It is not an original observation that the circus of soccer’s transfer window has come, in some ways, to overshadow the start of the playing season itself. But it is nevertheless an observation worth making.
Countless articles have been churned out over the past week or so discussing which clubs were the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ on the market this summer. For some of the most vocal fans on social media, it seems that missing out on a top target, losing a key star or even bringing in the wrong player is every bit as damaging for a club as three points dropped in an actual game of actual soccer.
This summer’s window - in the UK, at least, notwithstanding the landmark €222 million transfer of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain - has arguably been dominated as much by transfers that didn’t happen as those that did. As the teams at the top of the game have grown in financial stature and taken each summer as an opportunity to consolidate their power on the pitch, we’ve become accustomed to transfer sagas adhering to a very predicable template: after weeks of back-and-forth, bids and rejections, unhappy players and unhappier supporters, the biggest clubs get their man.
Bolting the window
This year, Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho, Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez and Southampton’s Virgil Van Dijk were the highest-profile players for whom that final step never occurred, and all three players ended the summer exactly where they started it.
The intransigence of their clubs, it turns out, was the precursor to a bigger development. One week after the conclusion of the 2017 transfer window, it was announced that the 20 Premier League clubs have voted in favour of bringing the deadline forward, with the window set to slam shut - with apologies to Jim White - at 5pm on the day before the 2018/19 season begins.
The biggest caveat to this is that the deadline applies only to Premier League clubs buying, not selling, their playing staff. As it stands, teams across Europe will still be able to conduct their business a full three weeks after England’s clubs have had their hands tied.
At first, this looks singularly like Premier League teams doing the unthinkable and voting against their own financial and footballing interests. Under league rules, 14 of the 20 must vote in favour of such a motion, and this one passed by that margin. Why would Liverpool, who voted in favour of the change, leave themselves vulnerable to sky-high bids for Coutinho while unable to recruit a replacement? Why, also, would they leave themselves in the position of having to turn down a financial windfall potentially in the hundreds millions of pounds precisely because they can’t afford to leave a hole in their squad?
The decision tells us much about the growing confidence and financial stability of Premier League teams. In a league in which arguably as many as 12 clubs face some realistic threat of relegation to the second tier, it is remarkable that at least 14 of the 20 are satisfied that having foreign clubs potentially able to poach their players for a two-week period won’t be to their detriment. This is not a decision that has been made by and for the elite, but by the division at large, as Premier League teams as a whole now stand so far ahead of their continental rivals financially that the threat is seen as insignificant. Liverpool demonstrated that they can stand up to the might of Barcelona if they’ve decided a player isn’t leaving. Further down the ladder, Southampton demonstrated that they can stand up, in turn, to Liverpool.
At the Soccerex Global Convention this week, transfer expert Esteve Calzada, chief executive of Prime Time Sport, presented his Football Transfer Review for 2017. One of that report’s major conclusions was that the massive inflation in prices across the world of soccer, but particularly in the Premier League, in the last few transfer windows has actually been related to a decrease in investment from ‘sugar daddy’ owners rather than, as might have been assumed, an increase.
Whereas previously purchases bankrolled by a billionaire were outliers, now the rising tide of massive broadcast revenues has lifted all boats, so that UK£30 million has become almost the baseline for a transfer between two major clubs. At the same time, owners such as Roman Abramovic - the Russian oligarch whose purchase of Chelsea in 2004 catalysed the Premier League’s big-spending era - and Manchester United’s Glazer family have begun to demand that their clubs be self-sustainable, extracting maximum value from player sales before being able to invest money on reinforcements. This development, much more than earlier splurges on the likes of Shaun Wright-Phillips and Adrian Mutu, extraordinary though they were, had exerted massive upward pressure on the market.
With broadcast revenues set to rise again - though by less than the 70 per cent they increased last time - when the next round of rights, for 2019-22, goes to tender in 2018, there is no indication of the bubble bursting. Next year, there will be four weeks between the Fifa World Cup final and the closure of the Premier League’s transfer window - four weeks in which well upwards of UK£1 billion is likely to be spent in England alone.
It may be that by asking why Premier League clubs would give the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain an extra three weeks to take their players, we’re asking the wrong question. The biggest issue may be how the rest of Europe reacts to the Premier League laying down this marker, and whether any but the absolute elite will be able to afford to keep up.