Is the transfer market pricing itself out of existence?
After Paris Saint-Germain took a Neil Armstrong-sized giant leap in transfer fees to acquire Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, there was a sense other clubs would trip over one another to close ground. Not much has happened in this window. Is that simply because it's a winter window? Or are clubs taking a step back from the precipice?
Typically, there is less business conducted in the winter window. To begin, it’s half the length of the summer one. There isn’t time to do as much horse trading, nor to negotiate complex transfers. Look at Manchester City. It is racing against time to conclude a deal for Athletic Bilbao’s Aymeric Laporte. The French centre-half has a £60 million release clause. Bilbao tend to be difficult negotiators. It took Manchester United two windows to agree terms for Ander Herrera.
One would think City can just drop a bag of money on the table and job done. Pep Guardiola disagrees. He recently claimed City has its limits, too.
To have 22 players you need, people maybe don't believe me, money we do not have. To compete in a high level you need 22 top players.
Today, 22 top players is so expensive. You cannot buy. Even City. There are salaries we cannot pay and there are transfers we cannot pay.
Why not? They told me we cannot. That is the truth.
“They” would obviously be City’s power brokers, comprising Director of Football Txiki Begiristain, COO Omar Berrada, CEO Ferran Soriano, and Chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak.
Pep is correct when he says people won’t believe the club does not have the money. Sheikh Mansour is the wealthiest Premier League club owner. His net worth is estimated at £20 billion. City has the money.
The manager is back on track when he says there are salaries and transfers the club cannot pay. Financial Fair Play restricts it. For those who haven’t been paying attention to the new legislation, FFP mandates clubs cannot spend more on players than they bring in through various revenue streams.
Cynics will tell you the richer clubs will find ways to get around FFP. They're right. Slowly, cautiously, big clubs will test the waters to see what they can do to circumvent the regulations. Some are already learning.
Paris Saint-Germain is testing the waters by paying for Kylian Mbappe on a no-money-down finance plan that requires the fee to be paid in the next fiscal year.
City recently had its subsidiary, City Football Group, terminate Mix Diskerud’s contract. It then signed the player to a four-and-a-half year deal itself, effectively transferring him from one accounting ledger to another on a free.
You may be asking yourself who Mix Diskerud is. If you don't follow MLS or the USMNT, his name might sound like a character from Star Wars. Diskerud is a Norwegian-born US international who, after being found surplus to requirements by Patrick Vieira at CFG-owned New York City FC, was loaned out to Swedish club IFK Goteborg through season’s end.
Diskerud will now train with the City first-team until he is sold to another club. Transfermarkt rates his current market value at £810,000 although NYCFC paid Rosenborg £1.26 million for him in 2015. City should be able to find a buyer for £1.5-3 million either now or in the summer.
It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the club’s £300+ million outlay this season, but every bit of creative accounting helps. If UEFA doesn’t blink an eye at the move, City will be able to ‘promote’ other players from its teams in the US, Australia, and Japan to help offset costs. It might even acquire more satellite clubs. The practice could develop into a lucrative side business.
There are other methods, as well. In fact, European clubs would be well advised to study how American sporting franchises control costs. The past two decades have seen every major US competition adopt some form of salary control, be it a cap or luxury tax. They have done so because sport is like any other business. Labour is typically the most costly resource. Unchecked, players’ salaries can drive clubs into bankruptcy. Yet teams must remain competitive to sell tickets. That means signing top talent.
This isn’t to suggest European leagues adopt a salary cap. That has often been proposed. Elite clubs oppose it vigorously. It would diminish their power. There is another alternative, however.
North American teams prefer to only concern themselves with an athlete’s wages. Players are neither bought nor sold. Rather, they are traded, what Europeans would call a swap. Occasionally a trade/player swap is balanced by one side agreeing to pay a portion of the key player’s salary, or by a small amount of cash, but taking a straight fee for a player is never done.
