It’s taken six seasons, but Brexit has finally hit the Premier League.
Following the United Kingdom’s official departure from the European Union on 1 January 2021, the changes to transfer strategies many expected finally came.
The result is a substantial shift in Premier League investment and, for the first time in a decade, the elevation of English players to the most important in Europe.
Just look at the transfer window’s biggest deals.
Three of the top five highest value deals featured Englishmen.
Manchester City spent $140 million on Jack Grealish, Manchester United took Jadon Sancho for $100 million and Ben White was Arsenal’s for $60 million.
With Danny Ings was snapped up by Aston Villa for $42 million and Tammy Abraham going to Roma for $50 million, as it currently stands, half of the top ten transfers this summer involved English players.
You have to go back to 2011 when Liverpool bought Jordan Henderson and Manchester United signed Ashley Young and Phil Jones, to find a period when English stars traded at this level. But, even then, none of those deals was anywhere near the biggest.
Of course, it could change in the coming days, Real Madrid recently had a $200 million bid for Kylian Mbappe turned down, but it is unlikely that many Englishmen will be displaced from the list by the time the window closes.
Already over half a billion dollars has been spent on Englishmen this summer in total, which is a clear indication that habits have changed.
The consequences of this shift by Premier League teams to home-based talent is bad news for other European leagues.
The Premier League billions
For well over a decade the Premier League has dominated the global transfer market and consistently spends more money than any other league by a distance.
The imbalance is now so pronounced only a handful of top clubs in Europe can finance a deal a moderately-sized Premier League club can afford.
This inequality might sound like a negative thing for clubs outside the world’s richest league, but it also has its benefits.
Soccer finances are poor globally and, with the ever-increasing wage inflation continually pushing up costs, it’s increasingly difficult to run a club sustainably.
For sides with modest budgets selling a star player to an English club, or even generating interest from the Premier League, can get provide a transfer fee that balances the books.
Few places are this truer than in France.
In 2019, Ligue 1 even rebranded itself the ‘League of Talents,’ perhaps a nod to the superstars assembled by Paris Saint-Germain, but it was also an acknowledgement of the consistency to which it has produced the players of the future.
From Liverpool’s Sadio Mane and Fabinho to Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez or Chelsea’s Ngolo Kante France has an outstanding record of developing top Premier League players.
So it is of little surprise that English clubs like to go shopping there.
There have been few more popular destinations than Lille and, since 2016, the club has earned $207 million selling players to the Premier League.
This has been a vital source of revenue for a club whose finances have been complicated.
But Lille, which has substantial debts and was handed a transfer ban by the league’s financial watchdog in 2018, won the title last year with a team built on the profits of player sales.
This summer, with Ligue 1 in increasingly bad financial shape, it sold Boubakary Soumare to Leicester City for $24 million.
But they might not be able to rely on that money from the Premier League for much longer.
English clubs’ ‘European parking’
For Premier League sides the European Union’s freedom of movement laws was a great tool for player recruitment.
They enabled them to hoover up talent from across the continent and, if they had an EU passport, not worry about any issues securing the legal right to work.
But now the points-based immigration system introduced by the UK government post-Brexit has meant players require Governing Body Endorsement (GBE).
This is granted by an independent board who consider criteria ranging from the number of international appearances to the quality of the selling club.
For a team like Lille, that means that exceptional deals like the $100 million earned from Arsenal for Nicolas Pepe will still go ahead. But the steady $15 million transfers, like Brighton paid for Yves Bissouma or Southhampton for Soufane Boufal, may be less straightforward.
University of Liverpool soccer finance expert Kieran Maguire believes the habits of English clubs have already changed.
“Small clubs, such as Crystal Palace, they would have been looking to recruit from Europe and now it becomes more difficult for them,” he tells me.
“They have to go through this extra set of hoops in terms of the post-Brexit restrictions imposed by the government.”
One solution to this regulatory conundrum could make the disparity between the Premier League and the rest of Europe even worse, by cutting out the selling club altogether.
Now rather than buying the players directly, English sides are looking to acquire an entire club abroad for parking talent and waiting for it to acquire the relevant GBE criteria.
“There has been talk of Leeds United’s [owner] Radrizzani buying a club in Italy,” Maguire continues.
“Brighton’s owner also owns a club in Belgium and uses that as a sort of a parking area where if [they] can’t bring a player for the UK, he’ll go to Belgium with a view to hopefully getting the points which allow them to come.
“I think that’s a model that the clubs are monitoring.”
Lille will hope that not too many adopt it and there remains a market for it to exploit.