The recent summer transfer window demonstrated once again the supremacy of the English Premier League (EPL) in the world of football, with its so-called “big six” clubs among the top spenders. Nevertheless, there are remarkable differences if we look deeper into the transfer activities of those six giants over the past several years.
The English top tier is increasingly seen not only as one of the “Big Five” European football leagues, but rather the real “Super League” whose financial power far surpasses everyone else’s, with the traditional “big six” EPL clubs being in the forefront of that dominance. The average operating revenues of EPL clubs in the 2020/21 season (the last one for which full dataset is available) was EUR 276m, which is almost twice as high as the average in the Spanish LaLiga (EUR 148m). Consequently, the top 10 European clubs by total operating revenue in the 2020/21 season included five of the EPL’s “big six” clubs, with Arsenal at 11th place (mainly due to their lack of Champions League football). Player values also confirm an English dominance, as the average squad market value of EPL clubs amounted to EUR 470m, with LaLiga lagging far behind at EUR 268m, while at club level, the three most valuable squads were all English, namely those of Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea, according to Football Benchmark’s latest player market values as at July 2022. The “big six” are also ranked among the top clubs in Europe by their Enterprise Value (EV), according to our latest club valuation report. A show of English strength is unmistakable also on the pitch – in the past four seasons, the UEFA Champions League finals involved four sides of the EPL “big six” clubs, Manchester City, Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea, the latter two also winning the tournament in all English finals in 2019 and 2021, respectively.
Transfer market activity in recent years also demonstrated the financial power of the English top tier. After a decline in the two COVID-impacted seasons, transactions bounced back in the past summer transfer period both in volume and value. This summer, EPL clubs signed 169 players, compared to 148 in summer 2021 and 132 in summer 2020, and spent a record EUR 2.2bn on new signings - almost the same amount that all the clubs in the other four top leagues combined. EPL’s “big six” represent almost half of that spend (EUR 1.05bn), most notably, Chelsea registering an EPL record summer spending of EUR 279m, and Manchester United also splashing out a club-record summer spend of EUR 238m. It is notable, that EPL title holders Manchester City are the only club in this ranking that can boast a positive transfer balance.
Remarkably, the first seven clubs in the above list also made the ranking of the 10 clubs in Europe who spent the most on new signings in the summer window. The above chart also displays EPL’s competitiveness, indicating firm ambitions of some emerging clubs with rich footballing history. In particular, Newcastle United, backed by the wealth of their new Saudi owners, are expected to be able to challenge the established “big six” within a few seasons. A further interesting detail of the list is Nottingham Forest’s fifth place: the newly promoted club spent a lot on 15 new signings (excluding free transfers and loans); it remains to be seen whether such a large squad turnover can be successful in the top division.
Looking back at the transfer spending of the “big six” clubs in the past five seasons, we find Chelsea and Manchester United as the top two aggregate spenders. Perhaps surprisingly, Liverpool were the most modest in their transfer expenditure. In fact, the Blues spent twice as much as the Reds on new players in this period. Regarding income from player sales in the past five seasons, Manchester City lead the pack, cashing in almost four times the money Arsenal managed to collect.
Aggregate transfer balance figures reveal overall deficits for all “big six” clubs. Manchester City and Liverpool recorded the lowest aggregate deficit, while Manchester United accumulated far the highest negative balance in player transfers over the period – around three times more than the former two clubs.
Interestingly, the two best performers in this regard have been also the most successful sides on the pitch in recent years. Both clubs had long-term strategies and stable management through this period. Solidity on the benches (with Jürgen Klopp leading Liverpool since 2015 and Pep Guardiola managing Manchester City since 2016), coupled with proper football structures in place involving sporting and technical directors, seem to have provided efficient systems and sufficient time for implementing more mindful and balanced transfer policies.
Transfer balance data also display different transfer strategies among EPL’s “big six” clubs. Manchester City and Chelsea have been heavyweight actors on both the selling and buying side, despite the deficit, which is quite substantial at Chelsea. The other four clubs have spent significantly less in the period analyzed, and, with the exception of Liverpool, also found it difficult to sell their players for sizeable fees.
The most successful two sides, Manchester City and Liverpool, have also seen the least turbulence in the form of squad turnover. Currently, the Reds have 13 and Manchester City have ten footballers who were with these club for at least the past five seasons, many players still in these sides’ starting eleven. Given the low average age of Arsenal’s squad, it is unsurprising that they have only two players (Granit Xhaka and Rob Holding) who also played for them in 2018/19.
Manchester City and Liverpool, the more constant squads, also tend to employ more experienced players. Indeed, they are the teams with the highest average age of their team members, although differences are not substantial. On the other end we see Arsenal, with by far the youngest squad among the “big six” clubs. The hope is that Mikel Arteta may be able to build a similarly strong and consistent team within a few seasons.
The more successful sides have been capable of consistently increasing the market valuation of many of their players. For example, Liverpool left-back Andy Robertson was bought from Hull City in 2017 for only EUR 7m, but his market value was more than EUR 60 million at the end of the 2021/22 season. Home-grown talent, Trent Alexander-Arnold joined the club from its youth system and has managed to become the Red’s most valuable player by now, worth EUR 113m. The spectacular rise of Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden has also been exceptional – already highly-regarded as a youth player of the club, he was valued at around EUR 5m when he first joined the senior squad - he is now the world’s third most valuable star player, worth over EUR 140m, according to Football Benchmark.