Arsenal’s start to the season has done no favors to the notion that this squad can win the league. Unsurprisingly, the clamoring for buying a new striker or backup defensive midfielder or any other ‘we need’ you may have heard, has only increased fervently.
Apparently, we must spend. Apparently, we must show our ambition by spending big and bringing in a world class player or two because some areas of our squad aren’t good enough. Our spine needs strengthening – I love how certain terms pick up among the fan base once a pundit or a manager uses them.
So, is spending the answer? Does money buy you success? Is it as simple as that?
I’ll try to answer these questions through this post.
Spending money, I feel, seems to have become a significant must do ever since Chelsea became the beneficiaries of Mr. Abramovich’s wealth. It didn’t help, either, when Manchester City became beneficiaries of the generosity of Abu Dhabi’s Royal Family. Add to that PSG, Monaco, and Real Madrid’s seemingly unlimited spending power; though Madrid is a beneficiary of a financial system if I’m not wrong.
Although people tend to correlate success with spend, I’ll take it a step further than just spend to set up any potential premise for the analysis.
I believe we also need to look at
- Number of players that came in/went out
- Number of notable names that came in/went out
- How long notable names lasted
We’ll have a look at the aforementioned for Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Arsenal. I have purposely excluded Liverpool so this post does not become extra-long!
Before beginning, please note that the source of transfer fees information is www.soccerbase.com. There are bound to be some inaccuracies as there have been many players whose transfer fee has not been disclosed on the website so some figures for some seasons may seem odd considering the talent purchased during a certain season(s).
Some names may be missing especially from the Notable Names Out column and that is solely down to taking data from the website and me being a bit lazy by not exploring the matter. However, the missing names do not have a significant bearing on the trends or analysis; otherwise I would have explored the matter!
Furthermore, for the Achievements column I have only included semifinal or final appearances for cup competitions, only for simplicity purposes.
Just in case anyone is into technicalities, I’d also like to clarify that a player was considered purchased for a season if he was bought between May-February. For example, if a player was bought in May 2010, he would be considered a ‘transfer-in’ for 2010/11 season.
As far as the Notable Names column is concerned, names of players have been listed who were either
- Known at the time
- Bought under the presumption of great potential
- Became better players later on
- Bought to be played in the first team
Lastly, players whose name has been formatted in bold are those who I feel did not make a long-lasting impact during their time at the club
Of course, who can be deemed a notable name or to have made an impact is very subjective and you may disagree with me. I’ve tried to be as objective as possible.
We’ll start with Chelsea since; after all, it was Abramovich’s takeover that seemed to have changed the landscape of the English Premier League.
Chelsea – Data and Trends
The first bits of data that pop out are Chelsea’s spend and net spend; the net spend accounts for 67% of total spend! In other words, they have earned very little through transfers. Only in recent seasons have they made significant money from selling players.
The other two data elements that are interesting are the number of players that have been bought and sold by Chelsea during the Abramovich era – 94 and 114, respectively – those are not only relatively high numbers as you’ll see when other clubs’ data is presented; but, those numbers don’t have much of a gap between them. On the face of it, one could be forgiven for thinking they’re in a constant experiment mode! This is an average of 9 players coming in every season and 10 leaving every season. That is like full teams coming and going.
To further add to that trend, 74% of players that have come in can be deemed notable names; in other words, little investment on players for the future. Additionally, 51% of players that have left the club during this era comprise youth players that did not make it or other young players that were brought in but were unable to prove themselves.
61% of those notable names that left Chelsea can be deemed to not have made a significant impact; that’s 49% of the total number of notable names that have been brought into the club since Abramovich took over.
Yet, despite the constant flux of incoming/outgoing big names and a significant number poor investments, Chelsea have consistently won and challenged for trophies – 4 PL titles, 3 League Cups, 2 FA Cups, 1 Europa League, 1 Champions League.
Their most successful manager has been Jose Mourinho followed by Carlo Ancelotti. Two out of nine managers have made a significant impact at the club.
Moreover, there seems to be little indication that one manager was a better judge of players than the other. Although, interestingly, Ancelotti bought the least number of players – 7 over 2 seasons – out of which only two ever made a significant impact at the club.
What does this all mean? We’ll see if it means anything at all later in this post. Let’s cover City, United, and Arsenal in a similar fashion first!
Manchester City – Data and Trends
City’s influx of cash started in a wayward manner when former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra bought the club in 2007; however, his ownership period only lasted one year and he was unable to provide significant funds at the time.
City has the highest net spend of all the teams being compared in this post – it is 83% of total spend, so if you thought Chelsea’s was high, think again!
