So far there's been little to indicate that a summer of big spending among the elite clubs in Europe will happen. If the failed European Super League breakaway attempt was proof of anything, it was that the football economy is not in a good place. Over a year on, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are still being felt, projected and counted, with the game's financial future still unclear. Clubs will have lower budgets to work with, while loans and free transfers will be high on the agenda again.
However, the huge recent changeover of managers in Europe's top leagues should result in some players switching teams. How does Massimiliano Allegri want to shape his Juventus side? What's in store for Real Madrid now that Zinedine Zidane has left? And it's hard to believe that Jose Mourinho joined Roma without the promise of being able to bring in new players. Then there are perennial high spenders Paris Saint-Germain, who might end up cutting the Mauricio Pochettino era short if they let him return to Tottenham Hotspur.
All these changes in the hot seat could stir something in the transfer market. While the days of €100 million-plus deals being done are probably over for the time being, there still are bargains out there.
Liverpool's €41.5m capture of RB Leipzig defender Ibrahima Konate and Leicester's imminent €25m recruitment of Lille midfielder Boubakary Soumare -- the latter of whom appears a particularly shrewd signing -- shows that there still are opportunities to be had.
The CEO of a midsized, top-tier club in continental Europe told ESPN: "We are going to add to our squad this summer. What I can say for certain: those we do sign, will not become our top earners. The wages have to come down, there's no other option. Many clubs are desperate to get rid of their best-paid players, but it's difficult. Very difficult. Even on loan."
For the majority of clubs, the plan is about trimming costs. In January, we saw examples of this as Arsenal let their highest-paid player Mesut Ozil (earning a reported €375,000 a week) leave on a free transfer despite having six months left on his contract. Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi followed suit and the club opted to take the short-term financial hit to move them on.
Decisions over new deals for 2022 will not be taken lightly and, as the CEO says, those who move clubs may have to accept lower wages and shorter contract lengths.
Loans and free transfers will be key again
Clubs in the top five European leagues completed 1,422 deals worth €3 billion in the summer of 2020, down from €5.5bn in summer 2019. Chelsea spent over €240m to sign six players including Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, Arsenal landed Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid for €50m, while Napoli splashed €70m to bring in Victor Osimhen, but we may see that figure drop again this year.
In past years, one big move can see the money trickle down -- like Barcelona spending €160m to land Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho in 2018, meaning the Reds signed Southampton's Virgil van Dijk (€80m) and Roma's Alisson (€75m) with the proceeds. Now, the COVID-19 financial crisis means clubs aren't able to move on big players and reinvest in the same way.
Barcelona are a good example. After registering debts of €1.2bn, the club have been forced to curb their big-spending ways. Wages are being cut, including those of Lionel Messi if he stays and signs a new contract, while the transfers promised by new Barcelona president Joan Laporta will be arriving for no fee: Manchester City duo Eric Garcia and Sergio Aguero, Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum and Lyon's Memphis Depay are all expected to come to Camp Nou (Aguero agreed Monday). Excellent free transfers, but free transfers nonetheless.
Barca's rivals Real Madrid would love nothing more than to sign Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappe, but their financial situation means a free transfer for Bayern Munich's David Alaba might be as high profile as they get this summer. And that will only balance out if they lose the wages of either Raphael Varane or Sergio Ramos. Make no mistake, Alaba is a quality signing, but Madrid are hampered by the high wages of the likes of Gareth Bale, Isco and Eden Hazard and need to move players on before they can bring anyone in.
Messi is clearly the most high-profile player to still be available on a free, with Man City and PSG the most likely to sign him if he leaves Barcelona, but AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma is arguably more in demand given he's 22 and has his whole career ahead of him. Every top club in Europe will be circling the Italy international before he makes his decision.
Elsewhere, the contracts that expire in 2021 also include Madrid's Lucas Vazquez, Milan's Hakan Calhanoglu and Napoli defender Elseid Hysaj. Expect there to be interest in Premier League trio Olivier Giroud (Chelsea), Ryan Bertrand (Southampton) and Juan Mata (Man United) too.
Using the loan market well will also be key. A player like Real Madrid midfielder Martin Odegaard could be of great interest if Zidane's replacement decides he's not part of the rebuild, and the Bernabeu club may be able to offer up the likes of Bale, Luka Jovic and Brahim Diaz once more.
While there will always be a market for players who want to play first-team football again, there may also be another type of loan: one designed to move a player's wages off the books until the financial crisis eases in a year or so.
For example, Manchester United could look at letting goalkeeper David de Gea (who earns a reported €400,000 a week) depart on loan as they have Dean Henderson ready to take over as No. 1. Elsewhere, Arsenal right-back Hector Bellerin has been promised an exit this summer but the club may not be able to offer him more than a loan to Real Betis, while Barcelona's Miralem Pjanic could be another to go this route after a disappointing season at Camp Nou and another three years on his contract.
The hope would be that a player's transfer value increases with some good performances on loan -- as United have managed to do with Jesse Lingard at West Ham -- while also saving them money in the short term. But it's not without risk.
Looking outside the norm
In times of crisis, it pays to have a creative, accomplished scouting team. Unearthing players that are still on a fraction of a Premier League or Serie A wage is sound economy. Even a scarcely used Premier League squad player would earn more than a new arrival from a "development" league would demand or expect.
Just as West Ham found success by looking in the Czech Republic -- the combined €26m they spent to sign Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal is hard to beat for value -- there are other less-heralded countries that are worth studying closer too.
