The transfer market doesn’t always repay spending sprees with success

CHELSEA’s latest spending spree has taken them to £ 3 billion since the Premier League started, an open wallet strategy that has confused a lot of people by its kid in a sweet shop approach. The club has generated a net spend of £ 483.6 million, an enormous commitment on the part of Chelsea’s new owners. In total, 22 players have arrived at Stamford Bridge.

It remains to be seen if Chelsea’s bold attempt at rebirth pays off. A mass influx of players doesn’t necessarily work, certainly not in the short term as the management try to work out their best team and the appropriate tactics for a sizeable group of new players. They also need the right manager/coach, and one has to assume that Todd Boehly has decided Graham Potter is the man to take them forward. But with such a big squad now fighting over dressing room pegs, it will take time to blend the talent at his disposal.

It’s not the first time Chelsea have been on a bulk-buying programme, when Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003, they spent £ 121 million on 14 players, some of which – like Juan Sebastián Verón and Adrian Mutu – were clearly bad buys. Over the course of the last 19 years, Chelsea have had to endure some misjudged acquisitions, such as Andriy Shevchenko, Deco, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Mateja Kežman, Romelu Lukaku, Timo Werner and even Fernando Torres. The difference between Chelsea and many of their rivals is that they have been able to afford the odd mistake.

Clubs have always been accused of being spendthrifts. In the 1920s and 1930s, Arsenal were known as the “Bank of England” club as they repeatedly bought big, notably when they signed David Jack (£10,647 from Bolton), Alex James (£8,750 Preston) and Bryn Jones (£14,000 Wolves). Arsenal could indulge themselves in the market in those days because, quite simply, they were very successful. In 1930, Chelsea tried to combat the Gunners and went on a campaign of hiring big names to draw big attendances to Stamford Bridge, and they signed Hughie Gallacher, Alex Jackson and Alec Cheyne, three crowd-pullers. Despite the £ 25,000 paid out, it didn’t make Chelsea successful.

In the early 1950s, Sunderland also earned themselves the tag of big spenders. They signed the charismatic Len Shackleton in 1948 for a record £ 20,050 from Newcastle United and in 1950, paid £ 30,000 for Aston Villa’s Trevor Ford. By today’s standards, such extravagance is small beer, but in austerity Britain, paying such fees was seen as somewhat outlandish. Sunderland scored plenty of goals – Ford and Shackleton netted 22 apiece in 1951-52, but they never won silverware.

Some of the most successful sides have not been created overnight but as the result of patient team-building. But, generally, a team was put together over a two or three year period, Leeds United’s 1969 league title winning side was mostly built in 1962 and 1963 as Don Revie introduced home-grown talent to his team. Derby County’s 1972 champions came together between 1967 and 1970 and triumphant Nottingham Forest in 1978 were constructed in their first season in the first division after promotion with the signing of Peter Shilton, Kenny Burns, Archie Gemmill and David Needham.

In 1979, Manchester City went on a bold and some might say foolhardy spree with Malcolm Allison back at the club for his second spell in charge. Allison may have been an innovative coach, but his best days were behind him when he returned to Maine Road. A larger-than-life figure, accessorised with big cigars, Champagne and expensive clothing, Allison seemed to believe that splashing the cash was also part of the act. He paid an incredible £ 750,000 for an unknown 21 year-old striker, Michael Robinson of Preston North End. He had earlier bought Steve Mackenzie, a 17 year-old midfielder from Crystal Palace for £ 250,000, a player who had yet to make his Football League debut. In September 1979, City paid £ 1.4 million for Wolves’ Steve Daley, a disastrous move that underlined the extravagance of Allison’s team building (pictured). Another £ 1 million signing arrived in March 1980 in Kevin Reeves.

While this extraordinary period looks tame compared to the behaviour of clubs today, it was bound to end in tears. City in recent years have had periods of high spending, such as 2017-18 when they bought £ 267 million of players, recouping £ 68 million in the market, and £ 143 million in 2020-21.

Liverpool were never renowned for over-spending and had a reputation for seeking undiscovered talent in the lower divisions – players like Kevin Keegan, Ray Clemence and Alec Lindsay, all of whom came from small clubs and ended up winning caps for England. But in 1987-88, Liverpool threw caution to the wind and signed two of the most sought after players in British football, John Barnes and Peter Beardsey, for a combined amount approaching £ 3 million. They had already spent over £ 1 million earlier in 1987 on John Aldridge and Nigel Spackman and also added £ 825,000 Ray Houghton to their squad. Liverpool built a new team that was exciting, virtually unbeatable, but ultimately, expensive. If it was a spree, it yielded immediate profits.

