This really is looking like a slow transfer market. We touched upon it yesterday, but the Serie A window opening two months later than the Premier League was meant to give Italian football a head-start on attracting it’s best English customer to shop from the peninsula. Instead, it’s been La Liga and a brief injection from Ligue 1 to the rescue. But those mega-money exports have come at a time when Italy’s biggest clubs are save on bills by fishing abroad, too.
The new tax laws for foreign signings mean that whatever money Inter Milan and Juventus have banked on selling Icardi and Pjanic has been immediately thrown back in the other directions. Serie A usually makes the transfer wheels go around by sucking on Juve’s financial teet, and making do with whatever milk spills by the wayside. But not so far, this time around.
Will we see frenetic, non-stop deals in a month’s time? Or will the mercato be paralyzed? And what would the latter mean on the pitch for Serie A’s competitiveness? If clubs are forced to largely maintain the same squad makeup for 24 months straight, will that mean an overall stronger league? Or will it end up with disgruntled players?
What we do know is clubs like Bologna, Cagliari and others are looking dumbfounded that Inter and Juve haven’t come in to swoop up their players yet (though that could change with Cragno any week now). As a result, Roma have a serious lack of suitors ready to take a gamble on Giallorossi cast-offs like Robin Olsen, Juan Jesus or Davide Santon. And if you follow the money, it all leads to a bottleneck that will pressure some clubs into accepting whatever offers they can get by the summer of 2021 (if not earlier).
So who’s looking robust enough to survive the next 12 months of business on their own terms? And whose squad is just waiting to get pillaged by bigger sharks in the water?
Group A: The Rules Don’t Apply To Us
In our first pool is the club who, no matter how much they run themselves into the red on transfers, have the commercial clout to make sure they always get first pick next transfer window.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €(-174) million
Total annual wage bill: €294 million
Squad market value: €864 million
Average age of starting lineup: 28.4 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: How to beat Serie A teams in first gear instead of second.
Biggest problem off the pitch: No friends.
Juve’s biggest problem is new coach Andrea Pirlo finding cohesion between the rest of the team and 35-year old striker Cristiano Ronaldo. The CR7 shirt sales and commerce brought into Juventus have more than justified the player’s €31 million annual salary, but Ronaldo still has €50 million left of his 2018 transfer fee for Juventus to absorb into their expense bill.
Nobody out there is going to offer to sign a 35-year old player for €50 million, nor the €25 million Juve would need to break even on a Ronaldo exit next summer. And so people may ask: When will CR7 get benched? The answer is never.
Juve are forced to play the Portuguese talisman and wring every euro of on-camera action they can get out of him until his contract runs down in 2022. Even if Pirlo has to play 4-3-2-0 and field Ronaldo goal-hanging up front with a walking stick, then it is what it is.
Despite these unusual politics, the financial might of Juventus means that won’t stop them from being first in line to prey on signing the next Kulusevski or whoever they fancy, through the next couple of windows.
Group B: Payday Billionaires
Our next group is a club that has no problem flexing their financial muscle, but will have to work some blackbook magic to make the numbers add up by the summer of 2022.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €(-180) million
Total annual wage bill: €139 million
Squad market value: €539.9 million
Average age of starting lineup: 27.7 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: They’re not Juventus.
Biggest problem off the pitch: Antonio Conte wishing they were Juventus. The Milan city council blocking their private stadium plans for well over 20 years.
Inter are Italy’s second mega-power once again, investing hundreds of million into their squad over the last three years without the need to sell. It’s almost like the days of Massimo Moratti never left. But how long will they last this time around?
Inter’s owners can afford all this spending by raising money on the bonds market, having raised €375 million (and counting) over the last three years to ease the pressure on their annual debt repayments. Roma tried to do similar in 2019, and ended up with a new club owner instead. But what’s unclear is how Inter plan to pay it all back by the summer of 2022, when the first €300 million of those bonds mature.
What Inter really need is a trophy on the pitch to justify living this close to the edge. Yet the Champions League remains Antonio Conte’s biggest weakness; the Italian coach proposes a style of football that constantly gets outfoxed on the biggest continental stage.
Expect Inter to prey big on other Serie A club’s weaknesses in the coming year, as they need to sign young talent that they can flip for FFP purposes by 2022. Sandro Tonali, anyone?
