According to Deloitte’s Football Money League, nine out of 20 richest clubs in the world are Premier League clubs. This is a consequence of the increasing worldwide popularity of the Premier League, attracting vast broadcasting revenues and billionaire takeovers.
While this seems positive at face value, this investment has impacted the Premier League in a number of ways – both positively and negatively.
Does money equal success?
Amidst the influx of TV revenue and billionaire takeovers in the Premier League, the question on many football fans’ lips was: ‘do clubs really need major investment to succeed at the top level of football?’ However, this question appears to have been answered by Pep Guardiola’s stewardship of Manchester City. In his first two seasons, Guardiola spent approximately £192 million and £285 million respectively.
Although they were 15 points off eventual winners Chelsea in 2016/17, Guardiola guided City to a league and cup double in 2017/18, earning the title of ‘Centurions’ in the process. Guardiola and City have the perfect marriage of tactical expertise and virtually bottomless pockets, a cocktail for success in the modern game. It is not only a matter of which player to buy, but how said player fits into the system.
But spending close to £240 million on defenders alone in your first two seasons is a luxury which not many clubs can afford. Nevertheless Guardiola – and much of the football landscape – recognises that while major investment is a necessity for success at the top level, it is almost useless in isolation.
This lack of major investment is what is keeping Tottenham (and what kept Arsenal) from the cusp of Premier League success. Despite being the most tactically astute coaches on the continent, Mauricio Pochettino and Arsene Wenger lacked (and continue to lack) the financial resources to compete with their rivals.
Instead, what tends to push top European talent over the edge is the tactical reputation of a manager combined with the club’s vast financial resources, which equates to real intent for success at football’s top level. This harmonious blend has undoubtedly changed the landscape of player recruitment for better and maybe for worse.
So, what’s the problem?
With more money than ever to throw around, Premier League clubs have altered the market of Europe’s top talent, as transfer records are broken every window. Transfer values today and 10 years ago are almost night and day. Robinho’s £37.8 million move to Manchester City and Fred’s £53 million transfer to Manchester United is evidence for this.
Even the once frugal Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp was critiqued for his remarks on perpetually rising transfer fees during Paul Pogba’s world-record move to Manchester United. Since his comments, Klopp oversaw a spending spree which captured the likes of Virgil Van Dijk, Alisson, Naby Keita, Fabinho and Mohamed Salah, totalling £259 million. Although these transfers were sanctioned through the sale of Philippe Coutinho, Klopp, like Guardiola, recognised the necessity in flexing financial muscles to attract the best talent – even for somewhat exorbitant fees.
Although this leaves the selling clubs in a better position financially, it disrupts the overall competitiveness of the league. Only the clubs with major financial backing (i.e. the top six) are realistically in the running to sign Europe’s elite. This creates an issue of sustainability as the gap in quality between the top six and the rest of the league increases, as they are unable to compete with the combination of ever-increasing fees and the tactical clout of top-six managers.
Top six vs the rest
This issue intensifies when one considers mid-table clubs and their aspirations to break into the top six hierarchy. Clubs like Leicester City, Wolves, Everton and West Ham all possess the financial firepower to rival their continental counterparts but are significantly off the mark domestically.
The acquisition of such players as Youri Tielemans, Ruben Neves, Yerry Mina and Felipe Anderson shows these clubs can attract high-calibre players over other decent teams on the continent. In doing so, these clubs are seeking to break through their mid-table ceilings.
This kind of financial backing combined with such lofty ambitions leaves an unprecedented amount of pressure on Premier League managers. The average tenure of a Premier League manager has diminished significantly in the last decade, coinciding with the injection of major investment within the league. Currently, the longest-serving active Premier League manager is Eddie Howe who is closely followed by Sean Dyche, both amassing six years at the helm respectively.
The desire for instant results is one which is fuelled by both fans and ownership alike. To the point where managers like Frank de Boer and Slavisa Jokanovic are not even given a full top-flight season to bring their projects to fruition. Although it must be noted that these clubs are perhaps pushing for something greater than what they can expect, due to the disparity between the top six and the rest of the league. For a club to back a manager and splash £100 million, only for them not to reach their intended targets is an extremely expensive price to pay for “failure”
What starts off as ambition quickly transforms into stability and survival, with the same names knocking around as interim replacements. This perpetual cycle of buy, sack, survive is sorely unsustainable and is undoubtedly a caveat of major investment in the Premier League.
Transfer committees vs managers
To combat the issues surrounding this managerial merry-go-round, Premier League clubs have opted to delegate transfer responsibilities to directors of football and/or transfer committees. With so much money and risk involved in football today, it makes sense for clubs to diversify roles within player recruitment. Managers in the Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger mould with regards to transfer policy is a thing of the past.
While this can be beneficial, as seen in Liverpool’s recent acquisitions, this poses problems. As the manager’s influence in player recruitment weakens, their motivation could follow that same trend. For instance, it has been reported that – although he gave a favourable review – Maurizio Sarri knew next to nothing about Christian Pulisic’s arrival. It was also reported that Pulisic had not been in direct contact with Sarri, even after his move was announced.
This is remarkably odd as the hallmark of transfer negotiations is communication with the manager of the interested club. Without this, Sarri (and other managers) would be within their right to question their position and future at the club, especially if they have no control over the tools at their disposal.
Players vs managers
Finally, football is one of the few professions where members of staff (i.e. players) are more valuable assets to clubs than their managers. The advent of major investment in the Premier League is a major catalyst for this, subsidising record transfer fees which contribute to player/manager feuds.
Most recently in the incident between Kepa Arrizabalaga and Sarri, the former was described as petulant and defiant. Whereas, I would argue that as the most expensive ‘keeper, Kepa was desperate to show his worth by staying on the pitch and securing the Carabao Cup in his first season. Granted, disobeying your manager’s demands is unacceptable, particularly when said manager is clearly already under pressure.
But it is entirely possible that Kepa feigned injury to waste time. Sarri misinterpreted this gesture and (no thanks to his Chelsea teammates) Kepa failed to communicate this to his manager, leading to a tantrum and eventual loss on penalties.
The sheer size of Kepa’s release clause was bound to cause power struggles with whichever club deciding to meet it. £72 million is an immense amount of money to label a 23/24-year-old with. That kind of pressure could lead to over-commitment, stemming from an eagerness to prove he is worth the fee paid for him, even at the manager’s expense. Without this context, the link cannot be made to the impact major investment has on football today.
Being the most-watched league in the world comes with the financial territory. But, to ignore the trickle-down effects of such vast capital both on and off the pitch prevents us from predicting where major investment is heading in the future. While it creates a fascinating spectacle for the world to adore, a great man once said ‘Mo Money, Mo Problems.’