Summer transfer window: lingering decline with cautious optimism

06.09.2021

A week-long article series on this summer’s major transfers

What was expected to be a quiet transfer window as a consequence of playing a full season behind closed doors, turned out to be a historic period of player transfers, also involving two of the greatest ever to play the beautiful game. The summer transfer window of 2021 will be primarily and forever remembered for shock moves by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and the continuing but more modest decrease in overall spending in comparison to the 2019 summer transfer window, the last one to have occurred before the pandemic.

This week, in a series of articles, we explore these developments further: the key trends, top clubs and major deals of the transfer window, the free agent boom and some more background around the historic moves of Ronaldo and Messi.

This summer only German Bundesliga clubs spent more on player acquisitions than in 2020, while all the other Big 5 leagues spent less on transfers for the second consecutive year. The recent transfer window will likely also be remembered for much anticipated deals that did not materialise but could have been the top transfers of the season: Tottenham managing to keep Manchester City-bound Harry Kane, while Paris St-Germain rejected Real Madrid’s offers for Kylian Mbappe. Nevertheless, some club records have been broken, and Europe’s top clubs have made a number of striking deals in order to enhance their chances on and off the pitch in the new season. The transfer period, which returned to the normal transfer calendar, has also seen an upturn in free transfers involving high-value stars – a new phenomenon on this scale.

The shock of the COVID crisis on the football industry is also evident in FIFA’s recent report on international transfers of the past 10 years: it reveals that after years of constant growth, total spending on cross-border transfers among the over 8000 clubs of the 200 FIFA associations dropped from USD 7.35bn in 2019 to USD 5.63bn in 2020, and was lower than the level registered in 2017 (USD 6.29bn).

Investing in the squad, a football club's most valuable asset, is obviously key – as our chart shows, clubs that spent most on international transfers in the past 10 years today can boast some of the most valuable enterprises and squads.

The first transfer period after the unprecedented damage caused by the COVID pandemic and the turmoil of the European Super League initiative demonstrated the lasting impacts of the health crisis and offered some cautious optimism for the sport. In the first few matchdays of the new season, football in Europe could return to normal, especially with fans back in the stadia, and with all revenues streams potentially returning to pre-pandemic levels provided that such favourable conditions remain over the course of the year.

Predictably, English Premier League (EPL) clubs splashed out the most on new players this summer (EUR 1.3bn), yet the overall transfer expenditure of the league decreased for the second year in a row. Our chart displays the decline in transfer spending of the Big 5 leagues over the past three summer windows – after the drastic drop in last summer's, now the overall decrease is lower with the exception of the Italian Serie A, which shows a 32% decrease for the second consecutive window and the Bundesliga, which even managed to record year-on-year growth.

The dominance of the English Premier League is evident. Thanks to the most lucrative broadcasting deal in football, which positions English clubs among the richest in Europe even when taking into account rebates paid due to matches played behind closed doors, the EPL was able to register a significantly more limited spending decrease. It amassed transfer expenditures of EUR 1.3bn—more than two times that of the closest league, namely Serie A. On the other hand, La Liga’s transfer market suffered the severest shock during the pandemic: transfer expense decreased from a record EUR 1.4bn pre-pandemic to an average of less than EUR 300m in the two post-pandemic summer transfer windows as the two Spanish giants, Real Madrid and Barcelona, grapple with their financial problems.

Further evidence of English dominance is given by the fact that EPL's transfer expenses have now reached 45% of total Big 5 player expenditure, significantly higher than the 34% 5-year average pre pandemic. It is also notable that the German Bundesliga not only increased its overall gross spending, but succeeded in making a positive transfer balance at league level, largely thanks to some high-value departures (among others, Jadon Sancho, Ibrahima Konaté and Leon Bailey) to the English Premier League.

Stay tuned for more! Be sure to catch all of our articles over the course of this week in order to get more details on the summer transfer window.