Group C: We Can Weather the Storm
These clubs have the FFP breathing room and cash reserves to be able to hang up the phone over the next year, should they receive any offers they don’t like.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €35 million
Total annual wage bill: €36 million
Squad market value: €252 million
Average age of starting lineup: 27 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: Papu Gomez’s age.
Biggest problem off the pitch: Financing the stadium makeover and winning more fans. Players are bound to ask for bigger contracts.
Absolutely everything is going right for Atalanta right now; it’s the club’s ability to maximize on talent like Mario Pasalic that means their current squad market value is seven times what Atalanta are paying to maintain that value.
Having bought the deed to their stadium back in 2017, Atalanta have secured a title sponsorship with Sanpaolo bank to finance the stadium renovation and expansion works. They’ve just bagged a new shirt sponsor in Plus500 for the next three seasons, and they have that Champions League and Coppa Italia final prize money in the bank.
All of this, and Atalanta have run at a +€35 million transfer surplus over the last three years. If anyone phones up to try and Pasalic or Gollini over the next few transfer windows, Gasperini is free to tell clubs just exactly where they can stick it.
Atalanta’s main problem is being based in Bergamo. It’s hard enough expanding your commercial fan-base in neighborhoods like Zingonia, without being overshadowed by your prestigious neighbors just further up the road in Milan.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €27 million
Total annual wage bill: €72 million
Squad market value: €292 million
Average age of starting lineup: 27.7 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: Too dependent on the Correa-Alberto-SMS trio.
Biggest problem off the pitch: David Silva’s flight plans.
Lazio aren’t doing as great as Atalanta, but their +€27 million transfer surplus over the last three years mean they have enough in reserve to withstand the choppiest mercato waters. And now they’re back in the Champions League, who knows how far the Biancocelesti can go?
But their main problem, and we say this as objectively as possible when it comes to Lazio, is that their first eleven chemistry lives and dies by the form of the attacking trio behind Immobile.
Simone Inzaghi is a promising coach, but he hasn’t quite installed the kind of football that would make Lazio’s front four replaceable for long spells of the season. And given that Lazio’s squad is getting into well into their late twenties, Roma’s derby rivals will have to think about another squad rebuild within 2 years. But they should be safe for the next year.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €13 million
Total annual wage bill: €54 million
Squad market value: €231 million
Average age of starting lineup: 26.9 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: New unproven coach, no squad chemistry, players dislike the owner.
Biggest problem off the pitch: Club owner’s legal battles away from football.
With a +€ 13 million surplus over transfer activity over the last three years, Torino have kept their powder dry at just the right time to weather the worst of mercato forces ahead. It’s what gives club owner Urbano Cairo the bravado to say he’s under no pressure to sell keeper Salvatore Sirigu, but that’s about the only thing the Granata have gotten right recently.
The club’s on pitch performances have been boo’ed by the fans, as the team struggles to find any chemistry between star striker Andrea Belotti and the next generation’s “chosen one” Vincenzo Millico.
Then there’s Cairo’s legal fight with private equity fund Blackstone, over the ownership of corporate property away from football. If the $600 million legal battle goes wrong, it could be rough times ahead for Cairo, who’s already had to publicly deny rumors of an impending Torino club takeover.
It hardly makes for a strong club atmosphere in Turin, but the Granata have a very good mix of promising youth and battle-hardened veterans to keep maximising their squad value for the next year or more.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €(-15) million
Total annual wage bill: €35 million
Squad market value: €158.6 million
Average age of starting lineup: 26.1 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: Phasing out Magnanelli and Caputo.
Biggest problem off the pitch: None.
Though Sassuolo are running at an FFP deficit, their problems are minimal and they look in good shape under the continuity and courage of coach Roberto De Zerbi.
Sassuolo could easily redress their FFP balance by holding out for a big offer on star-winger Boga, midfielder Locatelli or one of the maverick centre-backs Rogerio and Marlon. They have a style of football that makes any of these players (besides arguably Boga’s dribbling ability) replaceable, and would only have to say goodbye to one talent without going wholesale.
Group D: There May Be Trouble Ahead
It’s going to be results on the pitch that have the biggest say in whether these clubs will go under a light makeover... or a deep, surgical overhaul.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €(-146) million
Total annual wage bill: €103 million
Squad market value: €625.8 million
Average age of starting lineup: 27 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: Speeding up the passing rate and phasing out Mertens.
Biggest problem off the pitch: Club owner loves to ostracize players. They still have to get the most out of expensive, under-performing young players.