It wasn’t even before salary caps were implemented. The original reluctance was primarily to control costs. That said, the cultural aversion to slavery in the US likely played a part. Americans can be extremely sensitive to that shameful chapter in their history.
No one is accusing Europeans of continuing to deal in a legally sanctioned form of human trafficking, although one can take the matter to an extreme by viewing it in that light. The point being made is that eliminating transfer fees would give every club far more maneuverability under FFP.
The current European business model requires a club to pay cash for the player as well as agreeing a satisfactory wage. Both amounts count against FFP. If players were swapped, a significant expense would be eliminated.
Player exchanges have been extremely rare in football because it’s difficult to find a partner who needs what you’re selling. It's easier to give them money to go shopping for their own needs. When they do occur, such exchanges are like-for-like transactions in which either the players are unsettled or the team would prefer a different option at the position.
Alexis Sanchez for Henrikh Mkhitaryan was exactly that. The Chilean was unhappy at Arsenal. The Armenian wasn’t working for Manchester United. Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Samuel Eto’o-and-cash also fit the criteria. Ibra wanted to play for Barcelona. Pep Guardiola, to his regret, thought he might be able to better use the Swede’s unique combination of physical strength and technical skill, so he sent his ageing but still productive Cameroonian to Inter.
Although European clubs haven't taken the time to consider the possibilities, there are other ways to conduct trades than like-for-like.
Major League Baseball is notorious for trading stars for youth players.
A talented player is stuck on a struggling team. A contending side offers his team a handful of unproven young players from its minor league system in exchange. Rather than bargaining a fee, the negotiations focus on which promising players the big club is willing to let go.
It’s easy to see how this would work in football. Liverpool could have offered, let’s say Rhian Wilson, Paulo Alves, and Ovie Ajaria to Southampton for Virgil van Dijk.
To which So’ton might say, "No thanks, mate, we want Joe Gomez or Trent Alexander-Arnold in the deal.
Liverpool reply, "Hang on. What if we give you Wilson, Alves, and Ben Woodburn?"
Eventually, the two sides agree a deal. Liverpool gets the proven defender it desperately wants. The Saints get the Dutchman’s high wage off the books and a handful of youngsters it can possibly develop into Premier League talent.
Meanwhile, fans spend their time on social media suggesting outlandish trades rather than ridiculous transfers. United send Jesse Lingard to Real Madrid straight-up for Cristiano Ronaldo, or Los Blancos give Marco Asensio to Spurs for Harry Kane. Well, Mauricio Pochettino and Daniel Levy might actually chew on the latter one, but you get the idea. Trade talk is just as fun as transfer speculation.
These trades are often seen in the NHL. Earlier this season the New Jersey Devils sent one of their best forwards, Adam Henrique, to the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Sami Vatanen. There were some makeweights in the transaction but an attacking player for a defender was the gist.
Imagine if Real Madrid, hurting for goals, sent Raphael Varane and a young player or two to Inter for Mauro Icardi and a bus it would never dream of parking. Such things have happened. It really is down to the creativity of a savvy negotiator.
Player to be named later
These days the ‘unknown soldier’ of player swaps is more often referred to as future considerations than a player to be named. Regardless, the idea is that both sides want to close the deal but can’t quite agree what constitutes equal terms. Rather than allowing all that time to be wasted when they're almost in agreement, the two sides arrange for one to owe the other another player of a specified value who will be delivered within a certain time period.
If Manchester City decide they need another centre-half for cover, they might convince Crystal Palace to give them Mamadou Sakho for future considerations. The other player(s) in the deal would depend on how active and productive Sakho is for City. If the future consideration is to be delivered in the summer, it might be Mix Diskerud or Phil Foden, depending on whether the defender makes ten or less starts for the Citizens.
It shouldn’t be surprising to see player swaps become more frequent in the coming seasons. As clubs attempt to deal with spiraling transfer fees and FFP, they will push the envelope, becoming more creative. It’s possible the transfer fee will one day go the way of the dinosaur. In the new reality created by Financial Fair Play, that would just be good business.