Money to Burn: Lessons From the Premier League’s Transfer Window

To take just one snapshot from just one day in a whole summer of indulgence and excess, there was a point, last week, during which all of these things were happening at the same time:

There were representatives of West Ham United pressing $58 million into the grateful palms of Lyon in exchange for Lucas Paqueta, a mercurial Brazilian playmaker. Their counterparts from Newcastle were offering Real Sociedad $72 million for the Swedish striker Alexander Isak.

Chelsea’s self-appointed sporting director, Todd Boehly, meanwhile, had given up on his brief pursuit of the Manchester United captain, Harry Maguire, and was instead buffeting Leicester City with bids for Wesley Fofana. United, in turn, was peppering Ajax with offers for Antony, yet another Brazilian wing, working their way toward an unmoving asking price in what appeared to be increments of $10 million.

This is what the Premier League does every year, of course: Every summer, and most winters, its clubs descend on Europe, the cash from infinitely spiraling television deals burning a hole in their pockets, and proceed to hose an entire continent with money. They swamp it, they flood it, they drown it with their wealth.

And then, at the end of August, they go home, armed with a few more Brazilian playmakers and Swedish strikers, ready to play the games that will earn the money for them to do it all over again in a few months.

The ritual, the great ceremonial spending of broadcasters’ money, is not just familiar — an annual tradition that has long since lost its power to shock, the figures involved now so inflated and improbable that they seem to mean almost nothing at all — but, in England at least, actively celebrated.

The amount the Premier League’s clubs have spent is, without fail, heralded as a triumph by a variety of not entirely neutral onlookers: accountancy firms for whom the rude health of English soccer is a central plank of their business; the broadcasters who have, at heart, paid for it all; the league itself. The total sum is used as a proxy measure for power, a gauge for how big and strong English soccer has grown and, by extension, how weak and small everyone else must be.

This summer has brought even more flexing than normal. The figures have been even more eye-watering than usual. By the time the transfer window closed on Thursday evening, the Premier League’s teams had burned their way through $2.3 billion, gross, in the space of just a couple of months.

That is a record, of course, and not by a little: The previous high-water mark was almost $600 million lower. To suggest, too, that it is more than all the money spent by the rest of Europe’s so-called Big Five leagues — Italy, Spain, Germany, France — combined does not quite capture the full picture. Chelsea spent more money this summer than any English club has spent previously. Nottingham Forest signed more players than any English club has ever signed in a single window. Nine teams spent more than £100 million. English teams spent three times as much as their nearest challengers. It has been a wild and unrestrained festival of consumption.

And yet, while that speaks volumes for the financial power the Premier League now wields over all of its competitors on the continent, the image it has created is not of a competition bristling with strength, but rather of one addled with desperation, filled by clubs consumed by fear, and so suffused by riches that it has, in some quarters at least, apparently divested itself of thought.

There are clubs, of course, that have acquitted themselves well in the transfer market: Manchester City, say, surgically picking off Erling Haaland and Kalvin Phillips and then, at last moment, spying an opportunity to sign Manuel Akanji from Borussia Dortmund for a reduced fee and taking it. Or Crystal Palace, judiciously adding only a couple of new faces who might help its young, intriguing squad develop. Or Brighton, selling high and buying cheap and getting better in the process.

But for the most part, there has been a wantonness to the spending: Chelsea, spraying money at almost anyone it could think of to sign any player who might be available, the club’s new owners apparently so confident of the rising tide of broadcast rights and merchandise deals that they are willing to write off a couple of hundred million here or there.

Or Manchester United, who tried to cut a deal with Ajax for Antony but, when that didn’t work, simply paid what it had long regarded as an inflated asking price anyway, without so much as blinking. Or Fulham, signing the 34-year-old Willian on the final day of the window for, well, for some reason.

Some of those signings will, of course, prove to be wise, worthwhile investments. Perhaps Antony will provide Manchester United with the balance its attack has lacked. Maybe the 20 players Forest has acquired — no, that is not a stray zero — will help it remain in the top flight. Chelsea may be improved by the presence of Raheem Sterling, Kalidou Koulibaly and the rest.

The broader impression, though, has not been of clubs smartly addressing their shortcomings, gradually tending to their needs. It has, instead, been of a reckless mercantile zeal, of acquisition for its own sake, of a gross hedonism at a time when the country which the Premier League takes as its host is in the grip of soaring energy prices and rampant inflation and wondering whether it will be able to afford to get through the winter. The Premier League’s clubs are not just inured to that, they stand as a direct contrast to it. It is almost as if they have internalized the idea that spending is, indeed, a measure of strength, a virtue in and of itself.

