Will Exorbitant Wages Mean Increase in Transfers Between Premier League Rivals?

Alex DunnFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2017

Arsene Wenger has vowed Alexis Sanchez will not leave Arsenal for another Premier League club.
Arsene Wenger has vowed Alexis Sanchez will not leave Arsenal for another Premier League club.Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

In the general election run-in, Kevin Keegan's iconic "Love It" rant from April 1996 was given a new lease of life as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's head was superimposed on the then-Newcastle United manager's body. Digitally, that is. 

Keegan's impassioned forewarning that the title race was far from over, and that Manchester United still had to go to Middlesbrough and get a result, aptly mirrored the unfolding political narrative. Sir Alex Ferguson's casting as the Prime Minister would flatter only one of the Scot and Theresa May.

Over the next few months, it could be another epochal Keegan soundbite from the past is repurposed to better explain the present. For those of us of a certain vintage, the memory of him a year earlier taking to the steps of the Milburn Stand at St James' Park to explain the sale of Andy Cole to Manchester United to disbelieving and disaffected Newcastle fans, is another enduring classic moment from those formative Premier League years. 

Even the player conceded: "I never thought Newcastle would sell me to another English club."

That breaking of sacrosanct quasi-religious beliefs about not selling a star player to an English rival, 22 years on, still packs a hefty punch. Ferguson had form. Famously an inquiry in 1992 from then-champions Leeds United about Manchester United full-back Denis Irwin inadvertently led to Howard Wilkinson sanctioning the sale of Eric Cantona. Some 20 years later, Ferguson lured Robin van Persie from Arsenal.

The Gunners' brief stint as a feeder club for Manchester City in order to finance their move to the Emirates Stadium was an act of financial necessity. Tottenham Hotspur's relationship with Manchester United circa 2006-08 was not dissimilar, though in that period, it was more about Spurs chairman Daniel Levy's sense of value than anything else.

The arrangement would not be tolerated today, such has been the significant shift in the landscape since Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov swapped the capital for Manchester. Dele Alli and Harry Kane would not so easily be acquired. 

Selling to a rival has always been up there, or more pertinently down there, with dating a friend's ex—or in the eyes of the average football supporter, perhaps more akin to setting up house with a sibling's one-time spouse. And then asking to borrow a pair of slacks left in the wardrobe by the usurped. It tends to be an ugly affair all around.

It's an indicator of how infrequently significant deals are made between Premier League heavyweights that Rio Ferdinand (Leeds United to Manchester United), Ashley Cole (Arsenal to Chelsea), Fernando Torres (Liverpool to Chelsea) and Juan Mata (Chelsea to Manchester United) are perhaps the only transfers involving two English clubs over this period that have elicited a sharp intake of breath.

Sol Campbell's defection to Arsenal from Tottenham came at a price, but not one of the financial variety. It is the scarcity of these types of all-Premier League transfers (involving sluggers) that paradoxically make them so alluringly exotic. 

The fact Jordan Pickford's £30 million move from Sunderland to Everton, which the latter announced on Thursday, is the fourth-biggest transfer of all time between British clubs says it all. Top-six interaction tends to be reserved for matchdays.

That could all be about to change. It has to. Surely. The Premier League's exponential financial growth in relation to its European counterparts, in terms of both revenue and expenditure, has significantly shrunk the market in terms of potential buyers.

Whereas previously squads at the top end could be shuffled and reshaped by offloading those on the periphery to leagues across Europe, uniform exorbitant wages in England mean that in terms of offloading, it is neither a seller's nor buyer's market. It's simply a stalemate. 

Good luck trying to shift that left-back you forgot you had to Montpellier HSC in January now he's on £75,000 per week to play five-a-side with his mates from Monday to Friday. 

The Chinese Super League—and the riches on offer there that dwarf even the Premier League's—has yet to prove the golden goose many chief executives in England had hoped for.

In a conference call to his club's investors in February last year, Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward said of the emerging market in China (via ESPN ): "It is very difficult to predict what kind of impact that will have. If nothing else, it's another useful market if we are looking to sell players."

He makes it sound as though he's considering setting up a stall in a Shanghai market, where instead of selling knock-off shirts, he'll offer clapped-out footballers at knockdown prices. Insert Wayne Rooney gag here.

Thus far the Chinese Super League has been a bit like reality TV. Few would blame those players approached for being tempted, but even in football's all-forgiving community, it would be hard to take seriously again any who share pitch time with Jonathan Wilkes or Spit the Dog. Chelsea are the only English club to have benefitted to date, with the £60 million they received for Oscar likely to be the deal owner Roman Abramovich goes to the grave chuckling about.