One chief scout from a club in one of Europe's top five league told ESPN: "We've targeted Denmark and Poland as particularly interesting markets. Players from those leagues tend to adapt well to the football we play. Poland have some really interesting youth players coming through, and now because of the challenging financial state of Polish football, they are starting to get playing time at senior level as well. And they aren't costing a fortune."
As for Denmark, he added: "Look at their U21 side, it's one of the best in Europe. They went through to the Under-21 European Championship finals in June with a 100% record [in the group stage], even beating that great France team. It says a lot. In the domestic league, nobody seems too bothered about giving playing time to 17- and 18-year-olds. FC Nordsjaelland even field first XIs with an average age of less than 20. It's incredible."
Of course, the implications of work-permit restrictions post-Brexit means some of these markets are off limits for the Premier League, but clubs on the continent have already seen an opportunity. By trawling the smaller leagues for talent, they can offer a gateway for these players to make an eventual move to the Premier League.
The sporting director said: "We can already feel some kind of Brexit effect. Players from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and further away, have always seen us as a steppingstone for England, but after Brexit it becomes an even more interesting business opportunity for us."
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Which players could be on the move?
Clearly every club in Europe would want to sign star players like Borussia Dortmund's Haaland (€180m), PSG's Mbappe (€150m) and Tottenham's Harry Kane (€150m) but the chances of anyone being able to afford this kind of fee is very low. Therefore, clubs will have to look a bit lower down the pyramid.
With funds raised from letting players go, and perhaps the deep pockets of an owner, some clubs might be able to spend relatively big on transfer fees but you can probably cap that at between €80m-€50m.
Jadon Sancho, Dortmund - €80m: The winger enjoyed an excellent second half to the season as he played a key role in Dortmund's sealing of a place in the Champions League and in their victory in the DFB-Pokal final. Dortmund seem more inclined to listen to offers this summer, with Manchester United most keen, and the 21-year-old Sancho is one of the few who can justify such a big transfer fee.
Declan Rice, West Ham - €70m: The England international has kept doing what he does best: shielding the defence and bringing stability to the centre of midfield. There are a few players who can perform defensive midfield duties as well as the 22-year-old, which is why both United and Chelsea are very interested.
Jules Kounde, Sevilla - €70m: One of the best young centre-backs in world football, Kounde is a great fit for a top club who builds from the back. His contract expires in 2024 and Sevilla would require a big fee in order to let him go.
Jack Grealish, Aston Villa - €70m: Creative and entertaining, with a touch of arrogance, Grealish is contracted to his boyhood club for another four years, but he has wonderful potential and Manchester City have been linked.
Eduardo Camavinga, Rennes - €60m: The 18-year-old's development has seen him courted by every club that can possibly afford him, with Real Madrid favourites. But he has reportedly told Rennes that he won't sign a new contract (his terms expire in 2022) and is keen to stay in Ligue 1, possibly with PSG.
The second tier of transfer signings could come at around €50m-€25m
Raphael Varane, Real Madrid - €50m: The France international has not quite been as dominant for Real Madrid last season as we've grown used to. With one year left of his contract, the club may sacrifice him to fund their rebuild.
Houssem Aouar, Lyon - €45m: Despite having a mixed season for Lyon, Aouar remains an exceptionally talented attacking midfielder. A player with the qualities and personality to slot straight into a European giant.
Max Aarons, Norwich - €40m: The energetic right-back hardly ever has a poor game, and though newly promoted Norwich still offer a respectable platform for top-level football, that might not be enough to fend off interest from the traditional top clubs.
Nikola Milenkovic, Fiorentina - €35m: A commanding centre-back who's particularly strong in the air, defends and attacks set pieces well. The Serbia international's contract expires in 2022 and he's still only 23 so has plenty of room to develop.
Yves Bissouma, Brighton - €30m: The midfielder had an outstanding season with Brighton and is on the radar of a number of top clubs, including Arsenal and Liverpool. He covers a lot of ground, wins tackles and is a fine ball-carrier.
The real bargains could come from €25m and below, which are going to be hardest to find.
Remo Freuler, Atalanta - €25m: The Switzerland international might not be the most credited for the gradual ascent of Atalanta over the past years, but few defensive central midfielders offer more in terms of energy, graft and effective pressing. With just one year left to run on his contract, the 29-year-old could be available for significantly less than the fee such a player would usually attract. A fine European Championship could see his stock rise even further.
Sergio Roberto, Barcelona - €25m: Although mostly ignored by Ronald Koeman during the past season, the versatile midfielder/right-back could still deliver to a high standard elsewhere. The 29-year-old is one La Liga appearance shy of his 200th for Barcelona, which tells its own story.
Jonathan Bamba, Lille - €25m: The exodus from title-winning Lille has already started and highly influential Jonathan Bamba might be the next out of the door. As a left winger who likes to cut in on his right foot, he is excellent at taking on opponents. But, at 25 years of age, he might not command the kind of transfer fee that Lille initially would have hoped.
Joachim Andersen, Lyon - €20m: One of the few Fulham players that can look back at a fairly respectable season on an individual level. Despite his loan spell ending in relegation, Andersen showed fine defensive and "constructive" abilities, especially in terms of playing out from the back. Given the state of the transfer market and the general perception that the French club seem to prioritise other central defenders, it's unlikely that Lyon can expect more than the €24m they paid to sign the player back in 2019, despite reported interest from Tottenham).
Federico Bernardeschi, Juventus - €15m: An Italy international winger who's never settled properly into the Juventus first XI following his controversial move from archrivals Fiorentina four years ago. He's still a fine combination player on the final third and with his confidence restored, he'll get back to scoring stunning efforts with his left foot.