“I don’t get it. I’ve never got it. I don’t think he was needed.”
Less than a week after the Premier League summer transfer window closed, after a staggering £2.36billion ($2.97b) was spent by its 20 member clubs, The Athletic asked a cross-section of agents who were involved in some of those deals to try to make sense of it all.
Admittedly, that was easier said than done in some cases.
“Explain Cole Palmer to me,” asked one agent, sounding genuinely baffled by a move that came out of the blue.
Other questions in the survey were more straightforward to answer. Which Premier League club had the best window? Which club had the worst? Which deal do you expect to happen in January? Which manager is now under the most pressure?
Naturally, there were grey areas. According to one agent, Kalidou Koulibaly’s move from Chelsea to Al Hilal qualified as the best and the worst deal, depending on whether you were the selling or the buying club.
Indeed, the Saudi Pro League’s (SPL) extraordinary recruitment drive this summer (more was collectively spent by Saudi clubs than those in Germany, France and Spain) formed part of our transfer window survey, in which we asked 20 football agents to answer 11 questions anonymously on a variety of subjects. On occasion, some offered more than one answer per question or did not answer a question.
The agents’ identities were protected to encourage them to reply candidly without damaging working relationships — something they duly did by singing the praises of Brighton and James Maddison, criticising Arsenal’s decision to sign Kai Havertz and Chelsea’s “scattergun” approach to recruitment, and condemning Everton and Sean Dyche to a season of misery.
Along the way, we discovered that “the rack rate for a midfielder isn’t £700,000 a week” as a result of the SPL’s spending spree, and that there’s a “Brighton-esque” under-the-radar signing on another part of the south coast who is worth keeping an eye on.
There is no doubt that you won’t always agree with the agents’ answers. But their responses give you an insight into their industry and how they view the fallout from another record-breaking transfer window.
1. Which was the best deal of the window?
“James Maddison. At that level, even before the season had started, I thought it was, pound for pound, the best deal. When you look at some of the transfer fees for players that aren’t even proven — look at Cole Palmer. I know they (Chelsea) are buying potential, but the guy has played about 15 league games and they’ve paid more for him than Spurs did for Maddison.”
The £40 million that Tottenham Hotspur paid Leicester City for Maddison was regarded as the best deal of the window by almost half of the agents we surveyed.
In an industry increasingly influenced by analytics, Maddison’s numbers stack up. He had scored 30 goals and contributed 24 assists across the previous three Premier League seasons — only six players were directly involved in more goals during that period — and has started life at Spurs in that vein. Maddison has two goals and two assists in his first four Premier League matches.
“He stayed at Leicester too long but Spurs looks the right move for him,” said another agent. “There’s a good buzz around Spurs under (Ange) Postecoglou, which wasn’t the case for a few seasons, and a player like Maddison should enjoy that. It’s a shame (Harry) Kane has left because they would have worked well together, but sometimes a change is good for everyone. Maddison looks re-energised. And from a Spurs point of view, it was a good deal at a really good price.”
Declan Rice, who joined Arsenal from West Ham for £105 million, was second on the list with three votes. With Rice, it was more a case of what he brings to Arsenal rather than focusing on the fee, which was generally regarded as steep. “But if Arsenal win the league it will be money well spent,” said one agent.
“He’s exactly what Arsenal are missing, that key component to winning something significant,” another Rice fan said. “The price is too high but he is that player they need to kick on.”
Jude Bellingham (obviously a transfer that didn’t involve a Premier League club) and Kane were the only other players to poll more than one vote. In the case of Kane, one agent justified his choice on the basis that “nobody ever thought anyone would be able to get him out!”
2. Which was the worst deal of the window?
A close run thing here between Kai Havertz and Moises Caicedo, who polled six and five votes. To put it another way, Chelsea, in the eyes of the agents surveyed, did well to offload Havertz but then paid over the odds for Caicedo.
Arsenal spent £65million on Havertz, leaving agents baffled. “Havertz…I don’t get it. I’ve never got it. I don’t think he was needed,” said one agent. “It’s the luckiest agent in the world to have done that deal and the player to have not had to move very far geographically. I would have said that before the season started. When you’re watching (now), you see a lack of quality and confidence. He might prove me wrong, but for that amount of money — terrible deal.”
