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Sep 3, 2014

Despite big-money transfer window, teams actually showing more restraint

ESPN FC's Paul Mariner and Craig Burley discuss Manchester City's transfers despite their FFP limitations.

Like clockwork as soon as the transfer window closes, folks start drawing broad conclusions based on the volume and nature of spending around Europe. You can read the numbers in different ways to support different arguments, but there are some very obvious trends out there.

First and foremost, spending is going down, not up. Or rather, meaningful spending.

You may have seen the headline figure about how Premier League clubs pulverized previous records in terms of summer spending by shelling out 835 million pounds ($1.375 billion). This prompts the usual reaction from moralizers who talk about excess and financial types who wallow in the Premier League's dominance and riches.

It's a huge number, but all it really tells you about is volume. If I sell a bunch of players for a combined worth of $100 million and buy a bunch worth $100 million, you could say I'm profligate for shelling out $100 million. Or you could conclude I'm parsimonious because I've spent as much as I've taken in. A far more relevant figure is "net spend" -- taking the money spent on new players and subtracting from it the cash received from sales. And this is where things get interesting.

According to figures from the website Transfermarkt.de, the 20 Premier League clubs' net spending rose a paltry 0.8 percent from 2013 to 2014: from $657.13 million to $662.55 million. That's chump change, frankly.

Bear in mind too that there are two other factors that -- you would think -- would have driven net spend even further in England. The first is the new TV deal that came into effect last season and put, on average, an additional $40 million (-plus) in the coffers of every club, relative to what they were getting before. The other is that one club, Manchester United, went on an enormous (and uncharacteristic) spending spree, with a net spend of around $200 million. United don't usually operate in this way -- there are plenty of good reasons they did -- but in any case, it skews the figures.

What it boils down to is that there's another $800 million to go around and a club spending enormous amounts for the first time in years and still, there is no increase in net spend. And that suggests that, if anything, the days of wild spending -- I'm talking across the board, as there are notable exceptions -- are coming to an end.

Man United spent a small fortune this summer, but given years of austerity, it doesn't upset their net spend.

It's a trend that is even more marked when you look at the net spend of Europe's other top leagues. The Bundesliga had the second highest net spend after the Premier League -- $116.3 million -- but those are numbers are skewed somewhat when you consider that Borussia Dortmund, whose net spend amounts to $67.6 million, accounts for more than half of it. And Dortmund spent big this summer precisely because in recent years they were incredibly thrifty: in the three previous seasons, they actually took in more than they paid out in transfers.

Serie A is next with a net outlay of $58 million, while the other two in the big five, Spain and France, didn't have a net spend at all. Liga clubs sold for $3.7 million more than they bought, while Ligue 1 made a whopping cumulative $110.5 million profit on transfers.

If anything, while it may not seem that way, for most clubs this has been a summer of restraint.

Why?

Financial fair play undoubtedly plays some part. Indeed, UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino was positively glowing last week as he announced some figures from UEFA's benchmarking survey of some 500 clubs. He said that for financial 2013 -- which, depending on the accounting method the club uses, means either the 2012-13 season or the calendar year 2013 -- the cumulative losses by European clubs were just over a billion dollars. Which sounds enormous until you consider that two years previously they had lost a whopping $2.23 billion.

What's more, around Europe, for the first time since they started tracking these figures five years ago, revenue was growing at a faster rate (5.7 percent) than wages (3.7 percent).

Sheikh Mansour and Man City were busy, but with more restraint than in seasons past, fitting the general trend.

Obviously we don't know the 2014 numbers yet, but the net spend figures -- transfer spending is usually a club's biggest expense -- suggest that the trend is going to continue. Folks are cutting back.

To what degree FFP is responsible can be debated, but it obviously plays a part. For example, last season, as part of their settlement with UEFA for breaching FFP rules, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain agreed to limit net spending to a maximum of $78 million this summer. (In exchange, part of the massive fine levied on the clubs was suspended.) Both were well within the limit after huge net spends in previous seasons: around half a billion dollars for PSG in the previous three seasons and roughly $300 million for City over the same time frame. (City also reportedly ended their interest in Falcao given how much it would impact their net spend.)

But even those clubs who were not sanctioned last season know full well what awaits them if they do, particularly since UEFA's FFP break-even requirement will stiffen this year. Last time it was $60 million over two seasons -- bear in mind that this isn't net spending; it's profit and loss adjusted for "allowable expenses" that UEFA considers "virtuous," like youth development and stadium infrastructure -- this time it's still $60 million but over three seasons. Next year it will be $40 million over three years.

The list of clubs with the largest net spend this past summer is also indicative. The top two -- Manchester United ($200 million) and Arsenal ($113 million) -- are clubs who have been profitable for years and can easily absorb this. Barcelona (third at $100.6 million) also has decent numbers and, as it stands, are barred from transfer activity in the next two windows.

Of the top 25 clubs by net spend, 11 are from the Premier League, but of those teams, seven -- West Bromwich Albion ($17.9 million), Leicester City ($18.3 million), Crystal Palace ($18.4 million), Newcastle ($22.1 million), Hull City ($29.8 million), Queens Park Rangers ($36.1 million) and West Ham ($36.7 million) -- are unlikely to have to worry about FFP any time soon. (Hull were, of course, in the Europa League briefly this year but as this is their first season, they are not subject to it, unless they return next year.)

In fact, from their perspective, avoiding relegation is financially more of an imperative than one day needing to fulfill UEFA's FFP rules. (Further evidence of this is the fact that Burnley's net spend of $11.7 million is higher than Real Madrid's, who clock in at $11.3 million.)

The overall sense is that for all the hype and hyperbole, the game across Europe is slowly moving towards some sense of "normality" whereby clubs don't spend far more than they take in (with obvious exceptions, some of them structural). And net spending reflects this, which is what most clubs -- and, crucially, their owners -- wanted all along.

Gabriele Marcotti

A London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer, he is the author of three books, the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere dello Sport. You can catch him on ESPN FC TV and read him here twice a week.

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