Football’s Worst Spenders

Updated: 94 Football

Unveiling football's worst spenders: Dan Tracey, OLBG's ace data scientist, dissects the staggering summer splurge beyond Europe's elite leagues.

Football’s Worst Spenders
Dan Tracey Data Scientist and Football Editor

Writer, analyst, podcaster, Spurs fan. Three out of four is not bad. If there is a data angle, I will find it.

The money in football, particularly at the top level, is astronomical, with nine-figure transfer fees proving almost normal in the modern game. Many of Europe’s top clubs have spent large sums of money to maintain their status as Europe’s best. However, one league outside of Europe decided to board the spending train in the 2023 summer transfer window.

In the last few years, Saudi Arabia has made serious investments in the world of sport, particularly in boxing, golf, and football. In football alone, just under €1 billion was spent in the summer of 2023 on transfer fees, not to mention the players’ salaries. But how does the Saudi Pro League’s spending compare to Europe’s top five leagues?

We’ve examined market and purchase values, net spending, and average league positions to reveal the worst-spending teams.

SC Freiburg are the best spenders in Football, with a spending score of 8.05/10

SC Freiburg

We’ve looked at the percentage difference between market value and purchase value, net transfer balance, and average league position to determine the best spenders in Europe’s top five leagues and Saudi Arabia. 

SC Freiburg - 8.05/10 spending score

SC Freiburg takes the top spot with a spending score of 8.05 out of 10. Since their promotion in 2016, Freiburg have established themselves as a Bundesliga regular, finishing outside the top 10 just twice in their eight-year stay in the top flight. Freiburg’s top three most valuable players were signed for just €11 million and are now worth €56 million, showing just how thrifty the German club can be. 


Real Sociedad - 7.91/10 spending score

In second place is Real Sociedad, with a spending score of 7.91 out of 10. Since 1967, Real Sociedad have spent just three seasons outside of Spain’s top flight. In their current squad, the four most valuable players are worth a combined €180 million and were bought for just €18.5 million. 


Olympique Lyon - 7.90/10 spending score

Completing our top three is Olympique Lyon, with a spending score of just 7.90 out of 10. Between 2002 and 2008, Lyon dominated the top tier of French football, setting a national record by winning seven successive Ligue 1 titles. Over the years, Lyon has earned a reputation for developing young players, and their current squad reflects this. Lyon’s two most valuable players, Ryan Cherki and Maxencee Caqueret, are both graduates of the club’s academy and are now worth a combined €43 million. 

Compared to Europe’s top five leagues and Saudi Arabia, Sheffield United comes out on top as the worst spenders

Sheffield Utd

Using the same data, we’ve revealed the worst spenders in Europe’s top five leagues and Saudi Arabia. 

Sheffield United - 1.24/10 spending score

Sheffield United are crowned as the worst spenders in Football, with a score of 1.24 out of 10. Despite their purchase value being lower than their market value, Sheffield United’s net spend is almost -€150 million. Sheffield United’s most valuable player is Cameron Archer, who has a market value of €18 million and was bought for more than €21 million. 


UD Almeria - 1.47/10 spending score

UD Almeria takes second place, with a spending score of 1.47 out of 10. Since 2002, UD Almeria have been yo-yoing between Spanish football's first and second tiers. In the 2022/23 season, Almeria narrowly escaped relegation, finishing in 17th place. Colombian striker Luis Suarez is the club’s joint most valuable player, who they signed from Marseille for €8 million, matching his estimated value. 


Nottingham Forest - 1.56/10 spending score

Our top three is completed by Nottingham Forest, with a spending score of 1.56/10. Since getting promoted to the Premier League in 2022, Forest have signed more than 40 players and spent over €300 million. Of their signings, Ibrahim Sangare was the most expensive at €35 million and is valued just below his cost at €32 million. 

Le Havre increased the value of its squad more than any other team, with its team worth 1,852% more than it was bought for

Le Havre AC

A player’s market value can change due to a number of factors, and one of the biggest reasons that a player’s estimated value changes is due to performance. That’s why we’ve looked at the difference between a team's purchase value and market value to see which teams have increased their squad’s value the most. 

Le Havre  - 1,851.7% difference between market and purchase values

Taking the top spot is Le Havre, with a difference between purchase value and market value of 1,852%. Le Havre have a reputation for developing young talent, with Dimitri Payet, Riyad Mahrez, and N’golo Kante all playing for the club during the early stages of their careers. The French team paid just under €3 million for a squad valued at €56 million. 


VFL Bochum - 1,764.4% difference between market and purchase values

In second place is VFL Bochum, with a difference between purchase value and market value of 1,764%. VFL Bochum are one of the oldest football clubs in the world, founded in 1848. Bochum gained promotion to the Bundesliga in 2021 after an 11-year stint in Germany’s second tier. Bochum’s squad was purchased for just over €3 million and is now valued at almost €60 million. 