Another agent quoted one of The Athletic’s very own when explaining his thinking. “Raphael Honigstein called Havertz a ‘Fremdkorper’, as they say in Germany, the other day — an alien lost on the wrong planet. I just don’t get what he is at.”
Not everybody was so negative about Havertz, though. “Some of what is said is a bit unfair because I’d back (Mikel) Arteta to get something out of him. But I’m a bit nervous about the Caicedo one. Chelsea’s not a great place for players to go right now. There’s so much flux. It’s not because Caicedo’s a bad player. But he’s come from such a good, organised system and structure at Brighton where players can really flourish, and gone to a team that’s had so much change.”
Words such as “overspent” were used in relation to Caicedo as well as Mason Mount, who registered three votes following his move from Chelsea to Manchester United in a deal worth up to £60million. “Not sure he’s the right player/level/type for United. They could have used the money elsewhere.”
Indeed, Chelsea seemed to have been involved in so many answers to this question. “I was going to say, ‘Could you do the sales?’ Because whoever bought Koulibaly needs their head looking at. That was a market that was never there,” an agent said. “There was no resale value on him. And somebody has come along and paid money and, as importantly, got you out of the years left on his contract. Actually, maybe that should be the best deal as well!”
3. Which was the most surprising deal of the window?
One clear winner here and an overwhelming sense of bewilderment about a £42.5 million transfer that shocked most in the game.
“Explain Cole Palmer to me,” an agent said. “Chelsea didn’t need him. And he’s on his pathway, he’s done incredibly well to get the exposure he got at Man City and that shows the level of player he is. It doesn’t make sense for Chelsea. It doesn’t make sense for City if they believe in him — but that might say something. Equally as importantly, what’s it done for the lad? You’ve got a really tough pathway at Man City, but all the natural positive emotions of coming through an academy. I’d get it if he moved to go and play games, to be a superstar and be the first name on the teamsheet. But he’s just got the same problem now in a different shirt.”
There was plenty more where that came from. “Cole Palmer, based on the irony of Chelsea selling a lot of their academy graduates for really good money and then flipping the whole model on its head by going and getting one of their biggest rivals’ best academy graduates for an insane amount,” added another agent.
“The Cole Palmer one surprised me,” said a third agent. “Just didn’t expect Man City to let that happen. They seem to be confident replacing the other players, but they don’t usually let a young guy go like that who is so close to the first team.”
The only other player to register more than one vote in this category was Ansu Fati, who swapped Barcelona for Brighton on loan. “It’s a good move for the player because of (Roberto) De Zerbi and the way Brighton play. But can you imagine being told that Brighton would sign Fati a couple of years ago?”
A couple of moves from Premier League players to Saudi Arabia earned a mention — Jordan Henderson from Liverpool to Al-Ettifaq and Ruben Neves from Wolves to Al Hilal.
Henderson’s decision left him open to accusations that he had lost his moral compass. As for Neves, he is only 26. “That (Neves) came out of nowhere,” an agent said. “He could go and play (in the) Champions League and he chose not to, which is a shame.”
4. Which Premier League club had the best window?
With a quarter of the votes, Brighton came out on top, which is not surprising. Brighton closed the window with a £74million profit — the biggest positive net spend in the Premier League. The day after the shutters came down, De Zerbi’s team beat Newcastle 3-1, making it nine points from their first four matches.
“It is hard to look past Brighton getting such a huge amount of money in and continuing their success of sticking to their business model,” one agent said. “The fact that Brighton managed to manage to sell Caicedo, (Robert) Sanchez and (Alexis) Mac Allister for almost £200 million, and unearth a couple of other good young ones and convince Ansu Fati, a player who played consistently for Barcelona last year, ties into who had the best window.”
The way Brighton trade so well (not just buy players) was key to this question. “Acquisitions are always unknown — you’re never sure how signings are going to work out,” explained another agent. “But you know how much you’re going to receive for a player once you’ve got a transfer agreement. So I’m saying Brighton based on their selling and the fact that it doesn’t seem to have changed their product.”
