The paradox of the transfer market: big money, same old crap

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.


  1. This article highlights the immense difficulty in obtaining value in the transfer market. Although it took us time to get the deals over the line, I do think that, pound-for-pound, Arsenal absolutely aced the transfer market this summer. All our deals have considerable upsides, except perhaps the Lucas Perez deal which, though currently a shot in the dark, could still turn out spectacularly well.

    1. Hi, couldn’t agree more. I am really counting on Perez to come good. A lot of us (including me) have criticized Arsene for doing these transfers late but, I think he played his cards well in the inflated market and didn’t give into Lyon’s demands.

      I don’t think Lacazette (the little I know of him) as a 50m striker. If we are going to break the bank for a striker, let it be for someone young and hungry like Griezmann.

      1. I agree, except I’m on record here and elsewhere as saying that (the little I know of him) I believe Lacazette is (or will be) absolutely a top class player (he’s also still young and hungry) and in 2016 top class strikers cost 50m. If he steers clear of major injuries (I believe he’s injured now), I think he’ll have another smashing season at Lyon and go for 50+ million next year. I could be wrong about him, of course. But I’m pretty sure I’m not wrong in thinking that the vast majority of Arsenal fans who “don’t rate him” (who seem to be the vast majority of fans) have made their judgment based on very little evidence and very flimsy reasons (e.g. other big teams weren’t in for him; Philippe Auclair doesn’t like him; he didn’t make the French Euro squad).
        Having said that, I’m feeling pretty good about our transfer business. I’m a bit nervous about Perez, just since he seems like such an unknown quantity on a number of levels, but I’m also excited about what he might become for us. I wish we hadn’t loaned out Wilshere without a break clause, but otherwise our squad looks as strong as it has been for years. And Wenger deserves huge credit for that (though proof will be in the pudding of performances, of course!).

  2. As Tochukwu said, pound for pound, we look like the winners in this window especially as we have not only bought good players, we bought players we really needed. Now, our weakest position is in attack and it’s not even that bad. We have at the very least, four world class players in Cech, Ozil, Sanchez and Koscielny. Xhaka, Cazorla, Mustafi, Bellerin are not far behind. I’m excited!

    1. I agree. I think we have bought good players. But does anybody (not you, just a general question) believe what we have in the squad is enough to win the title?

      1. No , I don’t believe we do.
        If last season proved anything beyond any doubt, it was that the most talented team doesn’t have to win , or even come close to winning the title.

        Chelsea and City were in my opinion more talented than Arsenal , yet they both finished below us.
        Leicester won it despite being less talented than any of the title contenders, Arsenal included, and they did it on the back of a great team spirit and huge chunk of luck.

        Arsenal have neither. We are mentally weak and perennially “unlucky “when it comes to injuries to key players and ref decisions.

        When I look at this Arsenal squad, I see a lot of talented players playing at their best when afforded space and time on the ball, but running into all kinds of problems when high pressed and closed down with controlled aggression.
        People complain about teams parking a bus against us , I don’t. Arsenal do better against those teams. It’s teams who bring the game to us, backed by sufficient talent, we have more problems with.

        For all the good our club represents, Arsenal are , on a basic level, a flawed football club.
        From the majority owner, who cares less about winning than any other owner and admits to it publicly. Through the manager, who values loyalty to his players and staff over the competitive edge . To the players themselves, who seem too comfortable in the knowledge winning is optional.

        We all played at a different level at one time or another and we all have an idea what a successful club should look like, but personally, I like to listen to what the ex Arsenal players have to say regarding their former club more than anyone else, because they know first hand what it was like when they were achieving their success under Wenger in his earlier years.
        Lee Dixon said it best when he described this Arsenal team spirit as weak and lacking character.

        The best we can hope for is another top four finish I’m afraid.

      2. I don’t think we will win the League but I mostly put that down to the fact that Man U is not going to play any of their first team in Europe. Chelsea also have an edge because they are not in Europe at all. I expect the League positions to be:

        Man U
        Man City

        That’s my gut, but my gut tells me that they are going to be insanely close on points from probably about 3rd to 7th. Goal difference and goals scored close.