Many of the deals, certainly, possess a transience, a fleetingness, an inherent futility. They offer an immediate reassurance, a jolt of excitement, a dose of adrenaline, but the suspicion is that, as the season plays out, the urgency to sign them — the clauses met and the demands accepted — will seem a little rash. Did Chelsea really need Marc Cucurella? Is Lucas Paqueta notably better than what was already available at West Ham? Had Manchester United not spent quite a lot of money on a winger last summer, too?

On one level, it does not matter, of course. The Premier League’s coffers will be refilled over the course of the next few months. There is always enough money pouring in to cover any missteps. The league’s clubs always have the option of buying themselves out of trouble.

But that is not to say there are no consequences. Each one of those signings represents a chance denied to a young player, one hoping to make the breakthrough, to find their way in the game.

Chelsea might have given time, this season, to Levi Colwill, a defender the club regards as one of its brightest prospects in years. Instead, he has been farmed out to Brighton, just so the club could bring in a senior left back to compete with Ben Chilwell. Liverpool could have used its mounting injury problems to blood the promising Stefan Bajcetic; instead, it moved to sign Arthur on loan from Juventus.

That is the thing with soccer, the thing that the majority of clubs on the continent have to accept and that England’s teams do not seem to have noticed. There are always more footballers. They are, for all intents and purposes, an unlimited natural resource. Often, they are right there, under your nose, just waiting for an opportunity.

England’s clubs rarely offer that. Others, though, do. Ajax will find another Antony soon enough. Lyon will unearth another Paqueta. The urgency, the desperation, to sign any of these players is misplaced; there will be another one next year, just as good. And when they emerge, the English clubs will be ready again, drenching the teams who have discovered them and nurtured them and helped them shine with a great fire hose of cash, thinking only about today, and never about tomorrow.

Carlos Soler was the last of them. With a few hours left of the transfer window, Paris St.-Germain confirmed it had reached a deal with Valencia to sign Soler, a 25-year-old midfielder who has quietly been one of the most impressive performers in La Liga in the last few years, for somewhere in the region of $20 million.

It was typical of the business the French champion has done this summer, under the guidance of Luis Campos, the recruitment guru hired to overhaul a bloated, incoherent squad: uncharacteristically quiet, undeniably competent, surprisingly good value. P.S.G. should be careful. People might start thinking it is a serious club.

As well as Soler, after all, Campos has used his contacts in Portugal, in particular, to sign Vitinha, from Porto, Lille’s Renato Sanches and, perhaps most adroitly, Napoli’s Fabian Ruiz. In doing so, he has revamped the P.S.G. midfield, and all for less than $100 million — excluding agent fees — no mean feat given the club’s reputation and the looming specter of counteroffers from the rather less parsimonious Premier League.

Only one doubt remains. To accommodate Campos’s cavalry, P.S.G. has had to unmoor Leandro Paredes, Ander Herrera, Georginio Wijnaldum, Idrissa Gueye, Julian Draxler, Ángel Di Maria and Xavi Simons this summer, too. Some, like Wijnaldum, will not be missed. Others, like Draxler, required a change of air.

The nature of P.S.G.’s business might have changed, then, but it remains to be seen if the nature of the club has. It is not hard to imagine at least one of the players acquired this summer being on the market again next year, a deal that looks like a bargain now cast by hindsight as an error. P.S.G. has never had a problem recruiting good players. Its issue, for the last decade, has always been working out what to do with them.

Speaking of Haaland — as we will be doing frequently this season, I suspect — Shawn Donnelly has a question. “I still can’t get over how Manchester City picked him up for just 60 million euros,” he wrote. “Did Borussia Dortmund get robbed? Couldn’t they have got two or three times as much?”

They could, Shawn, if only Haaland had not been in possession of a contract with a release clause written into it. All City had to do was match it, and Dortmund was powerless to hold out for a higher figure. The frustration should be tempered, though, by the fact that the release clause was the only reason Dortmund was able to get him at all. Haaland signed for the club in the first place only on the understanding that, sooner rather than later, it would let him go.

There is one other point to be made on that transfer, though: It is more than a little misleading for it to be presented as a deal worth only 60 million euros. It was, in reality, substantially higher: All of the money City saved thanks to his release clause was incorporated, instead, to the fees paid to Haaland’s representatives. That gets you close to $100 million, which is far closer to his real value.

Hopefully, we can provide Matt Bilello with similar clarification. “Can you please explain the difference between a ‘cynical’ foul and a professional one?” he asked. “Commentators use them interchangeably, but it seems to me that a cynical foul is a dirty one, whereas a professional one is ‘necessary’ to prevent an advantage to an opponent.”

In my understanding, this is basically right. Any common-or-garden foul can be a cynical one, but a professional foul is something very specific: bringing down an opponent to deprive them of an immediate chance to score. (In my head, a professional foul is tackling someone from behind as they charge through on goal.)

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