Arsenal, who spent £201million, received only one fewer vote than Brighton, with the praise based around the options that Arteta now has in every position. “Their squad is well stocked,” said an agent. “But you feel like a Premier League (title) win in the next two seasons has to happen.”
“They’ve improved the starting 11 and overall squad depth,” added another.
West Ham, Manchester City and Nottingham Forest were all mentioned by more than one agent. In the case of Manchester City, it was about the players they kept — Bernardo Silva and Kyle Walker — as much as the signings they made.
Forest? “Because (Callum) Hudson-Odoi is a steal at £5m. (Ibrahim) Sangare is going to be a proper Premier League star, too. Love him. Despite losing (Brennan) Johnson, they also managed to keep (Morgan) Gibbs-White and (Taiwo) Awoniyi, who had some interest from the bigger boys in the division.”
5. Which Premier League club had the worst window?
Chelsea are straight in at N0 1, followed by Everton and Wolves, who polled 20 per cent of the vote each. With Chelsea, the word ‘strategy’ came up again and again — the lack of it.
“They’ve spent so much money on so many players with a scattergun approach. I don’t feel like there was any real strategy to it other than potentially building a team that could be amazing in five years’ time,” said one agent. “They probably sold well, but I don’t think it balances out.”
“I’m guessing people will say Everton. But what the fuck have Chelsea done?” asked another agent, sounding like a parent who has just noticed his three-year son has taken a crayon to the wall.
“They’ve actually got out of jail. For Saudi to have popped up and refinanced so many bad signings…But if at the start of the window you’re given that pot to spend, you can do a hell of a lot better with it.”
It was a recurrent theme.
“1oo per cent, Chelsea. I believe there are no rules. It’s just business. They just want to sign players to sign players, and to sell to sell.”
As for Everton, the verdict was damning. “Smacks of relegation,” said one agent.
“Beto seems to be decent,” added another agent, echoing thoughts that others made about the Portuguese striker offering a flicker of hope to a forlorn team. “But Ashley Young on a free and (Arnaut) Danjuma who turned them down six months ago, Jack Harrison on loan from Leeds — I do think he’s a good player, but it’s a bit bizarre that you’re loaning a player ‘up’. You’d think Everton would be buying.”
6. Which deal do you expect to happen in January?
A question that gazes into the future and, invariably, the focus turned to players who are unlikely to play much football between now and January. Jadon Sancho, Harry Maguire and Kalvin Phillips all ticked that box.
Sancho’s career at United is hanging in the balance. “Erik ten Hag evidently doesn’t trust him despite several chances and you can’t go against the manager publicly,” said one agent.
“Unless he does something miraculous, he’s kind of burned his bridges at United,” said another agent, who referenced a possible return to Borussia Dortmund.
United were mentioned frequently in this category.
If Maguire departs in search of regular first-team football, one agent said that he expects United to revive interest in Nice’s Jean-Clair Todibo, who had emerged as a target in the summer.
Another deal that was further down the line but failed to go through involved Fulham’s Joao Palhinha and Bayern Munich. The Portugal midfielder was on the verge of joining the Bundesliga champions, only for Fulham to pull the plug on deadline day because they were unable to find a replacement. “Bayern still have the need,” added an agent.
The two most popular answers here involved Mohamed Salah and Ivan Toney. Saudi Arabia’s interest in Salah is not expected to go away — “He’ll have six months less on his contract (in January) and it becomes harder for Liverpool to turn down the money the Saudis will be offering,” said one agent — while another talked about Toney’s departure from Brentford as if it is just a question of which club he joins in January.
“It’s destined to happen when he gets back (after his ban) and (the deal) can get sorted whilst he’s out,” said one agent. “Good for him and maybe even Brentford too.”
7. Is the Saudi Pro League good or bad news for football?
Complicated, in a word.
Although nearly half the agents we surveyed viewed the Saudi Pro League as good news for football, they were generally talking purely about the business side. Outside of that, there were caveats aplenty but — and this shone through — a clear sense that the Saudi Pro League is sustainable and only going to grow.
