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What will a post-COVID-19 transfer market look like?

With more clubs than usual needing money, it may be a buyer’s market

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Borussia Moenchengladbach v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

At some point in the future, maybe (hopefully) this summer or maybe in the fall, FIFA will open up a “summer” transfer window. As always, a transfer window means teams will be wheeling and dealing to try and improve their ranks for the next season.

While we have no idea what a post-COVID transfer market will look like, we do know this: many more teams than usual just need money. Under those conditions, there will be three things influencing what deals will get done in this window.

  1. Who has money
  2. Who needs money
  3. PR

The first group is obvious. With a massive loss of revenue across the board, UEFA are expected to relax FFP laws for this year. That’s good news for anyone with money. Now you can spend it even more freely than usual as you attempt to stockpile talent. The only question that remains is, how many clubs are actually in this group?

The second group is also obvious. Some clubs are financially stable, but won’t have the money to spend unless they sell some of their players. Some clubs need wage relief while others just need to cover operating costs.

This second group is also very diverse. It obviously includes clubs like Aston Villa, who may have to sell Jack Grealish at a cut-rate price to make up for coronavirus-related losses, but it can also include far bigger clubs. There were already reports that Arsenal would need to sell players if they didn’t qualify for the Champions League this season. Those chances look bleaker by the day, and now factor in how much additional revenue Arsenal will lose just in match-day revenue if the season isn’t completed.

This goes higher than Arsenal too. Barcelona’s habit of quietly overspending their means for years is coming to a big boil now. Their club structure is (somehow) more of a mess than United’s. When COVID-19 hit the footballing world Barcelona were the first team in Spain to ask their players to take a pay cut, a sign of just how big their financial problems are.

Forget about selling players to be able to buy new ones. They have so many players on bloated wages that they just need to get them off the books full stop.

That brings us to the third aspect: public relations.

Clubs not only have to deal with PR from their fans’ perspective but the players too. You can’t furlough your employees — or attempt to, as Tottenham and Liverpool did — and then turn around and spend £80 million on a player. Where did you get that money?

There’s also the PR that happens within your own team. Many clubs are asking players to take pay cuts. While it seems like the obviously right thing to do, many players are skeptical about how the clubs will use that money.

As one agent said in The Athletic:

“A lot of the players at one club were saying, ‘I know what’ll happen, we’ll take a deferral, a cut, then we’ll go and sign some crap player from abroad for £30 million who plays five games for the club and we’ll pay them off three years later.’”

If you go and do that, you can lose the loyalty of your players. For a team at the bottom of the table that could be the difference between relegation or the millions you’ll make from staying up. Higher up the table, that could be the difference between Champions League riches or not.

So what happens?

The truth is anyone’s guess, but there is enough information out there to make some educated guesses.

All the agents that are speaking publicly believe we’re going to see more “Bosman transfers.” This was likely to happen anyway as clubs were already becoming less willing to take bad contracts off of other clubs’ hands (see Real Madrid frantically trying to move James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale year after year).

Teams are also becoming more hesitant to spend money on players who are already in their prime. Considering all the fees involved, we were probably already going to see a lot more Christian Eriksen situations where players are willing to run down their contracts to give them free mobility in the summer.

Where it changes for the players is in contract negotiations. It will probably become harder for players and their agents to use other clubs as leverage, as teams know that their rivals won’t want to spend money on all the fees associated with a transfer. For the player, he’ll have to debate whether his current club can offer him a better contract at 27 than what he’d get on the open market the following season when he’s 28. For many, the answer might be their current team.

All in all, the really top clubs with money — United, Manchester City, possibly Bayern Munich, and probably Liverpool — will have their pick of the litter when it comes to talent. But as long as your club is financially solvent, I think this actually benefits the middle tier clubs the most.

The door is now wider open than ever for a team like Leicester City to swoop in for Norwich’s young talent at a good price. The Canaries may not want to sell Max Aarons or Todd Cantwell, but they may have to do for the sake of keeping the club running.

That’s just the bottom of the Premier League. Now imagine what’s going on in the Championship where the clubs aren’t swimming in all that TV revenue. Those clubs will badly need cash. A player like Daniel James, who went for £15 million last summer, may only go for £5 million this year. That £5 million will go a long way for a club who need to simply keep the lights on.

I think that effect will trickle up the league. A Premier League club will be less resistant to selling their young stud for £25 million when they may be able to grab two replacements for half that.

Obviously the big clubs can also come along and poach this same young up and coming talent, but not as many as you think. Like I said, some big boys need to clear wages off their books and that in and of itself won’t be easy. If you can’t clear those wages, your books are going to still be bloated down the line when FFP rules are put back into place. Your bloated payroll now could easily still be hurting you in three years.

Even clubs that say they’re fine and won’t be bullied, like Borussia Dortmund, are still affected. Regardless of whether the current seasons are completed or not, everyone will be losing a substantial chunk of match-day revenue. For Dortmund that revenue is what keeps them among Europe’s elite. If offers for Jadon Sancho aren’t as high as Dortmund initially anticipated they’ll still have to take what they can get to offset their revenue losses.

And yes, Dortmund have to sell Sancho this year because of that pesky third factor. The PR. Everyone now knows that Borussia Dortmund’s MO is finding young talent, letting them develop, and selling them for profit. They land the best young talent because they can sell them on a path to the first team, and a promise that they won’t stand in their way when they want to leave. If they refuse to sell Sancho, that promise goes out the window.

No one is in as good a financial spot as they expected to be. That’s going to make it a buyer’s market. Probably. At the end of the day, no one really knows.