How Saudi Pro League money made European clubs reckless again

Last year, I published a book that was, among other things, about how most European soccer clubs are terrible at making decisions. There's all kinds of data out there now that should help teams understand the varying levels of uncertainty in all of the decisions they're making. We'll never totally quantify everything that happens on a soccer field, but it's quite easy to dig deeper than just wins and goals for anyone who wants to try.

You know, maybe you shouldn't fire that coach; sure, you're losing week after week, but you're really just getting unlucky. Or maybe you don't need to drop $80 million on that new striker because he converted his shots into goals at an unsustainable rate and you've already got a guy on the roster who suffered through a finishing slump, but who's also doing the main thing that predicts future goals: getting on the end of lots of good chances.

Over the past couple of years, however, it did seem like teams were slowly getting smarter. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there appeared to be fewer rash firings, managers who seemed unlucky to lose their jobs were quickly getting hired elsewhere, clubs focused on acquiring younger players, and there were just fewer obviously misguided big-money transfers. From a selfish point of view, this was not a good development for someone who'd written a book about how the opposite had been true.

And then, well, this summer happened.

Premier League clubs spent more than £2 billion on transfers in a single window for the first time ever -- breaking the previous record, set last summer, by more than £500 million. (FIFA confirmed that clubs spent nearly £6bn in the window.) Given that you're just giving money to another team in order to break a player's old contract so you can then sign said player to a new contract, ballooning transfer-fee payments don't really correlate with "teams getting better at making decisions."

So what happened? Well, if you found a $20 bill on the street, would you invest it in an index fund? All of a sudden, the Saudi Premier League infused the player market with an extra billion dollars. A year ago, that money didn't exist.