With so much more money in the Premier League now than there ever has been, this summer has taken an extreme turn.
It has felt, with football clubs becoming richer and richer, that this summer was always bound to happen: a bubble that became larger and larger until some new investment tipped everything over the edge and transfer fees became barely fathomable. Ominously, though, the bubble bursting seems to be the next logical outcome unless something is done to regulate it.
But although it had begun to feel like football was just distilling itself into a more and more extreme form of the wealthy business it’s been for the last few decades, there has been one trend which is seemingly becoming less pronounced. It might even be going the other way.
Over the years, it’s felt increasingly as if players, rather than clubs, were becoming more powerful. Sure, superclubs are emerging, and the biggest clubs can seem to do mostly what they want, but on the whole, it’s usually been the case that if a player wants to leave a club, he’s usually found a way out.
One reason is the introduction of the Bosman ruling in the 1990s, allowing players to leave for free and therefore effectively stripping a club of one of its assets. Clubs, then, would be in a position where they’d have to sell players in the last year of their contract or risk losing them for free, much like Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at Arsenal, who have been testing out both sides of that particular dilemma this summer, selling one and keeping the other.
Another is the fact that there is now a perception that an unhappy player is worthless to a club. Given that players are the ones trusted with gaining results on the pitch, a player who wants to leave can quite easily – theoretically at least – just decline to play well. There are some incentives to help them play well, like a place in his country’s World Cup squad that summer, for example. But on the whole, the fear that a player will switch off – either consciously or subconsciously – is hardly legitimate.
And yet, this summer, most players in such a situation were made to stay by their clubs. Sanchez is still an Arsenal player, Virgil van Dijk stayed at Southampton, and Philippe Coutinho was not lured by Barcelona. Admittedly, it’s a different situation, but Diego Costa is even still at Chelsea – though that might have more to do with Atletico Madrid’s transfer registration ban than Chelsea’s desire to keep him.
So it’s strange that, in a summer when all the trends of modern football – money, social media, transfer madness – have all seemed to get stronger, player power seems to have gotten weaker. The names that did leave their clubs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund, Kylian Mbappe from Monaco, all did so for fairly ludicrous money. Arsenal may not have wanted to lose their midfielder who departed to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, but perhaps almost £40m made them fairly happy with the idea. Dembele, meanwhile, was sold for ten times what was paid for him just a year ago in a stunning piece of business.
So what’s the difference? Why have lots of big-name players tried to leave and found their paths blocked, certainly if the money wasn’t crazy? And the answer probably has to do with crazy money.
In Liverpool’s case, they didn’t need to sell Coutinho because they couldn’t spend the money they already had this summer. Arsenal were the same in the sense that, when a bid came in for Alexis Sanchez, they failed in a £90m bid for Thomas Lemar. And perhaps the player power trend has been stopped simply because some of the biggest clubs are now saturated with more money than they know what to do with.
If you have, say, £100m to spend, and you know you’ll get another £100m next summer from TV money alone, it doesn’t really matter if you lose your best player on a free when you could have picked up £40m. The thought process is that you simply have enough money to blow that £40m on one player for one season. In the end, if you have the money, then why not?
This could be the biggest unseen twist of the Premier League’s latest injection of cash from Sky Sports and BT Sport, as well as a jump in money from overseas broadcasters. In the end, Premier League clubs will spend across Europe, making those clubs richer, too, and all of the biggest Champions League clubs will have more power than their players do. All until the bubble bursts anyway.