Largely through spending insane amounts of money, the Premier League has bought back some of its old prestige
• The most expensive transfer window so far
• Manchester United to carry on big spending in January window
Premier League clubs spent around £850m in the summer transfer window just closed, a new record and an increase of £220m on the previous year. The total was ramped up by Manchester United’s sudden desire to make up for lost time and join in the kamikaze spending from which they have previously tried to stay aloof, but even so you do not need an economics degree or a crystal ball to see where this is headed. Only a modest amount of spending in January would make it the first billion-pound season, while inflation alone should guarantee the first billion-pound window before long.
There is more money in the Premier League than ever before, and while the absolute top names are still heading for Spain – Luis Suárez, James Rodríguez, Toni Kroos etc – pretty much everyone else is being raked in by English football like chips on a croupier’s table. Diego Costa, Cesc Fàbregas, Mario Balotelli, Radamel Falcao and Ángel di María all arrived over summer to join established stars already here such as David Silva, Sergio Agüero, Robin van Persie, Mesut Özil and Eden Hazard. With that amount of talent spread across a reasonable number of clubs – even Everton have just spent £28m on Romelu Lukaku and Tottenham’s £90m investment last season is showing signs of coming to life under Mauricio Pochettino – the Premier League is reaching a tipping point again. The more players of that calibre playing in England the more attractive Premier League football will be, not only to fans in this country and viewers around the world, but to the next wave of players and their agents thinking of making the switch.
Largely through spending insane amounts of money, something it has always been good at, the Premier League has bought back some of its old prestige over the last few months. While clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich may exert the strongest pull as the ultimate destination for individuals, England is winning the numbers game for putting leading players on show. In terms of a league structure where just about every team involved will turn up each weekend with players worth watching, so that even the biggest clubs have to concentrate and cannot simply tread water until the Champions League comes along, the Premier League at the moment is as compelling as anyone would wish.
Apart from Roy Hodgson, obviously. With an England international about to take place at a half-empty Wembley there is no need to underline the fact that the Premier League’s fixation with buying in entertainment is not great for the future of English footballers, as opposed to English football. There is plenty that is wrong with the spendthrift short-termism of the English model, most of which can be encapsulated in the idiotic countdown to the deadline on the last day of the transfer window.
What is so great about making agents rich anyway, and what is the point of a deadline when it is so routinely extended at the last minute? Unless you particularly enjoy the sight of Sky Sports presenters being assailed by sex toys, and even if you do it is easier to access the footage on social media, it makes more sense to wait until the following day for a full and final list of done deals.
As England begin another qualification cycle with their hopes of a prize at the end all but extinct – whatever the new captain might say – it is all too easy to admire Germany, for their World Cup success, their grand tournament history, their admirable stances on ticket prices and foreign owners, and the talent conveyor that is the Bundesliga. We haven’t got any of that, and at this rate we never will have. To replicate that sort of success you have to spend money, big money, on youth facilities and a coaching structure, not funnel it into the pockets of agents and established overseas performers.
But for the moment, let’s face it for the foreseeable future, we are stuck with the English model, which may not approach any heights of perfection or fairness, but does happen to be quite entertaining. How, for instance, could a club like Burnley – net spend this summer £8m – possibly hope to live with Manchester United with a net spend £122m on top of existing contracts such as Van Persie, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney?
Oh, wait, they already have done. Surely Southampton, who had the effrontery to make a £30m profit in the summer transfer window rather than extend their debt, will go down at the end of the season? Judging by the result at West Ham at the weekend, maybe not. Interestingly, West Ham spent £31m over the summer, almost exactly the sum as the Saints banked. Before Chelsea bought Loïc Rémy at the end of the window their outgoings paid for their incomings. Even now, their net spend stands at £10m, which is less than Crystal Palace have spent and around half of Harry Redknapp’s outlay at QPR. That’s not bad going, when you have brought in players of the quality of Fàbregas, Costa and Filipe Luís.
Look a little further down the Premier League, specifically at the clubs who are supposed to compete with the likes of United and Chelsea on around a tenth of the budget, and you can spot a few encouraging trends. It is not all about money, and nor is it all about looking abroad. Palace, for instance, bought only British or British based players this summer. Burnley did the same, and Hull looked almost exclusively at home-based players with the exception of record signing Abel Hernández from newly promoted Palermo.
It is well known that the Tigers have been somewhat toothless in the past, but there ought to be goals in a combination of Hernández and Nikica Jelavic, particularly with Tom Huddlestone, Gastón Ramírez or Hatem Ben Arfa playing behind them. The 24-year-old has been averaging a goal every other game for Uruguay, for whom he would have made more than 14 appearances but for the combination of Suárez and Edinson Cavani ahead of him. At club level his 14 goals in 30 appearances for Palermo last season was not too shabby either, though Humberside and Steve Bruce are about to find out how well a Serie B strike rate translates into success against Premier League opponents.
Bruce is normally quite good at evaluating new recruits from unusual sources, at the clubs he has managed he has had to be, and splashing £10m must mean he has seen something he likes. Yet in terms of value for money, nothing can match Ben Arfa on a free, even if the deal is not permanent.
The Frenchman is not everyone’s idea of a team player, nor is he fond of route one football or rigid tactics. It probably says something damning about Newcastle or English football in general that such a gifted individual could not flourish on Tyneside, though in fairness he has had his bust-ups with the French national team too and has never claimed the place on the world stage that his ability seemed to warrant.
Bruce is clearly prepared to take a risk, and that should be applauded. He might even allow Ben Arfa the freedom to show his ability, which would be great for all concerned. With no gigantic sum of money changing hands, what is there to lose, apart from a certain amount of face at Newcastle if the move turns out to be a success? Hull fans are pretty happy with their transfer window activity, and so they should be.
Manchester United fans are probably happy with theirs too, apart from the loss of tradition, romance and continuity involved in abandoning the homegrown ideal in favour of outspending everyone else. Despite appearances, money is still not absolutely everything in Premier League football, that is part of its attraction and charm. Over the next eight months, Manchester United and Hull City might just prove it.