Napoli’s three-year transfer deficit may look ridiculous, but the club have the Champions League competition money to balance it out, along with being reigning Coppa Italia holders (which comes with a surprisingly large amount of prize money attached to it for the winners).
That’s why the Partenopei could have easily been placed outside of this group into more trouble waters but, ultimately, we believe Napoli have enough room to rebuild their squad, if ever they want to press the nuclear button and start a squad makeover.
The biggest example is that Milik is refusing a contract renewal, and yet Napoli have the gall to ask for a €40-50 million transfer fee for a guy could leave for free in 12 months time. And it looks like Napoli will get away with doing this, too.
It’s that kind of tough transfer dealing that has Napoli maintaining a squad value that is over six times their salary expenses. But be careful if they don’t successfully break even on expensive talents like Lozano and Osimhen in the near future.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €(-29) million
Total annual wage bill: €50 million
Squad market value: €251 million
Average age of starting lineup: 25 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: Very young squad. Owner undecided on which coach to pin his colors to.
Biggest problem off the pitch: Stadium building and club expansion.
Fiorentina have the second-youngest squad in Serie A, but their owner Rocco Commisso is straining to see a bright future ahead. He openly went to the media this year to declare that bureaucracy is killing Italy—not just the club’s stadium red-tape, but the country itself in Commisso’s eyes.
Fiorentina are largely running at a deficit when it comes to transfer balance, though that’s easily rectifiable by selling one of their star-talents for mega-bucks. Daniele Pradè may have played it dirty and under the table during his time at Roma, but we can’t hate on his track record when it comes to talent recruitment at Fiorentina.
Pradè’s Viola can currently hold out for big deals on star names like Chiesa and Vlahovic. They also have Amrabat, Kouamé, Lirola and Dragowski but to name a few more. While their replacing Jordan Veretout with Gaetano Castrovilli - who Fiorentina originally signed for just a 1 million euro development fee - should be the envy of the league. It’s what gives them a squad market value that’s four times as big as their wage bill. They’ll be fine.
It’s only having sloppily let go of academy talents like Nicolo Zaniolò and Gianluca Mancini that make you wince. And then there’s whether or not Commisso will ever be convinced by his merry-go-round choice of coaches to sit in the Viola hotseat.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €-(30) million
Total annual wage bill: €31 million
Squad market value: €86.4 million
Average age of starting lineup: 28.5 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: Jekyll and Hyde performances from an old squad of journeymen.
Biggest problem off the pitch: Lack of revenue.
I was confused when Parma decided to cancel former sporting director Daniele Faggiano’s contract this year. He’s the very same DS that led them to an Italian football record of back-to-back promotions - from Serie D all the way to the top flight.
But then you take a deeper look and see that Faggiano hasn’t left Parma in good shape. Their key players are Bruno Alves, Juraj Kucka and Gervinho. They have the oldest squad in the league, and very little youth to look forward to; much less sources of revenue.
If they’re going to balance out their negative transfer numbers, they arguably only have modest fees to fetch in strikers Inglese and Cornelius, or maybe keeper Luigi Sepe. But it could easily go wrong and, while we praise Parma for finishing 11th this season, it’s not so wild to bet on them facing relegation trouble next year, while cutting loose key players in the January transfer window to boot.
Group E: Nothing To Lose
The next group of clubs are in a semi-permanent state of flux, with very little on the books other than a makeshift identity.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €57 million
Total annual wage bill: €40 million
Squad market value: €137.9 million
Average age of starting lineup: 26.8 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: Chaotic football philosophy, key players are all either too young or too old, lack of managerial continuity.
Biggest problem off the pitch: Unmotivated owner, exorbitant stadium maintenance fees.
On the face of it, Genoa have a very healthy +€57 million surplus of transfer activity and decent average age in their squad. But scratch under the surface to see just how deceiving these numbers can be.
Genoa’s average age only looks that way because it’s a clash of extremes, between mid-thirties key players like Criscito, Schone and Pandev, and younger hopefuls like Pinamonti and Sanabria—both of whom Genoa are struggling to get the best out recently. So if Genoa do have a lot of FFP-breathing room to play with and revamp their squad, they’re going to need it soon.
But the bigger problem is club president Enrico Preziosi openly looking to hand over the keys to a new owner, for the last three years. And Genoa’s situation is complicated by the fact their local council demands that they and city rivals Sampdoria spend more on maintenance fees for their stadium, even though both clubs have spent over 6 million in fees over the last couple of years alone.
