If the swap between Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alexis Sanchez appeared as a reactive move to get something in return for a player leaving for free, Arsenal were back on the transfer window offensive in signing striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund for $80 million a week later. With Alexandre Lacazette, signed last summer for under $60 million, still in the fold, the club now have a surplus of two high priced players at the same position. We can analyze if Arsenal improved in swapping Sanchez and Giroud for Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang, and what formation will bring out the best in their new attackers, but that may be missing the point. As seen with Mesut Ozil re-signing with the club soon after, the perception that spending money produces tangible results that have little to do with getting three points on the field.
Premier League clubs spent $611 million this winter window, almost doubling the previous winter record set just last year. Any last vestige of shock over exuberant prices were erased after the $75 million fee Liverpool paid for Virgil van Dijk. A price range usually reserved for strikers and playmakers, the signing signified that the transfer faucet was turned on for any player at any position. Jose Mourinho spoke of how high player fees have gotten just in the past three years. While it is difficult to find financial sympathy for Manchester United, Manchester City spending over $80 million for defender Aymeric Laporte as a depth signing shows how one evaluates their place within a market not in terms of absolutes but in comparison to rivals.
But spending in the mid-eight figures for a player is the new table stakes for a reason: 14 out of the 30 clubs with the highest revenue last year came from the Premier League. The league has made two billion more dollars collectively than the next highest grossing league, with a television deal doubling the Bundesliga in second place. Another study showed Manchester City and Arsenal as the two clubs with the most assets in world football, with Tottenham finishing above Real Madrid. The on-field impact of trading Sanchez and Giroud for and Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan may be a wash, but Arsenal’s moves added to the perception of a league where big money moves happen.
The financial dominance extends past the top four. Perhaps the biggest and most telling statistic is how sides like Leicester City, Southampton and Everton appear alongside traditional European powers in Internazionale and Atletico Madrid. And those global expectations have a significant influence in how a side is built, with Everton an example of what could go wrong when a manager and a club spend money as quickly as it comes in.
Former Everton manager Ronald Koeman moved from Southampton 2016, praised for his development of young players within a cohesive, overachieving side. With Yannick Bolasie and Morgan Schneiderlin his two biggest signings, Koeman spent $109 million total in both windows in finishing in seventh place. With momentum in place heading into this season, Koeman then broke club transfer records in signing Gylfi Sigurdsson, Michael Keane, Jordan Pickford and Davy Klaesson for over $120 million alone. Unable to meet rising expectations, Koeman was gone three months into the season. Building a side over years through improvement and development is one metric to measure a coach’s ability, but building an effective side through on the fly with big money transfers appears more relevant in this current age.
Interestingly, it was Chelsea who had the head scratching winter window. We would have traditionally expected Antonio Conte’s side to go toe to toe in spending for top players. Instead, they were linked with Andy Carroll before signing Olivier Giroud. And while Giroud and Ross Barkley fill needs within Conte’s lineup, they hardly moved the needle in terms of transfer fee or name recognition. It may be a byproduct of specific, undervalued skills needed to fill a 3-4-3 formation. Then again, Conte is also rumored to be fired before the end of the season. The thin line between madness and genius is exasperated as the stakes, and transfer fees, increase.
There is a maxim that constraints power creativity. We can apply this to how teams and lineups across the world are shaped and developed with and without financial might. After all, buying Neymar for $263 to fill a void in attack is pure fantasy for those clubs outside of the elite. Back in the real world, most sides will build an effective attack through a combination of player development, coaching tactics and playing style.
After the Premier League, La Liga sides were second in spending this winter window with some $345 million changing hands (the Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 combined to only spend $191 million). But more reflective of the distance between the two leagues is the Spanish football players union protesting a move that allowed Saudi Arabia to loan nine players across the first and second division as part of a multi-year partnership between the two country’s football organizations. The reaction serves as another example of the never-ending sequence of short-term La Liga fixes, as Colin McGowan outlined. If mid-table clubs in the Premier League appear on top 20 lists for yearly revenue, any sweeping La Liga policies only appear to reinforce the dominance of the top clubs.
But the fight for survival amongst mid-table and bottom tier clubs reinforces a specific style of team building centered around player development. There are no short-term fixes in terms, no Sigurdsson-esque signings for eight figures (Coutinho and Diego Costa combined for half of the $345 million spent by La Liga clubs this winter). Real Madrid didn’t sign or sell any players in the window. Valencia and Villarreal, battling for a Champions League position, combined to spend $31 million across two players.
Former Sevilla sporting director Monchi once observed that while Spanish and English clubs have the same data, the financial wealth of English sides allows them to take less risks in signing proven players instead of potential. But it would have been difficult for even he to imagine the a world of defenders switching clubs for $80 million, where the attention isn’t so much how a Premier League side is put together, but just that it is put together with names and fees to match. Current Brighton and Hove winger Liam Rosenior implores us to focus back on the basics of team building. But that seems futile for now. It was something that Arsene Wenger intuited in saying that “something is not right” in this new landscape. With every record breaking transfer window, clubs are winning or losing without a match even being played.