Nothing excites fans more than the buying and selling of players, but does big spending really pay off? And just how significant are transfers to the success of a club?
By Carlo Garganese
It is no coincidence that almost all of the major titles over the past five years have been won by big-spending superpowers – the only real exceptions being Dortmund's back-to-back Bundesliga crowns and AC Milan's 2010-11 Scudetto.
Football today is dominated by money, and how this money is used in the transfer market largely determines the success and failure of a club, at least at the very top end of the sport.
Quality will always be the main consideration for the elite when buying players. Bayern Munich recognised after losing the Champions League final on home soil 19 months ago that they were only two or three top-class purchases away from going a step further. Thus they were prepared to break the Bundesliga transfer record and blow €40 million on Athletic Bilbao's Javi Martinez in order to cure their main positional weakness.
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This is the policy required for any side attempting to win major honours. It is better to overpay at €40m on a proven individual who will substantially improve your first team than to sign four good players at €10m each. Rafa Benitez was guilty of the latter at Liverpool and this was a key reason why, the freak 2005 Champions League victory aside, he was unable to turn the Anfield outfit into a European power once more.
Quantity must not be disregarded. Each season is long and arduous, and can extend to as many as 60 club games. Squads must be large enough to compete on multiple fronts and cope with injuries and suspensions. Most top sides possess deep squads today, though, which is why the Bayern method - when executed properly - usually beats the Benitez formula, although some challengers can pay for putting all their eggs in one basket. Arsenal currently top the Premier League after the record-breaking €50m summer signing of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid, but there are fears that an injury to lone forward Olivier Giroud or a key defender would expose their lop-sided squad.
As Arsene Wenger has often preached himself, money must not be spent recklessly. The total cost of the Marouane Fellaini move to Manchester United when all variables - transfer fee, wages, signing-on fee, agent fee, taxes and bonuses - are taken into account was a preposterous €98m. For an agricultural player so clearly out of his depth at the very top level, this transfer could go down as the biggest waste of money of all time.
Spending irresponsibly can also hurt a club off the pitch. Leeds' attempt to join the elite in the late nineties and early noughties by gambling their transfer expenditure on qualifying for the Champions League led to a financial implosion. The club went into administration and spiralled down the divisions. While Financial Fair Play has attempted to protect clubs, the relative impotency thus far of the Michel Platini-led initiative signals that clubs must still take responsibility.
And this means not appeasing fans just for the sake of it. AC Milan have been crying out for defensive players for years, but in 2013 alone have consumed more than two-thirds of their transfer budget on forwards - an area of the field they were already well stocked in. Acquiring a big name is important to boost morale and quality levels - as was the case with Milan and Mario Balotelli - but it is counterproductive if the club don't need the player in the first place.
Real Madrid had similar accusations thrown their way when obtaining Gareth Bale for a world record fee of €100m from Tottenham this summer. The presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria, Isco and the yet-to-depart Ozil meant that Madrid were better off investing the Bale cash in a top-class centre forward like Luis Suarez.
The decision to instead sign Bale was at least partly motivated by commercial considerations. "Bale was cheap," explained Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, implying that the club would make their money back through shirt sales. "The signing of Bale is the model of Madrid, signing the best player in the world. All the great players of Madrid have been cheap."
|"Bale was cheap. Bale's signing is the model of Madrid, signing the best in the world. All the great players of Madrid have been cheap"
- Florentino Perez on €100m Bale deal
These commercial considerations play a central role in the transfer decisions of top clubs today and provide the bedrock for future investment. When Real Madrid purchased David Beckham in July 2003, 1,000,000 shirt sales generated €78m by November - although not all of those proceeds went to Madrid. The year that Beckham arrived at Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid's income increased by 27 per cent. Perugia exported 25,000 Hidetoshi Nakata shirts to Japan within a few months of signing the marketable midfielder in 1998 as president Luciano Gaucci searched for ways to increase income. Ultimately, though, big spending - even for commercial reasons - only pays off sportingly if the results follow on the pitch. During the Beckham years, Madrid only won one La Liga crown.
Some sides have bought players simply to weaken a direct rival, such as Bayern Munich's sweeping up of the Bundesliga's best talent - including Dortmund's Mario Gotze and, inevitably, Robert Lewandowski - or to prevent a competitor from strengthening themselves. AC Milan famously stockpiled stars and consigned them to the bench during the early to mid-1990s. That Milan generation and the current Bayern one achieved incredible success so the end justified the means.
But a football club can never rest on its laurels, regardless of achievement. In 2007, AC Milan reached their third Champions League final in five seasons and captured a seventh European Cup by beating Liverpool 2-1. The Rossoneri had been easily the most dominant side on the continent that decade but instead of continuing to evolve, Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani decided to largely persist with their successful squad. The majority of Carlo Ancelotti's golden generation were already approaching or past the age of 30 - and this predictably led to Milan falling into a decline from which, despite a Scudetto victory in 2011, they have still yet to recover from.
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Planning for the future is absolutely crucial in the market, no matter how strong your current squad is. Sir Alex Ferguson is regarded by many as the greatest manager of all time, but one criticism that can be attributed to him is that upon his retirement he handed David Moyes a Manchester United squad in dire need of renewal. Jose Mourinho, who has won virtually every club trophy during spells in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain, has been accused of short-termism in the transfer market – preferring to sign readymade stars who will ensure instant success rather than young talent. This has led to all of his major teams, with the exception of Real Madrid, needing to be rebuilt after he departed.
A balance between current ability and youthful potential is key. Some managers and transfer chiefs prepare so much for the future that they ignore the present. The perfect example is Arsene Wenger, who has failed to win a cup of any kind with Arsenal since the 2005 FA Cup. Wenger has spent much of the past eight years only buying developing players – a strategy that does not harvest trophies at the very highest level. This last summer - despite the aforementioned squad concerns - Wenger finally captured an established star in Mesut Ozil and an experienced schemer in the returning Mathieu Flamini and Arsenal currently top the Premier League.
This shows just what an impact transfers have on football clubs. Gone are the days where a side could compete for the game's biggest prizes without money, where Athletic Bilbao and Verona could conquer their respective Spanish and Italian leagues, where sides from Romania, the old Yugoslavia and even Netherlands could lift the European Cup with homegrown talent.
If you spend your transfer money wisely, success usually follows - just as it did with Bayern's treble in 2013. If you buy badly or recklessly, or fail to invest at all - then disaster lurks just around the corner. Just ask AC Milan.