The transfer window has been open since the start of July and ends on Aug. 31, with Europe’s top clubs already busy spending money to enhance their squads. Man United splashed over €120m on Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane, Arsenal handed over £50m to sign Brighton defender Ben White, Liverpool picked up Leipzig defender Ibrahima Konate for €41.5m, while Man City and Chelsea could break the bank for a statement signing.
In Europe, Real Madrid and Barcelona have been hit hard by financial issues, as have Inter Milan, but PSG have led the way both with the €70m signing of Inter full-back Achraf Hakimi and the free transfers of world-class stars Gianluigi Donnarumma, Sergio Ramos and Georginio Wijnaldum.
But what do our writers think of the window so far?
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access
Move you’re most impressed with this summer?
Julien Laurens: There are a few candidates as always. Varane’s €41m move to Manchester United is a great coup, Liverpool did well to get Konate early and relatively cheap, while David Alaba is a world-class player and a great free transfer signing for Real Madrid from Bayern, at the age of 29.
I like what Leicester and Brighton have done by bringing in FC Salzburg’s talented pair Patson Daka and Enock Mwepu respectively, while Tottenham fans should be really excited about former Sevilla winger Bryan Gil. I’m also a big fan of Donyell Malen’s move to Borussia Dortmund from PSV for around €30m, while Emiliano Buendia’s £33m move to Aston Villa is great and Boulaye Dia’s incredible story continues as he heads from Reims to Villarreal for around €12m.
Rodrigo De Paul is the archetypal Diego Simeone/Atletico Madrid player and is great value at around €35m, much like Donnarumma, Ramos and Wijnaldum are for PSG as free agents. But for me the winner is this category is Hakimi to PSG.
Clubs don’t often look at a specific position and manage to sign the best player in the world with little challenge from their rivals. Hakimi is 22 years old, and no other right-back in the world had a better season than him at Inter Milan last year. It could cost PSG up to €70m, but he is easily worth it.
Tor-Kristian Karlsen: Alaba to Real Madrid is clearly a superb signing which is destined to work out. The Spanish giants picked up one of the top players in Europe on a free transfer, even though securing his signature has obviously represented a substantial investment in wages. Madrid have got a top, experienced professional who’ll add some stability to a club close to turmoil. One signing may not be enough with Ramos and Varane departing, but Alaba’s ability to play practically anywhere on the pitch slightly mitigates the lack of other established arrivals.
From left field, I’m quite excited to see how ex-Lille midfielder Boubakary Soumare gets on at Leicester City after his €20m move, just as I find Roman Yaremchuk’s transfer from Gent to Benfica particularly intriguing after a strong showing for Ukraine at Euro 2020.
Rob Dawson: Varane to Manchester United could be huge. It’s a deal so good that even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ed Woodward are still a little surprised they got it over the line.
United conceded too many goals last season and they have tried to solve the problem with one of the best central defenders in the world who, at 28, should be at the peak of his career. On top of that, they’ve got him for a base fee of €41m, because his contract at Real Madrid was to expire in 2022.
Transfers are never a sure thing but this is about as close as it gets. If Varane gets anywhere close to the form he showed in Spain, United will be a much better team this season.
Mark Ogden: I’m still waiting for the deal that blows me away this summer. I’m sorry, but none of the transfers completed so far strike me as being particularly out of the ordinary or so smart that they deserve acclaim for being done. Let me explain my feeling of being underwhelmed.
United have signed Sancho and Varane, but Sancho’s €85m move from Dortmund has been two years in the making and should have been done a year ago, so the time it has taken means you can’t be too impressed by it. As for Varane, as great as he has been, I think a club of United’s stature should be unearthing the next Varane rather than a guy who has spent 10 years at the top with Real Madrid. Smart recruitment is about finding the next big thing, rather than paying big money for someone who has already done it.
Arsenal have rightly addressed their central defensive issue by signing Brighton’s White, but £50m is a huge fee and a sign of the premium paid by Premier League clubs for English players. Leicester are a club who always make good signings, so perhaps their deals for Soumare or Daka will prove to be this season’s version of Wesley Fofana. But overall, considering how football’s struggling with the financial impact of the pandemic, there has been a striking lack of imaginative and clever signings, so far.
Move you’re most surprised by?
Craig Burley says he wouldn’t be shocked if Jack Grealish didn’t play right away for Man City if he joined.
Ogden: Manchester City’s £100m move for Jack Grealish is the culmination of Pep Guardiola’s long-held ambition to work with the Aston Villa midfielder, but when you look at the options the City manager already has, it’s difficult to understand how Grealish will make a major difference to the team. City already possess an abundance of attacking players and creative midfielders whom Grealish will be competing with, including Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden. You can even throw Kevin De Bruyne into that conversation considering the Belgium international’s ability to play an advanced role.
