The summer transfer window in the Premier League slammed shut on Wednesday night after the usual deadline day shopping carnage. According to Deloitte, the management consultants, whose figures, it must be said, include an element of guesswork; the 20 clubs spent a total of £485 million ($786M). That is a leap of 33 percent on last summer. The total was below the £500 million ($811M) spent in the summer of 2008, but the £225 million ($365M) spent in January make this a record year. Five clubs, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United each spent more than £50 million ($81M) and between them accounted for 66 percent of the total spend. Of course, research shows that the truest predictor of a club's success is not its transfer spending but its wage bill. In that, the three clubs that don't seem to care what wages they pay, City, United and Chelsea, have a clear edge.
It's a little early to say who have netted the best crop. So many of these players are young and still developing. Even for veterans, particularly those coming to the Premier League for the first time, it usually takes a while to adjust to new clubs. But that raises the perennial question of why so many clubs waste precious time and wait until the last minute, three games into the season. Part of the reason is that the three superrich clubs set the market, often becoming embroiled in games of chicken with other clubs desperate to hold onto, or really cash in on, their best players. This has a knock on effect all the way down the line. With those caveats, there are still some clear winners and losers.
1. Alex Ferguson. United started with the best team in the country and a pile of money and got their deals done early and at prices they clearly liked. Phil Jones has potential and, because he's 19 and English, allows Ferguson an extra player in his Premier League squad. Ashley Young has talent and pace. He is the sort of tweener -- not really a winger nor a central striker nor an attacking midfielder -- who may cause other managers headaches but who Ferguson uses well. The question mark is David de Gea. He has talent but he is young. Ferguson's impatience with errors has made him a serial goalie killer. Does de Gea, at 20, have the mental strength that allowed Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar (and really no one else) to thrive under Fergie? He better, because there's no one else. The big puzzle was the Wesley Sneijder saga. Yes, the Dutchman is good. Yes, United's midfield, without Paul Scholes suddenly looks very short of the experience Ferguson so values. But the whole thing smells of £30 million ($48M) burning a hole in Fergie's pocket and freeing his competitive desire to match Manchester City in the celebrity silly money sweepstakes.
2. The Glazers. United regained the title while income and, more importantly, profits leapt to record levels. The club took another bite out of the debts the Glazers incurred buying the club. If Asian fans do swallow the proposed $1 billion flotation on the Singapore stock exchange, the Glazers can retire the debt and pocket a handy profit. Then, if UEFA succeeds in imposing its Financial Fair Play rules, which would tie club expenditure to income, United will be utterly unstoppable in the transfer market. The few remaining fans who noisily advertise their loathing for the club ownership will have to shut up, which means the rest of us will be able to hear the Glazers chuckling all the way to the bank and to the trophy cabinet.
3. Garry Cook. Roberto Mancini is the face of Manchester City, but it is the club CEO who is responsible for spending the Abu Dhabi petrodollars as fast as he can pitchfork them out of the back of the truck. At the start of its new superrich era, City had to overspend simply to land high profile names of questionable character. Only a couple went really badly wrong: Robinho and the toxic avenger, Emmanuel Adebayor. But what Cook was buying, apart from every player he could lay his hands on, was credibility as a big-time club. This summer, City has shed 16 players, some released, some retired, some loaned, some given away and others on fees so embarrassing that, with the exception of Shay Given, they weren't disclosed. It doesn't matter. Two of last year's big attacking signings have settled in and started to really blossom. Edin Dzeko looks a worldbeater. David Silva has gone from good to great. This summer's big signing, Sergio Aguero, already looks very good after just three games. A year ago the club was utterly dependent on Carlos Tévez in attack, now he is back to his United role as an impact sub. City has so much depth it can afford to wait for Kolo Toure to complete his drug ban and for Mario Balotelli to grow up. Cook even pulled a deadline-day rabbit out of the hat in Owen Hargreaves, signed for nothing. He only has to do what Patrick Vieira did last season and give Yaya Touré an occasional break to represent good business and the bonus of a satisfying poke in the eye for Ferguson. The loan of Adebayor to Tottenham, shows that Cook is no longer worried about the battle for fourth. He's right. He has finally spent enough to build a contender.
4. Willie McKay. For all the big agents the transfer window is Christmas Day every day. When Joey Barton tweeted his way out of Newcastle, McKay didn't need to attempt any damage limitation, he just had to reach for his cellphone and start playing potential suitors off against each other. Agents don't only take a cut of what their players earn, they also receive fees from the clubs the players join, usually somewhere between 4 and 10 percent of the value of the whole contract. If they manage to engineer another move after a season or two, they don't have to give any of that fee back as they bank the next one. There were ructions at Blackburn last week after the new owners discovered that when the club bought Ruben Rochina from Barcelona for £400,000 ($649,000) in January, his agent, Manuel Salamanca Ferrer, received a fee of £1.65 million ($2.65M). In the year to September 2010, Premier League clubs spent £67 million ($108M) in agent fees. Clearly, where an agent is collecting money from both the club and the player, there is a question of whose interests he is representing. The problem is worse when an agent has a large stable of players he can use as bargaining chips. It is a conflict of interest that is immoral and should be illegal.
5. Cameron Jerome. Last season, Birmingham City was relegated chiefly because it scored just 37 goals in 38 its games, by far the least in the Premier League. One of the chief culprits was Jerome, a "striker" who scored three league goals in 34 appearances. Yet here he is, back in the Premier League with upwardly mobile Stoke City. He is a lucky lad.
There are the ever-loyal Newcastle fans who saw three productive veterans leave to be replaced by a van load of cheap youngsters, and must wonder where the £35 million ($56.8M) the club got for Andy Carroll has gone. There is Daniel Levy who made his stand against Chelsea's initial cynical lowball bid for Luka Modric and may have won the battle (even rejecting a late reported £40M/$64 bid) but lost Tottenham's season. There is Tévez, who did not get what he wants, whatever that might be.
But the biggest loser was:
1. Arsene Wenger. Arsenal spent over £50 million ($81M), but ended August losing 8-2 at Old Trafford and looking even more of a mess than the team that finished last season in free fall. It's not just that Arsenal lost his games of bluff with Barcelona over Cesc Fabregas and City over Samir Nasri; it's also that Wenger's subsequent desperate deadline day dealings involved the humiliating abandonment of his whole team-building philosophy. Wenger might originally have been nudged toward carefully-scouted youth by Arsenal's cash flow problems while it was building the Emirates stadium. Yet the statistics he so dearly loves showed him that young players were better value for money and better able to play the high-tempo pressing and passing style he wanted. From the point of view of physical output, Wenger clearly sold Vieira at the right time, but he could have done with the veteran's experience and fierce competitiveness during last season's meltdown. Without Fabregas and Nasri, Arsenal was so short of reliable veterans that Wenger appointed the sulky Robin van Persie as captain. The three players he signed as well as the host of other veterans for whom he reportedly made late, panicky, bids, are respectable talents. They will help this season. But they are not in the class of the two departed stars. Worse, they have an average age of almost 29. One of them, Yossi Benayoun, is a charity handout from former rival Chelsea. A slice of humble pie with that Arteta, Mr. Wenger?
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.