It was the morning of the Super Cup in Skopje, where Gareth Bale and so many other big-name transfers had been discussed behind the scenes, when a Spanish football figure asked a Uefa official whether the governing body is concerned about the escalation of spending in the European game.
Neymar was naturally mentioned, as was the market notionally getting distorted by Manchester City paying more than £50m for a full-back. “The Neymar case is unique,” came the response, “but so is the Premier League. You know it’s a Premier League price.”
In other words, it’s a hyper-reality, but in so many senses.
This is also one of the extra costs of a competition that is so glamorously promoted, that has been so bombastic about its bountiful broadcasting deals. It’s impossible not to mention money because of how imposingly central it is to the new season, because of how it so conditions that season, and because we are still in a transfer window when at least four of last season’s top six clubs – City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool – have each been planning a net spend of around £200m for it with Everton not far behind.
It thereby makes it all the more appropriate that a signpost like the 25th anniversary of the Premier League’s initial breakaway is being so celebrated, because this situation – where some transfer prices no longer really register on any kind of realistic level – is the direct evolution of what happened in 1992, and it does feel like the competition has definitively entered a new era.
The first phase of that era was bringing in most of the biggest-name managers in the world, laying the team foundations, before finally moving onto a different plane by looking to let those managers embark on the biggest collective spending spree any league has ever seen. It is unprecedented.
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Just as the 2016-17 ‘league of star managers’ never did develop into the grand Mancunian duel at the top between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho that so many expected, though, all that cash can have other unintended consequences too.
Primarily, those managers have actually struggled to spend some of that money. Every European club they’ve looked to buy off has seen them coming and duly jacked up asking prices, meaning there are very few of the big six who are currently all that satisfied with their business.
Antonio Conte has made his dissatisfaction publicly known, as he evidently tries to pressurise the Chelsea board to make more signings, and the downscaled size of his squad makes it feel like their ability to do that is going to be key to the club’s ability to defend the title. Mourinho is no longer so dissatisfied but has been fairly public about his own issues. United have so far probably become the only big team to sign for all the positions they most specifically require, but haven’t yet brought in the special quality they also need to really elevate the overall standard of the squad.
City are some way the opposite, especially having made what might well be the signing of the summer in getting Bernardo Silva, but not yet getting the central defensive midfield players that would so crucially shore up that side. They also want to prise Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal, whose summer has almost become about standing firm, although doing so would then enhance the value of Sead Kolasinac and Alexandre Lacazette. Liverpool face a similar challenge regarding Barcelona’s interest in Philippe Coutinho, and that is all the more frustrating a situation because of their failure to yet bring in the top targets of Virgil van Dijk and Naby Keita, who could really push them on. Then there’s Tottenham Hotspur, who have sold Kyle Walker to City for that much-discussed price, but haven’t yet used that money to sign anyone.
Many on City’s coaching staff have been privately and pressingly warning that Spurs should not be discounted because of that, and that it is far more important that Mauricio Pochettino’s impressively drilled young side mostly stay together because of the strides they are still capable of making. The belief is that even if the Argentine has improbably defied the economic realities of the league so far, he is still capable of doing even more with this core.
The idea points to another unintended consequence of this cash, that goes much deeper, and is something of an irony to all of this. Even if it feels a little hollow that the first big response of so many of these big-name managers is to spend lots of money, the fact that so many of them can do that actually turns it back and makes the hands-on coaching and insight all the more important again. It means that, in a situation where so many are spending barely comprehensible amounts, the little touches that then nuance that actually have bigger effects. If everyone has money, in other words, you have to find something else. That is arguably what Pochettino done, as has Conte.
At this very stage last year, the Italian responded to Chelsea’s incomplete transfer business and the expenditure of the Manchester clubs by switching to a transformative three-man defence and triumphing. This season could be just as influenced by such moves that have a value beyond money, like whether Arsene Wenger’s decision to follow Conte in the use of that system continues to solve Arsenal’s issues, or by how Guardiola improvises around that central midfield, or by how Klopp responds if Liverpool fail to get those signings.
Across Merseyside, Everton have had no such issues buying their targets in an assertive summer, and should make a leap forward, but it says much about the abundance of money in the division that it still feels like the players they’ve brought will take them on but not take them into the top six.
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There is also a certain sense of stasis about a group of around eight to 10 teams beyond them, who could be relatively interchangeable. Again, it feels like the real value is in trying to do something different, something that gives you an identity beyond the money, like what Southampton have managed. Huddersfield and Brighton could prove interesting watches in that regard, even if their lack of experience in such a financially expanding competition will likely tell. Leicester City 2015-16 may be put forward as the example for all of these, meanwhile, but they really remain a freakish exception to the rule; so special because their 2015-16 feat is so difficult to even get close to repeating.
For all the money the Premier League has made from marketing that vaunted unpredictability, too, last season saw the top six take more points off the other 14 than ever before. The real unpredictability is now from the competitive intensity of the top six themselves. It did create some sensationally fast matches last season – especially Manchester City 1-3 Chelsea and Chelsea 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur – and there is an extra enticement in how these big-name managers try to out-think each other, try to outmanoeuvre each other.
They all have something to prove that only fires the exciting tension and expectation of their clubs’ seasons too – even Conte. He enters the campaign in an unusually frustrated mood for a title-winning manager, as there remains so much doubt over whether a stripped-down Chelsea squad can recreate last season.
Mourinho still faces doubt over whether he can recreate his own best days from Chelsea at Manchester United, while Klopp now has to weather European football amid extra expectation. Pochettino must finally make the breakthrough after so much brilliance, but a problem has arisen as Danny Rose’s latest comments reflect how Spurs’ frugal wage structure is being pushed to breaking point, as the side also temporarily moves away from a stadium where they claimed a record points total last season. That surely won’t be repeated at Wembley given the very aura around the old White Hart Lane, so they will need to make it up. Arsenal need to at least make it into his back four as Wenger justifies the decision to stay on, while Guardiola has to justify that hype.
City do feel best placed to claim the title right now but, as ever, the money spent in the next few weeks can greatly change that.
As ever, too, the Premier League will ultimately be decided by value rather than price. There are more ways to show it than money.