The Danger Lurking Behind the Premier League’s Wealth
The precise nature of the hierarchy is, in truth, a little confusing. The job titles are, in isolation, grand and impressive, but taken together, all of those capital letters become somehow vague and a little meaningless. There were, for a while, two Technical Directors, one Director of Global Talent and Transfers, and a Co-Director of Recruitment and Talent.
Quite which of those is most senior is not entirely clear. Perhaps that is intentional. And it feels, certainly, like Co-Directors should come in pairs, at the very least, but in this case there may be just the one. An unkind eye might suggest it is all just a touch Schrutian.
The expertise of the individuals who fulfill each of those positions, though, is beyond reproach. In the gap between the summer transfer window and the winter equivalent, Chelsea’s owners set about hiring some of the most well-regarded recruitment staff that global soccer has to offer.
They picked up — in no particular order, because what order they are supposed to be in is not easily assessed — Christopher Vivell to be Technical Director, and Joe Shields as Co-Director of Recruitment and Talent. Then there was Laurence Stewart, brought on to act as a “technical director to focus on football globally,” and Paul Winstanley, the Blues’ Director of Global Talent and Transfers.
Their résumés were flawless. Vivell and Stewart both had connections to the Red Bull network of clubs, long regarded as one of the finest hothouses of talent in global soccer. Stewart also had worked at Monaco, another team famed for its eye for potential. Shields had helped turn Manchester City’s academy into one of the best in Europe. Winstanley had been central to Brighton’s emergence as arguably the Premier League’s smartest club. In gathering them together, Chelsea had assembled an unmatched brain trust to help it conquer the transfer market.
How useful any of that experience would have been on Tuesday is open to question. Under the guidance of Behdad Eghbali, one of Chelsea’s co-owners, the club concluded a deal to sign Enzo Fernández, the finest young player in a World Cup watched by more than a billion people.
To get it over the line, Eghbali and his team of crack negotiators agreed to pay the release clause written into Fernández’s contract at Benfica, a figure that was roughly 10 times the amount the Portuguese club had shelled out for him only six months ago. It was a remarkable coup, akin to walking into a very expensive shop, paying the price on the label and exiting in triumph.
That is not, to be clear, to deride the qualifications of any of Chelsea’s appointments, or even to highlight the obvious disconnect between how they forged their reputations and what they will be required to do at Stamford Bridge.
It is, instead, to stress the reality of the Premier League’s spending in general, and Chelsea’s in particular. For all of the armies of scouts that clubs employ, for all of the celebration of scouting gurus and technical directors with the magic touch, for all of the intellectual energy invested in the process of identifying and sifting talent, English soccer is now so impossibly wealthy that all of it is secondary, really. The clubs of the Premier League can see the players they want, the players everyone wants, and throw money at the problem until they get what they want.
There have been two tones to the coverage of Chelsea’s January spending. One, perpetuated by television, the more breathless elements of the print media, the Premier League itself, and the many and varied financial firms for whom the staggering wealth of English soccer represents an opportunity, has been celebratory.
In this view, the absurd figures that the club has spent are seen as a direct measure of power and status, and the club’s technique of spreading the accountancy cost of those deals over unusually long contracts has been presented as some ingenious mechanism, one that has brilliantly circumvented soccer’s halfhearted attempts to leash its clubs to the idea of sustainability.
The other is not nearly so bombastic, so popular, so triumphalist. It feels a little like doom-mongering, like worrying about litter at Woodstock, or perhaps even somehow wonkish, like asking a Hells Angel about the fuel economy of a Harley. It uses terms like “competitive balance” and “inflation,” and it is generally met with accusations of base jealousy.
And yet the latter is, sadly, correct. Chelsea’s spending in January has bordered on wanton, and the amount of money committed by the teams of the Premier League as a whole — as always — has been not only obscene but also dangerous, not only for the clubs themselves but also for English and European soccer as a whole.
The reasons for that are relatively well-covered ground. The higher Premier League clubs push prices, the greater the inflationary risk for everyone else. Chelsea might have the financial resources to pay more than $100 million for a player — Mykhailo Mudryk — who has played six games in the Champions League, and so might Arsenal. It may even have the backing to survive if it finds itself saddled with a cadre of underperforming players on long contracts. But most clubs do not.
