A number of curious things happened in the last transfer window. It will be remembered as the year that PSG smashed the world record fee. Yet, it was the moves that didn’t happen, rather than the ones that did, that is signalling the start of a changing transfer market.
The Changing Transfer Market
A Power Change
The business of Liverpool was a prime example of what is currently going on. The sagas the club became tied up in throughout the window show how power in transfers has changed. Liverpool refused to be bullied into a sale by Barcelona while failing in their own attempts to bully Southampton. Both Liverpool and Southampton refused to back down to a team higher up the food chain. They held onto their prize asset, even as the players pushed hard for a move.
If we look back just a few years, we can see the changes that have occurred. Liverpool were unable to resist the overtures of Barcelona when they came in for Luis Suarez. Likewise, Southampton have folded the last three successive windows as Liverpool tempted their star players to move to Anfield. So, what has led to this change?
The huge amounts of money that have flowed into the Premier League have caused a shift in the power in transfers. The days of a player forcing through a move may well have disappeared. Teams like Southampton now have the financial capability to replace a player without having to sell. Due to this, they can allow Virgil van Dijk to rot in the reserves for a month before integrating him back into the team once the window is closed.
There are no longer teams in the top division of English football who are forced to sell players to keep afloat. Sunderland, relegated as the bottom side, received more money than Sevilla did for finishing fourth in La Liga. English clubs look only set to increase their financial dominance as future television deals will likely dwarf the current one. The need for money will no longer determine player sales for Premier League clubs.
This change in dynamic brings us back full circle to the club dominated days of football were players had little power. Like those days, players are not going to be content to allow this to become the norm. Players are going to fight for their ability to control their careers.
Rise of the Free Transfer
In 1995, a little-known player, Jean-Marc Bosman changed the world of transfers forever. Going to the European Court of Human Rights, he forced clubs to accept that when a contract is finished a player is free to move. It was a landmark ruling. However, within English football, this has had little impact until now. Some high-profile players have used this to engineer transfers, but it is a small amount. Clubs were unable to afford to risk a player leaving on a free transfer. Therefore, a player would be sold. With the rise of TV money, this necessity to sell is gone. Therefore, it may take a free transfer for a player to engineer the move they want.
Likewise, skyrocketing transfer fees make free transfers ever more appealing to buying clubs. It is financially beneficial to wait a further year to recruit a player. This has led to a stark change in the quality of players whose contracts run out in the summer of 2018. It is no longer the domain of players in the twilight of their careers. Within just the top six teams of English Football, we can see highly desirable players free to discuss moves to other clubs in just six weeks.
This is only going to become more common and the list each year will continue to grow.
This situation has been commonplace in Europe, however, the quality of player available is improving. With top players in Europe like Leon Goretzka and José María Giménez available for free at the end of the year, English football supporters are going to have to change their perception of players brought in on free transfers. They are no longer cheap low-quality options. With Lionel Messi available for nothing in the summer, there is the potential for one of the biggest transfers in football history to be a free transfer.
Buyout clauses are commonly mentioned when foreign players are discussed. However, they are relatively unheard of in the English game. In Spain they are legally required within a contract. This led to Barcelona losing Neymar, having underestimated the deterrent of his buyout clause. With clubs unwilling to let go of players for any fee, they are likely to become a common element of British football contracts.
The failure of Liverpool to come to an agreement on a new deal with Emre Can has been put down to disagreements on this very issue. In the last year of his contract, Can has pushed for a low amount in any new contract. Liverpool have been unwilling to agree as it will set a precedent for the price of future buyout clauses. It wasn’t the issue of its inclusion, but rather the amount that Liverpool objected to.
This is likely to become the case for all clubs. Players will see a realistic buyout clause as a means to engineer a move when unhappy or a bigger opportunity arrives. Like Spanish clubs, English teams are going to have to become used to negotiating these elements within contracts. They will have to balance reducing wages against the need to make buyout clauses the highest they possibly can. With Real Madrid setting a €700m buyout for Isco, the Premier League has a good example of the extreme buyout clauses they will need to negotiate.
The Future of Transfers
Premier League clubs are in a difficult position. They need to protect the assets they have available to them. They now have the money to do this. Yet, if they refuse to leave any room for players to move clubs, they are putting themselves in a dangerous position. The legality of football contracts and their restrictions on players rights to work have already been questioned. If clubs refuse buyout clauses or punish players for running down contracts, we may have another little-known player standing before the European Court of Human rights, fighting for his rights and shattering the current transfer system. Who knows what will happen if this occurs? The only thing we do know is that Premier League teams don’t want to find out.