Has the Premier League turned into the Red Queen's race?

In Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, there’s a scene where Alice and the Red Queen are running as fast as they can but when they stop they haven’t actually moved from where they started.

Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" 

The Red Queen’s race has become a term used to describe a situation where entities have to make substantial efforts just to remain in the same state. I believe it can now also be used to describe the Premier League clubs’ transfer activity.

There used to be two types of transfer. Transfers made out of a team needing a player, where a player is signed to fill a gap in the team; and transfers made out of a team wanting a player, because they are better than someone they currently have.

Upgrading the players used to mean that it was almost a given that in turn the team would upgrade its league position. If a team had a striker who scored 15 goals a season and replaced him with one who scored 25, they’d expect to win more games and finish higher in the league. Similarly, if your team signed better defenders, you’d expect that team to concede fewer goals, so lose fewer games and finish higher in the league.

After all, improving the team and by extension, its league position is the whole point of upgrading players in the first place.

That’s no longer the case in the Premier League, where the Premier League has introduced a third type of transfer; transfers made in the hope that the club may want the player in a few years. This means that some of the more promising young players in Europe can get transferred to a Premier League club at a young age, then leave that club without ever getting close to having played for them.

We’re not just talking about players plucked from an obscure club playing in the lower divisions of one of Europe’s minor leagues; some of these players are coming from some of the top clubs in Europe, then doing nothing for a few years while their new club decides if they’re good enough or not.

In the last transfer window Chelsea added to their huge stockpile of players. Chelsea now have 33 players on loan at other clubs. Not only is this a bad situation as this mean that Chelsea have an influence on competitions all over Europe, but it’s also a bad situation for the players themselves, as the vast majority will never come close to playing for Chelsea and their development as players will suffer.

On transfer deadline day; Chelsea signed Jamaican international defender Michael Hector from Reading before immediately loaning him back. Hector had previously been on loan at 9 different clubs before making his Reading debut, and it was only last season where he established himself in the Reading team, though he’d lost his place in the Reading team when Chelsea bought him.

At present, Hector isn’t good enough for the Chelsea team. But, Chelsea’s thinking is that one day he might be, and in that case, it’s better to buy him now, rather than wait a year or two for him to become good enough, and have to pay more for him.

Chelsea aren’t alone in loaning a lot of players out to other clubs. As a whole, Premier League clubs have 166 players out on loan. Liverpool have 14 players out, Manchester City and Arsenal have 12 each.

So with the richer clubs having the financial muscle that means they are able to buy talented players in the hopes that maybe one day they’ll be good enough for the first team, it means that the opportunity for clubs to significantly move up the table by signing better players is reduced.

But that hasn’t stopped them trying. Premier League clubs have awesome spending power, which will only increase in the coming seasons. The wages that Premier League clubs, even those clubs not in the top 6, can pay means that they are an attractive proposition for players.

The amount of money clubs have at their disposal has distorted things to the point where, like in the Red Queen’s race, teams now have to spend like crazy just to stay in the same place.    

For example, this summer, Stoke City signed Swiss international Xherdan Shaqiri, who was considered one of the best up-and-coming talents in Europe a few years ago. Shaqiri couldn’t quite force his way into the Bayern Munich team, and after a short spell at Inter Milan, has now come to Stoke as their record signing.    

Shaqiri is exactly the kind of signing who, once upon a time, would have made a difference to Stoke's league position. He not only is capable of scoring goals, he's brilliant at creating chances. You would expect Stoke to score more goals and win more games with him in the side.

If you’d have told anyone a few years ago whilst watching Tony Pulis’ Stoke with the long balls and long throw-ins, that a couple of years later Stoke would have highly-skilled players like Shaqiri, Afellay and Bojan playing for them, they’d have walked away from you very quickly.

But, while it’s nice for Stoke fans to see better players playing for them, you have to ask what have Stoke actually gained from making such a signing.

Before the season started, and before Stoke signed Shaqiri; you’d have predicted Stoke would finish comfortably mid-table, anywhere between 8th and 12th. Since signing Shaqiri, do you really believe Stoke will do better?

I don’t mean that as a negative about Stoke at all. It’s a huge achievement to be in Stoke’s position; and plenty of teams would love be where Stoke are. Stoke have managed this thanks to a combination of good management by Tony Pulis and Mark Hughes, astute signings and sheer hard work.

The same goes for Crystal Palace, who made one of the best signings of the summer when they signed Yohan Cabaye from Paris St Germain. Cabaye is a truly magnificent footballer, who was excellent when he played for Newcastle a few seasons ago, and clubs such as Roma and Atletico Madrid wanted him. But neither of those prestigious clubs, even with the prospect of playing Champions League football, could match the contract that Palace could offer.

Similarly, Swansea signed Andre Ayew and Franck Tabanou from Marseille and Saint Etienne respectively, clubs who are in this season’s Europa League, because they could offer more money.

The same story has been repeated all over the Premier League this summer, with clubs being able to lure players away from clubs, that, with the exception of high wages, have more to offer.

Newcastle were a total mess last season, but they still managed to persuade Georginio Wijnaldum to leave a starring role at Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven and Aleksandar Mitrovic from Anderlecht to forgo European football and come and play for them.

While I’m sure it’s nice for the fans of Premier League clubs to see better players playing for their teams, there’s something that’s essentially sad about these transfers.

It’s sad when clubs like PSV Eindhoven spend time and money building a team to the point where they enter the Champions League, only to see their best players poached away. In the most part, those teams are well compensated for those players, but money in the bank isn’t the same as success on the pitch.

European football is better when there are competitive leagues all over Europe. It’s better when the Champions League and Europa League are contested by teams with star players playing for them.  

European football is not better when Premier League teams strip-mine teams of their best young talent in the hopes that one day they may be good enough. It’s not better when Premier League teams flex their financial muscle and denude other leagues of their star players, effectively turning proud competitions into feeder leagues.

 It’s also a bit sad for the Premier League teams themselves. Neither Stoke, Crystal Palace, Swansea, Southampton, Everton nor similar mid-table teams have much hope of ever being able to use the transfer market to propel themselves up the league, as once they could have, no matter who they buy. All they can realistically hope for is that they finish in the same place with a bit more style.

But they have to do it, as teams below them also have the means to spend big, so if they don’t keep up, they’ll be overtaken.