Andrea Pinamonti could very well be on the lookout for a new club in the next 12 months. Could Roma be interested in taking on a renovation project like him?
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €17 million
Total annual wage bill: €25 million
Squad market value: €47.8 million
Average age of starting lineup: 26 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: Several key players are loanees only.
Biggest problem off the pitch: New stadium issues with Chievo.
Hellas Verona made a fool out of our relegation predictions last season, but key players like Amrabat, Dimarco and Rrahmani have already finished their season-long loans and returned back to their parent clubs this summer. That leaves Ivan Juric a victim of his own success, as he has to figure out how to rebuild the core of a team that just missed out on European football.
Roma’s Mert Cetin may be part of Juric’s answer on the pitch. Behind the scenes though, there’s €121 million worth of finance to find for Verona’s greenlit new stadium project, to which city rivals Chievo are strangely resistant and refusing to pitch in for the time being.
If they won’t have many calls coming in to poach their players, it’s because they already sold Primavera star Juwara over a year ago. Arguably only right-back Marco Faraoni would collect a significant transfer fee among the bigger clubs, and he’s pushing his thirties. It’s going to be very hard for Verona to squeeze any remaining drops out of their modest squad value.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €4 million
Total annual wage bill: €30 million
Squad market value: €147.5 million
Average age of starting lineup: 26.5 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: Leaky defence.
Biggest problem off the pitch: What are their ambitions?
It’s hard to say anything about Udinese in any direction, because they know they’re a development club and seem happy to stay that way.
Their board repeatedly talks about “eventually” making the club competitive, but that’s never followed by action. This despite the fact they’ve followed a sensible policy of buying the rights to privately own their stadium, and have very promising South American players like box-to-box Rodrigo De Paul and goalkeeper Juan Musso.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €57 million
Total annual wage bill: €36 million
Squad market value: €155.4 million
Average age of starting lineup: 25.9 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: Chaotic, ever-changing tactics from the Tinkerman.
Biggest problem off the pitch: Worst chairman in the league, high stadium maintence fees.
Sampdoria’s transfer activity is still sitting pretty off of that Patrik Schick money from Roma, and they have one of the youngest squads in Serie A. So there’s plenty of time and space for them to start a Year Zero whenever they want. With a talent like Audero in goal, and midfielders like Linetty and Jankto reaching their prime, what’s to stop them?
Well, coach Claudio Ranieri (as much as we love him) can’t settle upon any stable tactics; much less whether to zonal, mixed or man-mark at set-pieces (as a result, Samp did the worst job at defending against set-piece goals in the league last season).
And then there’s antagonistic owner Massimo Ferrero. Fans dislike him because he will find a way to knock the wind out of the club at any given opportunity. Samp are also regularly hamstrung by stadium maintenance fees over the last couple of years.
Group F: They Shoulda Never Gave You Money
Unless they pull something truly special out the bag both on and off the pitch, then this is the final pool of clubs who will be at the mercy of others dictating terms over the next 12 months, if not longer.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €-(40) million
Total annual wage bill: €41 million
Squad market value: €95.8 million
Average age of starting lineup: 26.6 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: Lack of chemistry.
Biggest problem off the pitch: The usual Sabatini pressure to find immediate results.
Pallotta’s cry of “he just kept making transfers” still rings true up the road, as Walter Sabatini exploded Bologna’s setup with 40 arrivals and 38 outgoing transfers last summer (including loans).
That meant Bologna ran themselves €40 million into the red—a transfer deficit the likes of which Bologna haven’t seen in years, if ever—with all the usual hallmarks of Sabatini summer campaign spent attracting an average age of 22.8 years old among his new arrivals. The wage bill grew 18% in just one summer from all the new signings. Though, in Sabatini’s defence, Mattia Destro being Bologna’s highest earner on the books isn’t his doing this time around.
How will Bologna ever pay all this back? Well the answer is always “later”, of course.
Wonderkid Takehiro Tomiyasu is everything Roma need at right-back for the next ten years, but Bologna have stood firm on their €25 million valuation of the player they signed for €9 million just 12 months ago. There are also less successful talents like Orsolini and Skov Olsen that could still come good.
But if they don’t? Then Sabatini will have to blow it all up again and start from scratch by selling off the experienced players, too.
