The Five Questions That Will Define the Soccer Offseason

Can Madrid keep spending? Can Chelsea spend at all? And more

The transfer window is a mess. Pick any player and pick any team, type those names into Google, and I bet you’ll find what you’re looking for. So, rather than sifting through rumors and chasing smoke without ever seeing the fire, we’re going to zoom out and take a larger view of this summer’s window. Every deal has implications all throughout the market -- Barcelona buy a player, and Borussia Dortmund now have a ton of money and a hole on their roster, and that money moves to Ajax, and so on. Needs and wants appear out of nowhere, and it usually all starts atop the market before spreading down. So, here are the five biggest questions that’ll shape this summer’s action.

Are Real Madrid done spending?

Last summer, Madrid sold Cristiano Ronaldo, who is currently being investigated after being credibly accused of rape, to Juventus for €100 million. They ... didn’t replace him. I ... thought it might not matter. They ... fired two managers. And ... they weren’t even very good after they re-hired Zinedine Zidane. I ... am going to stop using ellipses now. Madrid were, of course, trebuchet-ed into the sun by Ajax in the Round of 16 in the Champions League. And while the club has successfully walked the “our season is a failure unless we’re European champs” tight rope in four of the past six years, their La Liga performance fell off a cliff this season, too. They finished third for the second straight year, but that statement masks a lot of decay. Here’s a graph:

Last summer, despite Ronaldo’s departure, the club only made a handful of marginal signings, adding a backup fullback, a backup striker, and a well-known keeper in Thibaut Courtois, who probably should be a backup. (Per STATS data, Courtois saved minus-0.02 goals per game, when compared to the average La Liga keeper.) The richest team in the world didn’t just have €100 million in added revenue; they’d also cleared off the wages of one of the most-expensive players in the world. (Ronaldo’s contract with Juventus, according to Capology, is €31 million per year. Next highest? Paulo Dybala at €7 million.) Well, the summer window hasn’t even technically opened yet, and they’ve already spent €255 million on transfer fees, with at least another €50 million looking like it’ll go to Lyon for fullback Ferland Mendy.

Under the current financial rules, European clubs can’t spend much more than they make. Real Madrid make more than anyone else, and they theoretically had a bunch of extra money laying around, too. Where that money goes then determines what other teams will have extra money and holes on their rosters. Except, most of the money’s gone to Eintracht Frankfurt, FC Porto, and Santos -- three clubs that just aren’t going to be challenging for expensive players. Madrid also sent €100 million for Eden Hazard to Chelsea -- and well, more on them in a second.

Madrid are still rumored to be interested in another midfielder -- Paul Pogba or Christian Eriksen, perhaps -- but they’ve also spent a ton of money already. So, if they spend more, they’ll have to push multiple dominoes -- first by selling, then by buying. But if not, they’ll have done all their business early, without creating too many ripple effects anywhere else.

Are PSG buying or selling?

Another way Madrid could end up spending: If Neymar or Kylian Mbappe become available! The club’s been rumored to be interested in both players for a couple years now. Neymar, like Ronaldo, is now being investigated after being accused of rape. He’s missed multiple major games over the past two years. And Mbappe’s, improbably, already surpassed him as PSG’s most important player. Maybe the club decide it’s time to move on. Or maybe Mbappe decides he wants to leave, as he suggested at the Ligue 1 awards ceremony a couple weeks ago. There have been constant burblings of discontent since both of them arrived in Paris, so it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not.

That idea extends to the club. We don’t even really know how to judge them! They played some incredible soccer in the group stages of the Champions League this season and put up a PLUS-70 GOAL DIFFERENTIAL in Ligue 1, but their season was a total bust because they lost to Manchester United in the Round of 16. They bought Neymar and Mbappe in the same summer -- the moment still doesn’t feel real -- for a combined €357 million, and while that led Barcelona, with €222 million from the sale of Neymar, to spend more than €100 million on both Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, those deals seemingly haven’t had any effect on how other clubs value their players. PSG, instead, exist both as an existential threat to all of European soccer, and to themselves. Their margin for success -- a deep run in the Champions League, or bust -- makes it so they’re always more likely to fail. But since they need to buy players for 13 games, not 38, and since they have what is essentially an unlimited faucet of money pouring in, traditional team-building rules don’t apply. So, anyone young or old, fast or slow, could conceivably be a target. (See: Choupo-Moting, Eric.) Most transfer rumors are dreams, but anything with PSG in the title could come true.

Can Chelsea ... do anything?

