Are Jones And Henderson Worth The Price?

"There are people being sold for 20 million who are not fit to lace Luka’s boots.” - Harry Redknapp
Harry Redknapp's jibe this week - pouring scorn on Chelsea's £22 million offer for Luka Modric, he noted that "there are people being sold for £20 million who are not fit to lace Luka's boots" - wasn't exactly thinly veiled. In the preceding week 19-year-old Blackburn defender Phil Jones had been signed by Manchester United for £16.5 million plus add-ons, with 21-year-old Sunderland midfielder Jordan Henderson heading to Liverpool for the same figure.

It is not often that such sums are swapped for relatively inexperienced players so early in a transfer window. But the Spurs manager knows as well as anyone that relativity doesn't really apply in the transfer market; the relationship between value and price paid is complicated. Like most big deals, the moves reflect the position of the buying club; many of Manchester City's £20 million-plus acquisitions in recent summers came about because it could afford the massively inflated fee that would prise apart another club's fingers, and got in exchange Premier League and international experience (e.g. James Milner, Carlos Tevez) and/or star quality (David Silva, Yaya Toure).

Part of United and Liverpool's willingness to spend similar sums on young English players may stem from regulatory changes: at present, eight of every 25-man squad must be "homegrown," and FIFA has proposed a nine-plus-nine rule that would ensure that homegrown players make up half of every matchday squad. If clubs are investing with "homegrown" ringing in their ears, it's no surprise to see them do so before accounting for Financial Fair Play, regulations under which clubs can (supposedly) spend no more than they earn, begins: no matter how inflated the market, there is almost always a premium attached to English players.

Given the current uncertainty over the futures of John O'Shea, Wes Brown, Jonny Evans and Darren Gibson, all of whom qualify as homegrown, it seems likely that United are motivated first and foremost by Alex Ferguson's desire for rejuvenation, with the quota figuring in the mix. Jones' transfer is not an atypical deal for the club: Dimitar Berbatov is the only outfield player over 23 that Alex Ferguson has lavished huge sums of money on in the last few seasons. The manager prefers the opportunity to develop players at United - think Javier Hernandez, and Rafael and Fabio da Silva - and is not afraid to gamble on promise.

Though Jones has been accused of the odd lapse of concentration, one of his real strengths is anticipation, a facet that, along with his willingness to move forward with the ball, enabled him to make a mark playing in a defensive midfield role for Blackburn last season. Everton had 70 percent of possession at Ewood Park on the opening day, but struggled to carry momentum in to the final third with Jones, then 18, protecting his defense. Shifted in to the back line, his ability to read the game - allied to aerial strength - helps him to avoid trouble.

With his signing, United has a prospective back four (Rafael, Smalling, Jones and Fabio, average age: 20) already in his squad before Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic decline. Jones' partnership with Smalling at U2-1 level bodes well.

England U-21 manager Stuart Pearce has attributed to Jones and Smalling the same glee that Vidic takes from the dirty jobs and to Jones the leadership skills to inherit not just the position, but also the captaincy. "They want to defend, they're happy to get hit with the ball if that keep it out of the back of the net. You have to be unselfish to be a natural leader; I think Jones has that," he said.

Meanwhile, Henderson will be less keen for his recent England U-21 appearances to be used to measure his worth, having struggled to impose himself on either match so far. After his full England debut, in November, L'Equipe scoffed that he could merely say he'd turned out against France, after the game (more specifically, Samir Nasri, Yoan Gourcuff and Florent Malouda) passed him by. It would be a shame for him to be judged entirely on games in which his side has had to play largely without the ball.

Any criticism of his tendency to attempt Hollywood diagonal balls must also be tempered by acknowledgment of how incisive his passing often is, whether over a few yards (his instant ball to Steed Malbranque helped Sunderland open Liverpool up early last season) or half the pitch (on new year's day, he set up Asamoah Gyan's late goal against Blackburn with a beautifully shaped and weighted ball).

At Liverpool, Henderson must compete for his favored central midfield position with Lucas Leiva, Raul Meireles, Jay Spearing, Jonjo Shelvey and Steven Gerrard, who will be keen to hit his best form having hardly been missed while injured last season. But Henderson could also contribute from the right, as he often did for Sunderland. Knowing he needs to make the most of Andy Carroll, signed for £35 million, Kenny Dalglish will see potential value in the mischief made by Gyan and Darren Bent from Henderson's supply.

Henderson's price tag has prompted much sniping, with Sunderland manager Steve Bruce, who had talked about the youngster being worth £30 million, cheekily hailed as a master salesman. But the player insists he is not weighed down by it, instead seeing it as a sign of Liverpool's faith in his ability to learn from players like Gerrard - and for all Lee Cattermole's charms, Anfield does offer a different caliber of on-the-pitch learning.

But in any case, Dalglish is comfortable with young players - he worked at Liverpool's academy and showed little hesitation in bringing players such as 18-year-old John Flanagan into positions of responsibility. It has been evident in all of Liverpool's recent transfer dealings that he, like Ferguson, is thinking of the future.

The huge transfer fees paid out for the talented but inexperienced pair of Jones and Henderson show the English Premiere League's emphasis on homegrown talent. Good British players will be overpriced and harvested early so long as they seem not to be in abundant supply; increasingly a necessity due to "homegrown" regulation.

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