“It has the potential to be a true disruptor,” one agent said.
“Do I want to see some kind of circus where all the best players over 30 end up going through the motions on crazy money? Not really. It’s not my thing,” added another agent. “But it’s a good thing for players and agents to have more options and it’s positive to have more money going into the game. Yes, a huge amount of it goes on wages, but you also look at the money Chelsea and Liverpool have raised by selling players to Saudi, which they’ve then spent on players from Brighton or wherever… and then Brighton spend that money on players in South America or somewhere else in Europe. A lot of the money filters down.”
“Well, clearly if you’ve got another market to realise or dispose of assets, it can’t be a bad thing,” added a third agent. “There’s a ‘Premier League tax’ — the Spanish and Germans even have buy-out clauses where it’s so much for domestic clubs and a different amount for a Premier League club. I don’t think it will skew the finances — the rack rate for a midfielder isn’t suddenly £700,000 a week. Putting aside all of the sports-washing and the human rights things… there will be issues — there will be players who don’t get paid, there will be transfer fees that don’t get paid. But I don’t think that will be intentional. It will be through a lack of experience, scheduling payroll and things like that.”
Ultimately, though, the agent talking above couldn’t bring himself to say that the SPL was “good for football”, even if he recognises the obvious benefits to his industry.
Several agents aired concerns about what may or may not happen further down the track, in particular the possibility of Saudi clubs participating in the Champions League.
“Morally, ethically, Do I like it? I don’t,” one agent said. “But there’s a sense of inevitability. I’m convinced that in five years or so, there’ll be Saudi teams playing in the Champions League.”
Perhaps Max Power will be too. The 30-year-old left Wigan Athletic, relegated from the Championship, for Al-Qadsiah.
“It’s skewing everything,” said another agent. “Everyone would look at the top-end numbers and say, ‘That’s crazy.’ But it’s lower down as well, with players who would never get that kind of money seeing Max Power move and thinking, ‘I should be getting $1m a year.’ Max Power was a ridiculous anomaly in terms of everything that happened.”
8. Which under-the-radar signing will have the biggest impact?
Under-the-radar means different things to different people and some will no doubt question whether James Ward-Prowse, who has made more than 300 Premier League appearances, fits that description.
That said, there was no race to sign Ward-Prowse and a feeling within the game that he was second or third choice when most clubs were looking to strengthen in his position. With three Premier League assists to his name at West Ham, the impact is there for all to see.
Although some of the other players mentioned polled only a single vote, the explanations given are worth including because of the way that agents spoke about them with such conviction.
Milos Kerkez, the left-back who signed for Bournemouth from AZ Alkmaar, is an example. “Bournemouth have got a Brighton-esque signing. They will get amazing use of him while they’ve got the pleasure of him in the building and they will have a significant asset in probably quite a short space of time as well. He’ll go on to join a top-four club.”
Carlos Baleba, the midfielder who left Lille for Brighton, was another. “Brighton might have unearthed another gem there.”
Callum Hudson-Odoi is an interesting choice, bearing in mind that Nottingham Forest paid Chelsea as little as £5million for a player who was viewed as one of the most exciting talents in English football not long ago.
“I know most people will know about him but he sneaked in late on deadline day and probably would still do a job for one of the better teams,” says one agent. “He’s a really exciting player who, if given the freedom to play as a winger rather than a wing-back, will cause problems.”
Although some agents found this question tricky, others came armed with multiple answers.
“I’ve got three,” said an agent. “The first one is Joao Pedro at Brighton. For a player so young, he’s a real leader and fighter. I saw quite a lot of him at Watford. I was always impressed because in a team of dossers, he just never gave up.
“The second one would be Anthony Elanga. I think he’s much better than he gets credit for.
“The third one, which is really left-field, is Vinicius Souza. Even if Sheffield United are not successful this year, it wouldn’t surprise me if he went on to something bigger and better.”
9. Which Premier League manager is under most pressure?
With eight votes, Sean Dyche was the go-to answer here, followed by Erik ten Hag and Eddie Howe.
