The football transfer window in England closed on Friday 1 September, so you might ask why I’m reporting on this a couple of weeks later, I’ll come to that later. In England the transfer circus dominates the sports media and Sky Sports News devotes hours of coverage with various experts and influencers speculating which player is joining which team and at what price. The window itself is ‘manor from heaven’ for Sky Sports, well it is if I’m a typical viewer. The output model is like that of a commercial pop radio station in that if you listen for an extended period, it’s the same players being talked about endlessly across the day.
In negotiation one of the key variables and perhaps the most important is time management. Whilst not all the windows contain the same level of drama and intrigue, there is a familiar pattern. The Premier League summer window ran from 14th June to 1st September, plenty of time for clubs to organise their transfer dealings you might think, however, it’s not as simple as that. The global market is dominated by the big clubs and the Premier League spent £2.36 billion on new players, which accounted for 48% of the spending across the big 5 European leagues. It is not always the case that the biggest clubs spend the most money, however dominate the market for marquee players and the smaller clubs are then able to benefit from the trickle-down effect as these clubs release players as they are bringing new players in. However, the lateness of these deals can result in moves not happening due to a lack of time available for a club to replace a player going to another club.
The big story of the 23/24 summer window isn’t the eye-watering amount of money spent by English clubs, but the emergence of the Saudi Pro League, who spent upwards of £800m by the UK deadline and whose presence came as something of a surprise to both the media and clubs themselves. Given the amount of investment by Saudi in several sports, indeed including owning and sponsoring some of the biggest clubs in Europe, it would be easy to assume that the major clubs may have seen this coming.
Previously, the Saudi’s approach appeared not dissimilar to that of the US Major Soccer League (MLS) in that they focussed on proven talent at major clubs at the very end of their careers. However, not surprisingly, the game changer has not been money spent on transfers, but the eye-watering (tax-free) salaries available, sometimes 3 or 4 times the salaries of already very highly paid players. As an aside, I don’t subscribe to the narrative that footballers are overpaid. In what is a short career, the politics notwithstanding, it’s hard to argue when players can set themselves up for life during a 2-3 year stint, which has resulted in a very different profile of players moving East.
Arguably the club in the Premier League that has been most impacted by this new development has been Liverpool FC. Whilst their manager Jurgen Klopp had a plan to overhaul their ageing midfield, the emergence of the Saudi league transfer strategy made this a reality sooner than expected, with the loss of two of his key midfield lieutenants. But that wasn't the last of it, the Saudi window ended later than in the UK and Al-Ittihad came in with a last-minute bid of £150m for their most prized asset Mohamed Salah, with a reported salary of £2.45m per week. Liverpool turned down the offer, however, the smart money suggests that Al-Ittihad will be back in the January window with an increased offer. As a Muslim, Salah will undoubtedly be seen as a huge coup of the Saudi League and I daresay that Liverpool is considering how they will invest the proceeds into new talent.
The big clubs are now run more like corporations, with CEOs, Managers, Directors of Football, and vast staffs to manage players' health and well-being. Much like in negotiation, strategy development is key, and managing and attracting the right talent is paramount. In any strategy development, it is important to consider as many options as possible and understand the external factors that will impact your strategy. From the outside, it appears many of the big clubs did not see the emergence of the Saudi League and were taken by surprise as a result. Easy in hindsight I know, but given the portents and the fact that the world’s most highly-paid player (Cristiano Ronaldo) is plying his trade there, perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Taking as broad a perspective as possible, looking at the market from the perspective of a competitor and understanding the assets at their disposal will always bear you in good stead. BlackBerry anyone?