Al-Riyadh SC - 1,625% difference between market and purchase values

Al-Riyadh SC completes our top three with a difference between purchase value and market value of 1,625%. In the 2023 summer transfer window, Al-Riyadh signed 12 players, 11 of which were free transfers. The only player Al-Riyadh paid a transfer fee for was Juanmi, who was signed on a season-long loan for €1 million. 

Al-Hilal’s squad value is 40% lower than its purchase value, the biggest decrease in Saudi Arabia and Europe’s top five leagues

Al-Hilal

We wanted to know which clubs overpaid for their squad. That’s why we’ve looked at market and purchase values to reveal the teams with the biggest decrease. 

Al-Hilal SFC  -39.9% difference between market and purchase values

The club with the biggest decrease between purchase value and market value is Al-Hilal, with a 40% decrease. In the 2023 summer transfer window, Al-Hilal spent €350 million on eight different players. The most expensive transfer Al-Hilal made was Neymar Jr at €90 million, who currently has an estimated market value of €45 million.


Al-Ittihad Club  -30.8% difference between market and purchase values

Al-Ittihad takes second place, whose squad is worth 31% less than its purchase value. The Saudi Arabian title holders made some thrifty transfers, signing N’golo Kante and Karim Benzema on a free transfer from Chelsea and Real Madrid, respectively. However, the club still spent €120 million on players, including the €46.7 million transfer of Fabinho from Liverpool. 


Al-Ahli SFC  -13.1% difference between purchase value and market value

Completing an all-Saudi Arabian top three is Al-Ahli, whose market value is 13% less than its purchase value. Al-Ahli spent almost €200 million in the 2023 summer transfer window, with Riyad Mahrez being the most expensive transfer at €35 million. Mahrez’s estimated value is €16 million, less than half of what Al-Ahli paid for the Algerian. 

Chelsea has the biggest net transfer balance over the last five years in Europe’s top five leagues and Saudi Arabia, at -€788.88 million

Chelsea

We’ve looked at the transfer fees of arrivals and departures of those in Europe’s top five leagues and Saudi Arabia, to reveal the clubs with the biggest net transfer balance. 

Chelsea -€788.88 million net transfer balance over the last five seasons

Chelsea takes the top spot with a net spend of -€788 million. Despite earning just over €700 million from transfers away from the club, the London club have spent almost €1.5 billion in the last five years. In the summer of 2023, Chelsea acquired Moisés Caicedo for more than €100 million. The only season in the last five years where Chelsea didn’t pay at least €80 million for an individual player was the 2019/20 season where they were given a transfer ban. 


Manchester United - -€697.41 million net transfer balance over the last five seasons

In second place is Manchester United with a net spend of -€700 million over the last five years. Manchester United have spent just over €900 million on transfers in the last five seasons, recouping just €200 million back in sales. United’s biggest transfer in that timeframe was for Antony, who cost the club €95 million. 


Arsenal -  -€645.14 million net transfer balance over the last five seasons

Completing an all-Premier League top three is Arsenal, with a net spend of -€645 million in the last five seasons. Arsenal have spent more than €100 million in four of the last five seasons, with the only season they spent less than this being the 2020/21 season where they spent €80 million. During this time, Arsenal's most expensive signing was Declan Rice, which cost the club more than €116 million. 

LOSC Lille has spent €271 million less than they’ve earned, the lowest net transfer balance in Europe’s top five leagues and Saudi Arabia

LOSC Lille

Below, we reveal the clubs with the lowest net transfer balance in Europe’s top five leagues and Saudi Arabia. 

LOSC Lille - €271.40 million net transfer balance over the last five seasons

LOSC Lille takes the top spot with a net spend of €271 million over the last five seasons. Lille are the only side to have beaten Paris Saint-Germain to a Ligue 1 title in the last five seasons. Lille’s transfer record, which boasts almost €500 million in player sales whilst spending just €220 million, makes this feat even better. Nicolas Pepe and Victor Osimhen were the two most expensive sales in the last five years, who left the club for a combined €155 million.


Olympique Lyon - €255.83 million net transfer balance over the last five seasons

In second place is Olympique Lyon, who have a positive net spend of €255.83 million in the last five seasons. Lyon’s most expensive departure is Tanguy Ndombele, who left the club for Tottenham Hotspur for €62 million ahead of the 2019/20 season. In the same season, Lyon recorded their most expensive transfer, signing Jeff Reine-Adelaide for €25 million.


Atalanta BC - €157.46 million net transfer balance over the last five seasons

Completing our top three is Atalanta BC, with a positive net spend of €157.46 million over the last five seasons. Atalanta broke their record for departures in consecutive seasons, selling Cristian Romero to Tottenham Hotspur for €50 million and Rasmus Hojlund to Manchester United for €73.9 million ahead of the 2022/23 and 2023/24 seasons, respectively.

