We’ve had a few very unusual years, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on finances around the world. Megastars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have moved clubs, free transfers have made a massive impact and the Premier League’s summer spending dropped year-on-year since 2019, though still making it past the €1.3 billion mark in 2021, according to Deloitte.
In general, the European leagues’ spending has been dwarfed by that of the Premier League — Serie A was second with €550m in 2021 — but while the economic reverberations of the war in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis and the pandemic continue, the world of football seems to operate in its own bubble.
So, what will the transfer market look like this summer? Already we’ve seen some evidence that clubs are prepared to spend big, but what does that mean for the rest?
The €100m transfers are back, but are more due?
Over two years ago, former Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness suggested that “transfer fees in excess of €100m will be a thing of the past for the next few years” due to the financial issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic. That period appears to be well and truly over now.
In 2021, Man City broke the British transfer record to sign Jack Grealish from Aston Villa for €117m, while Chelsea spent €115m to re-sign striker Romelu Lukaku from Inter Milan. But already this summer, with the window not even fully open, two deals pushing the €100m mark have been announced within the space of a week: AS Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni was presented by Real Madrid for a reported €80m transfer fee, plus €20m in add-ons, then Benfica forward Darwin Nunez joined Liverpool for €75m, plus €25m in performance-related bonuses.
Add in Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland‘s €60m move to Manchester City, after his release clause became active, and despite the world’s financial issues, the biggest clubs in Europe still look prepared to spend huge transfer fees on young players with potential to improve. It’s no coincidence that Haaland is 21, while Nunez and Tchouameni are both 22.
Though Real Madrid, Man City and Liverpool are three of the most successful and richest clubs of recent times, others may follow suit in a bid to close the gap on their rivals, and there are a few players who could move for a big fee this summer.
With 35 goals and 19 assists in 50 games for RB Leipzig last season, one would expect 24-year-old midfielder Christopher Nkunku to attract massive offers from the likes of Manchester United or Paris Saint-Germain. And while Leipzig always seem to get a decent transfer fee when they decide to let a player depart, it is usually worth it as you’re almost guaranteed a well-developed star who can make an immediate impact. However, reports in Germany have suggested the player has agreed to a new contract with a €60m release clause, which becomes active next summer, so he might be staying where he is for now.
Dortmund, too, are excellent at signing players on the cheap and moving them on for a major profit. Though there’s little to suggest that 18-year-old Jude Bellingham is desperate to leave, or even that the club is prepared to listen to offers, Real Madrid have been linked with a €100m move to lure the England midfielder away from the Bundesliga, though that is more likely to happen in 2023.
West Ham’s Declan Rice, one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League, is reportedly being followed by Chelsea and Man City, but the 23-year-old would arguably exceed the Grealish fee. Barcelona‘s Frenkie de Jong may come a little cheaper if they decide to move him on for around €80m plus add-ons, with Man United reportedly leading the chase, though that may still prove to be too expensive for their tastes.
Clubs are looking for potential
As evidenced above, a self-imposed regime of signing top players below a certain age is becoming increasingly prevalent across Europe. Not too many years ago, club owners would have approached the transfer market with more bravado and less strategy, but now potential seems to be key. While we’re not talking about a nine-figure fee, other top players in their early 20s such as AC Milan striker Rafael Leao, Bayer Leverkusen winger Moussa Diaby and Sevilla centre-back Jules Kounde may well be on clubs’ radars for around €60m as they can develop and possibly raise their overall transfer value in a few years.
So, even if the market turns out to be a quiet one, there’s every reason to look out for big moves involving players between the ages of 18 to 23.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that clubs will avoid world-class players who are available. Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, who is 33 and has a year left on his contract, will rival Haaland for the most eye-catching move of the summer if he gets his wish to leave, with Barcelona and PSG interested. However, while the Poland international could have commanded a fee of €100m a few years ago, his age and contract status mean Bayern will be lucky to get in the region of €40m now.
Mark Ogden describes Paul Pogba’s second spell at Manchester United as a “huge disappointment”.
Will Manchester United lead the way in spending?
While a number high-profile first-XI players have already left Old Trafford on free transfers — including Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and Edinson Cavani — and a new, principle-driven head coach in Ajax’s Erik ten Hag has arrived, another summer of heavy spending seems on the cards for Man United.
The downside of having found their new head coach relatively late — and not having a properly functioning sporting director in place (i.e. a Monchi at Sevilla or Fabio Paratici at Tottenham figure with a clear mandate to take charge of the transfer business) — is that United have been left on the back foot when it comes to persuading prospective players to join the new project.