One agent covered all bases in that respect and threw in the name of another who lives with almost constant speculation about his position.
“Is it not just always Steve Cooper at Nottingham Forest, regardless of how he does?” the agent quipped.
“Probably Ten Hag. But you just worry for the manager of Everton and the manager of Chelsea and these teams that have such high expectations or squads that are incomplete or dysfunctional.”
“Huge pressure for Everton at this stage,” added another agent. “Worst team in the league. Expectations are much higher at Everton than, say, Bournemouth, who have gone with a different ‘project.’”
Indeed, there was a feeling that managers of many of the other struggling clubs are safe by virtue of the fact that they have just been promoted, as is the case with Burnley, Luton and Sheffield United, who are in the bottom four, or only recently appointed (Bournemouth and Wolves).
Dyche is in different territory in that respect. “It’s not his fault — he did a great job last season to keep them up” said an agent. “But they’re in for a really hard season again and it’s usually the manager who pays the price.”
Being under pressure is different to being under serious threat of losing your job, and that is where Ten Hag comes into the picture. Indeed, the backdrop at United feels chaotic.
One agent used a different choice of words to make that same point. “Ten Hag — because of all the s*** that’s going on at the club,” he answered. “They’ve signed a couple of players that he really wanted over what the club wanted. They’ve gone and spent big money on (Rasmus) Hojlund. They’ve spent a considerable amount on Mount, and (Andre) Onana has to work — a position where they needed someone to come in and make a big impact. There have been issues with Sancho. There’s been a lot of noise around the club. With it all being a little bit on the edge there, he has to deliver on the pitch.”
Howe’s inclusion in this category was based on Newcastle’s difficult start to the season and an ominous set of Champions League games on the horizon, while the rationale behind the solitary nomination for Arteta was that Arsenal need to win the title to improve.
10. Who will finish in the top five?
Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool are nailed on to be in the top five come the end of the season, according to the agents we surveyed. Interestingly, only four agents believe that Chelsea will finish that high. Indeed, more agents believe that Brighton will make the top five than Chelsea.
The high number of votes for Tottenham (80 per cent) may possibly reflect the timing of the survey and the fact that Spurs have started so brightly under Postecoglou. “They’re playing with unity,” said one agent.
The fact that only half of the agents think that Manchester United will make the top four was generally down to one theme: off-the-field problems. “I was split on Liverpool and Manchester United, but Liverpool have started well and United appear to be a bit all over the place behind the scenes,” one agent said.
“Chelsea have got way too much to do (to get it right) and Man United… they’ve got so many issues. They’re just a bit of a shambles really,” added another.
Newcastle finished fourth last season but there is little expectation of a repeat. Comments were made about the lack of depth in Newcastle’s squad and, in the same breath, the toll that playing in the Champions League will take on Howe’s players.
As for the thinking behind almost a third of the agents predicting that Brighton will finish in the top five, it is simply down to the fact that De Zerbi’s team are taken seriously now.
“You keep thinking they will fall off, but at some point you’ve just got to accept they’re decent,” an agent said.
11. Who will finish in the bottom three?
With no offence to Luton intended, it probably won’t come as a surprise that they were nominated by 18 of the 20 agents to go straight back down. Sheffield United polled 16 votes.
“The Premier League-Championship gap is huge and neither Luton nor Sheffield United have invested too much,” said one agent. “Bournemouth will go one of two ways with the new manager.”
Actually, Bournemouth were only seen as relegation candidates by one agent. Everton, Burnley and Wolves all featured much more prominently for a variety of reasons.
With Wolves, it was more about the loss of key players in recent times — Moutinho, Neves, Raul Jimenez and Adama Traore among them — and a major question mark over whether the replacements are good enough.
In the case of Everton, there is a feeling that they have been circling the plughole for too long. Or, as one agent put it, “knocking on the Championship door for a while”.
Contributors: Adam Crafton, Gregg Evans, Oliver Kay, Jay Harris, Adam Leventhal, Matt Woosnam
(Top image and graphics: Sam Richardson for The Athletic, images Getty Images)