        1. Mostly agree with that although I think Man City will pip United for the title. They’ve bolstered the best attack in the league and it’s really dependent on how quickly they pick up Pep’s principles whether they win. Their weakness is the fullbacks and deep midfielders. United are a typical Mourinho team now, well organized and dependent on midfield power and individual brilliance in attack. The big question to me is whether Mourinho has the guts to drop Rooney to the bench and play Mhkitaryan behind Ibra. I think the Champions League bites Leicester City in the ass. While they added attackers, they don’t the depth in midfield or defense to play 50 plus games.

          As for us, assuming Xhaka and Mustafi work out (already big assumptions), our season depends on whether Lucas can supplant Giroud and be the quick, mobile, clinical center forward that will bring out the best of Sanchez and Özil. If he does that and scores close to 20 goals, we’re title contenders. If he turns out to be another Park Chu young, it’s Champions League relgation. Honestly, it’s probably a 10% chance for either of those scenarios.

          1. Forgot that Man City also added Gundogan, so deep midfield isn’t exactly a huge problem area either.

          2. City have to be the favorites for the title. They threatened to run away with it last season before a bit of a collapse from them left it out of reach. I’m a big believer in Guardiola and like Tim points out they’ve also spent more than anyone this summer. Man United starts with a much worse squad. Yes, they made the biggest splash but that’s mainly because they bought household names; the squad is still rather patchwork and doesn’t feel like a Mourinho team yet. Plus Mourinho, Rooney, Ibra and Pogba is a combustible mix. If things start to go sour up there it could get ugly. The Manchester Derby will tell us a lot more about the state of these two squads than any of their matches so far.

            To answer Bunburyist’s query, yes, I do believe the squad is good enough to win the title. The question is, can we maximize it? I may love Wenger but I’m not fool enough to back him over Guardiola, all else being equal, so if we do win it’ll be down to considerable good fortune as well as good play and good management. But if you ask me to say it black and white, then yes, we absolutely have a chance and not just in a Jim Carey kind of way.

          3. Tee, I still think Wenger’s plan A, for better or worse, is for Alexis to morph into an effective CF. He is constructing a team of players who like to start on the front foot and break at speed, and Giroud just doesn’t fit into that. Hard to tell how long of a tether Alexis is on to make this leap but it’s fair to say he represents our best hope for a 20 goal striker this season. Meanwhile, the manager will probably see what Lucas can do in the odd cup match or out wide. A sustained run at CF may not come for Lucas unless Alexis decisively fails to grab the CF horse by the reigns, which makes Lucas (or a fit Danny Welbeck) a sort of plan B. Then, if both those options fails, Wenger may once again be forced to resort to Giroud, long the fallback plan after more mobile options have faltered, as the plan C.

          4. Doc, you say toma-TOE, I say toma-TAH. I agree that Giroud’s playing style doesn’t seem to dovetail well with Özil and, especially, Sanchez and that we’re looking at trying for more mobility, fluidity, and quick vertical passing in our attack. I also agree that Sanchez is our most potent goalscorer but I think that he can score 20 goals from a wide forward position as well as a center forward. The dirty secret of our inability to properly challenge for the title last season was Sanchez’s poor form and we desperately need him to playing at his best whatever position he ultimately plays for us.

    2. A good, no, great team no doubt but it won’t win the league. We improved but not enough relative to the others – unless Perez turns out to be the buy of the season.

  3. You make a great point Tim that I hadn’t really realised, that despite all the extra money flooding in, all it’s really meant is even crazier transfer fees, so in many ways nothing’s changed.

    I agree with the rest of the lads that Arsenal have not only spent a lot this window but, more importantly, they spent well.

  4. Excellent stuff today, some real substance and a solid informative read. We paid USD $3.8 million for an 18-year old kid in Kelechi Nwakali and nobody blinked an eye in this transfer market. What would that kind of money bought in The Invincibles days?

