Someone with a better background in economics than me probably has a name for this, but there’s a phenomenon that exists almost exclusively in the Premier League that makes it virtually impossible for teams outside the top six to break in consistently. The incredible wealth of the English Premier League makes it so that teams outside the top six have more money than they have draw power on potential transfer targets, inflating the prices they spend and warping net spend. The result is that lesser clubs end up spending more money on lesser players not because they are worse at spotting talent, but because everyone knows how much money they have and there are no better players willing to come in.
A prime example of this phenomenon is Gylfi Sigurdsson. Over and over again during the transfer saga for the Icelander we discussed whether he was worth over £40 million in the transfer market. He is now coming off a great season and I think most fans are happy we signed him, but why did Everton spend £44.5m on Gylfi when Liverpool is able to get Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino all for fees less than that?
A Red might tell you that this is simply because Liverpool is superior in scouting to Everton. And while I might look at Sandro Ramirez and Davy Klaassen and readily agree that Liverpool’s scouting department has in the Klopp era been better than Everton’s, I do not think that tells the full story at all. Let’s just focus on one transfer from each club. Gylfi and Salah both arrived in Merseyside the same season, Gylfi cost £7m more, but I do not think anyone who paid attention to both Serie A and the PL actually thought that Gylfi was the better player. Here are comparative radars of the two from that season:
While no one was likely to predict that Salah would be quite as good as he has been at Liverpool, projecting him to be better than Gylfi based on their underlying metrics was a rather simple task. So why didn’t Everton just go and sign Mohamed Salah instead when they needed attacking help? Quite simply, Salah would not have agreed to come here. In fact, there was not even a huge competition for his signature in 2017 largely because the Egyptian made it clear that he wanted to play for Liverpool, and Roma was facing Financial Fair Play complications, so the Reds were able to sweep in and do the deal very cheaply. This wasn’t so much a victory of Liverpool scouting, it was a player everyone knew was good attracted by a particular manager and particular brand while the selling club had little choice but to cash in.
This is a complication all clubs outside the top six face, especially when attracting talent from outside of English football. It is not just that Liverpool and other top six clubs have good scouts, it is that the non-top six clubs have to have scouts that are significantly better than their prestigious counterparts in order to acquire similar level talent. Everton has to find the Mo Salah that hasn’t met his potential yet, and hope no one with a bigger brand notices, if they are going acquire them.
So instead, when Everton needs high end attacking talent they go to places like Swansea for players like Gylfi. At the Swans, Gylfi was the difference between them staying in the Premier League or going down, so of course a premium was going to have to be paid for his services. We might have been able to scour the world of football and find someone who was a better fit than Gylfi or slightly better than him, but in all likelihood most options would have been similarly expensive unless our scouting was so good that we found a diamond in the rough that no one else knew about.
This reality not only helps top six clubs buy cheaply, also helps them sell their unneeded players at a premium. Why is Liverpool able to get £25m for Danny Ings or Dominic Solanke? Why can Theo Walcott be sold for that number in a year that he was barely playing at all for Arsenal or why can Chelsea sell Nathan Ake for £22m?
The reason is that smaller clubs in the PL have more money than they have ability to attract talent. AFC Bournemouth has £22m to spend on a defender but an established big reputation defender just is not going to come to the Cherries without absurd wage demands so they spend it on big club leftovers instead, hoping that even though Ake is surplus to requirements at Chelsea he is good enough to start for them (That gamble paid off, by the way). Everton had £25m to spend on a winger in January but couldn’t afford to take much of a risk, so a player with a history in the PL who wasn’t able to get minutes at a top club was a safer bet than spending £25m on a winger outside the country that no one else was after (which is essentially what the Cenk Tosun deal was).
For clubs outside the top six, it’s often easier to take the leftovers of the big clubs than it is to cannibalize one another. Why does Leicester City spend £31m on Elechi Iheanacho, who Manchester City has no use for? Because doing that is much simpler than convincing Bournemouth to part with Callum Wilson (for example). If you think two players might be similarly talented and one club (City) is far less attached to their guy, you go for the easier target.
In the big picture this warps things like net spend. Liverpool had hardly any net spend their first two seasons under Klopp because they kept clearing out the deadweight from the previous regime at premium prices and got a huge windfall as part of a knock on effect from PSG triggering Neymar’s release clause and Barcelona replacing him in part with Philippe Coutinho. Just look at some of the sums of money Liverpool got for mediocre players they could not even use:
Ings 25m, Solanke 24m, Danny Ward 15m, Mamadou Sakho 32m, Christian Benteke 35m, Jordan Ibe 20m, Joe Allen 17m, Fabio Borini 12m
That’s £180m pounds from a not-exhaustive list of players they had no use for, all sold to smaller Premier League clubs. They then turned around and get the key pieces to their current squad with that money and everyone acts like they are simply wonderful negotiators. Don’t get me wrong, they negotiate pretty well and do a good job identifying talent (just look at their fullbacks) but Ings and Solanke paid for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and half of Xherdan Shaqiri, Sakho and Benteke pay for Naby Keita, Ibe and Ward pay for Fabinho.
The incoming players here are guys that a club like Everton would have to pay far more in wages to get, and having £40m players coming off the bench is not a reality here regardless of who has more net spend. You might say that ‘Well, Liverpool is developing these leftover players they get such high fees for’ which is true but Southampton produces extremely good talent as well and look where they are right now, because they cannot just sell these guys and expect world class talent to be banging down the door to replace them.
All of this is not complaining. The top six clubs absolutely deserve the advantages they have in the transfer market either by years or decades of excellence on the pitch (Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, or Manchester United) or by paying high enough wages to raise their status in the game (like Chelsea and City). The point here is that it’s not as simple as just saying ‘Well if Everton’s scouts and negotiators were as good as Liverpool’s they would be just as good’.
No, we wouldn’t be. There are distinct advantages and disadvantages in the recruitment process that make it so that the Evertons, Leicesters, and Watford FCs of the world have to make choices the top clubs don’t. In our reality, we our options are to chase riskier prospects outside of England (Davy Klaassen, Lucas Digne, Cenk Tosun), pay a premium for talent the top six doesn’t want from the lower half of the Premier League (Jordan Pickford, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Michael Keane), or accept that we aren’t going to catch the top six and just try to consolidate our position with their leftovers (Theo Walcott, Kurt Zouma, Morgan Schneiderlin). So the next time some top six fan acts like Everton just has lousy recruitment and their club is run by miraculous deal makers, remember that it is not nearly as simple as that. Our road is harder, and that’s fine, we embrace it. One day we’ll get over that hump but the process of getting there is not as simple as most people think it is.