It is no exaggeration to say that the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the football world. Every part of the world’s most popular sport had to shift and adapt; no fans, staggered kick-off times, playing through the summer months – the list goes on. Off the pitch the effect has been even greater. Financially, the whole game has changed, and previously super-rich clubs are now struggling to stay afloat. Financial mismanagement has, unfortunately, always been part of the game, with professional clubs with storied histories falling foul even before coronavirus had taken full effect. However, with the world locked down and no football taking place, there was no room for error in the boardrooms of even the major clubs. In January 2021, the then-latest edition of Deloitte’s Football Money League revealed the top 20 clubs in Europe had seen their combined revenue drop by 12 per cent last season, down from €9.3bn to €8.2bn due to the impact of the pandemic in the final months of that campaign. The Premier League, the world’s most profitable football competition, lost €1.6 billion. Premier League clubs, with large squads full of star players on huge wages, have had to adapt and one method is trying to offload as many “stockpiled” players as possible.
For years, elite clubs in England and across Europe have been stockpiling players. It is a tactic that has proven successful for some clubs (Chelsea), and disastrous for others (FC Barcelona). Its notable critics include former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who claimed that “it is one of the biggest problems facing the modern game”. There is a suggestion that the system ruins careers while widening the gap between the elite sides and the rest. Its proponents feel it allows players to gain the experience of first-team football while increasing the market value of the player for the club.
There are a number of players who may consider themselves stuck or in limbo. Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard and Phil Jones are two differing examples. Lingard’s loan to West Ham United was a success but upon returning he looks unlikely to play. Phil Jones has been at Man United since 2011, but only made eight appearances in 19/20 and did not feature at all in 20/21. Across Manchester, City’s Bernardo Silva has been a key squad member for Pep Guardiola and has won every domestic trophy in England. The Portuguese forward is, at the time of this writing (August 2021) for sale. Silva is talented enough for a team lower down the Premier League to build a team around, but he is deemed too expensive and is too well paid for many of these teams to afford.
Chelsea Use It to Their Advantage
Let us look at the shining example of the success of the stockpiling system, Chelsea. It was widely reported that over 40 players turned up for first-team training at the start of the 2021/22 season. Manager Thomas Tuchel, fresh from Champions League success in 2021, can only pick a squad of 25. Danny Drinkwater, who cost £35m from Leicester in 2017 and earns an estimated £100k a week, has made just 23 appearances for the club. It is a similar story for Ross Barkley, who after a disappointing loan spell at Aston Villa, finds himself without both a new club and any real chance of involvement at Chelsea.
In the last 5 years, Chelsea have made around £576 million from player sales. This is significantly more than any other Premier League side. Having such a large number of players stockpiled has helped to fund inward transfers. There is a tint of irony to the summer 2021 £100 million signing of Romelu Lukaku; once a player stockpiled by Chelsea, he was loaned out repeatedly until eventually being permanently sold to Everton in 2014. A marquee signing such as Lukaku, pulled off in difficult financial times, can be used as evidence of the successes of the stockpiling of players model.
European Giants Struggle
Across Europe, the combination of the COVID-19 financial crisis and years of stockpiling players has proved calamitous. Nowhere more is this clear than at FC Barcelona. Philippe Coutinho, who earns around £17m a year, has been unable to be moved on. The Brazilian forward has never made a mark at Camp Nou and is unlikely to feature much for Barcelona going forward. The loss of perhaps the greatest footballer of all time, Lionel Messi, for free to Paris Saint Germain is an indictment of the system. Poor financial and player management during the pandemic led to Messi leaving after over 20 years at the club. According to various reports, PSG themselves plan to offload 10 players from their stockpiled squad in order to afford Messi. European giants Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have overstuffed squads and as a result have made just one non-free signing in 2021.
The Premier League TV deal is a factor in allowing the big clubs in England to pull further away from the rest of the league, as well as their rivals in European competition. Big money signings have taken place in a way that they have been unable to across the rest of Europe. The gap between the top and the bottom has rarely been larger.
Taking a look at football odds is a great indicator of this. The big clubs have never been shorter odds to win each week. Stockpiling an enormous number of the best players in the world and paying them high wages has inflated the market and priced the smaller teams out. Loans, such as Lingard’s spell at West Ham, can be a success but are only a temporary solution. The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a mirror up to the world of stockpiling players and football finances more generally and offers a chance of a reset among the game’s elite.