SINGAPORE: The 2019 to 2020 English Premier League (EPL) season finally finished on Sunday (Jul 26), a full 11 months after it kicked-off.
A three-month suspension from March to June due to the coronavirus outbreak was responsible for the delay – the EPL season typically ends in late May - and also means that the 2020 to 2021 season will start on Sep 12 rather than in August.
In previous years, the time between the season start and end is marked by the transfer window a period of intense wheeling and dealing of players. By now, the rumour mills would already have been working overtime to speculate the movement of players between clubs. That is hardly the case this time around.
THE IMPACT OF COVID-19
The global spread of and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic means that this summer’s transfer window, which opened in England on Jul 27 and will close on Oct 5, will not reach the frenzied heights of previous years.
Fewer big deals are expected. Clubs around Europe are still dealing with the financial effects of leagues being suspended and then restarting in empty stadiums as in England, Italy, Spain and Germany or cancelled outright as in France.
Last summer, these leagues, collectively called “The Big Five”, spent 5.8 billion euros (US$6.8 billion) on players, a rise of 1.1 billion euros from the previous year.
A fall in transfer activity is almost certain this transfer window with the question being of just how much.
With millions of jobs disappearing around the continent, there is uncertainty as to whether fans - when it is eventually deemed safe for them to return to the stadiums - and sponsors will return in the same numbers next season.
Many clubs have sent staff on furloughs and asked others to take pay cuts.
Newly crowned English champions Liverpool have been sounding a conservative note when it comes to the coming weeks. “It's just not likely that it will be the most busy summer in the world," Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp said in July. “How much can you spend if you don’t know how much you can have? That is exactly the situation."
Other members of the European elite such as Bayern Munich have echoed calls for clubs to become more rational in the transfer market.
“In the past 10 years, with these ever-higher, ever-further, ever-faster sums for player transfers and player salaries, football has shot a long way past the goal,” chief executive of the German champions Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said in June. “We have to find better solutions in Europe.”
A BUYER’S MARKET
But, just like property investors can find value in the market, clubs that have funds and the financial wherewithal to stomach more expenses will have options.
“It’s definitely a buyer’s market – whoever has the money will set the tone for the rest of the clubs,” leading South American agent Matias Lipman told media.
“So far, it’s been really difficult for the market to get moving. Some clubs still don’t know how much their budgets will be affected by the pandemic. Like in any other industry, the smaller clubs need the bigger clubs to start spending money. Until that happens, it will be hard for everything to take off.”
There has been some movement already. However, while the volume of transfers in the first few days of the window are comparable to previous years, what is worth noting is that most of these were players released on a free transfer – either due to their contracts running out or their remaining stints being compensated for – as clubs aim to slash their wage bills for the next season.
Chelsea, who finished third in the English Premier League, has been a notable exception, dipping into their wallets to pay 45 million pounds (US$58.5 million) to Red Bull Leipzig for Timo Werner and 36 million pounds to Ajax Amsterdam for forward Hakim Ziyech. Much of this was financed by their 50 million pound sale of Spanish forward Alvaro Morata to Atletico Madrid earlier in the season.
Chelsea’s purchases so far has put some money into the system with German team Leipzig then spending around 12.6 million pounds on South Korean forward Hwang Hee-chan, a replacement for Werner from Red Bull Salzburg.
BIG STARS MAY STAY PUT
Even though it is still early days into the transfer window, there have yet to be any really big deals, or any in the horizon, that come close to matching those of last summer such as Atletico Madrid paying 81 million euros to Benfica for Portugese striker Joao Felix and Barcelona splashing out 96 million euros on French forward Antoine Griezmann.
That may be the way things could shape up this summer for the game’s superstar players.
While it may be a buyer’s market for big clubs looking to buy the biggest stars of smaller rivals, that may not be the case when it comes to the hottest players on the world market - especially if sellers are unwilling.
In May, consultants KPMG estimated that some of the most in demand players, such as Jadon Sancho of Borussia Dortmund, have seen their transfer values fall by 16 per cent.
At around 98 million pounds or more however, the England international would still be out of reach of almost all clubs at the best of times let alone during this pandemic, which has seen their gate receipts and television revenue declining.
Manchester United, for instance, have been heavily linked with Sancho but they know that his German club are unlikely to sell the young talent cheaply.
The fact that the Red Devils secured a place in next season’s UEFA Champions League on Sunday - an achievement that could be worth as much as 75.1 million pounds to the club if they go on to win the tournament - could make a difference in bolstering their financial muscle.
Much depends on the player himself though. If he wants to leave then that gives United more leeway as there is likely to be less competition with few clubs able to afford his transfer fee and salary - which is reported to be 190,000 pounds a week at Dortmund.
Yet that also means that if the English team drop out then Sancho will not have many alternatives. Lucrative contracts signed before the pandemic may well put stars out of reach in the current economic climate.
Big names such as Kylian Mbappe of Paris St Germain and Manchester United’s Paul Pogba had, at one time, looked set to leave this summer. That now looks unlikely. Even clubs that potentially can afford such talent can struggle to justify a massive outlay in these tough economic times.
For instance, Real Madrid had been linked with both of these French internationals but club president Florentino Perez told fans earlier this month that the Spanish champions, who asked staff to take pay cuts, will not be making any mega-signings this summer.
“No. The situation is really bad,” Perez said when asked if there was a chance of Mbappe heading to the club. “It's difficult to ask the players to take a pay cut to help deal with the situation and then make signings like that. That can wait. Madrid will sign the best again when the situation changes."
That situation is unlikely to change in the next few months and this summer’s European transfer market is going to be much cooler than last year’s red-hot affair.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).