    1. It’s a punt on potential. Just like we poached one of Japan’s best young talents in the person of Asano. Nwakali was the best player and 3rd highest scorer at the FIFA u-17 championship last year. If these two kids turn out right, Arsenal could be chuckling with smug contentment for years to come.

  5. Seems like simple economics to me. There’s some set, fairly constant number of roster spots in the Premier League and the other top 5 european leagues. Teams are going to fill those spots to the extent that’s economically feasible. There’s a much larger pool of players competing to fill those spots but again that’s fairly constant. The number of job openings is a constant, the player pool is constant, and so if you inject a huge amount of money into that system player transfer fees and wages will naturally rise. The demand for players remains the same but the money available increases is a natural inflationary pressure.

  6. Once again, nicely done, Tim. Thanks for the deep research. Just got off the Skype from an interview with the world’s foremost historian on The Beatles. Talking to him for an NYT article I’m working on. He’s from London, is obsessed with a band from Liverpool, but roots for Manchester United. (He said when he was a kid in the early 60’s, they were all the rage, even though his folks were Gooners.) Why am I mentioning this? Because he said he thinks our buddy Jose Mourinho will be on his best behavior this season.

    NFW. Can’t wait to see what happens when Pep’s team beats him for the first time. That press conference is going to be so sweet. I bet he’ll find a way to blame it on Arsene.

    And for the record, FFP is now defunct, yes? That’s the only way both Manchester clubs could spend that much without doing much selling.

    1. Man City have effectively skirted FFP rules by giving themselves amazing corporate sponsorships.

      Man U are well within FFP rules because their corporate sponsorships are set to make them the richest club in the world, probably next year. Chevrolet is bankrolling Pogba.

      The only club getting pinched by FFP is Chelsea. They don’t have an owner who also owns huge corporations (bankrolled by a nation) which can funnel money into the club through “sponsorships”, they don’t have a nice new stadium, and now they don’t even have Champions League football and so, since FFP they have mostly operated on a break-even basis. I do wonder how much longer they will have before they drop out of the race for the top four permanently.

      1. That might be the reason they’re stockpiling young talent. To get the players in early, but also to sell them on at inflated fees to clubs/people who they have relationships with.

        ManCity will be there on top for a long long time. They get sponsorship money for a stadium gifted to them by the taxpayers of Britain, and from the non-tax payers, but the resources of another country. They also have clubs around the world that they can use to either buy, loan or subsidise talent, if need be. Sign a 29 year old to a 5 year contract at 250k/w, and in two years you pack him up and send him to the US, Australia or Japan for a nice cosy retirement at one of your other clubs.

        ManU of course get money only from American taxpayers through the bailout of GM. You helped buy Pogba for ManU Tim. 🙂

  7. The new TV deal is ‘only’ 30 to 60 million more per team, per year. The new prices means that buys you one very good player (Moustafi @30) or it lets you bid on a great player. (Pogba @100). It does not suddenly let you grossly overpay for half a team full of new players.

    Seen that way, our summer business looks pretty good. Particularly when you consider the potential upside for Xhaka, Moustafi and Holding. Not good enough to keep Ozil, that would have required a Greizeman level signing. But respectable. We have a good shot of staying in the CL and a chance of surprising the league.

    Depending on how Brexit works out, Kroenke should buy a portugese team and stockpile young players. Because we’re still going to need to build from within.

  8. It turned out be a decent transfer period in the end. That’s the thing about Wenger these days. I complain and bitch and moan and then he does some s#$t. Just enough s$%t to get back in my good books and remind me of who he once was. Bastard:)

  9. This is a really great and insightful article. Interestingly, I thought Leicester would be the new Chelsea (worst title defender), but looking at their acquisition and how they still retain Vardy and Mahrez, seems like they will be there or thereabouts for the foreseeable future.

