The bare facts are astounding. Across January — a difficult market, we are often told — Premier League clubs committed to paying a combined total of £815million in transfer fees.
They didn’t just surpass the equivalent figure for last season. According to Deloitte, they almost tripled it. Chelsea alone spent more than £280million ($346.5m), including the British record £106m signing of Enzo Fernandez from Benfica in the final moments before Tuesday’s deadline. Four of the bottom five clubs, desperate to avoid relegation, spent a combined total of £175m on reinforcements. Everton fans will not need to be told who was the odd one out.
Early in the January window, it became clear that the Premier League clubs were going to spend more between them than all the rest of the ‘big five’ leagues (La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, Ligue 1) combined. As it transpired, the combined January transfer expenditure for those four leagues (£220million) was less than Chelsea’s spending alone. There is, after all, an economic crisis looming — not that you would know it, looking at the Premier League.
Stories of the Premier League’s extravagance are nothing new. Over the past decade, its clubs have spent at a rate far beyond its purported competitors. The latest Deloitte Football Money League had six English clubs in the top 10 and no fewer than 15 among the top 26. It has led to a situation where, for example, West Ham United generate more revenue than AC Milan and where Brighton & Hove Albion, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Crystal Palace have a higher income than Sevilla, Napoli and four-time European champions Ajax.
But the past two transfer windows have seen something new entirely: English clubs spending more wildly than ever before at a time when clubs across Europe, with very few exceptions, are feeling the pinch.
There was no shortage of jaw-dropping deals in January. Take your pick from Chelsea’s acquisitions of Fernandez (who had made just 29 appearances for Benfica since they paid €14million to sign him from River Plate last summer) or Mykhailo Mudryk; Newcastle United’s £45m capture of Anthony Gordon from Everton; Leeds United and Southampton breaking their transfer records to sign Georginio Rutter and Kamaldeen Sulemana from Hoffenheim and Rennes; Bournemouth’s £20m deal for Dynamo Kyiv defender Illia Zabarnyi; or three-time Champions League-winning goalkeeper Keylor Navas joining Nottingham Forest on loan.
The Athletic wanted to find out how the Premier League’s unprecedented spending is viewed elsewhere, so we sought the opinion of executives at top-flight clubs in France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. We wanted to know how it feels for other clubs in other leagues, whether English clubs’ interest in their players is something to aspire to or something to dread. We wanted to know whether they admire the Premier League’s success or resent it … and whether they are worried about the future of European football.
How the Premier League ‘flexed its muscle’ with record £815m January transfer spend
Germany: ‘Our clubs will end up just developing players for England‘
Ilja Kaenzig is worried. Very worried. The Bochum chief executive has worked in football for three decades, in Germany, Switzerland and France, and has seen periods with Serie A, La Liga and now the Premier League in the ascendancy. Those cycles suggest European football’s balance of power might continue to shift, but Kaenzig feels otherwise. With European football’s financial structures ensuring that the rich stay rich, the Premier League’s dominance appears entrenched.
Kaenzig was happy and proud last summer to negotiate the biggest transfer in Bochum’s history, with defender Armel Bella-Kotchap joining Southampton for an initial €10million (£8.9m; $11m) fee. But the deal worried him because of what it signified: another of Germany’s best talents leaving the Bundesliga at a young age for a sum that will be dwarfed if the defender fulfils his potential and is sold to a bigger Premier League club.
“It was a very good deal for a club like Bochum,” Kaenzig says. “We had many clubs interested in Bella-Kotchap — even pre-COVID, AC Milan were interested — but Rasmus Andersen (Southampton’s director of football) came in and led the negotiation himself. Their interest was initially based on data, especially his one-on-one defending, where he is extraordinary. They said they would pay a premium to get him now because once other clubs had analysed the data and seen him play, they knew his value would go up.
“The Premier League clubs have the money to be able to do this. They can see a player’s potential and take this kind of risk. If it goes well — and with Bella-Kotchap, I think it will — they will sell him on for a lot of money. It’s similar with Kevin Schade moving from Freiburg to Brentford (on an initial loan with a view to a permanent transfer). He hasn’t had much playing time at Freiburg, but Brentford value him at more than €20million. Why did no German club make bids for Bella-Kotchap and Schade? Because most German clubs can’t make the same size of investment in potential.”
In theory, the money flowing into the German market should make their league stronger. But it is not a virtuous circle. Very few Bundesliga clubs have the financial resources to replace like for like. Bochum’s immediate priority after selling Bella-Kotchap was to invest in infrastructure: new facilities at their training ground, new video screens and LED perimeter advertising boards at the stadium. Their summer outlay was largely free transfers and loans.
