West Ham completed their first signing of the January transfer window on Friday, bringing in Portuguese midfielder João Mário on loan from Inter Milan until the end of the season.
Many are reading this as a strong signal of intent in the club’s transfer business, and a huge step in the right direction in terms of policy. At 25, he is precisely the age of player we need to be bringing into the club. Transfer dealings over the last several years now, spearheaded by our de facto Director of Football David Sullivan, have been mostly geared towards short-termism. This was typified not least by our last window, where two of the four first team players brought in were the wrong side of 30 and the youngest was Marko Arnautovic, who turns 29 before the end of the season. We may only have Mário until July, so it doesn’t exactly tick the long-term box, but it is a clear signal that the thinking is in the right place.
There is, indeed, the option to sign the player permanently at the end of the season. But one gets the feeling Gold and Sullivan will be reluctant to shell out for the player, who would reportedly cost between £35 and £40 million, unless he is a roaring success.
The huge sum of money quoted for a permanent deal does leave you wondering why Inter are so willing to let go of a player they value so highly. Let’s remember that only last summer the club from Milan were quoting Manchester United similar numbers for Ivan Perisic, one of their prized assets.
Indeed, João Mario has not exactly been a star during his 18 months at Internazionale and has largely failed to live up to his early promise and price tag. He became their most expensive signing since Cristian Vieri in the summer of 2016 when Inter paid Sporting Lisbon €40 million for him. This came after breaking into their team at a young age and establishing himself as a capable central midfielder with high potential. He made 23 domestic starts for Inter last season but has fallen out of favour this season under new coach Luciano Spaletti, under whom the club has improved.
Inter fans talk of a player with an inflated belief in his own ability, a technically gifted player, strong at passing and dribbling and able to dictate a game from the middle when he wants to. The primary complaints were that he wasn’t able to impose himself enough in games or score enough goals, particularly for such a high price, and didn’t show the same potential as when he broke into the Sporting team as a youngster. Ask Inter fans, certainly the ones I have spoken to, and Mário does not work hard enough and they are not disappointed to see the back of him, with the fanbase mockingly posting ‘Ciao Mário’ memes on his departure.
Within this context it does start to make sense that he would willingly come here. While our social media team are doing an excellent job telling the story of Jose Fonte telling his compatriot what a great club we are, you do have to take it with a pinch of salt every time a ‘star’ is on the verge of joining West Ham. If he’s really that good (and that smart) why would he join our dysfunctional lot? Equally, how similar are the terms of the deal to our last loan-with-option-to-spend-loads Simone Zaza. If he’s no good are we going to have to stop playing him so as not to commit to a deal?
The criticism of Mário may or may not be reasonable, but it should also be viewed within the prism of Inter’s recent history. Football fans of a certain age, old enough to remember Channel 4’s Football Italia days at least, remember Internazionale as one of Italy and Europe’s biggest clubs, who first started struggling to keep up with main rivals AC Milan and Juventus around the mid-late 90s.
Now for the last several years Inter have largely failed with an expensive rebuilding project amid turbulence at the top of the club. In 2012, two years after winning the Champions League, Massimo Moratti started selling most of his stake in the club and various consortia became involved with mixed results for the club’s finances and fortunes. By 2016 Suning Holdings Group had taken control and invested vast sums of money. This was when Mário joined as Inter turned their attention to expensive youth, also bringing in Gabriel Barbosa (€30 million). The club suffered a disastrous start to the season and Frank De Boer, appointed to oversee the project, was infamously sacked after 85 days in charge. Inter finished 7th, down from 4th the season before, and after acquiring defenders Dalbert and Martin Skriniar for expensive sums Inter are well in the fight for Champions League football this year.
Inter seem to have overspent on Mário and others and look like another example of a club which has rich backing but is struggling to know how to use the money wisely. Was it understandable that our new player lost his way at a club that was lacking in structure, leadership and direction in its own right?
If Mário can recapture the early promise which convinced Inter to go in so high on him as a 22-year-old, then West Ham could have themselves a fine player. There’s no doubt that he’s the type of player we need. David Moyes has spoken of his desire to make West Ham better with the ball and when Mark Noble is out of the team we struggle badly to move the ball from deep. Manuel Lanzini has an outrageously heavy creative workload in a team said to contain so much talent. We need a player like Mário to play with Manu let alone fill the void for the next six weeks with him out. It should be good to watch a midfielder who can actually pass and dribble. He did also fit well into Portugal's functional team which won Euro 2016.
The way Inter fans describe Mário cannot help but remind me of our initial impressions of Arnautovic, and the Moyes regime has worked wonders with him. His perceived complacency and lack of effort could mean he will flatter to deceive in a West Ham shirt. Alternatively, we could be the club where he re-ignites his career.
It may be cynicism, or just learned experience, but with Sullivan there’s always a catch, which is why I’m tempering my excitement for now over a clearly talented player with attributes we desperately need, who fell out of favour at Inter worryingly quickly. The eventual transfer fee would also have his parent club laughing, claiming such a big return on a player who has not contributed much at all in his 18 months. But this signing seems to indicate much clearer planning in transfer policy. We have signed a player of obvious promise who, if he learns his lessons from Inter, will hopefully go some way towards beginning to redress the lack of depth and balance to the squad.
Welcome João Mário. Boa sorte!