The Premier League has a well-established financial dominance in the global transfer market but this summer threw up a curious anomaly: three of the four most-expensive deals involved an England international.
Jude Bellingham left Borussia Dortmund to join Real Madrid in a deal worth an initial £88.5m (rising to £115m with add-ons), Declan Rice traded West Ham for Arsenal in a £100m transfer with £5m add-ons, while Harry Kane ended a 19-year association with Tottenham Hotspur to move to Bayern Munich for £86.4m.
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English clubs are used to eyewatering spending — a record £2.36bn changed hands this summer according to financial analysts Deloitte — and the Premier League was responsible for completing the quartet of big deals as Chelsea paid Brighton an initial £100m (plus £15m add-ons) to sign Ecuador international Moisés Caicedo. But the success of English football’s top division has historically come from acquiring overseas players, gradually evolving the league into one of the most entertaining in the world.
That growth is yet to translate to tournament success for the England men’s national team, but manager Gareth Southgate has taken them closer than any before him in the modern era in reaching the 2018 World Cup semifinals and Euro 2020 final. And so it is tempting to think big-money moves for Rice, Bellingham and Kane are symptomatic of a new evolution, perhaps the final missing piece in the puzzle as England’s men seek the authority all over the pitch to help end a 58-year wait for a trophy at Euro 2024.
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It feels significant that two of them are playing abroad. English players have often been reluctant to leave the comforts of home and so it was a key moment when Kane became the first active England captain in 20 years to move to a foreign league.
Kane, 30, is already one of the world’s best in his position. Three goals in three Bundesliga games suggests his skills are readily transferable. Any improvement he can find in Germany may be negligible but he has spoken about learning how to peak at the business end of tournaments and playing for a serial trophy-winning side like Bayern can only help him. Southgate certainly thinks it will benefit his game.
“He’s going to be expected to be challenging for trophies every game he plays, he’s got a new set of supporters to win over and a new set of teammates to impress every day on the training field,” the England boss said last week. “From that respect, a fresh challenge for him I would view as a positive.”
Bellingham already was playing abroad but joining Real Madrid represents a dramatic increase in expectation and scrutiny. Not that he appears remotely affected by it, given the way he’s started. The 20-year-old is the third player in the club’s history to score in each of his first four games — following Pepillo in 1960 and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009 — and won LaLiga’s August Player of the Month award in the process.
Bellingham’s emergence was a major plus from England’s run to the quarterfinals of the Qatar World Cup in 2022 and Southgate will be increasingly able to rely on the midfielder the more he can influence big matches for a juggernaut like Real. Given he has just a single goal from 24 games for England, his goal-scoring record for his club is a surprise bonus. That output is in part the product of Carlo Ancelotti’s decision to play Bellingham in his most advanced role yet, effectively as a No. 10, with Luka Modric, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Eduardo Camavinga in a tight midfield three behind him for last weekend’s 2-1 win over Getafe where he scored a late winner.
England do not possess the same quality to give Bellingham such a platform. It is why Southgate defends the continued inclusion of Kalvin Phillips despite his lack of playing time at Manchester City and why he is prepared to face down off-field criticism of Jordan Henderson after his controversial move from Liverpool to Saudi Arabian side Al Ettifaq.
Southgate’s preference is to play with a single pivot in a 4-3-3 system, primarily because for years England have lacked a midfield anchor with the ability to dictate a game in the mould of Croatia’s Modric, Netherlands’ Frenkie de Jong or, further back in history, Italy’s Andrea Pirlo. And that is where Rice’s move to Arsenal offers arguably the most encouragement for England. The 24-year-old won a European trophy (the UEFA Europa Conference League) as West Ham captain but the dynamic is different with the Gunners now they are back in the Champions League.
Mikel Arteta’s side usually dominate possession against most teams and the progressive nature of Rice’s passing and running will come under added focus, especially if utilised as a No. 8 as he was in Arsenal’s opening Premier League weekend win over Nottingham Forest.
Arteta will likely most use him to anchor the midfield as a No. 6, the role Southgate needs him to thrive in for England. And so it serves as a notable positive for Southgate that Rice helped decide a big game from that position as he scored the key goal to break the deadlock in stoppage time as Arsenal secured a dramatic 3-1 win over Manchester United.
“A tremendous performance,” Arteta said of Rice afterwards. “When you look at how a holding midfielder needs to dominate his area, how he needs to break up play, how he glided the team together when they were stretched a bit … then he produced a magic moment to win us the game. So, really happy with him.”
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Yet even if Rice, Bellingham and Kane unlock new levels to their talent in the coming months, one issue still looms large for England: a dearth of quality centre-backs.
Southgate ended up relying on Harry Maguire in Qatar despite his peripheral role at Manchester United, a situation that has only deteriorated in the meantime. The 30-year-old was unable to secure a move in the transfer window and his reputation is so low these days that his name was sarcastically sung by Arsenal fans when he came on as a late substitute at Emirates Stadium last weekend.
Southgate has been loyal in the extreme, primarily because he believes Maguire’s partnership with John Stones is greater than the sum of its parts. But England are still too vulnerable in the centre of defence and the emergence of a new candidate or two over the coming year would be extremely useful. There are high hopes for Chelsea’s Levi Colwill, who spoke with candour and composure at St George’s Park on Tuesday following his first call-up. Crystal Palace’s Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori of AC Milan, overlooked so often, will also hope to make an impact.
Maguire joined United for £80m from Leicester in 2019, a fee which remains a world-record for a defender. He has had some fine moments for club and country but these days it feels like a reminder that money is no guarantee of efficiency.