It turned into one of those dreaded transfer sagas, leaving senior figures at Swansea City and Everton exasperated with the snail’s pace of the discussions to the point that even those on the inside became bored with the story, yet confirmation finally arrived on Tuesday evening that Gylfi Sigurdsson was on his way from the Mumbles to Merseyside for £45m.
The passage of time – more than a month – has arguably diluted some of the excitement at one end and certainly the level of disappointment at the other. While Everton fans grew tired of waiting and, in some cases, started to question whether Sigurdsson was really worth all that hassle and money, the mood shifted in Swansea once it became clear that the Icelander wanted out and that any significant signings would not be made until the first instalment of the biggest transfer fee in their history had been handed over.
As for Sigurdsson, the man who covered more ground than any other Premier League player last season, 433km to be exact, watched the new season start without him and has not played a match of any description since he wore the captain’s armband in a friendly defeat at Barnet on 12 July, when Swansea assumed that he would be boarding the flight to the United States the next day for the club’s pre-season tour. Sigurdsson had other ideas and informed the club at the team hotel in London, shortly before they were due to depart for the airport, that he was staying at home.
That decision took Paul Clement by surprise and went down badly with Swansea’s supporters. It would be naive to think that Sigurdsson’s actions were all of his own doing – the mechanics behind a transfer are a bit more complicated than that – and it is also true that plenty of players have behaved in the same way to force through a move. With Sigurdsson, however, Swansea thought it would be different.
A quiet man in the dressing room, Sigurdsson was always seen as a model professional, inspiring those around him with his performances and commanding the respect of players and staff with his dedication on the training ground. He was something of a reluctant hero at Swansea – an image stays in the mind of Sigurdsson on the final day of last season, during the players’ lap of honour, being cajoled by a few of his team-mates to step forward and acknowledge the supporters that were singing his name to the tune of Give it Up by KC and The Sunshine Band.
Four days earlier Sigurdsson had pretty much swept the board at the club’s end-of-season awards dinner, winning players’ player of the year for the second season running, supporters’ player of the year and away supporters’ player of the year. By the end of the evening he looked embarrassed to be spending so much time on the stage.
Kev Johns, the brilliant compere and a fanatical Swansea supporter, saw each on-stage interview as an opportunity to try – tongue-in-cheek – to talk Sigurdsson into staying, at one point jumping on the player’s description of Swansea as a “special club”. With a glint in his eye, Johns said: “You do know it’s not like that everywhere else.” Sigurdsson laughed along with the rest of the guests, yet deep down most people at the Liberty Stadium that night would have suspected that his time in Wales was up.
Certainly plenty of the players thought that was the case after another superb season from a man whose contribution over the past three years at Swansea shines through in the company that he has been keeping when it comes to the statistics that really matter. Sigurdsson has been directly involved in 53 Premier League goals since the start of the 2014-15 season, which as a midfielder is second only to Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen.
To provide a bit of context, next on that list after Sigurdsson is Mesut Özil, then Eden Hazard, followed by Cesc Fàbregas, Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez, Dele Alli, David Silva and Philippe Coutinho – you get the picture. Ross Barkley, for what it is worth, is down in 13th place. The Everton midfielder, and the man that Sigurdsson has effectively been bought to replace at Goodison Park, has been involved in 20 fewer league goals over the same period.
Now take into consideration the fact that Sigurdsson has been scoring and creating all those goals in a team that has spent the last two seasons fighting relegation and it becomes a little easier to understand why Swansea put a £50m valuation on his head, especially given the sort of transfer fees that have been paid elsewhere in the Premier League this summer and, in some cases, for players that are nothing like as influential.
There is a misconception about Sigurdsson that he is no more than a set-piece expert. Sigurdsson, without question, is brilliant in dead-ball situations. Every direct free-kick within shooting distance carried a huge sense of expectation at Swansea and the statistics covering the previous three seasons show that he is comfortably top of the pile for chances created from set-plays (106, more than twice as many as any Everton player), yet the 27-year-old has much more to his game.
An intelligent player who likes to roam and link play, Sigurdsson is at his best when he finds pockets of space to open teams up with a first-time pass or clever backheel. That bright football brain makes up for the fact that he lacks pace: he is, by his own admission, “not the kind of player who is going to get the ball and run past the full-back”. For that reason Sigurdsson needs to play through the middle as a No10, where he can have the biggest impact on the game.
At Tottenham Hotspur, where Sigurdsson spent two seasons after joining from Hoffenheim in 2012, he was frustrated with how much time he spent on either the left wing or the bench. He made 58 Premier League appearances across two seasons with Spurs, yet was on the pitch from start to finish in only nine of those matches. Tottenham’s loss ended up being Swansea’s gain, as Mauricio Pochettino admitted last season. The Spurs manager said Sigurdsson would have been a “perfect player” for him at White Hart Lane, yet he never really got the chance to work with a midfielder who was in his starting lineup for a pre-season friendly against Seattle Sounders only to be sold 40 minutes before the game kicked off. Pochettino, who had only just taken over as manager, received a call from the Tottenham board to say that Ben Davies was joining from Swansea and Sigurdsson was going the other way.
On the back of an impressive loan spell a few seasons earlier, Swansea knew what they were getting with Sigurdsson in every sense. Managers, coaches and players came to admire his work ethic in training as much as his goals and assists on a match day. Team-mates would talk about the way the goalkeeper coach would look at Sigurdsson on a morning at the training ground and ask: “Today?” More often than not Sigurdsson would give a nod back, which meant that he wanted to do some extra shooting once the session had finished.
Sigurdsson preferred to do that work away from the rest of the outfield players so that there were no distractions. He would spend hours striking the ball from the edge of the area with both feet – naturally stronger on his right, he scored some terrific goals for Swansea with his left, and got his reward in those headline statistics. “There is no luck involved,” Jack Cork said at the end of last season, reflecting on the superb free-kick that Sigurdsson scored against Manchester United to earn Swansea a point in April. “Gylfi spends ages practising. He works so hard.”
Sigurdsson, in short, was a man who could do no wrong in the eyes of everyone at the club and few at the Liberty Stadium would have begrudged him a big move this summer. In truth, it was something of a surprise when Swansea managed to tie him down to a four-year contract 12 months earlier. Yet the way things were handled after the Barnet game last month left a bitter taste for some Swansea fans.
It is a shame in many ways, especially given the legacy that Sigurdsson could have left at Swansea, although there is nothing be gained by dwelling on the past. While Everton focus on getting their club-record signing match fit and integrated as soon as possible to help continue their positive start to the new season, Swansea need to move quickly to reinvest the money wisely. Time will tell whether all the haggling was worthwhile.
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