demba Ba (Newcastle, free), Javier Hernandez (Manchester United, £6.9 million).
Total cost: £49.65 million.
And the rest of the squad, acquired for £33.15 million:
Goalkeepers: Michel Vorm (Swansea, £1.5 million), Brad Friedel (Tottenham, free).
Defenders: Steven Reid (West Bromwich Albion, free), Gary Cahill (Chelsea, £7 million), William Gallas (Tottenham, free), John O'Shea (Sunderland, £4 million).
Midfielders: Sebastian Larsson (Sunderland, free), Cheik Tiote (Newcastle, £4.4 million), Leon Britton (Swansea, £400,000), Adam Johnson (Manchester City, £8 million), James McClean (Sunderland, £350,000).
Strikers: Louis Saha (Tottenham, free), Peter Odemwingie (West Brom, £1.5 million), Stephane Sessegnon (Sunderland, £6 million).
It is another way of illustrating that Tottenham and Newcastle, who supply ten of our 25-man squad, have bought brilliantly in recent years and that Liverpool's cheaper acquisitions have been their best. As each of our outfield starters, and 16 players in total, come from the top seven clubs, £85 million can go a long way if spent well.
As the figures show, no player cost over £10 million. This is one of the things that separates our side from City's and, much as an attempt was made to squeeze David Silva in, he would have eaten up almost half the budget for the side. It means that young players, whose potential can often inflate their transfer fee, and English footballers, often overvalued in the transfer market, are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, we have a contingent of cheaper, older players; in some cases, their injury record brought their price down.
Emphasising the positives, getting three fine goalkeepers for a combined cost of £5 million gives enviable options at the back and freed up funds for other departments. In addition, the central midfield should be excellent. If Tiote cannot get in a team - and there is a case for reuniting him with Cabaye, possibly alongside Parker in a trio - it is a sign of strength.
Furthermore, this is a side, and indeed a squad, overflowing with potential goalscorers. The lack of too many out-and-out wingers who have arrived for reasonable prices and excelled in the last couple of years mean the men chosen on either flank, Bellamy and Van der Vaart, can both adopt central attacking roles. Indeed, the Dutchman's habit of drifting infield could make Simpson a one-man right flank, which is a worry.
It is one of the reasons a sizeable chunk of the squad budget was used on Johnson, whose proven record as an impact substitute gives him added appeal. Furthermore, Stephane Sessegnon adds an element of the unpredictable and may be another game-changer. So could Louis Saha, picked ahead of the more prolific Yakubu. Many of the other cheaper additions to the squad were compromise choices and might not expect to see much first-team football.
On the debit side, however, this is not a stellar defence. Left-back Enrique may be the division's best in his position, but the same cannot be said for anyone else in the back four. Kaboul and Koscielny are at least improving but Gallas may be in decline and, error-prone at Bolton and unappreciated by Andre Villas-Boas, Cahill has had a torrid season. There was a case for picking the costlier Chris Smalling or Phil Jones, but either would have required Nemanja Vidic alongside him anyway and, unlike Sir Alex Ferguson, potential is not a factor in our purchases. So this highlights the fact that the Premier League's leading centre-backs have tended to stay at the same club for years, ruling most out of the reckoning for our side.
Is this a title-winning team? Almost certainly not. The very top players tend to command hefty fees and, to name but three, there is no Silva, Yaya Toure or Sergio Aguero. Successful sides often tend to build from the back, too, and despite the protection the central-midfield tacklers might supply, this is unlikely to be a watertight defence. But with the right manager and if the players gelled, Champions League football could be secured. Our £85 million has acquired more strength in depth than the current contenders for fourth. Getting higher might require spending Torres-esque sums of money on one or two players. Although, of course, not Torres himself.