Aaron Ramsey has reportedly just signed a pre-contract deal with Juventus worth £400,000 a week, making the Wales midfielder the highest paid British footballer in history.
The sheer size of the contract may have been enough to make Ramsay pack his bags and leave Arsenal for Turin, but it also serves as the latest example in a growing trend of British players making the step to go abroad. Young English stars Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson have enjoyed particularly fruitful seasons at Borussia Dortmund and Hoffenheim, respectively. Scotland defender David Bates has too established himself at Hamburg this season, and Celtic’s on-loan winger Oliver Burke spent a season at RB Leipzig in 2016-17.
While it is still rare, compared to other countries, for British players to go abroad, it is becoming an increasingly popular alternative. The transfer market and the pressure on Premier League teams for immediate success means clubs across the division are forking out huge figures for proven first-team talent and even for the brightest young players from overseas. Chelsea just spent around £50 million on Christian Pulisic in January. Whilst he is a quality player whom fans would want their teams to snap-up, this illustrates how far clubs are willing to go in order to bring immediate success. It is a harsh landscape for youth-team players and one just needs to look at the example of Ruben Loftus-Cheek as proof. One of England’s stars at the World Cup, Loftus-Cheek is nowhere near the Chelsea first-team, with Mauricio Sarri preferring to spend big on Jorginho and bring in Mateo Kovacic on loan, rather than giving youth a chance. Phil Foden at Man City is another who is struggling to make his mark. Lower down the table West Ham, who pride themselves on being the “academy of football”, have seen their prospect Reece Oxford go to the continent on three occasions.
Spurs and Liverpool still prove there are benefits to promoting young players, even in today’s transfer climate. Just look at Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Harry Winks, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Joe Gomez whom are all now in the England picture. Clearly though, young players across the division see Europe as a serious alternative. For someone like Jadon Sancho, it has worked wonders.
Aaron Ramsey, of course, is not a young starlet – he is a 28-year-old who should be entering the peak of his career. He also is not the first British player to leave for Europe at the height of their powers – Gary Lineker played at Barcelona, Paul Lambert won the Champions League with Dortmund, and David Beckham became one of Real Madrid’s Galacticos in 2003. Ramsey’s countryman, Gareth Bale, has also just celebrated a century of goals at Real Madrid. Ramsey’s big move is not unique in terms of a player moving abroad, moreover it shows the closing financial gap between the Premier League and Europe.
The Premier League is the most valuable football league in the world, but the gap is closing rather than widening. Previously, big European clubs other than the giants of Barca and Real had to innovate in order to compete. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund relied on seriously strong youth academies and poaching talent from fellow Bundesliga clubs at cut-prices (see Robert Lewandowski), whereas Juventus’ success can be accredited to a strong core of Italian players who have been there for many years, and a remarkable string of free transfer signings, of which Ramsey is the latest example.
Things have changed now. New TV and sponsorship deals have improved the fortunes of German, Spanish and Italian clubs. The financial clout these teams hold in terms of wages and transfer fees is huge. As puzzling as it is for Arsenal to be letting Ramsey go, it is still a strange situation where an out-of-favour Arsenal player can command wages of such a level, but this shows how financially strong Juventus are. After all, this is a team that forked out £90 million for Cristiano Ronaldo last summer. While we know that Real Madrid, Barcelona, and, more recently, PSG have the ability to break transfer-records all the time; it is unusual to see the other European teams operate in such a way.
Both in terms of being a platform for young players to develop, and when it comes to making big-money deals that have become a Premier League staple, the other leagues are closing in. No example proves this more than the recent saga with Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi. Struggling to get a starting place in Sarri’s team, Bayern Munich reportedly bid £40 million for the winger in January. Chelsea blocked the move but for Bayern Munich to splash that much money on a young English player is near enough unheard of. No longer are Real and Barca the only threats to the Premier League’s financial dominance, but also Juventus, Bayern, Dortmund, PSG, and, in years to come, possibly Atletico, Roma, and the Milan teams. And further to that, many now see the European leagues as a better platform for youth development.
Is this a bad thing? The Premier League may think so but for fans, perhaps not. England’s national team may have seen improved fortunes recently but near enough 100 per cent of the squad comes from the Premier League. Scotland, Wales (omitting Bale and now Ramsey), and Northern Ireland also draw their players almost entirely from the British leagues. This is contrasted with the national teams of France, Germany, Spain, Argentina, and Brazil, whom all pool their squads from a variety of the worlds best leagues. Perhaps new experiences and variety can enrich and improve national teams and better develop players. For all these reasons in the future, we may see more players emulating the decisions of Jadon Sancho and Aaron Ramsey.