In January, the 20th edition of the Deloitte Football Money League was published. Essentially, it is a jumpers spreadsheets-for-goalposts report. If talk of net spend is your thing, you'll love it. Otherwise, it's largely drier than astronaut food. Amid the more immediate, headline-grabbing news of Manchester United replacing Real Madrid at the summit of a giant pile of cash, a quite remarkable prediction for next year's results was made to little fanfare.

"With Premier League clubs set to benefit from increased revenue due to their record television contracts in 2016/17, there is a strong chance that almost all Premier League clubs will be in the top 30 clubs next year."

As it stands, Manchester United (first), Manchester City (fifth), Arsenal (seventh), Chelsea (eighth), Liverpool (ninth), Tottenham (12th), West Ham United (18th) and Leicester City (20th) all make the top 20 in terms of revenue. Next year's report could see the likes of Huddersfield Town asking the Milan clubs to shut the door on their way out.

The Premier League is propped up by unprecedented broadcast deals.

Sky paid £4.2 billion to show 126 live Premier League fixtures every year for three seasons, starting from the previous campaign. BT Sport spent £960 million to show 42 games per season. Over the next three years, Premier League clubs will receive a share of £8.3 billion in TV rights, with foreign broadcasters around the world paying more than £3 billion combined, for the same period, per Sporting Intelligence.

It's well-documented how the £93.5 million Sunderland received for finishing bottom of the Premier League last season was more than Real Madrid earned for winning the UEFA Champions League. Madrid won eight European matches to Sunderland's six wins domestically.

In some respects, it has helped level out the playing field, as pointed out by Vice's Jack Peat. Last summer's transfer window saw Bournemouth spend £35 million despite having a capacity of just 11,464. Watford and West Ham (before the move to London Stadium) both spent over £50 million despite capacities of just 21,577 and 35,016, respectively.

Whether the real winners in the majority of these transactions were the selling clubs or the players is where it becomes a little cloudier. In essence, all that has arguably happened by flooding the Premier League with more money than it knows what to do with is the creation of a market within a market. One where Lewis Grabban is "worth" £7 million, in the same way a luxury melon is worth the £21,500 it fetched in a Japanese auction last year.

All it needs is someone to pay it. And someone, eventually, will pay it.

English football's top seven or so clubs may be able to afford to pay one another's players, but anyone below Everton will struggle to compete, however big the TV deal is.

There will never be a shortage of takers from abroad for the top players, with Bayern Munich's pursuit of Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez—reported by many outlets, such as the Mirror—being a case in point. Europe's biggest non-English clubs will always find the money for the best, even if the Gunners would be able to bring in a higher price from any of Manchester City, Chelsea and maybe even Manchester United should they decide to sell. 

With the Chilean showing precious little interest in committing to a new contract going into the final year of his existing deal, Bayern's pursuit will privately come as a relief to both Wenger and the club's board. The Frenchman doing a Keegan on the Emirates Stadium steps, with ArsenalFanTV in tow, to explain Sanchez's sale to another English club would surely be the moment the Premier League finally eats itself.

"I don't think you would sell him to any Premier League club that is for sure," was Wenger's stance at the end of May, per Jack Pitt-Brooke of The Independent.

If Bayern are priced out by Sanchez's wage demands, though, Arsenal would have no alternative other than to consider offers from the Premier League. It's the same with Diego Costa's situation at Chelsea.

Atletico Madrid's transfer embargo and the player's reluctance to move to China in a World Cup year could make any interest from Premier League rivals seem less impudent the closer it gets to the summer transfer deadline.

If the Spain international receives any more text messages from his manager, he'll be buying a cagoule and professing a love of rain and Oasis. Either that, or a swap deal with Sanchez could be just the tonic ahead of the new campaign. Maybe this could be the way for the top six to trade without anyone losing face. After all, is there anything more delicious than a swap deal?

While Real Madrid will likely indulge in not-at-all-tedious, summer-long flirtations with Eden Hazard and David De Gea, outside of the Premier League's standout players, it's hard to see squad men on gargantuan contracts being of interest to similar-sized clubs overseas.

It stands to reason that if you squeeze the size of the market, pretty soon there will be no alternative other than having to deal with previous undesirables. Just last year, Wenger explained what he saw as an escalating chasm between England and the rest of Europe, per Jeremy Wilson of the Daily Telegraph.

"In Europe you have two markets. One for the English clubs and one for the rest of Europe.

"The danger is that the English clubs can suffocate themselves in the long term because they buy players at a very high price. That means there are very high wages and, if they are wrong, they will have these players with high wages who cannot move anywhere else.

"When the buyer is English, it multiplies the transfer sometimes by 10. If an English club does not come in, he is worth 5 million pounds but, if an English club comes, he is worth 35 million pounds or 40 or 50."

Wenger is perennially accused of being overcautious, of spending Arsenal's money as though it's his own. For a little counterbalance, it's worth adding he's also one of the brightest men in English football and has been for over two decades.