According to Transfermarkt, the total spending by Bundesliga clubs this season is €550million, which is €40m less than they received in transfer fees. And €250m of the spending was by two clubs: Bayern and Dortmund. Only three others (RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen and Hoffenheim) have spent more than €10m on a player. To put that in context, Bournemouth did so twice in the summer and three times in January.
“More and more, it looks like German clubs will be reduced to developing players to be sold to the Premier League,” Kaenzig says. “It applies to clubs like Bochum with Bella-Kotchap and Vitaly Janelt (whom they sold to Brentford in 2020), but even to top clubs like Dortmund with Jude Bellingham, Jadon Sancho and Erling Haaland.
“The best talents leave earlier and earlier. This is the new reality for clubs in Germany and other leagues, so you have to change your way of thinking. If a Premier League team wants your player, you either have to monetise or you can lose your asset for nothing (when his contract expires).”
Among many fans in England, there is admiration for the Bundesliga’s ’50+1′ model, whereby clubs are majority-owned by their members. As stated on the Bundesliga website, “the ruling simultaneously protects against reckless owners and safeguards the democratic customs of German clubs”.
Kaenzig believes strongly in the principle of 50+1, of “football as the people’s game rather than just another branch of the entertainment industry”. But he worries that German football will be, or has already been, left behind by the Premier League’s free-market approach.
He feels the Bundesliga needs to consider accepting private equity investment in order to attract and retain talent and grow in the longer term. But even if that investment comes, he says, “the top clubs will want to use that money to compete with the biggest clubs in the Premier League, which will just create a further imbalance in the Bundesliga. The clubs who play in European competition will pull away even further. No more competitive balance, no more fantasy, no more hope. It will be a closed shop.”
In some respects, it already feels like that. Bayern have won 10 Bundesliga titles in a row, even if they face an unexpected challenge this season from Union Berlin. Similar monopolies or duopolies exist in other leagues. The Premier League is held up as a beacon of wild unpredictability, but six clubs have dominated the top six positions for the past decade. Not until a takeover by a Saudi-led consortium could Newcastle United contemplate a change in their fortunes.
Despite Bayern’s dominance, attendances in the Bundesliga are still the highest in Europe (an average of 42,560 this season, eight per cent higher than the Premier League’s 39,315). But the English game’s global appeal is far greater, generating huge commercial and broadcast revenue, and there is much more emphasis on transfer spending — facilitated by external investment if necessary.
Kaenzig sees an unappealing paradox in American investors revelling in the unconstrained, free-market liberalism of English football. “Back home in America, their sport is heavily regulated, but in Europe, they can create multi-club structures, which are dangerous,” he says. “Why should a traditional, historic club in France or Belgium exist just to develop talent for a club in the Premier League? This is very hard to accept. You need American-style regulation to stop these investors — many of them American — from doing whatever they want.
Every 2022-23 January transfer completed by Premier League clubs
“In Germany, there’s a discussion we’re all running away from. I don’t want to accept that we can’t close the gap to the Premier League. But maybe German football has to turn in a different direction and say, ‘Our football is different. We don’t have so much money, but we will keep ticket prices low and we won’t move kick-off times for China’.
“Some fans will prefer to watch the Premier League. Another part will still prefer to watch football as we knew it in the past: the people’s game, more traditional, more real. But the strength of the Premier League makes it hard for everyone else.”
Netherlands: ‘The Premier League is a different planet’
Dennis te Kloese has an awkward feeling when an unfamiliar UK number flashes up on his phone while he’s watching Feyenoord’s under-17s take on AZ Alkmaar.
“If it’s +44, I’m usually thinking I’m not going to pick this up until the transfer window is closed,” the Feyenoord president says. “Maybe in the summer.”
Feyenoord are riding high at the top of the Eredivisie. There was tentative Premier League interest in some of the club’s exciting young players in January, but it was not encouraged. Te Kloese and head coach Arne Slot want to keep this squad together in pursuit of a second league title since the turn of the century.
“We sold five players last summer,” Te Kloese says. “Three to the Premier League (Marcos Senesi to Bournemouth for €15m, Tyrell Malacia to Manchester United for €15m and Luis Sinisterra to Leeds United for €25m), one to Portugal (Fredrik Aursnes to Benfica for €13m) and one to Japan (Bryan Linssen to Urawa Reds for €1.3m). It was a very successful transfer period, but you don’t want to be doing that in every transfer window.”