Manchester United went on a campaign of rebuilding in 1989-90 with mixed results, buying Mike Phelan, Neil Webb, Gary Pallister, Paul Ince, Danny Wallace and Denis Irwin for a combined amount of almost £ 9 million. United won the FA Cup, but were way down the table and didn’t win the first of many league titles in the 1990s until 1993.

In more recent times, Tottenham spent heavily following the departure of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for £ 85 million, buying seven players who were largely unsuccessful. Aside from Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela, the other players barely made 200 Premier appearances between them.

Everton also failed to make the best of their outlay between 2016 and 2018 when they paid out around £ 240 million, receiving £ 165 million in sales. Some players fared well, such as goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who was signed for £ 25 million from Sunderland, and Burnley’s Michael Keane, who also cost £ 25 million, but others, such as Davy Klaassen from Ajax and Turkish striker Cenk Tosun, had mixed experiences.

In the modern game, clubs have specialist recruitment staff and for most, players are signed after careful assessment, with data playing a huge part in the process. This also raises questions about mass buying and the vast sums involved. It would seem far easier to make mistakes amid so much player traffic. History tells us that spending sprees have pitfalls, so how much risk are Chelsea taking on at the moment?

US$ 50 billion spent in a decade – the transfer market may have peaked

FIFA has published a review of the global transfer market over the 10-year period between 2011 and 2020, revealing that US$ 48.5 billion was spent on transfer fees over the course of that particular decade. 

In a week in which the biggest transfer news has involved a 36 year-old moving from one elite club to another, there’s a reminder that only 0.9% of all transfers involving fees in 10 years have included players over 35 years of age. Some 35% of fees are actually spent on players half the age of Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

There were 133,000 transfers over the 10-year timeframe, with 15,128 involving Brazilian players and almost 7,500 linked to Argentinians. A total of US$ 7.1 billion was spent on Brazilian players. The highest numbers outside of Europe and South America are the 3,793 from Nigeria and 2,848 from Ghana. 

The biggest individual fees have been the deals for Neymar, Eden Hazard, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele. Barcelona, one of the biggest spenders, were involved in three of those transactions. 

FIFA name Manchester City as the top spender with 130 incoming players, Chelsea come in second with 95. According to Transfermarkt, City spent £ 1.38 billion between 2010-11 and 2019-20, one of seven clubs to spend over a billion. 

The top 30 transactions have involved Europe’s biggest clubs, led by Barcelona and Manchester United, who have been instrumental in six apiece, either as buyer or seller.

Given the number of players transferred from Brazil, it is no surprise the biggest trade route is Brazil to Portugal, which has included 1,556 transfers. Portuguese clubs have long been experts at player trading and the Lisbon duo, Benfica and Sporting, led the way in transfer income over the 10 years. Furthermore, Porto are not far behind. These three clubs, along with Ajax Amsterdam, were the top clubs when it comes to generating a positive net balance from transfer activity. Benfica, Sporting and Porto were also among the top clubs in the lending market, along with Manchester City and Chelsea. 

England, predictably, was the biggest spender in FIFA’s report, a total of US$ 12.4 billion, which is almost double Spain’s US$ 6.7 billion and nearly treble Germany’s US$ 4.4 billion. Consider that in 2011, England’s total spend was US$ 0.52 billion, while in 2020 it was US$ 1.63 billion, a growth rate of 313%. Although the figures are substantially lower elsewhere, Germany and France have seen their expenditure go up by more than 300%.

England had the highest negative result from transfer income and expenditure, some US$ 7.3 billion. The country with the biggest positive was Portugal at US$ 2.9 billion, followed by Brazil (US$ 2 billion) and Netherlands (US$ 1.3 billion). 

Unsurprisingly, England paid more out in intermediary commission than any other country. Almost a billion dollars was spent on total agent fees, an astonishing figure. Italy paid US$ 762 million and Germany US$ 375 million. 

Considerable time is devoted to players and their contracts but the number of expired contracts that prompt a transfer, at 39%, seems rather high. Conversely, only 44% of transfers have sell-on fees included, which is perhaps low given almost 35% of transfers involve very young players that could go on to greater things.

The signs are the pandemic has acted as a break on the transfer market. In 2020, transfer fees declined by around 25% to US$ 5.63 billion. With the economic impact likely to continue for the next season, the transfer market may be less vibrant than it has been over the past decade. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, the clubs that rely on player trading will almost certainly feel the squeeze. At some point, the market will peak, it might just be now.