Guardiola will argue that you can never have too many matchwinners, and City are certainly stacked with those, but is Grealish any better than the players already at the Etihad? He can create, score goals and, as statistically one of the most-fouled players in the Premier League, will always win free kicks in dangerous areas, but you could say the same for all of City’s attacking midfielders.
Laurens: Omar Richards moving to Bayern Munich. The 23-year-old left-back had an average season (no goals, no assists) with Reading in the Championship, and now he’s preparing for life with the Bundesliga champions. At least he was a free agent so Bayern didn’t have to pay anything for him, but they will have to hope he turns out more like Alphonso Davies than Bouna Sarr.
What about Andros Townsend to Everton on a free transfer? Why did they do that? He turned 30 last month, and he had just five assists and one goal in 25 Premier League starts at Crystal Palace last season. Everton fans deserve better; I know the team needs wide players, but come on… The club has money, Marcel Brands is a good director of football with a great network and I am just amazed they went for someone like him. Though I hope he proves me wrong and has a great season!
Karlsen: Barcelona signing high-profile free transfers, but facing a race against time to register them (as well as Lionel Messi’s new contract) has proved quite a debacle. With just a week-and-a-half to go until the opening LaLiga fixture against Real Sociedad, the club are scrambling to juggle the costs of their squad to fit into the league’s salary cap regulations, given their €1.2 billion debt.
One imagines that Sergio Aguero, Memphis Depay and Messi will eventually turn out for Barcelona this season, but it means moving on unwanted players in a market in which nobody really wants to take on high earners. Even if club president Joan Laporta and his new administration find a way out, it is hardly ideal preparation for the new season to carry such issues well into August. Hopefully for Barcelona, the potential windfall from the €2.7 billion CVC investment in LaLiga (€250m for the club, though only 15% can be used on the salary cap) should put the registration issues to bed. Even so, having to rush through high-profile signings at the 11th hour is not a good look for one of the biggest clubs in the world
Dawson: Donnarumma letting his AC Milan contract expire to join Paris Saint-Germain was surprising, but mainly because the France club already have a very good goalkeeper in Keylor Navas. You can argue that it’s a safe long-term investment because Navas is 34 and Donnarumma is 22, but Navas would have every right to feel a little disappointed, particularly after something similar happened at Real Madrid when the Spanish giants signed Thibaut Courtois in 2018… and that was after Navas helped Real Madrid win the Champions League three times.
Chelsea letting defender Fikayo Tomori join Milan for just £25m will also raise a few eyebrows. He’s a young player who has already played for England, and it feels like Milan have got a very good deal after he spent last season on loan at San Siro. It’s not often in modern football that a deal goes through and you feel that the player has been undervalued.
Which big move are you waiting to see completed?
Julien Laurens comments on Harry Kane failing to report to Tottenham training amid reports he’s seeking a move to Man City.
Dawson: There are still three big transfers that seem possible — Harry Kane to Manchester City, Paul Pogba to PSG and Kylian Mbappe to Real Madrid. It’s highly unlikely that all three will happen this summer, but to have three of the most recognisable players in the world being linked with moves at the same time could make for an exciting end to the window.
The futures of Pogba and Mbappe are up in the air because of their contract situations — both have deals expiring in 2022 — but Kane is a different case because he’s made it clear he wants to move. If Man City get their man for around £130m and Tottenham are left with a big sum to reinvest in the squad, it could make for a frantic few weeks.
Karlsen: I’d quite like to see an end to the Grealish saga, one way or the other. As much as he’s a great player that I enjoy watching, I feel he’s more of a “nice to have” than a “must have” for Man City. If he joins them, fine, he’ll probably end up a very useful squad player — if he stays at Villa, then that’s fine too; he’ll keep on making a difference there.
Kane is clearly more of a game-changing move for City and, without knowing the ins and outs of their finances, it feels more productive for them to go to greater lengths to secure the England captain if they can’t get both.
Laurens: Who doesn’t love a good transfer saga? With tension, media leaks, transfer requests, sulking players, disgruntled fans, angry owners, frustrated agents, no-shows for training and all the rest? This summer, Kane’s future is well and truly under the microscope as he failed to turn up for training and looks ready to force a move to Man City; Dortmund look set to keep Erling Haaland for another year, so Romelu Lukaku’s rumoured return to Chelsea from Inter Milan for over €100m could be interesting.