There is a sense of pride at Feyenoord in the development of Malacia, who joined the club’s academy aged nine, made his first-team debut at 18 and became a full Netherlands international at 22 before moving to United. But Te Kloese takes similar satisfaction in Feyenoord’s work with Senesi and Sinisterra, both of whom they bought from South American clubs “for very small fees when they were very young”.
“After four years at our club they were ready for big sporting challenges,” he adds. “The Premier League is seen as a big step forward from any league in Europe. The main goal for many players is to get to the Premier League.”
But this is Feyenoord, one of the three giants of Dutch football, winners of three European trophies, whose average home league attendance this season (47,500) is higher than all but seven clubs in the Premier League. Is it not frustrating to be losing star players to, for example, Bournemouth (stadium capacity 11,379), who have spent most of their history in the lower divisions?
“At a big traditional club like Feyenoord, with a large fanbase and a lot of emotion, we have the obligation to achieve things,” Te Kloese says. “But it’s so hard to compete when an English club comes in and makes a big offer to the club and a big salary offer to the player.
“Some clubs in other leagues will find this hard to accept, but one of the big characteristics of Dutch football is that we develop young players. Typically they then move on to the bigger leagues. It’s part of the business model for many Dutch clubs.”
Increasingly, that means selling to the Premier League.
Until as recently as the summer of 2020, two of the three biggest exports in Eredivisie history had gone to Italian clubs (Matthijs de Ligt from Ajax to Juventus and Hirving Lozano from PSV Eindhoven to Napoli).
Two and a half years on, according to Transfermarkt, eight of the 11 biggest deals in Eredivisie history have involved sales to English clubs, a list topped by Ajax’s sale of Brazilian winger Antony to Manchester United in a projected €100million deal last summer.
As Ajax chief executive Edwin van Der Sar told The Athletic in November, “We challenged United to go far as possible. We would have liked to keep him here one year longer — there was not a dire need to sell him, we had money in the bank — but the fee got so high.”
It isn’t just about the very biggest deals. Of the nine players transferred from the Eredivisie for €15million or more this season, seven have ended up in the Premier League. As well as the three players leaving Feyenoord, that includes Lisandro Martinez joining Antony in making the move from Ajax to Manchester United and PSV’s Cody Gakpo and Noni Madueke moving to Liverpool and Chelsea.
The Chelsea situation intrigues Te Kloese. He enthuses about the potential of Madueke and young Ivory Coast forward David Datro Fofana, who has joined Chelsea from Norwegian club Molde, but he wonders how the London club intend to accommodate all the young talent they are accumulating. Feyenoord were looking at Fofana, believing the Eredivisie would be the natural next step in his development, only to be blown out of the water when Chelsea offered more than €10million for him.
“It’s amazing what happens in England at the moment,” Te Kloese says. “A lot of it is madness. There is no guarantee when you spend money. You always need to retain a good perspective on how to develop the players once you sign them. The scouting has to be top-notch, but so does everything around the team.”
Te Kloese is happy to praise Brighton, who signed Moises Caicedo from Ecuadorian club Independiente del Valle in a £4.5m deal in February 2021 and now, after just 26 appearances in the Premier League, have fielded — and rejected — a £70m offer from Arsenal.
For clubs across Europe, that is becoming an obsession: to find and develop a player who can be sold to the Premier League at a huge profit. Not to the exclusion of on-pitch success but, ultimately, to enhance it. All three of the leading Dutch clubs have lost important players to the Premier League over the past two transfer windows. So far, at least, Feyenoord have made the most impressive response.
As for the rest of the season, De Kloese has two hopes: first, that Feyenoord will win the Eredivisie title, and second that Senesi and Sinisterra will lead their new clubs to survival in the Premier League. “I’m a big fan of Bournemouth and Leeds right now,” he says. “If they stay up, we will get some bonuses.”
Those payments will seem like a drop in the ocean to Bournemouth and Leeds if they stay up, guaranteeing another £100m next season in television revenue alone, but Feyenoord’s most recent accounts (for the 2020-21 season) revealed just €14m in broadcast revenue from the Eredivisie and the Europa League.
“The difference is astonishing,” Te Kloese says. “The TV income in England is a whole different planet to what we’re used to here. But rather than complain, we have to find the opportunity. We have to focus on what we can do for our own club.”
Spain: ‘In England, the regulations are too soft’
At Real Betis, they were happy to grant Alex Moreno his wish. The 29-year-old left-back had performed well during his three and a half years in Seville and now he had a big contract offer from Aston Villa, so the Spanish club felt they could not stand in his way.
