So, how did the pandemic transfer window end up?

The window's slammed shut, but the money has still flowed in *some* places

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Mark Thompson

Oct 06 2020

5 mins read

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Welcome to Get Goalside! I’m glad to see you.

The transfer window. It is closed. Although in England it’s still kind of open for a little while longer for domestic moves (and as far as I know that could be the same elsewhere), so it’s sort of drafty. Which is probably good for air circulation.

I kid, but we should take a moment before we get into the millions spent on football players, to acknowledge how terrible the pandemic has been for so many. The 2020 summer window will surely be come to be known as a turning point for clubs, who either got the best out of a strange market or who kneecapped by it, but even within football it feels crass to speak of this as a moment of change of significance.

Lower down the football pyramid, clubs are struggling for their existence or have already been wound up. Many individuals have lost their health, jobs, or lives. It’s uncomfortable to talk about this, but it would be worse to talk about the pandemic’s impact on the 1% of football without acknowledging it.

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Figures correct as of Tuesday morning UK time.

At the very, very top of the footballing tree, this transfer window has, indeed, been a different one. Anecdotally, it feels like there’s been a lot more talk of loans between big clubs, a lot more discussion about deals being structured as ‘buy now, pay later’. And yet, the expected ‘pandemic pinch’ hasn’t seemed to be felt everywhere.

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All four of the non-Premier League ‘Big Five’ leagues have a league-wide net spend of close to zero, but the Premier League appears barely touched (Ligue 1, I presume, is splashing some of the cash they’ve built up from selling a lot of good talent in recent years).

Part of this lack of drop in Premier League net spend is probably the way teams have chosen to structure deals. For example, Liverpool reportedly only paid around ten percent of the fee up-front for Diogo Jota, but that still appears as a ~£40m outlay on transfermarkt.

However, if the lack of drop-off in Premier League net spend is largely a factor of deal structuring masking reality, it seems interesting that other leagues aren’t doing the same. Perhaps some in the Premier League are just more sure of their financial future.

Total spending in the Premier League has dropped (by transfermarkt figures),

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It’s just that nobody seems to want to buy — or the clubs are reluctant to sell — Premier League players. Apart from the 2018 summer window, this is the lowest amount that Premier League clubs will receive from transfers since 2013.

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It seems remarkable that a league that spends so much on transfers has been receiving so little, but I gave that chart the title I did for a reason. Arsenal’s struggle to shift — or really do anything — with Mesut Özil seems emblematic of a brief window of millstone-sized contracts. These players (and Özil certainly wasn’t the only one) were hard to sell previously, and are presumably much more so in a pandemic economy.

The next few years will see the impact of this play out, and it’s interesting to see how cycles change. On a club level, Tottenham Hotpsur have had to enter a high net-spend era, after close to a decade of keeping that figure low thanks to selling off big assets and mostly keeping expenditure at a similar level to transfer income.

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This visualisation type was originally seen in Get Goalside! just over a year ago when I wrote about 'the dangers of being frugal'.

But how does the Premier League end up so far ahead of the other ‘big’ leagues in Europe in the first place? Is this all driven from the top — the clubs fuelled by oil, consumerism, and questionable moral values — or is it something happening across the board?

Jason Burt of The Telegraph highlighted that around a third of the EPL’s total spend this summer is coming from Chelsea and Manchester City. It’s a far cry from a choice quote he picked out, of Saint-Etienne manager Claude Puel talking about their sale of Wesley Fofana: “Between saving the club and its employees, and keeping Wesley, there was no debate.”

A quick visualisation shows that the Premier League as a whole has a different pattern to other leagues. Over the past couple of years, it seems that ‘Big Five’ net spend in the summer window has been around +€50m to -€20m, with two or three big-hitters stretching up above that. But not the Premier League…

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England’s top flight has a ‘middle class*’ of teams and their spending — much like the other major teams. But whereas the Continental middle class seemed both smaller and closer to the pack, the Premier League’s seems to spread between the +€50m and +€100m net spend for the summer window. On top of that, unlike in these mainland European leagues, the Premier League ‘middle class spend’ hasn’t dipped this year.

*I should note, this ‘middle class spend’ isn’t necessarily Top 6 clubs. Here I’m specifically referring to spending capacity rather than performance.

It’s astonishing that the Premier League has appeared so untouched by the pandemic in terms of transfers, particularly when some clubs have been laying off staff.

Will we see the impact of this pushed down the road into the winter window (which is always a bit weird anyway) or to next year? And/or is this just confirmation that the Premier League is, for good or for ill, in a league of its own in Europe?

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