Romelu Lukaku’s £97m Chelsea return sums up harsh new reality of Premier League transfer window

When Romelu Lukaku’s return to Chelsea was confirmed on Thursday evening, did anyone bat an eyelid at the £97m fee? When Manchester United parted with £73m to bring Jadon Sancho in from Borussia Dortmund was there much surprise? For £41m, Rapahel Varane’s arrival at Old Trafford has already been framed as very good business before he makes a clearance.

Even Jack Grealish’s £100m move to Manchester City and Arsenal dropping £50m on Ben White were stripped of shock because of the ever-increasing premium on England players under post-Brexit rule.

It has been a curious transfer window so far and perhaps the most notable element has been how parallel to all that big spending there is a notable reduction of mid-range fees.

So far there have been six transfers of between £20-30m and three of those – Leon Bailey, Danny Ings and Enock Mwepu – were the consequence of funds raised by Aston Villa and Brighton from dealing Grealish and White.

Bryan Gil’s arrival at Tottenham cost £21.1m plus Erik Lamela, who was in the final year of his deal so unlikely to have fetched too much in isolation, while Patson Daka’s £23m move from RB Salzburg to Leicester was instantly considered a bargain. Joe Willock left Arsenal for Newcastle, following a successful loan on Tyneside last season, for £20m on Friday.

Between the summers of 2016 and 2018 clubs such as Fulham, Bournemouth, Watford and Crystal Palace were regularly acquiring players for equivalent sums while the big spenders were dealing with similar figures.

Yet this window, and indeed last summer, points to Premier League lesser lights limiting their output, unless reinvesting money made from a sale, while those bankrolled by owners with supposedly limitless wealth have increased the average amount spent on a player.

The most likely explanation for the absence of a middle ground is the consequence of a cocktail of pandemiconomics mixed with the rich getting richer.

Chelsea have been quiet compared to last year but taking both into account they have spent £40m or more on Ben Chilwell, Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and now Lukaku, with Hakim Ziyech potentially worth similar if performance-related add-ons are included.

Their opening weekend opponents, Crystal Palace, are the closest thing to an outlier having paid £18m for two defenders in Marc Guehi and Joachim Andersen but they have cut down on spending considering five summers ago they dropped £85m, including £27m on Christian Benteke. The squad inherited by Patrick Vieira was also in need of a significant overhaul.

Many clubs, however, are adapting a more prudent approach because of pandemic uncertainty and no matchday revenue for most of the past 18 months. Daniel Levy, the Tottenham chairman, estimates the club have lost about £200m in the pandemic and without a backer willing to gamble a significant chunk of personal wealth it means frugality is a necessity – especially when in Spurs case there is a £1bn stadium to pay off.

Others, such as West Ham United, have been dormant in the market so far – much to the chagrin of supporters demanding improved depth entering European competition. David Moyes last week spoke of it being a difficult window but those are lines he used in January and during his first spell in charge. They want another centre back and they must find a striker to back up injury-prone Michail Antonio.

There are knock on effects for middle of the road players too because they are the ones clubs appear more reluctant to spend on. The tier one figures such as Lukaku and Sancho are unaffected, while it could end up being good news for young players as clubs are left with no option but to open the youth pathway further.

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It places extra emphasis on contract length, regardless of a player’s stature with the likes of Paul Pogba appearing to see out the final year of his deal at United with suitors aware he is unlikely to extend that deal. On the flip side there is Harry Kane, ruing that decision to sign a six-year contract.

This time two weeks the circus will have drawn to a close and there will be the usual rush of panic buyers, even if fewer will be willing to spend as freely.

Long-term, however, everything points to the rift between the top clubs and chasing pack widening further; a concern morphing into a problem beyond rectification without seismic changes to how football is governed. The big teams, Paris Saint-Germain more than any English club, will continue to improve their squads while competitors are simply unable to actually compete. And, mirroring wider society, 1% of football clubs possess half of the industry’s wealth.

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