“The price was not so high, but it was fair,” Betis chief executive Ramon Alarcon says of the €15million transfer. “It’s a good deal for him, a good deal for us and a good deal for Aston Villa.”
Betis were also happy with their other bit of Anglo-Spanish business in January, signing Ayoze Perez on loan from Leicester City, returning to La Liga eight and a half years after he left Tenerife for Newcastle United.
Away from his club’s own business, though, Alarcon sees reasons for concern. “There are two different worlds now in European football,” he says. “Here in Spain, we have rules and a lot of restrictions on salaries but in England, a lot of clubs are spending huge amounts of money, even if that means making a big loss. It’s very difficult for the rest of Europe to compete.”
The same message came, far more volubly, from La Liga president Javier Tebas. In a statement on Twitter on Tuesday, Tebas said: “We read ‘the strength’ of the Premier League, but it is a competition based on millionaire losses of the clubs (their ordinary income is not enough for them). Most of the clubs are financially doped.”
The obvious answer is that English clubs have more money because their broadcast deals, in particular, are far bigger than La Liga’s — and that the Premier League has its own profit and sustainability regulations, which have certainly restricted Everton in the past few transfer windows, even if they did not stop them running up such huge losses in the first place.
“The Premier League has more TV money, more income from tickets and commercial revenue, but a lot of the clubs are making losses,” Alarcon says. COVID-19 had a big impact on every club in Europe but since the pandemic, it looks like the Premier League clubs are in a crazy race to spend money.
“In Spain, the clubs are limited companies. If you can get more money from tickets and TV rights, then you have the ability to spend it. But you shouldn’t spend money just because someone arrives from outside and starts putting money into the club. That isn’t sustainable.”
Real Madrid are still European football’s apex predators, as seen by their success in beating Liverpool to Aurelien Tchouaemeni and other leading clubs to the signing of Brazilian youngster Endrick, who will join them from Palmeiras in the summer of 2024. But Real president Florentino Perez claims his club are unfairly constrained by La Liga and ill-served by the UEFA competition format, hence his ongoing pursuit of a European Super League.
As for the talk of losses, Barcelona are still recovering from the financial excesses of Josep Maria Bartomeu’s presidency, which left them severely constrained last season in particular after falling foul of La Liga’s financial regulations. The regulations that saved Barcelona from falling further into debt remain a cause of consternation for a club which, like Real, has designs on a European Super League.
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Whatever the Super League debate, Alarcon believes the same regulations should be across Europe. “Maybe in Spain, they’re too hard but in England, they are too soft,” he says. “We have to look for a middle ground.”
Some clever recruitment has helped Betis achieve three top-six finishes in La Liga in the past five seasons, but it is getting harder. “If a Premier League wants the same player, they can offer the player twice as much money,” Alarcon says. “Even the 15th or 16th team in the Premier League has more financial possibilities than the fourth or fifth team in La Liga.”
Alarcon is not alone in highlighting the financial strength of “a club like Bournemouth” in signing Zabarnyi, “one of the best defenders in Europe”, in a £20million deal that would be beyond the reach of most clubs in La Liga.
Watching from afar, though, what really frustrates Alarcon about English football is the way big-money signings, players coveted elsewhere in Europe, can be cast aside so quickly after a slow start or a change of coach — for example, Giovanni Lo Celso, who left Betis for Tottenham amid great fanfare in 2019 but, having fallen out of favour with Jose Mourinho and then Antonio Conte, now finds himself in a second spell on loan at Villarreal. Bryan Gil, who recently rejoined Betis’ local rivals Sevilla on loan, and Tanguy Ndombele, on loan at Napoli, fall into a similar category.
“Lo Celso is an amazing player with great physical and technical qualities and he would have been in Argentina’s World Cup-winning squad if he hadn’t been injured,” Alarcon says. “But sometimes clubs sign a very good young player and they don’t have the patience to develop him.
“At the same time as Lo Celso joined Tottenham, we signed a player, Borja Iglesias, from Espanyol. The first 18 months he didn’t perform at a good level and people were asking, ‘Why? Why?’. But then he started to adapt and now he’s one of our best players. In England they are buying all these young talents, but it’s going to take time and patience for them to adapt to a different culture and a different football. So they are investing so much money in potential, but a lot of the clubs are expecting and needing results immediately. I find that difficult.”
France: ‘Stop complaining – start selling your own league better!’
“Maybe I’m the wrong person to ask,” Toulouse chairman Damien Comolli says. “I’m in love with English football.”