That leaves a vast majority of teams — even celebrated ones, even famous ones, even comparatively rich ones — facing a choice when the next Mudryk comes along: Either accept that level of talent is no longer available to you, or risk everything to try and compete. Barcelona has tried that. It led to ruin. Juventus, too. That led to disgrace. The only option, then, is submission.
There are sporting effects, too. The disparity between the Premier League and the other major leagues — let alone everyone else — is now so vast that even executives at some of the greatest clubs on the continent admit that they are marooned in “feeder” competitions. In one recent example, A.C. Milan, the reigning Italian champion, could not match the financial package on offer to Nicolo Zaniolo, the Roma forward, by Bournemouth.
That is not, as it happens, something that is in the Premier League’s long-term interests; England’s clubs need somewhere to offload their unwanted players in the future, after all. But it is more immediately devastating for soccer as a common endeavor across Europe and the world.
As talent concentrates in one league, in one country, everything else fades and withers in the shadows, condemned to seeing its most precious flowers plucked by England as soon as they blossom. All of a sudden, the rationale behind a continental super league does not seem quite so brazenly venal.
There is one aspect, though, that is not addressed enough. The people who emerge, for example, from the signing of Fernández with credit are not Chelsea’s team of negotiators, led by Eghbali himself, who managed to persuade Benfica to sell its best player for the fee it wanted in the first place.
No, the credit goes entirely to Benfica, the club that took Fernández from Argentina and accelerated his development, and now gets a richly deserved (if bittersweet) profit from its work.
A couple of days after the deal was finalized, Chelsea confirmed a small rearrangement of its star recruiters: Stewart and Winstanley would, now, be co-sporting directors (yes, both of them). But the truth is, it does not need their eye for talent, not really. It does not need to be smarter than everyone else, not when it can be richer. What it has done, what English soccer does habitually, requires no great expertise, and as a result it lacks glory, too.
Recruitment is a valid part of soccer. A season is, perhaps, best thought of as a test of each club’s institutional strength: not just the talent of the players it puts on the field or the vision of the manager but the structures it has built to enable them to succeed. Scouts, like the medical staff or the marketing team, contribute toward every trophy.
That, at least, is how it should work. The wealth of the Premier League distorts it. There is no sport in arbitrarily having more money than everyone else. Making wealth a precondition to success is effectively asking fans to cheer rich people’s ability to buy things.
And yet that is exactly what the Premier League has become. There is no reason to expect fans to object to that; if that is the game, then their only concern is that their club plays it, too. There is no reason to expect the Premier League itself to take action, either. English soccer, you may have noticed, has no problem at all with its own direction.
The league’s owners, perhaps, might be expected to exercise some self-control, what with being trapped in a spiral of conspicuous consumption that makes them vulnerable to the arrival of someone with even more money than them, but that may be a little too utopian.
Instead, the only place to turn is to the game’s governing bodies, to UEFA and to FIFA and their dependent federations, and to ask what they intend to do about it, whether they are content to watch as the Premier League cannibalizes the sport as a whole, whether they are satisfied that the game is now determined as much in the frenzied capitalism of the transfer market as it is on the field.
These organizations are not powerless. They do not have to stand by. They could institute transfer levies or luxury taxes or squad limits or homegrown quotas to try to staunch the spending, to reinstitute some sort of balance. Or they could sit and watch, as they have for so long, as soccer fractures and splinters and breaks under the weight of all that cold, hard cash.
Germany Learns a New Word: Titelkampf
The perception that the Bundesliga has, in the course of the past 10 years, been little more than a procession toward glory for Bayern Munich is not quite true. In almost every season, there has been a moment in which a challenger seems to have a glimmer of a chance. It has mostly proved fleeting and it has always proved futile, but it has helped a little to stave off the sense of dread inevitability.
In some senses, then, the Bundesliga table after 18 games of the current season is not especially unusual. Bayern is on top, of course, with just a narrow gap to its nearest challenger, the remarkable Union Berlin. What is different this time, is what is happening just below that. Union, in second, and Eintracht Frankfurt, in sixth, are separated by only four points. Bayern is not facing one usurper. It has to confront five of them.
That is significant. In a scenario in which one team is desperately clinging to Bayern’s coattails, all it takes is a single setback for everything to unravel. Bayern’s big red machine keeps winning. A lone defeat for its challenger transforms a small points deficit into an apparently insurmountable one.
