The Premier League is almost able to field an XI bought for £1bn, with a midfield made up entirely of £100m signings made in 2023.
GK: Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao to Chelsea, £71.6m)
Gianluigi Buffon was the world’s most expensive goalkeeper for 5,820 days. Ederson reigned for just over 13 months. Alisson only managed three weeks. Kepa retains that mantle five years on, despite spending much of the intervening time not even his own club’s best shot-stopper.
The Spaniard has seen off varying degrees of challenges from Willy Caballero, Rob Green, Jamie Cumming, Marcin Bulka, Marcus Bettinelli and Edouard Mendy at Stamford Bridge, with Robert Sanchez and Gabriel Slonina the latest to come at the king while hoping not to miss.
Kepa also gave us a soft introduction to Todd Boehly’s contract fun; he has two years left on the seven-year deal he signed in 2018.
CB: Harry Maguire (Leicester to Manchester United, £80m)
Another whose stock has fallen sufficiently to render the world’s most expensive player in his position an outsider at a club suffering a degree of buyer’s remorse, Maguire was the captain around whom Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tried to establish a dynasty, then the cast-off immediately cast aside by Erik ten Hag.
The Man Utd manager has said all the right things to ensure the millstone he inherited has not been publicly ostracised, but actions speak louder than words and the signing of Lisandro Martinez was ear-splitting.
Maguire is approaching a double century of appearances for the club, skippering Premier League and Europa League runners-up campaigns while being neither as bad as his detractors insist, nor as good as his advocates ever suggested. But Bruno Fernandes has assumed responsibility of the armband and Luke Shaw has jumped the centre-half queue.
The 30-year-old has options, including staying at Old Trafford on the pretence he would be fighting for his place when the reality is that battle was lost long ago. If a bit-part role does not satisfy Maguire then he will need to take his medicine at West Ham or elsewhere to avoid another tongue lashing from Andre Onana.
CB: Josko Gvardiol (Leipzig to Manchester City, £77m)
The Premier League has always seemed to beckon for Gvardiol. Leeds almost signed the Croatian in the season after their top-flight promotion, while the centre-half has publicly discussed his dream of playing for Liverpool before. Try as they might, Chelsea simply could not extract Gvardiol from Leipzig in summer 2022, when Boehly was throwing money in every direction.
A £77.4m bid was not enough to persuade Leipzig to sell then, but Manchester City found their breakthrough with a similar figure 12 months later.
Gvardiol presumably caught the eye with his goal against Pep Guardiola’s side in a Champions League last-16 first-leg match in Germany. The 21-year-old did then play the full 90 minutes of a 7-0 thrashing in the return leg as Erling Haaland had his fun. Only the Norwegian and Lionel Messi at the World Cup seem to have truly humbled Manchester City’s latest expensive defender.
CB: Virgil van Dijk (Southampton to Liverpool, £75m)
Before Liverpool signed Virgil van Dijk on New Year’s Day 2018, the most expensive centre-half in history was David Luiz (£50m), the great man removing new teammate Thiago Silva (£32m) from that particular throne in 2014. One further step back from Paris Saint-Germain’s Brazilian connection takes the lineage of the world’s most expensive central defender all the way back to Rio Ferdinand, who joined Manchester United for £30m in 2002.
The obvious importance of the position was appreciated, but not in transfer fee terms until Van Dijk. Liverpool laying £75m down on the Dutchman seemed to break the dam: there have been nine different moves worth at least £50m involving centre-halves in the subsequent five-and-a-half years.
Each have been chasing that transformative impact Van Dijk had on Liverpool, turning them from exciting but porous entertainers into stable, brilliant winners. They reached consecutive Champions League finals upon his arrival and dropped just 32 points in his first two full Premier League campaigns. The Dutchman has won the lot at Anfield, not missing a single minute of a title win and being named PFA Player of the Year in 2019, once again blazing a trail as the first defensive holder of that honour in 15 years.
Even now, with the 32-year-old slowing down and past his imperious, perhaps peerless physical peak, there are few better overall. The sums were astronomical but pound-for-pound, Liverpool have rarely spent more wisely.
RW: Antony (Ajax to Manchester United, £82m)
Doubts were expressed long before Manchester United completed the second most expensive signing in their history, and the only 180s conducted since have been by Antony himself.
Ten Hag vouched for and personally requested the purchase of his former Ajax colleague, which makes the manager’s sensible revolution at Old Trafford all the more impressive. A statement forward signing scoring eight goals and assisting three in his debut campaign ought to instigate an internal review of sorts but Ten Hag’s success has afforded Antony slightly more time and patience.
That will gradually erode if his game does not evolve after a testing first season. The work-rate and attitude of Antony cannot be questioned on the evidence thus far, but a lack of pace and the general one-dimensional nature of his style will only be tolerated for so long when that price tag and starting status weighs as heavy as it does.
CM: Moises Caicedo (Brighton to Chelsea, £100m)
For about £4.5m, Brighton signed Caicedo from Independiente del Valle on deadline day of the 2021 winter transfer window. Two and a half years and 53 appearances for the Seagulls later, the midfielder was sold for a potential Premier League record fee thanks to some elite-level desperation.