However, I am excited about the possibility of Pogba to PSG. The Parisians have to make space and move on fringe players like Pablo Sarabia, Thilo Kehrer and Ander Herrera, but surely United would not turn down a fair offer with just one year left on the Frenchman’s contract. Leonardo, the PSG sporting director, and agent Mino Raiola have already discussed the potential transfer and Pogba is keen for the move to happen. If he joins his hometown club alongside his friend Kylian Mbappe, Neymar & Co, then PSG would surely end their wait for Champions League glory.
Ogden: Antoine Griezmann’s future at Barcelona is shrouded in uncertainty, with reports the France international is available for transfer just two years after his €120m move from Atletico Madrid. Griezmann’s huge €35m-a-year wages are the problem for Barcelona, who desperately need to make financial savings to reduce their debt and meet the new LaLiga salary cap, but they are also a major stumbling block for any club wanting to sign him.
Sources told ESPN that Barca had been keen to strike a deal with Atletico to send him back to the Wanda Metropolitano, with midfielder Saul going the other way, but that failed to materialise. Now, with a month to go before the window shuts, clubs across Europe’s major leagues know that Griezmann is on the market and there will be a queue of top teams looking for a bargain as Barca get more and more desperate.
Despite being 30 years old and a big earner, he remains a top player even though his two years at Camp Nou have been disappointing. But if he is prepared to take a drop in wages, Griezmann could land himself a move to a top club before Aug. 31.
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S.)
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access
Why do you think the window has been so quiet this summer?
Sid Lowe breaks down Barcelona’s attempt to offload Antoine Griezmann as they face financial issues.
Ogden: The simple explanation is that the game is in the midst of a financial crisis, one that was already beginning to develop before the hammer blow of the COVID-19 pandemic. If anything, the pandemic has merely exacerbated the problem of clubs having to balance the books following years of over-spending on transfer fees and wages.
Everyone within the game knows that only a handful of clubs (Chelsea, Man United, Man City and Paris Saint-Germain) have money to spend, but that reality has yet to translate to transfer fees and wages. Football has its head stuck in the sand in many ways and it will take time for clubs, players and agents to accept that a financial correction is happening before their eyes.
Beyond the finances, another issue has been a full summer with several major tournaments — Euro 2020, Copa America, CONCACAF Gold Cup, Olympic Games — meaning that moves have been delayed by players being on international duty and then taking holidays. But the usual mad rush will still happen in the final week of the window. Some things never change.
Dawson: Indeed, no-one has got any money apart from a handful of Premier League teams. Just look at how some of the traditional heavyweights have gone about their business in this window. Real Madrid signed Alaba on a free; Barcelona signed Aguero, Eric Garcia and Depay all on a free; Paris Saint-Germain spent €70m on Hakimi, but they’ve also brought in free transfers in Donnarumma, Ramos and Wijnaldum.
European football has been living on tight financial margins for years and the COVID-19 pandemic has burst the bubble. Transfer windows are always harder in summers with major tournaments, and things are likely to pick up as the deadline gets closer, but there won’t be nearly as many huge deals as there have been in past years.
Laurens: We anticipated that this window would be very different than usual and it is proving to be the case, although perhaps in more ways than we thought. Clubs have less money and are more careful. There’s little margin for error and clubs are looking at just one or two positions to strengthen with one or two targets for each. If teams don’t get their targets, they’re showing less ambition to go for other players, which may explain why Chelsea and Man City haven’t signed anyone yet. Man United moved for their main two targets and that could be it now.
Also, many clubs have been paying more attention to free agents, players with just one year left on contracts, or those with low release clauses or loans. That said, the “quiet” is largely among the top clubs. The next tier of teams — like RB Leipzig, Leicester, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, AC Milan, Nice, Monaco and Marseille — have been active and intelligent when it comes to the business they’ve done and how they’ve done it.
Karlsen: European football has been hit hard and the transfer market was already showing signs of slowing down a few years ago, but then came a stagnation — or in the case of some European leagues, a freefall — in TV/media income, before the pandemic delivered the knockout blow.
While ambition still persists, there’s an excess of players on the market being flagged as available by their clubs to trim their wage budgets, but very few takers. Those lucky clubs who are able to play an active role in the transfer market are generally restricted to being exceptionally targeted in their approach, mainly picking out names that are certain to immediately strengthen the team.
Then there’s the big spenders like Man United, City and PSG who seem determined to pounce while many of their rivals are paralysed. Whether the transfer market will bounce back to its previous highs is anyone’s guess, but before that happens wage expenditures will have to come down significantly. Right now, just staying afloat is the No. 1 priority for many.
It remains to be seen if the incoming capital originating from the LaLiga investment (by private equity firm CVC) will impact the European transfer market or simply alleviate the short-term financial pressure on Spanish clubs.