We will remember the transfer market of the summer of 2021 as the one in which we witnessed the team changes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, while Kylian Mbappe and Harry Kane stayed with their clubs. And as is obvious, we will take into account the economic impact of the global pandemic; although it is easier to judge that an impact has occurred, instead of defining its magnitude exactly. However, several trends have emerged.
Gross spending within the five major leagues in Europe has decreased. The figures are smaller; both relative to previous summers, and compared to 2019, the last window of passes prior to the pandemic. This is evident when reviewing the data on the Transfermarkt website, which is far from perfect (the figures are not official because we often do not have “official” figures on transfers) and on many occasions come from journalistic reports. Anyway, it’s the best we have. And it is certainly enough to see trends at a glance. For example, we have the fact that the gross investment figures decreased significantly in Series A (last year they were 40 percent higher, while 2019 expenses doubled to this recently closed market) and in LaLiga, where they fell to less than € 300 million, when they were five times higher in 2019.
Even the Premier League, the great example of financial strength in European football, has decreased its spending in consecutive summers, from € 1.55 billion to € 1.35 billion.
However, we are talking about gross expenses and that does not tell us the whole story. Because, for example, if Barcelona sells midfielder Arthur for € 72 million and buys Miralem Pjanic for € 60 million (which actually happened), the gross investment of both clubs would add up to € 132 million; although in net terms the transaction only represents € 12 million. It is positive that money circulates; although it is obvious that it generates several cases of double and triple accounting.
On the other hand, if we analyze the net expenses of a league (that is, the amount of money that enters and leaves a national circuit for transfers), we will come across a slightly different picture. For example, it shows us that Premier League clubs invested, in net terms, about € 300 million less than the previous year. For their part, Ligue 1 and Serie A also show decreases in their net expenses. (In fact, the Bundesliga had a positive balance in transfers during the previous two summers, also increasing in the recently concluded market). Some might be surprised to learn of the circuit that invested the most money in net terms compared to the previous year: LaLiga de España, although the teams that spent the most were not the usual suspects. On the contrary, they were Atletico Madrid and Villarreal.
Why did clubs splurge more last year, when we still didn’t have the end of the pandemic on the horizon? (If there is something detested by clubs, it is uncertainty, rather than declines in income. And this is because the former makes planning impossible, while the latter can at least be mitigated).
This could be due to various tentative reasons. One of them is that, although the losses occurred before the opening of the 2020 transfer market, they really affected the accounting before the 2020-21 campaign. Before that, many clubs dismissed their transfer plans, made promises to coaches and allocated budgets to reinforce their squads. True: the responsible clubs should have planned with the future in mind; however, some teams have a different attitude towards risk, and do not behave in a way that we would qualify as “responsible”.
Another reason is that some clubs with money available (usually thanks to wealthy owners) decided to double their bet to take advantage of a market that they believed was depressed. We saw it last summer, with teams like Chelsea, Manchester City and Inter Milan. On the contrary, this summer we have seen how two traditional wasteful investors, such as Barcelona and Inter, were forced to reduce their expenses strongly.
It is probable that the suspension of the Financial Fair Play regulations (which will return, although we do not know in what way) was also a factor that had an impact on this situation. We do not know what UEFA’s position will be like, but it is difficult to justify taking a hard line against those clubs that were willing to inject money into the system, especially at a time when the football industry projects revenue declines in the order of the € 8 billion over the next two years. Therefore, we can imagine that clubs with wealthy benefactors (Manchester City, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain) are betting that they will not be punished for their excesses during an unfavorable economic situation.
We also have the simple fact that multiple clubs understandably chose to take a conservative attitude when it comes to player renewals. An unprecedented number of top-tier footballers were about to enter the final year of their respective contracts during the summer season, which naturally lowered the value of their transfers. Many stayed on their teams while others moved; although it is valid to assume that, for example, if Real Madrid had renewed Raphael Varane, his transfer would have cost United much more than the € 40 million (plus bonuses) paid for his services.
Another way of looking at the situation is the number of expensive transfers produced in this market. In the two summer windows hit by the pandemic so far, we saw four players switch clubs for passes in excess of € 80 million: Kai Havertz and Romelu Lukaku to Chelsea, Jack Grealish to Manchester City and Jadon Sancho to United. (Note: two clubs with wealthy benefactors and one with perpetually inexhaustible budgets.) In the summer of 2019 alone, the number of players with passes of that level was double that seen in the following two years: eight.
The figures are repeated in other price categories. How many players changed clubs for passes over € 40 million? 9 this summer and 15 in the previous summer season. In 2019 there were a total of 24 footballers. Players with passes over € 30 million? Again: 44 in the previous two seasons and a staggering 43 in 2019 alone.
The fact that this downward trend is more acute among expensive players (despite the few wealthy clubs that can squander money without much trouble) compared to net spending figures, also suggests to us that perhaps clubs have started to hit the ground running. Realize that, excluding the highest category of footballers, it is simply not worth spending (say) € 50 million, when you can invest € 25 million in another player capable of doing the job with the same creditworthiness.
Obviously, we can all agree that a decline has occurred, although the way it manifests itself varies from club to club and situation to situation. And one of the side effects, as I mentioned in a previous column, could be that even the biggest soccer stars didn’t get away with it as easily as they used to.
Messi wanted to stay at Barcelona. On the contrary, he ended up signing for PSG (assuming a salary cut). Kane wanted to go to Manchester City, but had to stay with Tottenham. Perhaps Cristiano was able to orchestrate his move from Juventus to Manchester United, but he was also forced to collect a lower salary. Gianluigi Donnarumma wanted to play for Juventus or stay at Milan, but ended up hired by PSG as a substitute goalkeeper for Keylor Navas, with only a slight salary increase compared to what was offered by the club. Rossonero.
Perhaps some clubs were in denial phase last summer, and in this they only began to realize the seriousness of the situation. Perhaps they have learned that the concept of “player power” has been a bit overestimated. Perhaps, instead of obsessing over a specific objective footballer, they have become a little more astute; realizing that there are often more affordable alternatives out there.
Will the spending craze return next summer? Probably yes, or maybe a little later. But perhaps some valuable lessons were learned along the way.