With five contenders — Union, RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund, Freiburg and Eintracht, in that order — the possibility of Bayern’s striding off into the distance is reduced. One or two challengers might lose ground one weekend, but they are unlikely to collapse all at the same time. Bayern will not be able to burn everyone off in the course of a few weeks.
Instead, Julian Nagelsmann’s team, stuttering just a little itself, will have to get used to having company for a vast majority of the season, with all of the pressure that brings. In all likelihood, it will still finish the campaign as Germany’s champion. This time, though, it may well have to work for it.
Manchester United, in the end, stood firm. In the closing days of the January transfer window, Arsenal tried on several occasions to persuade the club to part company with the England striker Alessia Russo. The final bid, by all accounts, would have broken the world record — paid by Barcelona to sign Keira Walsh last year — by some distance. United, though, said no.
Much of this is a good news story for the Women’s Super League in particular and for women’s soccer in general. Arsenal, deprived of two of its finest players by long-term injury, is prepared to commit significant funds to sign a replacement. United is serious enough about its pursuit of the W.S.L. title that, even with Russo out of contract in the summer, it decided to refuse the potential six-figure windfall.
Rising transfer fees are, in general, a sign of health, a marker that more money is coming into the women’s game, that clubs are pushing resources toward their women’s teams, that players are being accorded the sort of value that befits their status as elite athletes and evermore high-profile stars.
The one note of caution is the same as in so many things where women’s soccer, a sport forging its path in the 21st century, seems wedded to ideas rooted in the 20th century conventions of the men’s game.
Or, to put it more plainly: Are we really absolutely sure that transfer fees are a good idea? Is this definitely the best way to run the industry? If you were designing a sport from scratch, would that be the mechanism that allowed talent to move around and competition to flourish? Or would you be cognizant of the risks, aware of what the men’s game has become, and at least ask if there might, perhaps, be an alternative?
The subject of whether American sports have enough swearing continues to prompt rather more conversation than Google’s algorithm might expect, with Dan Rosenbaum losing points for citing New York Rangers fans chanting “Potvin sucks” as an example of spite — that’s a bit P.G. for my tastes — but recovering admirably with an outstanding theory about the differing natures of crowds.
“Most soccer fans see the opposition once a season,” he wrote. “Maybe two or three times, in various cup competitions. In baseball, we see a division rival around 10 times a year, in three different sets of games. The vitriol is therefore expended over time, rather than being focused. Except for Phillies fans, who seem to have boundless depths of bile.”
The newsletter regular Shawn Donnelly, meanwhile, has a question. “Chelsea bought Enzo Fernández for a cool $130 million,” he wrote, correctly. “Do they pay Benfica this sum immediately? Or is that payment spread out over a number of years, the way I pay off my Subaru Impreza?”
I’m not quite sure whether that last bit is boasting or a subtle message to Subaru, but regardless: Some Premier League teams, in particular, will put the full cash total down for a deal, often as a way of improving their chances of signing a player they really want. In most cases, though, payments are delivered in installments: perhaps two or three, front-loaded in the first couple of years of a contract.
An inquiry from Brett Jenkins, too, a confessed “novice” fan who is seeking recommendations for “soccer books, fiction and nonfiction.” The first recommendation is, always: Do not read soccer fiction. Unless it is written by Steve Bruce.
Nonfiction is richer territory. It pains me to do it, but Jonathan Wilson’s “Inverting the Pyramid” is probably the precise book you are seeking, but there is a whole canon worth exploring, most of it also written by Wilson, but with noble exceptions from David Winner, Sid Lowe, David Goldblatt, Joshua Robinson and Jon Clegg, and some idiot. I love all of James Montague’s work, too, but my favorite soccer book, by a whisker, is Robert Andrew Powell’s “This Love Is Not for Cowards.”
The final query comes from Alex Converse, who I can only presume is the person who invented the sneakers. “I follow Tottenham and I wonder why, with five substitutes available, Antonio Conte doesn’t routinely put on fresh wingbacks at halftime,” he wrote. “Don’t you want someone with fresh legs, who can move fast, end to end?”
This is a great point, and not only for Spurs. It feels to me as if coaches have yet to tap deep into the potential effects of having five substitutes. At the World Cup, they seemed to be used not so much to help coaches change their approach as to maintain energy levels. At club level, I’m not sure we’ve seen quite the same policy yet. We will, I think, in time.