‘Power has shifted towards the players’ — How Arsene Wenger was proven right about the transfer market

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Not for the first time in his Arsenal career, Arsene Wenger was ahead of the curve. Speaking in July 2017, at the start of his final season in north London, the Frenchman predicted that it would soon become the norm for top players to run down their contracts and leave their clubs for free.

“You will see it more and more,” warned the former Arsenal manager. “Why? Because the transfers are so high. No club will want to pay the amount demanded. In the next 10 years, it will become usual.”

Wenger has been proven emphatically right in the subsequent years, with the pandemic serving to accelerate the shift in the market that he had foreseen. He had detected a reluctance from clubs to invest huge transfer fees in individual players, and that reluctance has only grown since Covid reshaped the footballing economy.

A few years down the line from the start of the pandemic, the ripples created by Covid are now reaching the shore. Leading players across the world are approaching the end of contracts they had signed before Covid, and in some cases they are finding that their worth — and earning power — has been drastically altered.

Of the 12 most expensive players in the history of football, four will be out of contract at the end of this season. Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Paul Pogba and Gareth Bale were signed for a combined cost of around £475 million by their current clubs, but all are set to leave in the summer for nothing.

There are plenty of others, too. As it stands, the likes of Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Franck Kessie (AC Milan), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter), Niklas Sule (Bayern Munich), Jesse Lingard (Manchester United) and Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) will all be free agents as of the summer. At Chelsea alone, Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta are all in the same position. These players can all now begin talks with foreign clubs.

The power is with the player in these circumstances, especially those who are still operating at a high level, and they benefit enormously from moving without a transfer fee: if the buying club does not have to fork out cash to another club, they will happily shovel more towards the player’s personal bank account.

“At the elite level, clubs are looking at the total cost of signing a player over a three or four-year deal,” said Kieran Maguire, a football finance lecturer at the University of Liverpool. “That total cost includes the wages, plus the transfer fee. The really good players, and their agents, are aware of this.

“At the elite level, the power has shifted towards the players. When they move into the final six months of their deal, all of the cards are stacked in their favour. Someone like Mbappe may well re-sign with Paris Saint-Germain, but if he does that, he will be able to dictate his wages.”

Juventus and PSG have led the way on this in recent years, pre and post-pandemic. Aaron Ramsey, Adrien Rabiot, Emre Can, Dani Alves and Sami Khedira all signed for Juventus for free in recent seasons. Just last summer, PSG signed Lionel Messi, Sergio Ramos, Georginio Wijnaldum and Gianluigi Donnarumma without paying a penny in transfer fees.

The loser in this scenario is generally the “selling” club, which receives no money for the asset. How much, for example, would Wijnaldum have been worth if he had signed a contract extension at Liverpool? Around £25m to £30m, perhaps, if not more.

What, though, is the solution? One option is to tie players down to much longer contracts, such as the six-year deal signed by Harry Kane at Tottenham Hotspur. When Joao Felix joined Atletico Madrid from Benfica in 2019, he signed a seven-year deal. Atletico also convinced Saul Niguez (now struggling at Chelsea) to pen a nine-year deal in 2017.

Such an approach is not without considerable risk. If there is one thing worse than losing a valuable player for nothing, it is paying far too much to a player who is no longer worthy of those wages. Arsenal, lest we forget, quite literally had to pay Mesut Ozil to leave the club a year ago. A similar situation with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is not implausible, while Barcelona are desperate to find a new home for Philippe Coutinho.

The transfer tightrope therefore feels more perilous than ever for clubs, who are still adjusting to the realities of the post-Covid market. Those who can strike the balance will be those who build the most settled squads. As for the rest, it is the players who will dictate what happens next.

Expiring contracts XI (3-4-3): Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur), Andreas Christensen (Chelsea), Niklas Sule (Bayern Munich), Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Franck Kessie (AC Milan), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain), Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona)

Substitutes: Sam Johnstone (West Bromwich Albion) James Tarkowski (Burnley) Matthias Ginter (Borussia Mönchengladbach) Marcelo Brozovic (Inter) Jesse Lingard (Manchester United) Andrea Belotti (Torino) Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) 

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