Caicedo long seemed destined to join Chelsea in the summer of 2023, but some painful attempts at bargaining with Tony Bloom saw their bids fall predictably short at £80m. Then Liverpool crashed in with an offer of £111m, accepted by Brighton but certainly not by Caicedo himself, who had agreed personal terms with the Blues and was in no mood to renege.
That prompted Chelsea to eventually find a breakthrough in talks with Brighton, paying a premium for the inconvenience caused and leaving Liverpool with egg on their faces. If enough of the £15m in clauses are activated, Caicedo will become the most expensive player in Premier League history.
CM: Declan Rice (West Ham to Arsenal, £100m)
It took two rejected bids, an attempted Manchester City hijack, more chat about payment structure than anyone would care to admit and a torturous wait for The Paperwork to be filed, but Arsenal finally inserted what they hope to be the final piece of their jigsaw before jetting off on their pre-season tour of the United States.
“You only ever get one career and I really believe in what Mikel is building here and the squad he’s building,” a giddy Declan Rice told his new employers. “I’m really looking forward to the future with Arsenal.”
If all goes to plan, the Arsenal record signing will hold the outright title of most expensive British player ever. His initial fee of £100m matches that which Manchester City paid Aston Villa for Jack Grealish a couple of years prior, but £5m in add-ons would take Rice clear.
CM: Enzo Fernandez (Benfica to Chelsea, £106.8m)
There were precious few positives to glean from Chelsea’s miserable first season without their Roman Abramovich stabilisers. Beyond that time they scored a goal and the other time they scored a different goal, a whole wedge of money was spent to become an entire bunch of awful.
The most silver lining to that dark Stamford Bridge cloud likely benefited from not being tainted by any of the nonsense for too long. Enzo Fernandez completed his remarkable seven-month rise in the winter, from €10m Benfica signing and Argentina youth international in June to a British record transfer as a World Cup winner in January. Mauricio Pochettino will build around his compatriot for good reason.
LW: Jack Grealish (Aston Villa to Manchester City, £100m)
A year is a long old time in football. While Miguel Almiron caught some stray bullets from Jack Grealish as the Manchester City winger was being a “moron” during the club’s Premier League title celebrations in 2022, the #antics of a Treble-winning national treasure were enjoyed heartily in 2023.
After the typical year of acclimatisation under Pep Guardiola, as well as a brief World Cup which Grealish seemed primed to cope with far better than most, the show pony transformed into a true thoroughbred with at least as much substance as style.
“When I signed for Man City and the price and stuff that came with it, I knew it wasn’t going to all be laughs unless I started the way Erling Haaland did. I think that’s the only way I wouldn’t get caned!” Grealish said at the start of his incredible season on and off the pitch. The 27-year-old has come a long way.
AM: Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund to Manchester United, £73m)
As far back as August 2017, Jadon Sancho has been on the Manchester United radar. Borussia Dortmund’s ability to grant the ambitious young forward a clear first-team pathway meant they secured the Manchester City academy talent but his immediate burst onto the Bundesliga scene only crystallised interest from back home.
For each of the subsequent years until he finally arrived at Old Trafford in 2021, Sancho was frequently linked to a club hoping to build around a youthful British core; Manchester United even ‘forced the Germans’ into selling the England forward 12 months before he actually moved.
Sancho has, as yet, hardly been worth the wait. Twelve goals and six assists in 79 appearances is not reflective of the creative force as advertised in Germany. Those flickers of excellence have been infrequent enough for Manchester United to at least consider cutting their losses.
CF: Romelu Lukaku (Inter Milan to Chelsea, £97.5m)
Work has rarely if ever been quite as unfinished as the papers Romelu Lukaku opened again in 2021, a decade after his first Chelsea move. And the pile has only stacked up further, so disastrous has his second spell at Stamford Bridge been.
The problem a teenage Lukaku encountered and suffered from at Chelsea was a lack of opportunities. He made 15 appearances for the club during the 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons, playing at least twice as often on separate loans with West Brom and Everton, before being permanently sold to the latter.
The issue an experienced Lukaku faced on his Blues comeback was perhaps a little more complex. The Belgian was signed to play a role he has never particularly suited, and his yearning for the comforting embrace and mutual appreciation of Inter bore itself out in an unseemly interview saga, after Lukaku publicly discussed his unhappiness while criticising Thomas Tuchel’s tactics.
Things have not improved under Pochettino. Lukaku even burned the only professional bridges he has left – those to Inter – by flirting with Juventus without actually sealing a deal with The Old Lady. Chelsea might have the most expensive reserve ever.
Total cost: £962.9m
Most expensive players to miss out:
Paul Pogba (Juventus to Manchester United, £89.3m)
Romelu Lukaku (Everton to Manchester United, £75m)
Nicolas Pepe (Lille to Arsenal, £72m)
Kai Havertz (Bayer Leverkusen to Chelsea, £71m)
Ruben Dias (Benfica to Manchester City, £65m)
Kai Havertz (Chelsea to Arsenal, £65m)
Darwin Nunez (Benfica to Liverpool, £64m)
Rasmus Hojlund (Atalanta to Manchester United, £64m)
Rodri (Atletico Madrid to Manchester City, £62.8m)
Mykhaylo Mudryk (Shakhtar Donetsk to Chelsea, £62m)
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