Real Madrid had been on Tchouameni’s trail for months, Man City wrapped up Haaland in April, Liverpool moved at lightning speed to land Nunez and Tottenham Hotspur have already agreed three deals (Yves Bissouma, Ivan Perisic and Fraser Forster), but Man United are still struggling to get out of the starting blocks when it comes to new arrivals. The long-negotiated deal to reunite Barcelona midfielder De Jong with his former boss ten Hag seems to be getting expensive to the point where one wonders whether the club ought to go for a player like Wolves’ Ruben Neves or PSV’s Ibrahim Sangare instead.
Yet rivals Arsenal and Chelsea haven’t got started yet either and, despite the lack of incoming activity at Old Trafford so far, it’s expected that ten Hag will enjoy substantial financial backing to start rebuilding his squad. Watch this space.
Smaller clubs waiting for trickle-down effect
Further down the food chain the outlook is not quite as optimistic. Whereas transfers in the region of €10m-€40m used to be reasonably commonplace, there may be a hesitance to spend early in the market among the mid-to-lower ranked teams from the bigger European leagues, with Aston Villa (€50m on Sevilla’s Diego Carlos, Marseille‘s Boubacar Kamara, AS Roma‘s Robin Olsen and Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho) and Leeds United (€40m on FC Salzburg pair Brenden Aaronson and Rasmus Kristensen) two well-recognised exceptions.
However, the general feedback from the second or third line of clubs playing in the top leagues is that the landscape hasn’t changed dramatically in comparison with the previous transfer windows. The overriding mantra coming from owners and CEOs is still one of austerity; the best many can hope for is to replace a departed player, or work out short-term or season-long loan deals (potentially with a sensible option to sign them permanently at the end.)
The one ray of hope is that the big spending at the top level will eventually benefit the leagues as a whole, as the wealth at the top starts to trickle down, though that may take some time to make a full impact.
The fear of free transfers
The multitude of reasons for an increase in the number of high-profile free transfers — Messi, David Alaba, Sergio Ramos and Gianluigi Donnarumma (last summer); Pogba, Antonio Rudiger, Paulo Dybala, Franck Kessie and Ousmane Dembele (this summer) — was covered in a previous piece on ESPN.
However, it’s worth noting that the fear of losing a player for free in 2023 will drive potential transfers. Lewandowski, whose contract expires in 2023, will likely get his desired move so that Bayern are able to recoup a fee for one of the world’s best players, while they can use that €40m to sign Liverpool forward Sadio Mane, who is in a similar situation at Anfield. Liverpool will be loath to see the same thing happen with Mohamed Salah too, though contract negotiations are more advanced with the Egypt international.
While Kylian Mbappe opted to snub Real Madrid to stay with PSG, this summer has already seen Rudiger depart for Madrid for nothing, with Pogba set to leave United for a return to Juventus too; Barcelona will benefit (signing Milan midfielder Kessie and Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen) but may lose out (if winger Dembele can’t agree new terms) from the trend too. So the top clubs are all too aware they may end up having to let one of their best players walk away.
Some of the top players out of contract in 2023 include Man City’s Raheem Sterling, Bayern’s Serge Gnabry, Leicester’s Youri Tielemans, Inter’s Milan Skriniar and Valencia‘s Carlos Soler. So, like it or not, they will be the subject of interest until they pen new terms.
Keeping wage expenditure under control is still key
One persistent complaint among professional clubs across Europe, regardless of level, is the huge amounts spent on player salaries. While it’s a problem of their own making, clubs are being forced to reduce that side of things, causing a few knock-on effects.
There are few objections against the top stars keeping their lucrative paydays, but having squad players eating up a disproportionally large slice of the salary budget is a burden many clubs want to reduce.
Spurred on by the economic hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, the general trend is to promote academy graduates to fill the slots freed up by players who have been released. Over the past few years, Arsenal, for example, took the decision to let seven players go who were still under contract — Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mesut Ozil, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Shkodran Mustafi, Sead Kolasinac, Willian and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang — as it made more financial sense in the long run. Eddie Nketiah, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka were given more chances in the first XI and shone last season as a result.
Though results may occasionally suffer, it does make more economic sense to hand out minutes to homegrown teenagers with potential instead of players over the age of 28 that have already reached their performance ceiling. The added bonus is that it’s usually a move popular with fans, who tend to give homegrown players more leeway in terms of criticism if their performances dip.