How does Saudi Arabia’s spending compare to Europe’s top five leagues?

Al-Hilal SFC

Many clubs in Saudi Arabia spent the 2023 summer investing in their teams, spending just over €1 billion to attract some of Europe’s best players. That’s why we wanted to know how their spending compared to Europe’s top five leagues.

Rank Team League Market Value Purchase Value Difference Percentage Difference Between Market Value and Purchase Value Expenditure Between 19/20 - 23/24 Seasons Income Between 19/20 - 23/24 Seasons Net Transfer Balance Between 19/20 - 23/24 Seasons Average League Position Transfer Spending Score
1 Al-Ahli SFC Saudi Pro League €163.65m €188.22m -€24.57m -13.05% €213.96m €22.34m -€191.62m 7.25 2.83
2 Al-Ittihad Club Saudi Pro League €105.75m €152.82m -€47.07m -30.80% €158.01m €4.59m -€153.42m 4.40 3.42
2 Al-Hilal SFC Saudi Pro League €222.33m €369.99m -€147.66m -39.91% €418.12m €3.74m -€414.39m 1.40 3.42
4 Al-Nassr FC Saudi Pro League €164.75m €189.47m -€24.72m -13.05% €225.15m €11.83m -€213.33m 3.00 3.51
5 Al-Ettifaq FC Saudi Pro League €50.15m €39.30m €10.85m 27.61% €49.75m €16.95m -€32.79m 7.80 4.19
6 Al-Shabab FC Saudi Pro League €53.28m €40.65m €12.63m 31.07% €60.56m €23.48m -€37.08m 5.80 4.48
7 Al-Fayha FC Saudi Pro League €26.58m €10.58m €15.99m 151.13% €12.45m €1.60m -€10.85m 11.50 5.04
8 Al-Hazem SC Saudi Pro League €14.73m €1.75m €12.98m 741.71% €5.67m €1.20m -€4.47m 16.33 5.19
9 Al-Khaleej FC Saudi Pro League €13.58m €4.07m €9.50m 233.42% €5.07m - -€5.07m 12.00 5.34
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Al-Ahli - 2.83 spending score when compared to Europe’s top five leagues

Saudi Arabia’s worst spenders are Al-Ahli, with a spending score of 2.83 out of 10 when compared to Europe’s top five leagues. Al-Ahli spent €184 million over the summer, the third highest in Saudi Arabia. Al-Ahli made some shrewd signings, including Roberto Firmino on a free transfer from Liverpool and Spanish midfielder Gabri Veiga, currently valued as the 5th most valuable player in the league. 


Al-Ittihad/Al-Hilal - 3.42 spending score when compared to Europe’s top five leagues

Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal share second place, with a spending score of 3.42 out of 10 when compared to Europe’s top five leagues. Al-Ittihad spent a little over €121 million, signing Fabinho from Liverpool and Jota from Celtic for €46.7 million and €29.1 million, respectively.

Al-Hilal were the biggest spender in the Saudi Pro League, spending €350 million in the 2023 summer transfer window. Neymar Jr, Malcolm, and Ruben Neves all arrived for a combined €205 million. Al-Hilal also boasts three of the top five most valuable players in the Saudi Pro League, with Neymar Jr and Ruben Neves taking the top two places. 


Al-Nassr - 3.51 spending score when compared to Europe’s top five leagues

Completing our top three is Al-Nassr, with a spending score of 3.51 out of 10 when compared to Europe’s top five leagues. Al-Nassr spent €165 million over the 2023 summer transfer window, with Otavio’s €60 million transfer from Porto the most expensive. However, Al-Nassr’s most significant signing was Cristiano Ronaldo, who joined the club as a free agent in December of 2022. 

Methodology

We used the teams competing in the 2023/24 season of the English Premier League, French Ligue 1, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A, Spanish La Liga, and Saudi Arabian Saudi Pro for our seeding list.

We used TransferMarkt to find the market value, purchase value, difference between market and purchase values, expenditure between the 2019/20 and 2023/24 seasons, income between the 2019/20 and 2023/24 seasons, and net spend between the 2019/20 and 2023/24 seasons. 

We then calculated a percentage difference between market and purchase values, we divided the difference between market and purchase value, but the purchase value. 

We also used TransferMarkt to find the league positions of each team between the 2019/20 season and the 2023/24 season. Using these league positions, we worked out the average league position over the last five seasons. For teams that had been promoted and relegated during the 2019/20 and 2023/24 seasons, we took an average league position based on the seasons they competed in the top flight of their respective leagues.

We then put the percentage difference between market and purchase values, net spend over the last five seasons, and average league position into a weighted table, normalising each factor with a score out of 10. We then took an average of these scores to get our overall spending score out of 10.

All transfer fees referenced were also sourced from TransferMarkt. 

All data is accurate as of 20.12.2023. 

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