Chelsea, Man United most active on transfers this decade

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Have Chelsea and Manchester United gotten value for their transfer spending? Do Real Madrid need to spend big to stay on top in Europe? And how is Barcelona's transfer balance sheet looking?

In its latest statistical breakdown of the game's finances, the CIES Football Observatory in Switzerland has scoured all the deals over the past decade to find out which clubs have been most active. It has looked at combined incomings and outgoings (i.e., "transfer volume") over set periods, as well as the net balance. The data covers this season, as well as combined figures for the past 10 seasons.

There are now 169 clubs from 24 countries whose cumulative transfer volume has exceeded the €100 million mark over the past five seasons alone. The clubs from Europe's biggest leagues lead the way with 14 surpassing €1 billion in spending and one Premier League club in particular skyrocketing well beyond the €2bn threshold.

Having looked over the CIES data tables, here are our main takeaways.

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Chelsea are in a league of their own

Given that they have completed two €100m-plus transfers since January 2023, it's unsurprising to find Chelsea's transfer spending way out in front ... having paid out €846m more than the second club in the list.

The Blues have shuffled €2.57bn in that time frame with marquee deals for players such as Enzo Fernández, Moisés Caicedo, Romelu Lukaku, Wesley Fofana, Mykhailo Mudryk and Kai Havertz (all of whom are among the club's top 10 record signings) while also securing relatively big-money departures for the likes of Mason Mount and Havertz.

Chelsea's closest competition in terms of transfer volume since the start of the 2019-20 campaign are Manchester City (€1.72bn) and Paris Saint-Germain (€1.40bn.) And remember when Barcelona used to be able to spend big on transfers before their financial troubles? They are fourth in the list at €1.33bn.

Man United show that big spending doesn't guarantee success

When it comes to hemorrhaging money over a sustained period, it would appear that nobody does it better than Premier League clubs with the English top flight providing seven of the 10 worst transfer balances for both the past five and 10 seasons.

It's Chelsea who again "top" the list over the past five seasons with a negative transfer volume balance of €-782m, narrowly pipping rivals Manchester United (€-773m) into second place. At least the Blues can celebrate winning the Champions League in that time.

However, those two clubs swap positions when the scope is extended to a 10-season overview, with United leaping to the fore with an accumulated balance of €-1.34bn, dwarfing Chelsea's respective tally (€-1.04bn).

The Red Devils have parted with such exorbitant amounts in transfer fees over that decade, yet still failed to win a single major title on either the domestic or European front.

At least Chelsea have won the Premier League twice and the Champions League once ... Man United have nothing -- and we're not counting the FA Cup or the Europa League.

Big spending with limited results from signing the likes of Harry Maguire, Jadon Sancho, Antony, Ángel Di María, Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku have shown a distinctly poor transfer policy at Old Trafford.

The duo are also the only two clubs to have sunk below a negative net transfer spend of more than €-100bn over the decade, with PSG in third place with a running total of €-959m.

Real Madrid show you don't have to spend big all the time

Once renowned for their extravagant Galactico approach to transfers, it would appear that Real Madrid now know that spending wisely is the key to success.

The Spanish giants are only just inside the top 10 when it comes to total transfer volume over the past five seasons, having spent "just" €1.20bn on players and only two players arriving since 2019-20 in deals worth more than €80m (Aurélien Tchouaméni and Jude Bellingham.) In the past five seasons Real Madrid have won two LaLiga titles and the Champions League.

Of course, you can also just wait and sign a world star like Kylian Mbappé on a free transfer!

To put that in context, relative lightweights Tottenham Hotspur, Ajax Amsterdam and Benfica have all spent more money on transfers in that period.

Rivals Barcelona are the fourth-biggest-spending club in the world over the past five seasons (€1.333bn), behind only Chelsea, Man City and PSG -- which perhaps goes some way to explaining their financial quagmire -- and they have only last season's league success to show for it.

Liverpool, meanwhile, have also shown their aptitude for a good deal. Over the past 10 years they are only 23rd in the list of transfer volume (€880m) with a net transfer deficit of €-281m. Remarkably, Nottingham Forest (€-311m) have a larger net spend than Jurgen Klopp's men in the period.

Europe's most savvy dealers

While they might both have outspent Real Madrid over the past five seasons, Ajax and Benfica have managed to wring maximum value from their combined transfer activity, with the two clubs also producing the highest profits in that time frame.

Benfica are top of the list having racked up a transfer volume of €1.223bn but still coming out €354m in the black thanks in large part to securing enormous deals for the likes of João Félix, Enzo Fernandez, Darwin Núñez and Rúben Dias.

Ajax are narrowly behind, having a €1.216bn outlay into a net profit of €349m, plumped by the lucrative departures of Antony, Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, Lisandro Martínez, Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech.

In fact, nine of the Dutch club's 10 highest transfer departures have come since the start of the 2019-20 season.

Saudi clubs have cracked the 'top 10' this season

Taking the 2023-24 season in isolation, two English clubs top the CIES list when it comes to the best positive transfer balances. Southampton (€167m) show the value of moving on players after relegation, with Wolves (€135m) joining Villarreal (€109m) as the only clubs to have made more than €100m in the past two transfer windows.

At the other end of the spectrum, no less than four Saudi Pro League clubs have found their way into the top 11 of the biggest net losses. And Al Hilal (€-384m) recorded a bigger deficit than any other team in the world this season, despite having only spent €456m on transfers in total over the past five seasons.

PSG are second in 2023-24 with a negative transfer balance of €-204m this season, while Al Ahli (€-198m) beat Newcastle United (€-175m) into third place.

The Premier League is well represented with Chelsea (€-170m), Arsenal (€-147m), Manchester United (€-143m) and struggling Burnley (€-126m) all managing to deal their respective ways into the "top" 10 of net transfer losses.

They are rubbing shoulders with Cristiano Ronaldo's Al Nassr (€-162m), and Saudi cohorts Al Ittihad (€-125m) have also propelled their way into the equation after both dramatically ratcheting up their transfer spending in recent months.

Barcelona's transfer restrictions are laid bare for all to see, with a net transfer deficit of just €-9m in 2023-24.