It used to be so different, not least for clubs like Arsenal, whose manager might look back now with a wry smile. In August 2011, ahead of his side’s Champions League qualifier with Udinese, Arsene Wenger was asked about the cost of failing to reach the competition — not least in the transfer market. It almost dominated the buildup to the game more than the question of actually playing in the competition. Usually so detached and sensible about these kind of hyperactive discussions, the Arsenal manager outright admitted that “it is easier” to sign higher-quality players if you make it into the elite competition. “Qualifying for the Champions League will be very important,” he added.
Officials at some clubs at the time were willing to go even further. They privately confided that qualifying for the Champions League was “essential.” If not, you could forget about completing those big signings. Players just wouldn’t be interested. The Champions League was the place to be. That in turn, put you in greater danger of missing out on the top four the next season. It was almost like a self-perpetuating cycle, with failure often feeling fatal.
The cycle, however, might have been broken.
This summer, after all, 10th-place Chelsea found it relatively easy — to use Wenger’s own word — to take N’Golo Kante off Champions League side Leicester City. Manchester United, meanwhile, haven’t exactly found it hard to operate at the top end of the market, and may well break the world transfer record, as they remain confident of bringing Paul Pogba from Juventus.
You could then conclude that qualifying for Champions League isn’t as essential as it used to be, except that would be adding two and two together to make four and a half. Kante is joining Chelsea because he feels there is a greater prospect of more regular Champions League football at Stamford Bridge in the medium-term. The club have the wealth and status to promise that. The order hasn’t really changed in that regard. It still matters.
Perhaps the more relevant question is whether qualifying for the Champions League still means as much for those outside the super-clubs.
The last few seasons would suggest not. Because, in contrast to what some Premier League officials expected, the top-four finishes of Tottenham and Liverpool since 2010 did not exactly see them gain a foothold in the competition. They were barely able to get their feet in the door of big deals.
Liverpool couldn’t sign any elite players to replace Luis Suarez in 2014, and that despite also having his huge selling price to spend. It has been much the same for Leicester and Tottenham this summer, as they haven’t used Champions League qualification to bring in “statement” signings.
To be fair to both, though, they have long realised that it is pointless to try and compete with the super-clubs in that regard, and have decided to box clever so consciously gone for different types of targets. The Champions League has of course played a part in them needing to that, since it has so bolstered the finances and profile of regular qualifiers over the medium term. As such, finishing in the top four is for them almost more about strengthening the status of Spurs and Leicester, powering their project ahead of schedule while proving it works, helping them build to the point they can more regularly qualify in the long-term, and also warding off interest from elsewhere.
Spurs are keeping all of last season’s stars, even if Leicester did lose Kante. Mauricio Pochettino’s squad were just that bit more insulated.
And this is perhaps the wider point. The super-clubs are now so insulated by their wealth and status that one season outside the Champions League — even two in three seasons, as is the case with Manchester United — does not do that much damage. Most of them will have prepared for it in their financial planning, meaning it does not affect their transfer plans.
There’s also another, gradually developing strand here. With the amount of money broadcasting deals are bringing to the Premier League, and how much immense global exposure those deals bring, the Premier League is becoming almost as appealing a competition to be in as the Champions League in its own right. This is not to open up a whole debate over whether it is the best league in the world or anything like that. It is to reflect the reality that many players and their representatives now openly speaking about aiming to play there, that it is “the place to be”. This is the profile it still has.
If an ambitious young player wants to boost his profile and career, it almost doesn’t matter that you’re not in the Champions League, so long as you’re in one of the more famous teams in the Premier League.
Things, indeed, are very different now.