The Premier League clubs’ decision to shorten the transfer window has caused great consternation. The 7th September vote may now prevent English teams from buying players after the season has begun, but foreign sides will be able to trade as a normal up until the end of August.
The consequent fear is that the Premier League has voluntarily exposed itself. That, by denying itself the opportunity to react late to potential sales, it’s creating the capacity for squad-shortages and weakness. It’s not an ideal situation. In the interests of convenience and fairness, a universal European deadline would inarguably work best. The Premier League has chosen to be an agenda setter, embraced the many persuasive arguments for a truncated window, and is evidently hoping that the other major leagues follow their lead.
There’s reason to believe that they will, too. Juventus CEO Giuseppe Marotta has voiced his support already and encouraged a continent-wide discussion, while UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin is also a an advocate with a known preference for a late-July deadline.
However, appetite for change is one thing, a consensus and legislative progress is quite another; it should be assumed that the Premier League will stand alone next summer at least. At the least, one would imagine that the Italian, French, Spanish and Germany leagues would all be eager to explore their new theoretical advantage before eliminating it; they may nod along in ideological agreement to the Premier League’s latest initiative, but they surely harbour some curiosity over how it might be manipulated to their benefit.
But what is that “benefit”? While the social media sages were adjusting their glasses and stroking their beards, warning of calamitous late deals and neutered recruiting departments, the suspicion remains that – even while a disparity exists – nothing will really change.
There’s a reason why the Premier League can afford to be bold. At present, the financial advantage it bestows on its clubs provides them with a fantastic advantage in the transfer market. It’s not true to say that every foreign player is within reach for every top-flight English side, but very few of them – even under normal conditions – run the risk of seeing their players migrate abroad. It would be unusual, for instance, to see a Spanish or French club aggressively pursue a mid-level British-based player. Not because he lacks ability, but because it would be very hard to strike a deal which represented value. Domestic clubs are generally wealthier than their foreign equivalents, can afford to demand higher asking prices, and the player himself is unlikely to become militant at the prospect of a lesser contract in a country where the television revenue isn’t quite so decadent.
Currently, be it through organic appeal or raw cash, there are perhaps only five clubs in the world who aren’t subject to that reality. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and – maybe – Juventus. Those are the kind of organisations which could, theoretically, prise players away from English sides and leave them stewing over their inability to react. Traditionally, though, none of them are frequent shoppers in this country and the threat they pose is (a) confined to rare players and (b) not multiplied by the length of the window. It’s also a situation which relates, at best, to one or two players a year – and, importantly, most often to the kind of football clubs who are never, for financial reasons at least, forced to sell a player against their will. Incredibly, a point is being reached where, from the clubs’ perspective, there is no longer such a thing as a “bid which is too good to turn down”.
The threat being described is illusory. The imagined scenario of teams succumbing to predatory interest in those final few weeks is one which bears no relation to the current reality. Even now, with the capacity to freely replace whomever they let go, English sides aren’t being dictated to by buyers from abroad.
Instruction, too, can be taken from the behaviours witnessed this summer. As was the case twelve months ago, this window was characterised by clubs’ refusal to sell against their will. Most notably, Liverpool rejected a series of preposterous offers from Barcelona for Phillipe Coutinho and continued to resist even after the player officially requested a transfer. Elsewhere, Southampton simply turned their head to Virgil van Dijk’s determination to leave, quarantining him in the reserves until the window had closed. Even Swansea helped to set that new precedent, refusing to agree to Gylfi Sigurdsson’s departure until Everton were prepared to offer an outrageous £45m for the Icelandic midfielder.
It’s not a coincidence. Some clubs remain wealthier than others in this country – far wealthier in certain cases – but this is a collective attitude driven by broadcasting opulence. It isn’t impossible to sign players from England, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult; for any club not juiced by oil reserves and not in pursuit of the European Cup, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s football’s Bond Street: there’s no practical shopping to be done here.
And it’s that layer of protection which has allowed the Premier League to take this step. The short trading period might well intensify the rate of business, it might even initially provoke gross recklessness among the poorly prepared, but it won’t create any vulnerabilities which didn’t already exist.