MANCHESTER, England — At last, it seems, among all of the hundreds of millions of pounds that float around the Premier League, the penny has dropped.
The January transfer window has come and gone, barely noticed. There has been no orgy of excess, no frantic scramble to spend as much money as possible, no broken transfer-spending records, no helicopter dashes, no late-night drama.
For once — for the first time, perhaps — English soccer has been a model of restraint and of prudence. For once, it has looked not at price, but at worth. As one executive at a Premier League team told The Times of London, “People are asking crazy money for average players.”
That, of course, should hardly have come as a shock. The clubs in the cash-soaked Premier League, with its lucrative broadcasting deals and its seemingly bottomless pit of wealth, had no sooner helped to create soccer’s superheated transfer market than they began to suffer from it.
In England, managers and technical directors and chief executives whisper darkly of an “English tax,” claiming that their counterparts on Continental Europe routinely quote them higher prices than they would a team from Germany, Italy or Spain.
In public, those working in sales or recruitment in Europe dismiss that allegation — two sporting directors told The Times in 2017 that they work “with one price in mind” for a player, regardless of origin or destination — but there can be little doubt that, at the very least, many see English teams as easy marks.
In part, that is to their credit. According to one executive at a Bundesliga team, selling to a Premier League club is a much more straightforward business than offloading a player to Italy or Spain: The money is invariably paid upfront, one lump sum deposited into your account upon completion of the deal, rather than an installment plan contingent on a host of clauses. It is also rather more palatable to fans: Clubs in Germany, he said, have broadly welcomed English interest in their best players simply because the alternative is seeing them move, with dread predictability, to Bayern Munich.
That is not, however, the limit of its appeal. The evidence is anecdotal but nonetheless compelling: Europe’s clubs see the Premier League as a cash cow, and its member clubs as rather deeper of pocket than they are of thought.
There are, for example, executives who tell stories of hanging up the phone to a Continental team and then immediately doubling the asking price when an English club calls. There are sporting directors who recall scarcely being able to conceal their glee when a Premier League team asks to buy one of their players, or the celebrations when they complete a deal for a vastly inflated price.
And there is the manager who was presented with a tall, black South American forward by his club’s owner a few years ago and told that it did not matter if the deal worked out, because even if he did not score goals, “an English team will come and buy him for more than we paid anyway.”
There will be plenty, then, who will see the drip-feed of small-beer deals and loans-with-an-option-to-buy that have populated this January transfer window and believe that it is just an exception, something cyclical, that come summer, the Premier League will be showering its largess on Europe once more.
It is worth noting, though, that year-on-year spending last summer was down, too: barely noticeable in the raw figures — £1.2 billion ($1.57 billion), as opposed to £1.4 billion in 2017 — but in the context of a global market that had been distorted beyond recognition by the fee Paris St.-Germain paid for Neymar, an eye-catching drop.
As unlikely as it sounds, the possibility has to be considered that the Premier League has finally managed to shake its reflex reaction to spend its way out of any problem, to break free of its shopaholism, to overcome its addiction to the short-term high of a lavish transfer.
It would be reductive to attribute that to one cause; it is the result, in all likelihood, of a confluence of factors. Few in soccer, for example, believe that the uncertainty that has infected most British industries because of Brexit has had much of an effect, but it is hard to believe the weakness of the pound against the euro has not given at least some clubs pause.
Then there is the assumption in the Premier League that English soccer’s television boom might have plateaued, and that the next broadcast deal will not deliver the exponential rise in income to which the clubs have grown accustomed. That, too, may have persuaded clubs to become just a little more frugal.
If certain clubs have chosen not to spend — Liverpool and Manchester City for fear of disrupting the delicate harmony they have established, Manchester United because a permanent manager and a technical director must be appointed first — others have been unable to do so.
In the case of Tottenham, with a new stadium to consider, and Chelsea, subject to a FIFA investigation over rule breaches related to young players, those circumstances are bespoke; for others, the issue is much broader. The short-term cost-control measures established by the league’s clubs effectively link increases in a team’s wage bill to growth of its commercial revenue; that Arsenal, for example, has not increased the latter means it is not in a position to throw money at the former.
None of that, though, explains why everyone has been so parsimonious, so uncharacteristically cautious. Yet the trend is widespread enough to suggest that there has been a more fundamental change, that English teams no longer suspect they are being taken for a ride, but know they are, and are determined to put a stop to it.
England for many years stood as a last, defiant bulwark against the idea that recruitment should be overseen not by a club’s manager, but by a technical — or sporting — director. Such an appointment, it was thought, would only undermine the authority of the man tasked with picking the team; in a country that sanctified the memories of Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough, the manager’s position was inviolable.
That is no longer the case. Of the elite, only Manchester United does not have a technical director, and it is in the process of finding one. Away from Old Trafford, most teams have moved to bring in an individual or a team of people to sift through data, to compile scouting reports, and to assist — to choose a euphemism — the manager with recruitment. The days of a coach being allowed to bring in players on a whim are over.
It is not a perfect system, but it is designed to prevent a club’s having to resort to last-minute purchases, desperate rolls of the dice. It is structured to make clubs less wasteful, more efficient. Its corollary is that it attracts managers more accustomed to working with what they have, or what they are given, rather than demanding money be spent to solve problems that have proved beyond them.
And this is its effect: a handful of unremarkable deals, players brought in to cover a particular need rather than to meet a vague desire, over the course of a month that does not warrant the comic, childlike pomp and ceremony England usually reserves for the transfer window. A dull January is not a cause for concern. It is not a sign of a lack of ambition, but the hallmark of a league that is getting that little bit smarter, that at last is thinking with its head, rather than its pocket.