    1. I’m really curious to see how Leicester manage playing in four competitions this year. A lot will depend on maintaining what seemed a miraculous injury record last season. But I wonder if the schedule will take its toll. There’s a part of me that wants to see them fail this season. Big time. I know that sounds ungracious, and it’s no doubt based on sour grapes for the fact they won the title in a season when it really should have been us at the top…and the Vardy snub. And the Mahrez snub (if there was a snub).

      1. Leicester haven’t done badly too in the transfer market. Up front, they still have Vardy, Mahrez, Okazaki and Ulloa, and have added Musa and Slimani. Good job. Mendy has the thankless and essentially impossible task of replacing Kante’s frenetic work-rate and fitness in midfield next to the steady but unremarkable Drinkwater. Good luck to them there. Above all, it’s in defense that the strain of four competitions will really take its toll. Leicester have little or no quality depth there and an injury to Huth(especially)or Morgan will set the cat among the pigeons. Ranieri’s solution might be a rehash of last season’s namely to sacrifice the domestic cup competitions in order to excel in the UCL and EPL. Just as Arsenal used to do some years ago.

  10. Retread players akin to the manager merry-go-round, only the players get paid when they come in, while the bosses get their payoff on the way out, fired after a season or two.

  11. I found this interview on ArsenalFanTV (shudder) with a football agent, Jon Smith (I suppose someone does have that as a name).

    It was quite interesting though. Well worth a watch.

    1. The guys on the Guardian pod (or maybe it was the Times) said that people who appear on Arsenal TV have their tickets sorted for them and whatnot.

  12. Wenger made a point recently about the big money signings also costing big wages.

    I recently read (not sure how true) that ManCity are subsidising wages of around 800k per week for those not playing for them. Chelsea have 38 players on loan. Of course some of them will be just young guys snapped up on potential, but still.

    There’s big money. City, Chelsea and ManU (sort off) can afford it, but most clubs are just throwing it away. Never a good policy. I know Arsenal’s conservatism can get quite frustrating at times, but in general terms, I agree with it completely. Not least because the transfer market frenzy also carries some unsavoury stuff with it.

    Also, what happened to the provision of only being able to increase wage bill by max of 4m every year from the TV proceeds? Is all of it being spent as signing/loyalty/other bonuses rather than wages?

    1. The wages issue is very hard to work out. It seems fairly obvious now that because of the level financial playing field, the EPL will remain too competitive to attract the very top talent. Anyone who does move from the other big European clubs will want big wages to make it attractive which obviously trickles through the squad at the buying club.
      Perez is an interesting signing. He basically was Coruna’s offence last season, no-one scored or assisted more, no-one made more Key-passes or shot more per game than him. Griezmann, who might be worth €100 million, shot & Key-passed less than him.

      1. when Perez was still a rumour, I took a look at his youtube highlights, as well as, on a whim, to remind myself of his quality, Griezmann’s. You can tell Griezmann was a cut above, and I totally get why Tim speaks so highly of him. Him running with the ball is also almost Messi-esque in that it seemingly stays close to his feet at all times. And then I was surprised to see a stat saying that Perez had more succesful take ons than Griezmann.

        Probably just to do with how teams set up against them, but still, it does show that he’s a very good player in his own right. I really hope he can step up at Arsenal. He seems determined and he has the talent, so hopefully that will be the case.

  13. Did anyone catch the Legends match on

    I had a smile on my face almost all throughout. Kanu with a hattrick, and Ljungberg and Pires (both minus their hair) recreating the magic again for one goal.

    Christian Vieri at the other end scoring two. Lehmann saved his penalty and almost saved the rebound. Shame Maldini didn’t come off the bench.

    Also shame that Overmars pulled his hamstring, but it was, in a way, wonderful. It obviously meant so much to him to play in front of an Arsenal crowd again, that he was running down the left wing, paunch and all, like his old self.

    Winterburn’s moment with Di Canio was great. Vieri annoyed with and shouting at Cygan for kicking him around the shins was genuinely hilarious.

    All in all, such great fun to watch, and hopefully they raised a lot of money.

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