With no actual football to write about — but the need to churn out stories and generate clicks remaining — newspapers are doing what they always do: pushing transfer rumors down our throats. And considering that “Manchester United” is great SEO to have in your headlines, “new” stories about the Red Devils seem to break every day.
I say “new” because, let’s be honest, the stories are all the same. One day Jack Grealish has finalized a deal to move to United at the end of the season. The next day United will have concerns over him, but at least they signed Jadon Sancho. Then a day later someone else may pip United to Sancho, and on and on it goes.
The stories do their intended jobs. They drive engagement and create discussion among fans. “£120 million for Sancho is a lot,” or “I don’t know if Grealish is worth £60 million.”
Numbers are good for driving clicks. The more spectacular the transfer fee, the more people are likely to click on it. And, by changing the transfer fee you can change the headline and re-publish essentially the same story.
But numbers are really bad at actually valuing a transfer, and the fact that fans and pundits alike do it is a mistake. Judging a team based on how much money they spent is silly. The same goes for what players cost, especially because there are so many factors that influence a transfer fee that have nothing to do with the players ability.
The transfer market combines supply and demand, inflation, and a whole bunch of other factors. Do you have money? Do you need money? Every year the baseline is set, and the next year it will be surpassed.
Harry Maguire isn’t better than Virgil Van Dijk, but Van Dijk’s £75 million price tag set the market for defenders. A year after Van Dijk went to Liverpool, United wanted a defender: they’re the demand. Leicester City have the supply. They also have no need to sell since Maguire had four years left on his contract, and more importantly because Leicester have money. They know United have money, so they were able to set the terms. They wanted to eclipse the record for a defender, United had to play ball.
That brings us back to Grealish. Everyone has their opinion on how much they think United should pay for him, but we have to forget about the number. £60 million is thrown out there because United are a team with money, and we also know that United have to pay a “United premium” on a lot of their signings.
But what does the £60 million actually mean?
Well, without context, nothing.
When someone says “would you pay £60 million for Jack Grealish?” they’re asking the wrong question. The question we should be asking is, “what proportion of our transfer budget would you spend on Jack Grealish?”
For example, let’s say United had a transfer budget this summer of £100 million. That would make Grealish’s £60 million 60 percent of the budget. Would you do that? Absolutely not.
But what if United’s transfer budget this summer was £400 million? Now he’s only 15 percent of the budget, leaving you with plenty of room to sign other players. Now it seems like a no brainer.
Without that context there’s never a good way to judge a transfer fee. We never actually know what United’s budget actually will be, nevermind what it will be this summer.
In fact, this summer we really don’t know what the market is going to look like at all. Right now all the transfer rumors contain the same prices they have all season because teams need to keep those numbers high to give off the impression as we go through this crisis that financially everything's still fine. When it comes time to come to the negotiating table though, it’s going to be different.
When the market does eventually open, United will not only have money but they’ll also — for the first time in several years — have significant financial leverage over the teams below them in the Premier League.
This whole season, I’ve spoken a lot about how the transfer market has changed over time. FFP and the Premier League’s TV contract have changed the way teams do business. Before this summer, £15 million for a mid-table side was no longer the life changing money it used to be. Premier League teams didn’t have to sell because they didn’t need the money.
Well, guess what. We’re going back to the olden days this summer. FFP rules are going to be relaxed, and suddenly there are a lot of teams that need money again.
Just look at Aston Villa. If the season gets completed behind closed doors, Villa will lose out on key match-day revenue. It may be peanuts compared to what they get from TV but that money goes a long way in terms of operational costs. Now factor in that if the season does get completed, Villa are likely to go down, and who knows when they’ll be able to play in front of fans again.
Suddenly this is a team that needs money. That price on Grealish will come down. Even in a reasonably optimistic scenario, Villa can’t risk no one coming to get Grealish. In a worst case scenario, they may need to get Grealish’s wages off their books just for their own survival. If a combination of relegation and lost matchday revenue means that they will prefer the transfer fee upfront rather than in installments (as most transfer fees are paid), that price may fall even further.
Norwich are in the same boat, making it a great time to make a double swoop for players like Max Aarons and Todd Cantwell. “Exploiting” may not be the right word to use at this time, but that’s what it is. Teams are going to need money for simple operational costs. If you can provide that, you have an advantage.
No one knows for sure what this summer’s transfer market will look like, but we have enough information to infer that the numbers will be lower, and it’ll be good for United.