Premier League preview week: Are English teams getting a good return for their bigger buck?

Manchester City, like other English clubs, has bought big in recent years. But they haven’t won big. (Getty)

Welcome to FC Yahoo’s Premier League preview week. We’ll take a look at each team in our aggregated predicted table, counting down from No. 20 to No. 1, and also reflect on some issues surrounding the league as kickoff approaches on Friday. Follow along with everything here.

It can hardly have escaped you. In fact, it’s all probably feeling a bit rote by now. The towering transfer fees paid for seemingly every Tom, Dick and Harry in the Premier League have a sort of numbing effect. Just a few years ago, 40 million pounds bought Arsenal Mesut Ozil. And then Alexis Sanchez came for that same fee. True game-changers.

Now, 40 million pounds isn’t quite enough to buy you Kyle Walker, a 27-year-old right back who is perfectly competent but hardly one of the world’s elite at his position. This summer, the England international left Tottenham Hotspur for Manchester City for a fee that could total 50 million pounds, if all bonuses are activated.

But for the staggering inflation – the three most expensive defenders ever were all signed by City in the last year – it’s unclear how much real added value Premier League teams are actually getting for their money. Of the 14 most expensive signings ever made by Premier League teams, 12 happened either this summer, last summer or the summer prior – and, mind you, there’s almost a month left in the transfer window.

Yet in the last three seasons, just one English team has been to the semifinals of the Champions League. Same as in the two seasons before that. That’s two teams in half a decade. That is, after Manchester United and Chelsea reached the final in back-to-back years in 2011 and 2012, and three English teams were in the semis in 2009.

Which is to say that for all the money spent, that for the hundreds of millions dropped on Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling and Anthony Martial, English clubs haven’t become noticeably better as compared to their European peers – on an admittedly small sample size. If anything, they’ve regressed.

This, in turn, begs the question if they’ve become better at all. If those billions of dollars in new television riches have actually improved the teams, and, by extension, the product. Or if they’ve simply served to make the same things, the same players, more expensive than before. The evidence suggests that Premier League teams are just paying more for the same caliber of players. And the seismic and seminal Neymar transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for $263 million – more than doubling Pogba’s $124 million record from just a year ago – won’t do anything to slow the runaway spending on player acquisition.

The league’s emissaries are no more competitive on the continental front. Nor are the top teams, spending the biggest fees, much improved relative to the rest of the league. The Premier League is no more or less competitive than before. The big clubs still dominate, but the smaller ones continue to give good sport – like surprise winners Leicester City two seasons ago.

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Because everybody is spending more. The smaller clubs are paying more for players as well, pretty much in lockstep with the inflation across the entire league. This suggests that all that’s really happened is the numbers have gotten bigger, but that little else has changed. It looks an awful lot like the clubs are essentially shopping in the same grocery store as before, and largely sticking to their old grocery lists, only paying a multiple of what that same cart of things would have cost in the past.

And that makes a certain amount of sense. As the richest league in the world, there were few players who were unattainable to Premier League teams. The amount of talent out there hasn’t changed. What’s changed is the money floating around. Hyperinflation is inevitable.

That leaves you to wonder how much good all that new money is really doing. Few teams, if any, seem to be using it to invest significantly in their academies, or even their venues and training grounds. It’s all seemingly going straight into the transfer budget. But since all other clubs are doing the same, the benefits cancel each other out.

If you accept that television rights for live sports are in something of a bubble, and many informed observers do, there’s every chance that it will burst in the coming years as cable and satellite companies continue to be diminished by cord-cutters. Currently, the Premier League collects some $3 billion per season from its portfolio of domestic and global broadcast deals. And given that over the first half of last season, domestic ratings were down 19 percent year-over-year, the Premier League might well be a prime candidate for a pay cut on its next round of deals.

If that happens, the bumper contracts for the 2016-17 through the 2018-19 seasons could have gone completely to waste on player acquisition with no long-term assets to show for it. In other words, the Premier League could have squandered its chance to invest in places – infrastructure, player development, networking, global expansion, advertising, brand-building, coaching – that would have set it apart for the future. Finally, it could have laid the groundwork to catch up to Spain’s La Liga and enable clubs to do as well in Europe – the only truth in judging which league is superior.

But the Premier League didn’t do that. Instead, it went fishing in the same player pool. With bigger worms on the lines, but casting for the same catch.

Maybe the clubs will work out how to monetize OTT broadcasting and squeeze new revenue from airing their games to compensate for a would-be drop-off in traditional broadcast rights. And perhaps they’ll come to the same conclusion that they’re better off putting their money elsewhere.

Because that’s the thing about an arms race: when each side stocks up equally, nothing actually changes for the better, in spite of the considerable cost.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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