The Premier League is flush with cash thanks to TV deals but, as Arsene Wenger and Antonio Conte have pointed out, its teams are paying huge sums of money for average players.
In May 2014, Antonio Conte dismissed Juventus’ chances of replicating their domestic success in continental competition, claiming that the Italian champions were not on the same financial footing as Europe’s elite. “You cannot go to a €100 restaurant with just €10 in your pocket,” he sniped. Less than two months later, he parted company with the Old Lady by “mutual consent”, having been left frustrated by his employers’ transfer strategy.
Two years on, Conte is now back in the club game after a successful spell in charge of Italy and is working for a club bankrolled by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. However, the former Bianconeri boss has quickly discovered that more money sometimes means more problems.
Conte has been backed in the transfer market, with Michy Bashuayi and N’Golo Kante having arrived from Marseille and Leicester City, respectively, at a combined cost of €74.8 million (£64.5m). However, the ex-Italy international had intended to sign more than two players capable of going straight into his starting line-up. The problem is the market and its incredibly inflated transfer fees.
“It’s possible to be asked for £55m (€63.9m) for a player of medium quality,” the Chelsea manager, who has been chasing Romelu Lukaku, Kalidou Koulibaly and Alessandro Romagnoli, lamented last week. “It’s incredible!
“For this reason, I said it’s a crazy, crazy market. It’s very difficult to do anything in the market with these prices and these conditions.”
Few will have much sympathy for the plight of the man at the helm of the ninth-placed club in Deloitte’s 2014-15 ‘Money League’. After all, English clubs are benefiting enormously from the sale of overseas TV rights but there is a downside; everyone knows this. Their European rivals are well aware of just how much money the Premier League teams have to spend. As a result, they are demanding more money for what Conte called “medium-quality” players.
As Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger pointed out: “Today, in Europe, you have two markets. One for the English clubs and one for the rest of Europe.
“When the buyer is English, it is true that it multiplies the transfer by two or three – or sometimes by 10.
“If an English club does not come in, he is worth £5m (€5.8m) but, if an English club comes for the same player, he is worth £35m (€40.6m) or £40m (€46.4m) or £50m (€58m).”
Wenger is speaking from very recent experience, with the Frenchman having initially been hopeful of signing Shkodran Mustafi from Valencia for £20m (€23.2m) only for the sellers to more than double the asking price to a reported £50m (€58m).
Agreeing to pay such extortionate fees would be reckless but, as Wenger knows only too well, the fans want new players – not excuses. “Buying calms the fans down,” he mused.
However, while Wenger has undeniably been guilty of damaging parsimony, no manager wants to splash the cash just for the sake of it. For example, it’s clear that Liverpool have defensive deficiencies but manager Jurgen Klopp is steadfastly hesitant to push the panic button in spite of widespread unrest among the Anfield faithful and heavy criticism from the media after Saturday’s dismal defeat at Burnley. The German is taking a rather novel stand of championing coaching over the chequebook.
“I really wait for the day when finally the transfer window closes because I can’t believe how obsessed you all are with it,” the former Borussia Dortmund coach told the media on Monday. “You don’t believe for a second in things like improvement on the training pitch.”
Unfortunately, a lot of Premier League clubs presently have more money than sense. John Stones had a dreadful season at Everton last season. He was such a liability that, at Euro 2016, he couldn’t even get into one of the weakest England defences ever seen at international level. However, this summer, Manchester City paid £47.5m (€55.1m) for his services.
Of course, if as shrewd a judge of potential as Pep Guardiola requests a player, a club with the means is going to get him – whatever the cost. This is nothing new for City. This, after all, is the same club that paid £42m (€48.8m) for Eliaquim Mangala. They are in a rather rare and enviable position of being able to afford to make mistakes, however expensive.
Money is no object for the likes of Man City and Chelsea (at least until their billionaire benefactors bail on them). Other Premier League clubs are not yet so immune to such costly errors of judgment – and yet Crystal Palace have just paid £27m (€31.3m) for Liverpool flop Christian Benteke after receiving £25m (€29.2m) from Everton for the distinctly average Yannick Bolasie. It seems as if nobody has learned anything from Leeds United’s shocking fall from Champions League contenders to Championship also-rans in just one decade of gross financial mismanagement.
The belief is that the Premier League bubble will never burst. The high-paced English game is both exciting and exhilarating; as a result, it has never been more popular overseas. However, it is naive to think that the current business model is sustainable, at least for the smaller sides without sugar daddies behind them.
“The danger of the English situation is that the English clubs can suffocate themselves in the long term,” Wenger warns. “Why? Because they buy players at a very high price. That means there are very high wages linked with it and, if they are wrong, they will have these players with high wages who cannot move anywhere else.”
Mario Balotelli is a perfect case in point. Liverpool desperately want rid of the Italian striker, who is earning £110,000 (€128,000) per week while training with the club’s reserves, yet can find neither a buyer nor a club willing to take him on loan. But then, the Reds only have themselves to blame. Balotelli is merely the most damning indictment of Liverpool’s feckless and muddled recruitment strategy since the turn of the decade; a panic buy that former manager Brendan Rodgers had serious doubts about.
Only the Manchester clubs have a greater net spend than the Merseysiders over the past five years, yet they won’t even be competing in the Europa League this season after finishing eighth in last season’s Premier League.
The Reds’ underwhelming results (2013-14 aside) prove that England’s biggest clubs are not turning their obvious off-field advantages into on-field success. This has been borne out in European competition. Between 2005 and 2012, England produced three Champions League winners and five other finalists. Not one Premier League side has made the tournament decider since.