The Boys Are Back In Town

There may have been an expectation that Premier League spending would be curtailed by an early closure of the transfer window this summer, but the majority of clubs (not you Tottenham Hotspur) managed to shop til they dropped, spending a grand sum of £1.25bn on new talent for the forthcoming season. Though that total falls some way behind the eye-popping £1.8bn shelled out last summer, there has been a notable shift in the spending habits of clubs in 2018, particularly among the promoted clubs. So does this mark a watershed moment in the competitiveness of the so-called underdogs? And does spending money ever really guarantee survival? 

“It does not necessarily mean it’s going to work. We don’t have that luxury anyhow, we have spent it wisely we think. We’re looking to build the club for the future really.” Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock was sanguine when asked whether he was envious of the summer business completed  by fellow promoted teams Fulham and Wolverhampton Wanderers. With six new players acquired for only the Bluebirds second ever Premier League campaign, the veteran coach is confident that all the necessary gaps have been plugged in his squad, and the target of surviving is achievable. Still, he could be forgiven for wondering what might have been had he received the kind of backing that Slavisa Jokanovic and Nuno Espírito Santo were given to bolster the weakest squad in the division.

Vincent Tan is no stranger to splashing the cash in a bid to remain among the elite. In Cardiff’s last Premier League campaign, the one with the controversial red home shirts and “banter’s” Malky Mackay in charge, the south Walians accrued the highest transfer spend in the summer window of all three promoted teams. Seven players were added to the squad in 2013, at a net spend (because if you’re going to talk about spend you’ve got to talk about net spend, as a wise man once said) of £35m, with the feral Chilean Gary Medel taking up almost a third of  that expenditure. Whether his club’s abysmal performance that season has coloured his opinion of spending to survive is difficult to say, but at £1.1m per point, Cardiff posted the worst return on investment of any promoted side in the past five years. Coincidentally, the two other sides promoted in 2013 are responsible for some of the better business over the last half a decade. Crystal Palace, a club no stranger to penury, opted for quantity over quality on their return to the top flight, bringing in nine players for a little under £20m. Hull City, meanwhile, finished that season with the best points-to-pounds ratio of any non-relegated team since – £12.5m spent, 16th place secured.

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Both Tan and Warnock are realistic, though. Whether Cardiff spent £28.5m or £100m, they were always likely to head into the season as favourites to go straight back down, on account of massively overacheiving last season. They, unlike Wolves or Fulham, are ill-prepared for life at the top table, and throwing money at the squad in the hope of miraculously becoming Premier League ready could set the club back a decade should it fail to work out. Warnock’s side aren’t a lost cause, but they’ll have to rely on determination, team-spirit, and plenty of other hackneyed cliches that get trotted out for a whipping boy.

That there’s even a discussion about Cardiff ‘underspending’ in a transfer window that saw nearly £30m leave the club’s bank account goes someway to demonstrating how mad the money in the Premier League has gone. In the summer of 2016, the year that the Premier League agreed a £5bn TV deal with Sky and BT, the spending power of promoted clubs was at an all time low. Not prepared to gamble their end-of-season payout, Middlesbrough, Hull City and Burnley finished the summer window with a collective net spend of £53.5m, accounting for just 7.5% of the total net spend of the division. Of those three teams, only Burnley scraped survival. Last season, with English clubs throwing money at each other like overexcited children in M&Ms World, Newcastle, Brighton and Huddersfield accounted for 12.4%, a slight increase on the austerity of the previous season. This year, Fulham and Wolves’ trolley dash has seen the spending power of promoted  sides reach unprecedented levels. With a joint net spend of £184.8m, the three newcomers account for 19.4% of all Premier League spending this summer. Fulham, in particular, look to be throwing everything they can at establishing themselves in the top flight, making three signings over £20m and breaking their transfer record twice – on Jean Michael Seri and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa. Their net spend of £98.7m on seven permanent transfers works out at £14.1m per player – an all time high, and one that leaves them sitting fourth in the net spend table at close of business. That’s not to mention the five loan signings that mean Jokanovic has been sanctioned a whole new team. Why choose quality or quantity  when you can have both?

Fulham and Wolves arrive with larger financial backing than Cardiff, of course. Shahid Khan, the Pakistani businessman who, not too long ago, was looking to buy England’s national stadium, has a net worth of around £6bn, while Fosun International can boast the same kind of wealth. Vincent Tan, on the other hand, arrives in the Premier League a comparative pauper, with an estimated net worth of £950m. While both Shah and Fousn will be hoping their respective clubs can repay some of their considerable outlay come the end of the season, both in TV money and performance related prizes, their summer spree is a drop in the ocean considering the potential rewards at stake. Rare is the opportunity for promoted sides to arrive with this kind of spending power behind them.

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But does an extravagant summer guarantee success? Liverpool certainly hope so, having spent wisely but outrageously to improve their squad, they sit top of the net spend table on £155.4m – almost double that of second placed Chelsea. In three of the last four Premier League seasons the newly promoted side with the lowest summer net spend has been relegated. Although Newcastle, perhaps on account of having the most experienced manager, finished higher than their fellow promoted sides last season, despite having the lowest spend of all three. The team with the highest spend has been relegated twice – Harry Redknapp’s QPR joining Cardiff in that illustrious list – while the least prepared team to arrive in the league was Norwich City in 2015. Their net spend of £6.8m wasn’t enough to prevent a trip straight back down to the Championship. When it comes to beating the drop, there are no guarantees that money will save the day.

Of the three newly promoted sides, Wolves have arrived looking the most Premier League ready. Before their summer business began, they were tipped not only to stay up but establish themselves as a solid mid-table side. Their links with super agent Jorge Mendes have helped the team from the Black Country transform from second-tier also-rans to elite level upstarts, and thanks to a mixture of canny loan signings, incredible bargains and agent know how, Nuno has assembled one of the more talented squads outside the top six. The money spent by Wolves this summer was largely on securing the permanent signatures of those loan signings that had fired them to the Championship title, though the late acquisition of Adama Traore for a club record £18m seemed almost like a warning shot to the rest of the division – Wolves have got money to spend, don’t worry about that. That ‘Premier League readiness’, which is largely unquantifiable, could be a better yardstick than transfer spend, given that history tells us spending peanuts is a recipe for disaster, but you can’t buy yourself survival either. It was the presence of an experienced Premier League manager and a clutch of Premier League level players that secured Newcastle’s tenth place last season, while Burnley’s 16th place finish the year before came at the third attempt to avoid relegation.  That Wolves won the Championship last year with such ease suggests they should arrive in the Premier League prepared to go toe-to-toe with the big guns, while Fulham’s inability to overtake an ailing Cardiff side is a slight on their prospects.

Whatever the result of this summer’s spending spree, it’s fair to say that, until the bubble bursts, more and more promoted sides will be drawn into bidding wars in order to cement their place in Europe’s most lucrative league. But with recently relegated sides like Norwich, Aston Villa and Sunderland all experiencing hardship shortly after relegation, clubs would be advised to check their risk/reward charts. Should Fulham or Wolves suffer relegation, their wealthy owners might not be so trigger happy with their credit cards next time around.

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