Bologna definitely need better results than a 12th place league finish, if they’re to grow a squad market value that’s barely even twice what the club spends on wages.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €(-44) million
Total annual wage bill: €44 million
Squad market value: €169.5 million
Average age of starting lineup: 27.4 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: Inconsistent, night-and-day results. A slow backline with mid-thirties centre-halves.
Biggest problem off the pitch: Just a really bad transfer policy gone wrong. And where will they find funds for their stadium project?
Cagliari are the current poster child for how buying Juventus youth prospects can go wrong. They spent significant money (by their own standards) on players like Filippo Romagna and Alberto Cerri who, while showing moments of promise, just haven’t set the world on fire.
And then there’s bigger money signings like Lucas Castro and Bradaric. Am I losing you yet? Striker Pavoletti and midfielder Marko Rog will ring a bell, but the others have singularly failed to justify their transfer fees on the southern isle, while the more notable names haven’t done much better.
By far their biggest transfer fee was spent on Nahitan Nandez last summer, who had a very good start to Serie A football but then faded from January onwards, along with the rest of Cagliari’s form. It’ll be a miracle if the club can find an agreement to sign talisman Radja Nainggolan from Inter, let alone extending the stay of on-loan Luca Pellegrini.
It should come as no surprise then, that the club have hired coach Eusebio Di Francesco. EDF has a tough job of developing Cagliari’s youth, in a season where the club are really up against it financially. Worst yet, the club desperately at least one faster and younger centre-half if EDF’s high-line football is to look remotely feasible in Sardegna.
It’s inevitable that the Isolani will have to way goodbye to names like Alessio Cragno and Nandez - who both have release clauses in their contract - by the summer of 2021, if not sooner. In fact, some sources tout Cragno being sent to Inter this September as the key to securing Nainggolan’s permanent signing the other way.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €(-227) million
Total annual wage bill: €115 million
Squad market value: €511 million
Average age of starting lineup: 24.7 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: Extremely young squad.
Biggest problem off the pitch: How do they still exist as a club?
A prominent and die-hard Milan journalist once threw his arms in up the air, a couple of years ago, and claimed that the Diavolo were the model-example for how to do business as a club. He then quickly added that he meant it in the sense of showing everyone exactly what not to do.
When you look at the local and national press falling over themselves this year to claim that “Milan are now the only club in Italy free of any bond-market obligations”, you have to think there’s an air of desperation in fishing for such obscure praise.
If Milan manage to balance their ridiculous €227 million transfer deficit, it surely won’t be done within the rules.
Transfer balance over the last 3 seasons: €37 million
Total annual wage bill: €125 million
Squad market value: €412.7 million
Average age of starting lineup: 26.8 years old
Biggest problem on the pitch: Their two biggest spheres of influence, Dzeko and Kolarov, are senior citizens.
Biggest problem off the pitch: Ridiculous wage bill compared to results.
Roma’s only saving grace is that their transfer activity still has them firmly at a +€37 million surplus, thanks to the infamous supermarket summer of 2017 and the near break-even summers of ‘18 and ‘19. But equally high transfer fees were spent just as much as collected, and the inflated salaries to go with those moves.
Worse yet is that this is a 32-man senior squad that has piled up over three separate footballing philosophies, within a club that simply cannot appoint a coach and stick with that decision. But if we take a step back and try to be detached, Roma has enough options to turn around their fate on the pitch, with a little luck on their side.
If it isn’t going to be ill-advised player-swap deals to get Roma through choppy waters, then it looks like cheap signings from Eastern Europe and South America are on the menu. But with Paulo Fonseca’s collective style proving that he can make newcomers like Villar, and Perez match-ready in minimal time, that’s a more realistic route to now pursue than it would have been under a coach like Garcia or Spalletti.
Yet the ugly fact is that 2019/20’s record-breaking €150 million loss is the Mount Everest to climb, away from the pitch. It sounds surreal to say it, but Roma’s job is to slash wages and expenses as fast as they possibly can, to keep the next year’s losses to at least under €100 million on top of the damage already done in the time spent away from the Champions League.
Then only Totti knows what the new club owners’ plan is to get past the summer of 2021. One thing is clear, Roma is NOT in a position to be preying upon the FFP misfortunes of the Bolognas or Cagliaris around them.
In that sense, the Giallorossi have racked up debts at exactly the wrong time and left themselves wide-open to getting preyed on by bigger clubs, and even rivals, dictating terms.