In a decade, we’ll look back on last season in English football and think, “Right there: that’s when it all went mad.” The madness was spawned by Manchester City, who spent nearly £1 billion in four years to grab the English Premier League title—their first since 1968. Chelsea ended up claiming their first Champions League trophy in the Abramovic Era, despite fielding arguably their worst, albeit it most expensive team, in recent memory. The Blues and the Baby Blues won the biggest trophies in club football last year, all through the might of the all-powerful pound. The astute managing of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United wasn’t enough, and the stingy, yet measured Wengernomics of Arsenal couldn’t mount a serious challenge. Cash ruled everything.
The till hasn’t been emptied either. Chelsea have gone out and spent £80 million this summer, the crown jewel being Belgian attacking ace Eden Hazard. Manchester City only bought one player before splurging only £30 million on five players on Deadline Day. After all of their spending in previous years, nobody—except the always unsatisfied Roberto Mancini—is exactly mourning over City’s slightly tighter belt. United, despite the £340 million in debts laid upon them by the Glazer family, have written checks to secure Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie. (It seems like they can live off of that £80 million Ronaldo fee forever.) Out of all of the clubs in the EPL, those three have the only realistic shots at winning the title, simply because they’ve outspent the rest of the pack.
The next tier of EPL clubs are now left trying to catch up. Arsenal had their best two players poached this summer, Tottenham lost star midfielders Luka Modric and Rafel Van der Vaart, and Liverpool remain unable to attract a big-name signing from across the continent. These clubs have, however, made an effort to reload. Arsenal brought in strikers Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud to fill the scoring void left by RVP. Tottenham secured a permanent move for 17 goal hitman Emmanuel Adebayor, hulking midfielder Moussa Dembele, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson, and American striker Clint Dempsey. Liverpool ousted four borderline Starting XI players and replaced them with three surefire starters in Joe Allen, Fabio Borini and Nuri Sahin, and the first quick, tricky wing threat the club has had since Yossi Benayoun in Oussama Assaidi. (The ghost of Ryan Babel still haunts the Anfield wings too.)
Looks like an arms race to me.
Arsenal, Tottenham, and Liverpool all know that they can’t compete with City, United and Chelsea. They can’t compete financially, because they’re short of pounds, and they lack the pull to sign the best talent from around Europe. There’s a reason why Hazard chose only between City and Chelsea. There’s a reason why RVP wanted out of Arsenal, and chose between only United and City. A decade ago, Arsenal and Liverpool might have been in the thick for Hazard, and RVP surely wouldn’t have traded shades of red. Players know the ambitions and possibilites of clubs just as much as management does, and the gap between the new “Big Three” of City, United, and Chelsea—the only three teams while realistic title aspirations—and everyone else is massive. Not only spending wise, but in terms of squad depth too. Sergio Aguero, City’s leading scorer last season, is out for a few weeks, but they have £70 million worth of striker options in Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli, and Carlos Tevez to provide cover. Wayne Rooney is out for a month now for United, but no biggie—they’ve got RVP.
The gap in talent and spending has been properly reflected in the league table. In 2011-2012, Arsenal finished third behind behind the two Manchester clubs (both finished tied at 89 points), and they were still 19 points off the pace. It was the largest gap between the 1st and 2nd highest points totals since 2005, when Chelsea won the league 12 points clear of everyone.
That’s why this summer, clubs are trying to load up just to fight another season. Without Champions League football, you’re doomed to the scraps of the transfer market, and have no possibility of making the leap to catch the Big Three. Liverpool have agreed to pay nearly £5 million in total fees just to have Sahin on loan from Real Madrid this year, because they know that they need to stock up on all the guns they can get their hands on before they run out of shots to take. Tottenham decided find a manageable, but high figure between within budget limitations to come close to Adebayor’s previous £175,000 per week salary to complete his transfer from City. They’ve even taken former Liverpool targets Sigurðsson and Dempsey away from Anfield by spending a little more, seemingly just to keep them away from the competition. The Big Three is loading up for a fight at the top, and the rest are just battening down the hatches to fight out the storm and survive.
For those other clubs, that golden sky at the end of the storm are UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FPP) restrictions. These clubs know that they’re just living year to year until FPP starts wielding a commanding influence over spending. UEFA will enforce FPP starting in 2013-2014, meaning teams that compete in UEFA competitions (Champions League and the Europa League) must break even on their balance sheet, or face consequences. Even in that 2013 year though, a deviation of £35 million will still be allowed.
Liverpool owner John Henry and Arsene Wenger have already expressed doubts over the effectiveness of FPP. Given the overall popularity of the sport and the still growing business of it all (no league or country has had the kind of new stadium boom that spearheaded the MLB, NBA and NFL to the top. Also, nobody has figured out how to maximize television and internet profits yet either, which is scary. There’s still billions to be made out there.), Henry’s states before that “clubs seem to be ignoring UEFA’s rules, which may be porous enough to enable clubs to say that the trend of huge losses is positive and therefore be exempt from any meaningful sanctions.” Wenger added that clubs aren’t doing enough now to cut wage bills in time for 2013: “I cannot see it when the wage bill is bigger than the turnover. Frankly, that cannot happen in one year.” Basically, clubs will continue to give FPP the finger until UEFA decides to grow some balls and take real action.
But only clubs that participate in UEFA’s competitions would be subject to FPP—it wouldn’t stop another Man City from being born. Any billionaire can still take a mid-table side, pump hundreds of millions into the squad, and turn them into a juggernaut. While FPP has the potential to curb spending for the current big clubs, it does nothing to account for any future giants.
So outside of the Big Three and Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, and for now, Newcastle, what chance do the other 13 clubs have in the EPL? They have no hope of even nabbing a Europa League spot, and for the clubs that are good enough to not be in relegation danger, the only real joys come out of the occasional upset win. Given the upgrades some teams have made this year, however, those upsets might be plentiful. Sunderland have spent nearly £30 million on Louis Saha, Steven Fletcher, and Adam Johnson: two proven EPL strikers and a City misfit who can be one of the best wingers in the league on his day. Swansea City have flipped the Joe Allen and Brendan Rodgers fees into Michu, Ki Sung-Yueng, Kyle Bartley, and Chico. After two weeks, they’ve led the league in scoring. Everton have also had an early ray of hope, with former £15 million signing Marouane Fellaini scoring two goals, including one in a win over United.
With three legitimate title contenders and a whole host of teams that can grab points against them on any given day, this title race and Champions League race should be the tightest in years. Who’s going to deliver the kill shot this year? Well whoever spends the most money, of course.
I might have been a Fall Out Boy fan in my middle school years.
My table prediction:
1) Manchester City
2) Manchester United
9) Swansea City
11) West Bromwich Albion
13) Aston Villa
14) Stoke City
15) Queens Park Rangers
16) West Ham United
18) Wigan Athletic
20) Norwich City
Table projections based on TPI values simulated 10,000 times. (The value of teams based on transfer fees as of August 17th were used as input in a predictive model. Data using fees from 8/17-8/31 isn’t available yet.) As you can see in the far right column, there’s no clear cut 3rd or 4th place team. It’s that tight between teams going for the title and teams going for 4th. Via Zach Slaton for Forbes.
Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49