But it is good to get a different perspective, whether you agree with it or not. And Comolli believes the rest of European football needs to shut up and shape up rather than complain about the strength of the Premier League.
“There are two things I always say,” says the former Tottenham and Liverpool director of football. “The first is that the success of the Premier League is because England is the country where football is most ingrained into society. That brings an incredible passion and a big loyal fanbase at every club. Sunderland had 40,000 people at League One matches last season. You have to understand the passion in English football is unique.
“Second, if people in Germany or somewhere else are saying the Premier League is too powerful, what have they done to make their own league more powerful? You shouldn’t complain about other people being successful. Start sorting out your own football. Sell your own TV rights better! Start creating an international market for it, like the Premier League does.”
The story of this year’s extraordinary January transfer window…
Ligue 1 is growing, largely due to overseas investment — most notably Qatar Sports Investments at PSG but also through new owners at Nice, Marseille and most recently Lyon. There were a couple of notable “wins” for French clubs late in the January window; Terem Moffi, this season’s third-highest scorer in Ligue 1, joining Nice from Lorient despite interest from Southampton and West Ham, while Marseille beat Southampton to the signing of Braga forward Vitinha.
But these deals are a rarity. Of the 10 biggest sales by French clubs this season, according to Transfermarkt, only one (Amine Gouiri’s move from Nice to Rennes) involved a domestic transfer.
The biggest saw Tchouameni leave Monaco for Real Madrid in an €80million deal. The other eight players all moved to Premier League clubs: Lucas Paqueta (Lyon to West Ham), Benoit Badiashile (Monaco to Chelsea), Sven Botman (Lille to Newcastle), Nayef Aguerd (Rennes to West Ham), Malo Gusto (Lyon to Chelsea) Amadou Onana (Lille to Everton), Kamaldeen Sulemana (Rennes to Southampton) and Cheick Doucoure (Lens to Crystal Palace).
PSG can boast Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, Sergio Ramos, Marco Verratti and many other big stars, but for Ligue 1 clubs it has always been a battle to retain their best talent. Some of the most coveted talents move to the biggest clubs in Spain, Germany or Italy, but increasingly the French market is overrun by English clubs.
At Toulouse, who were promoted to Ligue 1 last summer, it is a scenario that arouses hope rather than dread. “The last player this club sold to the Premier League was Issa Diop to West Ham in 2018,” Comolli says. “We have sold players to Germany, Italy and Holland over the past few years. As we grow as a club, then our players will start to attract interest from Premier League clubs.
“For a club like Toulouse, which is trying to re-establish itself in Ligue 1, it doesn’t really matter whether the Premier League is powerful or not. Whether the Premier League is powerful, it doesn’t stop 26,000 Toulouse fans from coming to watch us play against Ajaccio on New Year’s Day. Attendances in Ligue 1 are at a record high.
“Arsene Wenger said 10 years ago that the Premier League would become a sort of ‘super league’ in its own way and I think he was right. It’s in a league of its own.”
Of those executives who spoke to The Athletic, there was a drastic difference of opinion between Comolli at Toulouse, an Anglophile working at a club owned by American investment firm RedBird Capital Partners, and Kaeznig at Bochum, a club that follows the traditional German member-owned structure.
Kaeznig feels the Premier League’s dominance of the transfer market is a glaring symptom of a chronic imbalance in European football, compounded by an erosion of identity at a local level as business interests take over. He feels only regulation can save the European league system from long-term decline — and that it should have happened years ago.
Comolli disagrees. “Is European football more boring than before? I don’t think so,” he says. “It’s super-exciting to watch the Champions League, the Premier League, Ligue 1… when people come to our games, they’re not thinking about the Premier League. They’re coming to support their team, the way they do in England.
“There has always been competition. There have always been big fish and smaller fish. At Toulouse, we know we’re near the bottom of the food chain, but we try, bit by bit, to get nearer the middle.”
But never, even in the heyday of Serie A in the 1980s and 1990s or La Liga in the 2000s and 2010s, has one league felt quite so dominant in terms of financial power (if not necessarily on-pitch performance in the Champions League and Europa League, as Alarcon points out). And never have the financial structures of European football been so overwhelmingly protective of the ruling elite.
For years, Premier League spending has been described in some quarters as unsustainable. But television revenue continues to grow and, with it, so does the financial divide. Perhaps the question is less whether it is sustainable for the Premier League and more whether it is sustainable for the game as a whole.
(Top photo: Georginio Rutter and Enzo Fernandez; Getty Images; design by Samuel Richardson)
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