His concern about creating a financial bubble hardly seems hysterical when placed against the context of a recent report confirming Sky's viewing figures for their Premier League coverage is at a seven-year low, falling 14 per cent last season from the previous campaign despite having paid 83 percent more for the deal, per Tony Connelly of The Drum

The reasons behind such figures, and whether they should cause undue concern, are myriad, but it's worth noting how in any financial crisis or bubble, it's always worth investigating what's going on at the bottom of the pyramid just as thoroughly as what's happening at the top. Much is made of how we consume football a lot differently to how we used to. The uncomfortable truth for Sky Sports and BT Sport is the biggest difference is fewer people are willing to pay for it.

The Financial Times defines a bubble as: "When the prices of securities or other assets rise so sharply and at such a sustained rate that they exceed valuations justified by fundamentals, making a sudden collapse likely (at which point the bubble 'bursts')."

Ring any bells?

Tim Collins' piece for Bleacher Report last year on whether the Premier League's TV bubble is at risk of collapse is a more than decent starter for 10 on the topic.

Given it is the middle of June and Premier League clubs have already spent well over £120 million, it seems most owners are sceptical about any doom-mongering. This is almost certainly just the storm before the tsunami. Players are being bought and sold before they have had time to swap boots for flip-flops. Even MailOnline's sidebar of summer shame hasn't had time to kick into life yet. Expect exclusive shots of Harry Kane eating couscous in Greece any day now.

As a good young player who, in the right circumstances, could go on to become exceptional, it seems harsh to make Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain the poster boy for unsustainable spending.

Yet at the same time, according to the Daily Express' Neil Fissler, Liverpool are willing to make the 23-year-old the 17th-most expensive footballer of all time, at £40 million, it's hard to see how he can avoid becoming the unwitting star of an avalanche of Wolf of Wall Street memes. Most probably with Wenger, as opposed to Reds boss Jurgen Klopp, with his arms outstretched like Leonardo DiCaprio's character having just pulled off the deal of his life.

At the other end of the age spectrum, certainly in terms of footballer years, there have been murmurs, such as from the Daily Mail, that Rooney could see out his contract at Old Trafford. Compared to £250,000 per week, that melon seems half-decent value. Rooney is an anomaly in that the majority of his worth is tied up in his commercial value.

Nonetheless, Wenger's warning surely has an echo of prescience given English football's biggest club is seemingly struggling to find a suitor willing to pay more than a third of what their all-time leading goalscorer is earning.

John Percy of the Telegraph reported Torino's willingness to stump up just 35 percent of Joe Hart's salary (and seemingly still being of the opinion they paid too much) to take him to Italy for a season on loan will have not gone unnoticed across the road. Hart has asked Manchester City not to price him out of the market. He may also have to make a similar deal with himself.

If Rooney doesn't fancy a sojourn to either MLS or the Chinese Super League, it's not inconceivable United could end up paying him the best part of £200,000 per week to play for Everton. His agent, Paul Stretford, has surely already drafted his "We need to talk about Wayne" email. Woodward, who on a nightly basis alternates between number crunching and silently weeping into his official club pillow, can only hope it never drops into his inbox.

On Thursday, Pitt-Brooke reported Everton, West Ham United and Newcastle United were all interested in Manchester United centre-half Chris Smalling. Forebodingly, in what could prove to be a reoccurring theme of the summer, he said of the player's £100,000-per-week earnings: "Those wages could prove to be a stumbling block for any potential buyer."

It could be United will be forced to sell to a rival to prevent having to subsidize his departure. It's a similar story with each of the top six or seven.

Tottenham's seeming willingness to do business with Manchester City over Kyle Walker, despite finishing above Pep Guardiola's side in each of the past two seasons, again hints at a softening stance with regard to top-end clubs being more malleable to the idea of working with one another. Nobody wants to pay an unhappy full-back over £100,000 per week to sit simmering in the corner.

Back in 2007, there was not a dissimilar situation at Manchester United when Gabriel Heinze was trying to agitate a move to Liverpool having fallen behind Patrice Evra in the pecking order following a serious injury. United's response, via then-chief executive David Gill, was unequivocal.

"On Monday night, we received a written offer, and we've rejected that," he said, per Ian Ladyman of the Daily Mail. "It was a significant offer. But we rejected it because it's Liverpool. We wouldn't sell a player to Liverpool, Arsenal or Chelsea."

Phil Chisnall was the last player to make the move between the two clubs, back in 1964. United boss Jose Mourinho, at least when the mood or occasion suits, always insists he would have no problem selling to a rival club.

"So any player who knocks on my door and is not happy and wants to move, when the offers are correct, I will never stop a player from leaving, even if it is to a rival," he proffered last year, per Simon Stone of BBC Sport.

It may be a tune all of the Premier League's top bosses find themselves humming over the next few months.