Over a period of 8 seasons, City has brought in an average of 8 players per season whilst 11 players have left each season. 84% of all players brought in can be deemed to be notable names. Again, less investment in the future, higher investment in what can apparently bring immediate success. This is further highlighted by the fact that 63% of players that have left City since 2007/08 have been youth players and/or young players that were brought in for their potential but were unable to realize that potential.
41% of notable names that were brought in can be deemed not to have had made a significant impact at the club. That’s 67% of notable names that have left the club.
Although City has been similar to Chelsea in terms of constant influx/outflow of players, they only began challenging three seasons after the cash inflow.
Roberto Mancini’s and Manuel Pellegrini’s investments are of a stark difference to Mark Hughes’ and Eriksson’s. Both Mancini and Pellegrini have won a PL title as well during their reign.
Let’s leave City at this point and move onto United.
Manchester United – Data and Trends
United is a club that has generated funds through its phenomenal success during Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign. Despite the Glazer’s takeover and increase in debt, it has managed to compete effectively. The club also went public in 2012 to ease the burden of debt. Either way, at least up till Sir Alex’s retirement, United has been a significant player in the title race.
Manchester United’s net spend may seem quite high; but, if you tally up the net spend during Sir Alex’s reign during the Abramovich years, the number comes down significantly to less than half – £125.9m! In the two seasons post-SAF, United have more than doubled their net spend!
During SAF’s reign from ‘03/04, on average, 4 players have come in per season; 86% of those players have been notable names. Also during this time period, on average, 10 players have left every season; 33% of those have been notable names. Of the notable names that departed, only 38% of them can be deemed to have made little impact during their time at the club. These numbers are indicative of SAF’s targeted/specific approach towards purchases and getting it right most of the time. Most of the players that left each season under the Scotsman were youth who just were not able to make the grade.
SAF’s reign during the Abramovich years brought in 5 PL titles, 1 FA Cup, 2 League Cups, 1 Champions League.
The last two seasons has seen two different managers at the helm; Moyes spent a lot but brought in two players which led the team, albeit in his eventual absence, to a 7th place finish in the league. The next season saw a more reputed manager installed in Louis Van Gaal; the Dutchman brought in some big names whilst splashing the cash and led the team to a 4th place finish.
As tempting as it is to scrutinize LvG’s purchases, only one season has been given to those players and this season has a long way to go, so let’s leave United here and move onto our beloved Arsenal before going into some analysis.
Arsenal – Data and Trends
Need I repeat what we already know about the impact of the stadium on the club’s finances? I guess not. Let’s have a look at the data.
Arsenal’s net spend has been relatively much lower than any of its rivals. In fact, if you take away the last two seasons; the net spend is actually £-5.7m!
Between ‘03/04 – ‘12/13, Wenger brought in 6 players per season on average. On average, 10 players left the club during the same time period. Both averages go up when the last two seasons are taken into account.
During the same period, of the 56 players brought in, 80% of them were notable names whilst of the 102 players that left during that time, 36% of them were notable names i.e. a lot of youth unable to make the grade had to leave the club. Furthermore, only 18% of the notable names that left can be deemed to have made little impact during their time with the Gunners.
Between ‘03/04 – ‘12/’13, Arsenal has won 1 PL title and no other honor. The team reached the Champions League final once and the League Cup final twice. The Gunners mostly finished 4th each season barring the anomalies of 3rd and 2nd place finishes.
The last two seasons have seen a surge in spending by Wenger due to a better financial situation; 12 players brought in, 8 of which are notable names. Many more players have also exited the squad during the same time period, some notable names, and many youth prospects as well.
The last two seasons have seen Arsenal finish 4th and 3rd whilst winning back-to-back FA Cups.
It felt funny writing that last sentence and the paragraph before it because one could easily be tempted to draw a direct correlation!
Anyway, let’s move onto a more holistic analysis using the data and trends of these four clubs as a base.
What It All Means
There’s no set definitive answer to all this. It depends on how you see it. As always, I will try to give some perspective.
We would be kidding ourselves if we believed Chelsea and City would not be where they are today had they not been the beneficiaries of filthy rich owners. However, in my opinion, it takes more than money for on-the-pitch success.
Impact of the Manager
Jose Mourinho is one of the most successful managers in Europe in the last 15 years or so. Despite making many notable signings, he worked with a core team that delivered him success – if you were to recall the names of the players that spring to your mind at first instance when asked who were the key players in Mourinho’s back-to-back title winning sides; half the players he bought would not come to mind. Try it. Let me try it.