Chelsea just got €100 million for a wantaway 28-year-old attacker in the last year of his contract. Eden Hazard was their most important player, and they somehow wrung every last dollar out of Real Madrid despite having barely any discernible leverage in the negotiations. They’re funded by a Russian oligarch, they’re back in the Champions League, they’ve got all that money ... and they might not even be able to spend any of it.

As of now, the club are banned from signing new players until next summer. From an ESPN report:

FIFA gave Chelsea the punishment in February after the club were deemed to have breached transfer rules relating to the signing of 29 players under the age of 18, and the governing body's Appeals Committee upheld the sanction in May.

Chelsea have appealed the case with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Their best hope, it seems, is for the punishment to be delayed for a window, but there’s no timeline for a decision, and they can’t sign anyone at least until CAS rules. Chelsea can pay wages that are competitive with just about any other team out there, so they’re always a destination for mid-table Premier League talents, young prospects throughout Europe, stars at big clubs that can’t pay as much, and stars at big clubs that can pay as much but don’t want their players anymore. So, Chelsea’s removal from the market would have a large effect on player movement even if they didn't have all that money from Madrid. The money moving from Madrid to Chelsea and then potentially not moving anywhere else just amplifies the effect. If they can’t buy anyone, presumably they’ll call back some of the 40 (yes, 40) players they had out on loan last year. That would also affect the market -- removing players and creating holes on other rosters.

On top of all that, it seems like the club will be losing their manager, Maurizio Sarri, to Juventus. Chelsea had already started acquiring Sarri-like players -- poor Jorginho -- and so even if they are allowed to buy players this summer, they’ll be under the gun with a ban looming and they’ll likely have to shift the profile of players they’re targeting. In other words: Not, uh, the greatest environment to be walking into if you’re a 20 year old who also happens to be the most-hyped and most-expensive American soccer player of all time.

Where will all the outcasts go?

I’ve cited this tweet a handful of times, and I’m doing it again because it’s insightful:

And here’s the follow-up:

There are just a ton of talented, previously expensive, and probably-still-expensive players who seem unsettled in their current situations. Most of those guys are still in their 20s, and the two guys in their third decade -- Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez -- are the two highest paid players in the Premier League!

But the fact of the matter is that there are only so many huge transfers every summer. There have been 36 €60-million-or-more transfers ... in the history of the sport. And there have already been five this summer: Hazard, Christian Pulisic to Chelsea, Lucas Hernandez to Bayern Munich, Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona, and Luka Jovic to Real Madrid. On top of that, just look at the top 10 richest clubs in the world: Madrid might not spend that much more, Chelsea might not spend at all, Tottenham haven’t bought anyone in a long time, Liverpool and City are great because they don’t buy these kinds of players, and Arsenal don’t seem likely to spend big. There really just aren’t that many options out there for these guys.

Remember when Antoine Griezmann announced that he was leaving Atletico Madrid and everyone assumed that he’d be going to Barcelona? He’s basically just sat there for weeks and weeks without moving. I think a lot of these players are gonna go through a similar experience over the next few months. Unless ...

And how much does the Premier League’s money mean?

Given the glut of expensive, unwanted talent, could this be the summer when the Premier League’s massive financial advantage steps it up a notch in the transfer market? Until they’ve shown themselves to be otherwise, Manchester United will remain a wildly rich and wildly irresponsible organization without a clear plan. Given their sixth-place finish, they’re also desperate, so they seem a good bet to sign a castaway or two from a big club.

But what about the rest of the league? Clubs like Wolverhampton and West Ham can’t quite pay as much as the Big Six or the handful of continental super-clubs, but their wages can match just about any other club in Europe outside of that top tier. I’ve already purchased the Long Island Rail Road and renamed it the “James Rodriguez to Wolves Express”. I’m the owner and the only conductor. Please inquire within if you’d like to intern.

Last summer, we saw Everton grab a handful of Barcelona cast-offs -- Lucas Digne, Yery Mina, Andre Gomes -- and it worked: They ended the season with the best goal-differential outside the Top Six. But all of those guys were viewed as either busts or just misguided signings from the jump. Some of the players available this summer, though, have incredible resumes. It sounds zany, but why couldn’t, say, Isco-to-Everton happen? Clubs like Napoli or Borussia Dortmund -- the second-place finishers in Italy in Germany -- are more prestigious and offer Champions League games, but Everton can probably offer higher salaries than either one if they really want to. Plus, who knows? With a player like him in tow, maybe Champions League games won’t be too far away. If we’re ever gonna see a legitimate star move to a mid-tier Premier League team, this seems like the summer it’ll happen.