How did the Premier League spend £1.2billion in a pandemic?

There is a staggering disconnect between a summer of spending and some of the language used during the first few months of the crisis, not to mention the existential threat to the rest of the game

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
@MiguelDelaney
Tuesday 06 October 2020 13:55
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For all the intrigue about how Arsenal succeeded in the late signing of Thomas Partey, there was one detail that went largely unexplained. It is a detail that points to a far larger question in this transfer window as a whole, that goes way beyond north London.

How exactly did Arsenal afford a fee of £45million given, well… everything, not least a global pandemic that had supposedly crippled football’s finances?

The Independent has been told that the club owners, KSE, approved the purchase at Mikel Arteta’s request. Stan Kroenke has underwritten Arsenal’s transfer business and losses because of the pandemic.

It’s impossible not to think of the relatively paltry money saved on 55 redundancies on one side, not to mention the existential threat to so many clubs in the game at the other. There are then Daniel Levy’s words at the start of this crisis.

On 31 March, the Tottenham Hotspur chairman came out with the following.

“When I read or hear stories about player transfers this summer like nothing has happened, people need to wake up to the enormity of what is happening around us.”

So, what did actually happen?

Well, Tottenham themselves had their most ambitious summer since 2013. That summer, they brought in seven promising players, after the world-record £83.5m sale of Gareth Bale. This summer, they brought in six established players, after a £175m Bank of England loan to cover the impact of the crisis. That was to pay staff and operating costs. They then spent up to £15m back on Bale.

It all adds up to a total of £1.27billion spent by Premier League clubs this window.

That’s £861million when sales are taken into account, but that net is actually £80m more than the net spend of what felt a particularly free-spending summer in 2019, a window that saw almost exactly that difference spent on Harry Maguire alone.

A number of clubs who were earlier adamant that it wouldn’t be a normal window were actually right. Some ended up spending much more than usual.

There is a staggering disconnect between this and some of the language used during the first few months of this crisis, not to mention the existential threat to the rest of the game amid talk of a “football bailout”, as well as the wider global situation. Europe’s other leagues spent over £2bn less.

Tottenham spent big despite taking out a loan earlier in the year

This at the very least warrants extra scrutiny, and certainly shouldn’t be treated as “business as usual”, to use Ed Woodward’s own phrase from April. Manchester United actually remained one of the more constrained clubs relative to their resources, although still spent over £40m net.

It just feels a little much to solely talk about success or failure in the market, and who “won the transfer window”, when there are so many losses all around the game.

So much for a summer of loans and compromised deals, where managers would have to get used to purer coaching.

A cynical view, uttered by one figure in the game, is that the “Premier League clubs played the whole thing to their advantage”. You could extend that to the almost industrial persistence of these crowdless matches, as the rest of the English game struggles to survive. It is this that gives ammunition to opportunistic politicians like Matt Hancock, and you might have to say fair ammunition.

A more pragmatic view, uttered by one source actually involved in the Championship, is that this is “investment” rather than spending.

“I think you almost have to say player expenditure as separate to what is going on in the rest of the game. The strength of the Premier League is its talent. That is what it succeeds on. That is what draws the interest. Clubs would also seek to rationalise their own individual expenditure, and argue they haven’t spent vast amounts themselves.”

Chelsea would for example point to the absence of any cuts within the club, and how most of their expenditure was generated from the sale of Eden Hazard and two windows without purchases.

The argument remains that a football club’s financial health is directly connected to their health on the pitch. By that rationale, Arsenal would argue that the money paid on Partey could sufficiently improve the team to secure a series of Champions League qualification, that brings in more, that secures jobs in future. This is why the Kroenkes sanctioned it. It was a calculated decision.

A counter point beyond their social responsibilities is that, even if clubs are just businesses in the most singularly depressing way, they need all these people to run those business properly: scouts, secretaries, kitmen. So, in letting them go, they have temporarily weakened their own structures and taken a short-term view.

It reflects how that rationale only ever seems applied in one direction, as well as the manner that the top end of the game has so fully embraced hyper-capitalism. Speculation will generally always trump any sense of responsibility to jobs or the wider game.

The bottom line is this: the Premier League clubs were saved by TV money, which also happens to be one of the primary reasons for financial disparity in the game.

It remains the great differential.

Its unequal distribution leads to this mass disconnect, between the bottom end and the top, between wage cuts and transfer spending… and now between the crisis the Premier League was supposedly engulfed in to the money they’ve been able to throw around again.

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