At first instance the following names come to mind: Lampard, Terry, Joe Cole, Drogba, Essien, Carvalho, Ferreira, Cech, Duff, and Gudjohnsen. Barring Duff, Gudjohnsen and to some extent Cole and Ferreira; the others lasted quite some time to taste further success.
Now scroll up, if you don’t mind, and look at the big names that came in during Mourinho’s time and ask yourself of their impact.
That same core went onto continuously challenge for the next few seasons despite many players coming and going – mostly those who came in one season, would be leaving in a season or two. Despite changes in manager, that same core played the way Mourinho had drilled them to play. Was it when Ancelotti won the title that Mourinho quipped that his team had won the title? He probably wasn’t far from the truth.
The other way Abramovich used his money wisely was to install reputed managers, not all worked out but it ensured that Chelsea kept on challenging each season. I’ve discussed the challenges those managers may have faced over here so I won’t repeat that.
Moving onto Manchester City, I mentioned earlier how they began challenging after Eriksson and Hughes. Mancini had successful years in management at Lazio and Inter Milan whilst Hughes was relatively unproven and Eriksson was past it.
Even though Mancini had his fair share of failed big name signings, he still managed to build a strong core of players, of which some still play today.
Mancini’s City played attractive attacking football and Pellegrini’s City seem a step above at times! Both managers are more tactically astute than their predecessors at City and the results show.
However, it has to be asked, how successful would Ancelotti, Mourinho, Mancini, and Pellegrini have been if they did not have seemingly unlimited funds to spend? How many failed signings would they have been able to afford?
The last question brings me to Sir Alex Ferguson. I’ve written before how, personally, I was scared of United as a team and not because of a Ronaldo or a Rooney. For example, Chelsea scares me because of Hazard, not because of the way they play as a team. SAF always had his team play in a particular way which was very effective. Most of Ronaldo’s goals for United were a product of his movement plus the way the team collectively created and exploited spaces by pulling opposition players out of their position. They played with verve and pace when going forward, it was quite unnerving.
SAF, when you look at his transfer dealings, would usually bring in very few players and those players lasted. He had more success than Chelsea and City whilst buying fewer players. If you think of some of the names that played in those championship winning sides such as Wes Brown, Darren Fletcher, Park, O’Shea, etc. None of them went on to shine at their next clubs.
Yes, he spent top dollar for some of those players but that’s how much he valued one or two individuals, he didn’t need more.
It’s no surprise that United struggled under Moyes because only SAF knew how to make the most of those players as a team in a certain playing style. Moreover, United were a successful side, it did not make sense to bring in a manager who had no experience of managing a side that was consistently winning trophies over a long period of time – both from a tactical and mental point of view.
Louis Van Gaal has gone in the opposite direction of SAF and has looked to overhaul almost an entire team; not once, but almost twice if we take the current season into account! United have yet to look convincing despite many big name players in the side.
That’s not a surprise either because he strung together a bunch of players who had not played with each other in a system that was probably alien to most of them. Having said that, at least half the side has played together for one season and performances should begin to smoothen out this season; sometimes cohesion can be the major difference between successful sides and unsuccessful ones – how success is defined varies from club to club.
Cohesion brings me to Arsene Wenger. Similar to SAF, Wenger has also been very specific with his signings over the years. Most of the notable signings would stick. However, Arsenal have not challenged for the title effectively for most seasons since ‘03/04. The few seasons where it seemed that this may be the season, the challenge would fade away early in the second half of the season whether due to poor results against direct rivals, injuries, or just not a strong enough squad in literal terms i.e. physical strength.
Other fingers can be pointed to consistently similar tactical failings and I’ve discussed that here and here so I won’t repeat those. Wenger has brought in some wonderful players over the years without having to spend too much money compared to rivals and still manage to qualify for the Champions League each year at a minimum. This is where data on Liverpool and Spurs would have helped because I wouldn’t be surprised if the data showed high spend, many players of supposed quality coming in yet the two clubs have been inconsistent in their league achievements.
If I were to point a finger at Wenger, it would be for tactical reasons and not transfers. When Steve Bould was appointed Assistant Manager I thought we would see a starkly improved back line; it didn’t happen. The cohesive unit that our back line has become seems more of a product of playing together for a while rather than the famous defender’s influence. Is that Bould’s fault? I wouldn’t think so. Nevertheless, the cohesion is not only evident in the back line but in the whole team, at least till the end of last season it seemed so – did it take several signings in a short space of time to achieve that?
