In the summer of 2013, there was a group of Arsenal supporters who wanted to “kick greed out of football.” They marched to the games with banners unfurled, angrily protesting Stan Kroenke’s ownership of Arsenal and the rising ticket prices that Arsenal fans and other were forced to pay to watch their beloved game. Far from an ignoble cause, these fans simply wanted ticket prices, and especially away ticket prices, lowered.
As the anti-greed crowd descended on the opening match of the season, August 17, 2013, the mood in the stadium was tense. Arsenal had bombed out 17 players that summer, cutting out all of the famous “deadwood” players: guys like Andrei Arshavin, Gervinho, and Joel Campbell. Arsenal were still able to field what would look like a decent team these days: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Ramsey, Wilshere, Walcott, Rosicky, Ox, and Giroud. Despite Giroud scoring in the 6th minute, Arsenal lost 3-1 to Aston Villa and just a few rows up from Arsene Wenger stood a group of men holding printed signs that read SPEND SPEND SPEND.
One set of fans wanted to kick greed out of football, the other set of fans — some of them in both groups — wanted to kick the greed up a few notches. So, it has always been with football transfers: a paradox. Middle-class people who want their club to pay hyper-inflated fees for the right to pay hyper-inflated ticket prices to watch rich people play football for the benefit of other even richer people and their hyper-rich corporate sponsors.
I always felt that these two seemingly incongruous arguments were intertwined. That you can’t both lower ticket prices and spend huge sums on players at the same time. The more that the clubs spend on players, the more that ticket prices all over the land seem to rise. But it was only Arsenal, who are alone in England earning over £100m a season from match day revenue (even Man U earns less and most teams earn less than 1/5th of what Arsenal get from their supporters) and who operate on a self-sustaining model, while also trying to win the League, where ticket prices and money spent on players seems linked. In all other cases, the rise in player transfers all over the League was covered by television deals. And so it is that the new television deals have loosed (almost) all of the purse strings in England and the Premier League spent over £1bn (gross) on player transfers this summer. The Premier League has Spent Spent Spent.
Well, not all of the Premier League has spent. The big spenders* this summer were Manchester City. Using the figures from transfermarkt** Man City clocked in at €191m outlay. Man U followed close behind them with a net spend of €179m. Then Chelsea with €100m and Arsenal with just under €100m. Transfermarkt put the entire League net spend at €837m, that means that these four clubs spent €570m of the €837m total spend. Four clubs, 20% of the League, spent 68% of the transfer money. And they spent that money on just a handful of players: Xhaka, Mustafi, Perez, Stones, Sane, Jesus, Gundogan, Bravo, Nolito, Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Bailly, Batshuyai, Luiz, Kante, and Alonso.
There is a paradox here as well. Despite the money that the top four spenders had at their disposal the market was still tight. Only two teams had the kind of spending power that allowed them to just pay whatever price their target demanded: both teams from Manchester. The other clubs in the League had significant problems getting players in despite having more money than ever. And for the middle-value teams (like Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Tottenham) there were a lot of strange deals that happened only because the club needed the player and were prepared to pay over the odds.
Take Chelsea. Like the other middle-four teams, Chelsea got some of their business done early. But when it came to a center back, Chelsea panicked and paid £34m for a 29-year-old David Luiz, a player who was so unreliable as a center back in his last stint at Chelsea that when he was sold to PSG for £50m there were many who suspected this was money laundering. Tottenham also paid over the odds for a washed out player with a history of playing down to his opponent’s level. They put up £30m on Moussa Sissoko who has been a life-long Arsenal supporter and I’m sure he will receive zero abuse when he has his first bad match. Arsenal had their own panic buy or more appropriately ended up buying their third choice when they landed Lucas Perez after Vardy and Lacazette both fell through for various reasons.
Liverpool was the lone odd duck in the middle-four pack. They broke even with their transfer dealings. Though that was largely down to a huge slice of luck when Crystal Palace agreed to pay them £30m for Benteke and Stoke stumped up £15m for Joe Allen. Liverpool also got in center back Joel Matip for free, he has an error in him but he’s big and can pass and could turn out to be the coup of the season.
Below the big six the story is the same: big money deals for small money players. Everton spunked their John Stones money on Yannick Bolaise, Swansea bought two center forwards in Baston and Llorente (one time Arsenal fan target), West Brom lacked any clue how to buy attacking players and bought Nacer Chadli, Stoke was similar to West Brom and they bought Joe Allen, Watford paid the most inflated price ever for Issac Success who they are hoping will be a (Borat voice) great success, Palace sold Bolaise to Everton and instead of buying someone good went and got Benteke and Andros Townsend, Bournemouth went crazy for Jordon Ibe, Sunderland spent the majority of their money on a defensive midfielder named Ndong, Hull bought Ryan Mason from Spurs, Boro bought a center mid named Marten de Roon from Atalanta, Burnley also bought a center mid named Jeff Hendrick from Derby for approximately 10X his value, and West Ham’s big spend was on Andre Ayew from Swansea. Leicester have some of the most highly respected scouts in the League and they bought two more center forwards to add to their growing group of attackers; Islam Slimani (scored 27 goals for Sporting last season) and Ahmed Musa. Southampton remains one of the last of the selling clubs, making a profit of 20m Euros on Mane while bringing in 22-year-old Boufal, who they will sell on for a profit in a few years.
What you see here is yet another paradox: there is a lot of money in the League but most of it just changing hands between clubs for players who were already in the same league. You also see some teams with great scouting networks bringing in foreign players and teams without them buying rehashed old players.
Of the 116 players that the 20 Premier League teams purchased this summer, 53 of them were already playing in England. The top six teams (Arsenal, Liverpool, Man U, Leicester, Man City, Tottenham, and Chelsea) only bought 7 players from other English clubs but they bought 34 of the 63 foreign players that were purchased this season. That means the bottom 13 teams bought 46 players from other English teams and 29 from foreign teams. Further showing the disparity between the haves and have-nots; West Ham, Watford, Swansea, and Boro accounted for 20 of the 29 foreign players. There were 10 teams in the League who bought a grand total of 9 foreign players and 10 teams in the League who bought the other 54. That means that there were 10 teams in the League who were paying inflated prices for players just because they had already played in the Premier League.
The transfer market is always a paradox and none more so than this season. And despite the idea that big new television deals would change the landscape we see the same patterns. There are two clubs who are richer than god, there are four or five clubs who spend a lot but nowhere near the top, there are a handful of smart clubs with great scouting networks and there are a bunch of clubs who are just buying the same garbage as last year but for more money.
It looks like inflation but when you consider that many teams are just hoping to avoid relegation and so they are paying inflated fees just to stay where they are in the League, it’s looking a lot like stagflation.
*Net spend, and I don’t care about how you don’t think net spend is important, I’ve read the “anti-net-spend” articles.
**I don’t care if you think transfermarkt is unreliable, it is a single place where I can get information and which tends to be more complete than most other places.