Messi, Grealish, Lukaku, Sancho: Has Covid created a ‘European Super League’ of big spenders?

Project Big Picture was swatted away. Proposals for a European Super League were torn apart. But the harsh financial inequalities of top-level football remain.

Indeed, it could be argued that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated them.

English football said an emphatic ‘no’ to Big Picture and the Super League, the two major plans put forward in the past year that would have given more power and financial muscle to the biggest clubs. A wave of self-congratulation then swept over the domestic game – principles had won out over finance.

Or so the story went.

Right now, cries for a more equitable financial structure in English football appear rather hollow. Chelsea have just spent £97.5m on Romelu Lukaku. Manchester United have been prepared to pay a combined £108m for Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane.

Manchester City have broken the British transfer record to buy Jack Grealish from Aston Villa for £100m. Once they have faced Tottenham in the Premier League this weekend, they may well break it again, if they can persuade Spurs to part with England captain Harry Kane.

It’s not just in England that the big signings are being made. City’s wealth and ownership structure has led to them being mocked repeatedly as a “state-owned club” by La Liga president Javier Tebasexternal-link – who has made the same criticism of Paris St-Germain.

And PSG have been active in the market too. The French giants’ jaw-dropping signing of Lionel Messi was their fourth high-profile free transfer of the summer, and they have also spent £60m on wing-back Achraf Hakimi from Inter Milan.

It is as if, both in England and further afield, the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic has offered a chance to widen the gap between those who have money and those who do not.

Hasn’t the pandemic cost clubs millions?

“It’s different approaches,” Tim Bridge, director at Deloitte’s Sports Business Group told the BBC’s The Sports Desk podcast. “Certain clubs have really used it as an opportunity.

“In the case of Manchester City and PSG, with notably wealthy backers, it feels to me like they feel more comfortable continuing as normal because they almost have a little bit of a security net.

“Manchester United have really used it as an opportunity. They’ve thought, well, we might have had to pay over £100m for Jadon Sancho. This summer, we can do it for £70m-plus. We have access to the funding. Let’s do it now.”

Arsenal have spent £50m on Brighton defender Ben White, Spurs have paid nearly £70m for Cristian Romero, winger Bryan Gil and goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini, while Leicester have bought striker Patson Daka and midfielder Boubakary Soumare.

Villa have spent the Grealish money on Leon Bailey, Danny Ings and record signing Emi Buendia. But beyond that, spending has been limited – the biggest Premier League transfer otherwise this summer is Marc Guehi’s £18m move from Chelsea to Crystal Palace.

According to the Transfermarkt website, only 31 deals in excess of £5m have been completed in this transfer window.

“The Jack Grealish signing pumped £100m into the industry,” said Bridge. “That normally creates a domino effect and we would see the money go from club to club to club as the transfer spending happens.

“What’s going to happen this summer and probably for the foreseeable future, is that the line of dominoes is much shorter because you will reach a point where a club needs cash to survive. Rather than going out and reinvesting it in players, they just stop.”

What about Financial Fair Play?

Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules are still in operation, in both the Premier League and Uefa competitions.

However, in June 2020, European football’s governing body announced that two years’ worth of accounts would be rolled into one and “specific Covid-19 adjustments” would be permitted.

This was widely interpreted within football as a chance for big-spending clubs to disguise losses so they comply with FFP limits.

In addition, PSG – and eventually England’s ‘big six’ too – emerged from the Super League controversy with their status enhanced within Uefa.

It is not going too far to say Uefa were helped enormously by the decision of PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi to keep his club away from the Super League project.

Al-Khelaifi has now been installed as chairman of the influential European Clubs’ Association.

The idea Uefa may step in to stop PSG’s spending seems fanciful, even if they did not stick to FFP limits, which Al-Kehlaifi is adamant they will.external-link

“We always look at things with our commercial people and our financial people – we saw we had the capacity to sign him [Messi],” said Al-Khelaifi on Wednesday. “If not, we wouldn’t have signed him.”

Deloitte’s Bridge agrees with Al-Khelaifi’s assessment.

“He is absolutely right,” he said. “We’ve still got a few days left of the transfer window. So there’s the opportunity for them to offload players.

“FFP works over a longer period of time so it’s very difficult to take a snapshot of what PSG do at a certain point in time and say: Oh, that means they can’t comply with it.”

Is big spending a threat to the Premier League?

The Premier League has a live investigation into Manchester City’s historical spending, although it is not expected to be concluded any time soon despite a resolution to the latest legal battle around the case.

However, speaking to the BBC, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters didn’t appear unduly concerned that high spending would damage the top flight’s competitive edge.

“I don’t think we will be less competitive,” he said. “It certainly hasn’t been proven yet. I am expecting this season to be competitive and there are a chasing pack of clubs who want to get into those European places.

“Clubs have always invested in the strength of their squads. That is good. If you are not investing, you are probably standing still or going backwards.

“Ultimately, clubs have to manage their own finances. They have to exist within Uefa’s financial rules and our own.

“They may have spending but they also have selling as well, so we will see how the books are balanced at the end of this.

“But I don’t think it is creating a different dynamic in the Premier League.”

Is there another way to prosper?

Brentford will become the 50th club to play in the Premier League when they host Arsenal in the season-opener on Friday.

Even in the Championship, their budget was significantly smaller than many of their rivals. So they have had to come up with a different plan.

Brentford broke their transfer record when they paid Celtic £13.5m for Norway central defender Kristoffer Ajer last month.

But their overall plan remains as it has been since co-director of football Phil Giles arrived at the club in May 2015.

“We knew you can’t compete with those clubs by throwing money at it,” he told BBC Sport.

“We realised the only way to do it was to sell players because we were never going to get that money through Griffin Park.

“It meant you had to buy players you can develop and accept you have to sacrifice a little bit because it takes time. There was an acceptance then it was going to be long-term and there was no quick fix.

“In the end, developing players got us to the Premier League, both in terms of helping the team but also generating the finance to go out and buy players.”

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