All in all, a manager’s influence cannot be undermined whether a team spends money or not. How well a manager adapts to circumstances, or is able to manage players, or is able to deploy his tactics/philosophy through his players can have a bigger impact than splashing the cash.
Mourinho started gaining the upper hand on Pep in La Liga by the time Spaniard’s time was coming to an end. If you watch some of those games, it wasn’t because Madrid had a host of stars in the team, it was simply because Mourinho had finally been able to drill them to defend rigidly – not giving Barca any space – and then counter attack. At the start of Mourinho’s reign, a similar Barca team whopped a similar Madrid side 5-0.
Fellow Gooner @chris_kinsman97 loves citing Atletico Madrid as an example of money not being the answer and I couldn’t agree more with him. I could cite other examples too but let’s move on!
This is NOT Football Manager
For the younger lot reading this, before there was Football Manager, there was Championship Manager. I believe it was either Championship Manager 3 or Championship Manager’99 in which all I had to do was buy Robbie Keane, believe it or not, and play him center forward in a 4-3-3 formation. Yes, it helped that Arsenal had a strong squad at the time so I didn’t have to tinker much with it unless retirements came in etc. He would score 60-70 goals a season and I would be winning every trophy season after season.
Unfortunately, it does not work like that in reality. A big name is not always the answer. I’ve previously written on how we judge players over here so I won’t repeat all of it.
It’s not simply a matter of this player is proven in a certain league or a proven international so he’ll be a good buy.
So many other factors come into play such as:
- Team’s style of play
- Quality of teammates
- Personality of a player i.e. does he fit the personality of the club or the team?
- Player’s motivation and what that motivation is driven by
These are just a few and all are quite important. If I just use the first point as an example, we potentially have a great striker in Theo but our style of play isn’t bringing that out yet. I’ve written on that for Full90Gooner.com and that piece should go up soon so I won’t elaborate on that right now but hopefully you get my point.
My brain has gone dead on this point at the moment and going dead on the topic in general so I’ll wrap this up!
Wrapping It Up
Yes, money helps. Yes, spending can help. A lot of money can help do what the likes of Chelsea and City do – gamble. Spend lots of money on established players, if they don’t perform then no problem, buy another lot.
However, if you’re in a position of relatively limited resources, you want a good return on investment; you become a lot more careful and specific about the type of player you want to buy.
In fact, being specific doesn’t necessarily have to do with money either. It probably has more to do with what sort of player you need because of either a gap in the team or because you want to achieve something different on the field with the same set of players but you’re missing that piece of the jigsaw.
What money does, unfortunately, is make a host of established stars out of your reach if you don’t have that financial power. If, for example, I am Real Madrid and am willing to sell Gareth Bale; I know Chelsea and Arsenal are interested but Arsenal bid first; I’d be reluctant to accept because I know Chelsea would be able to offer me a lot more money.
What money cannot do, however, is guarantee that your purchases will perform. Chelsea and City can attest to that.
Football is a team game, eleven superstars does not mean they will play like superstars together. An addition of a superstar will not mean that the superstar will fit in the team’s system.
Arsenal as a team has looked disjointed after the Charity Shield and that’s not down to any one individual; a signing or two is not going to solve that. For those who clamored for an upgrade to Giroud or a backup to Coquelin, all I can say is that we need to work better as a team to bring the best out of Theo and Danny; and let’s hope Wenger has a contingency plan in the even that Coquelin gets injured.
Coming back to money and success – if FFP falls flat on its face, investment in scouting, coaching, and youth development becomes imperative for clubs like Arsenal in order to compete. It does not make competing impossible.
Ah, my brain is firing up again, I could probably go on a bit more about my issues with the way Arsenal played post-Highbury rather than personnel issues but I’ll spare you.
Other teams may have strengthened; but football isn’t a matter of monkey-see monkey-do. Let’s hope our team kicks on after the international break.
Started supporting the club under dubious circumstances in ’97 but have never looked back since. I’ve only seen the Wenger era but continuously try to learn more about the history of the club. The Gunners’ results have affected my mood for every weekend for years now, I won’t go into details, but let’s just say I didn’t want to sleep the night we beat Barca! I reminisce about Henry every few weeks while Cesc’s wonderful passes play through my head every now and then! Hleb’s dribbles to Overmars’ speed always bring a smile, and I hope our current crop will stay a while.
Being a business major and a marketing professional, I believe there are always more than one way to look at things and that’s what you can expect from some of my blogs. Playing football for a number of years in various positions has helped evolve my understanding of the game though I still strive to learn more. I’m based in Karachi, Pakistan but dream of moving to London one day to be a ST holder!