Slimline United set a new fashion

With one week to go before the end of the transfer window, the clearest example of how football has changed is there in your match programme. Turn to the back and add up the number of players in your team's squad. How many - 26, 27, 28? Now dig out a programme from last year or two years ago. Chances are that total was in the mid-30s or even, at Liverpool and Manchester City, into the 40s.

Blame it all on Manchester United, if you like. Clubs simply don't need a big squad. The days when Birmingham City's first day of pre-season training included 52 full-time professionals and 15 triallists, as it did when Barry Fry was manager - "a bit like a scene from Zulu played out on the Dunstable Downs", as Steve Claridge so memorably put it - are long gone.

With the depression in the transfer market, the fall in wages and the realisation that football was heading for financial ruin has come the understanding that too many players have been employed. United now have 26 players in their squad - only Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur have fewer (22, 24).

John Moore, a director of stockbrokers Bell Lawrie White, explains the rationale at Old Trafford. "If you have 22 first-team players of the highest calibre then the wage bill is high but manageable," he says. "That is the shrewd way of doing things, and United are undoubtedly the best model of how to do it."

So even though their wage bill is £70m, it is still comfortably within the "not more than 60 per cent" threshold of turnover recommended by accountants. Consequently at Arsenal, Arsène Wenger has now concentrated solely on retaining his best players - bringing in three and moving on 10. Dan Jones, director of Deloitte & Touche's sports consulting unit, concurs. "The Beckhams and Ronaldinhos of this world are worth paying for because they are unique," he says. "The problem is, teams have been paying £3m-5m for journeymen."

And so in the Premiership this summer, 203 players have been sold, loaned or released and just 98 taken on. "It is a good sign," insists Moore. "The heat is being taken out of the transfer market and clubs are now working with more manageable-sized squads. Financially it is good to see the clubs reducing their player numbers, and there has also been a lot more trading about on loan and without fees being involved."

This has been aided by allowing Premiership clubs to loan players to each other, and Manchester United have also set the example in loan deals. "They do it very cleverly," says Moore. "So if a young player does well they are still a United player and if they do not then United have not been paying their wages." It is something that both Arsenal and Chelsea are following.

It needs a good manager for this sobriety to work. Beyond Old Trafford, all eyes are on David Moyes at Everton. "He is the clearest example of a realistic approach," says Moore. "He simply moves two to three players out and two to three players in."

Managers who are regarded as less aware include David O'Leary, Kevin Keegan and even Sir Bobby Robson, with analysts questioning his spending record. Even so, all three of these managers have reduced squads substantially - Manchester City, having moved on an astonishing 19 players, no longer have the biggest squad in the Premiership (Liverpool, with 34).

Moore maintains that football is in better shape. The new television deal with Sky will see average annual incomes for Premiership clubs fall by 25 per cent to around £16m, which is "roughly in line with the fall in wages".

Opinion is, however, divided as to whether the takeover at Stamford Bridge has boosted transfer business. Jamie Redknapp, the captain of Tottenham Hotspur - the third biggest spenders this summer, at just £11.75m, behind Chelsea and United - claims: "Six months ago, people feared there was no money, and now he [Roman Abramovich] has come in. Of course, if this time next year he walked away then he would leave Chelsea with a massive wage bill.

"But he is putting money into the game. [Wayne] Bridge's £7m goes to South-ampton and they can buy. Joe Cole, [Juan] Veron, [Damien] Duff - all that money is staying in England. He has been a breath of fresh air."

Analysts disagree. Moore says: "I don't think that other clubs have reacted by saying, 'We need to catch up on Chelsea'. The big five are still competitive, and what has happened at Chelsea so far is about them moving further up that ladder."

That ladder is the big five - United, Arsenal, Newcastle United, Chelsea and Liverpool - and they are now, more than ever, in a league of their own. The danger lies for clubs such as Spurs, Everton and Manchester City, who still harbour hopes of joining that league and who may crack and try to spend their way into doing so in the way that Leeds United attempted.

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