Modern football has been characterised by one primary aspect, money. The current course is that whoever has the most money, whichever club has the best resources and financial backing, typically finds the most success and sustainability. However, football at its core is still about one thing and one thing only, winning. If you’re not winning, if your performances on the pitch and results don’t reflect the money behind your team, then it is irrelevant. That begs the question, if it is at all possible for teams to ‘buy their way to a title’.
Looking at the EPL
It’s no secret that the most lucrative footballing league, most lucrative sporting league, is the English Premier League, and it has been a massive reason as to why money is so important in football. To gain an idea as to just how ridiculous the money in the EPL is, each team after each season receives prize money from the league, which is typically staggering amounts due to the TV rights deal the league signed in 2015, where it sold the rights to broadcast it’s games for £5.136bn. After the 2016-2017, Sunderland finished at the bottom of the table, with one of the worst points tallies in league history. The total prize money awarded to them, £100m. If we want to contrast this to gain an idea of how astonishing this figure is, this is roughly the same amount if not more (depending on exchange rates) than what Juventus received for winning the Italian Serie A that same season.
These figures, the profits that the EPL and its clubs receive has somewhat skewed the transfer market. Teams seem to adopt a mentality when dealing with an English club that, “They are English, we can demand more money.” Simple economics, when you get to the thick of it. For example, Leonardo Bonucci was linked in the summer of 2016 to Chelsea and Manchester City, and Juventus at the time were reported to have demanded a fee of £60m for his transfer. One year later, he was sold to AC Milan for around £36m. And this is despite AC Milan now being bankrolled by billionaire owners. The reasoning is simple, European clubs know that EPL clubs can afford to pay the inflated fees, and usually the English clubs are desperate that they will pay it. If you were to sell your car, and you find our the prospective buyer is a multi-millionaire, you would be inclined to jump up the price for him, justifying it to yourself by saying that he is rich, and can afford any price. The same applies in the transfer market. Clubs know the English teams have got more money than everyone else, so they can afford the extra fees.
Can it work?
There is no incorrect answer to this. History has told us that excessive spending both has, and hasn’t worked. Context is everything. If we look at the current landscape of football, the in form team is Manchester City under Pep Guardiola. Since has taken over the Manchester club, they have spent well over £400m, a lot of it being on defenders. The recent acquisition of Aymeric Laporte from Atletic Bilbao for a club record £57m has jumped up the total figure to above £400m, but you cannot argue with results.
While Pep and City have willingly spent upwards of £50m on defenders, such as Kyle Walker and John Stones, altering our perception on what a defender is worth; the results have spoken for themselves. At the time of writing, City are comfortably at the top of the table, 12 points clear of 2nd place Manchester United. They have the second best defensive record in the league, and have only lost one game all season, a 4-3 thriller against Liverpool, and have only drawn twice. They’re clear title favourites, are easily favourites for the FA Cup and have a chance to win the Champions League. Complain as much as you would like to, but Pep’s spending and the backing of the Emirati owners have built a world class squad that is competing on all fronts, and winning with style.
When has it worked?
Aside from the excessive spending of Manchester City, there actually are very few cases where splashing the case actually leads to results. The first, and most infamous of these cases is the Galacticos of Real Madrid. Upon his first election to the Presidency of Real Madrid in 2000, Florentino Perez sought to return Madrid to the peak of football, and set about signing the best players in the world. Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane, both world record transfers at the time, led the Galctico era and helped Madrid win the Champions League in 2002.
However, Real Madrid’s money was from commercial value. They’re simply a massive club, so their money is gained from revenue by shirt sales, sponsors, advertisements and the like. The first case of a billionaire injecting funds into a club and having success was Roman Abramovich when he took over Chelsea’s ownership in 2003. Following his takeover, they had signed stars such as Didier Drogba and Claude Makele, to join up with established stars at the club. But it was the arrival of Jose Mourinho in 2004 as manager, that led to their title win in 2005, with a record 95 points, setting them up for the decade of success that soon followed. This set the precedent for Manchester City, who were bought out by Emiratis in 2008, and eventually became an elite club in Europe, like Chelsea before them.
When hasn’t it worked?
While the Galacticos of Real Madrid were able to win the Champions League in 2002, it was their last one until 2014. They inexplicably sacked manager Vicente del Bosque in 2003, despite him having won them the league that year and the Champions League the year prior. What followed was a managerial cycle that saw many managers come and go, such as Fabio Capello and Manuel Pellegrini, and the trend has remained the same, with managers barely lasting more than three seasons. Following del Bosque’s sacking, the club unexpectedly sold Claude Makelele, a defensive midfielder so talented and revolutionary, that a position was named after him, the ‘Makelele role’. They replaced him with David Beckham. While Beckham was still a world-class player, he was primarily a right midfielder, and Luis Figo occupied that position. To top it off, they gained an extra attacking player, and sold a defensive one, ruining their balance and chemistry. Perez sacrificed team chemistry and balance in an attempt to sign every big name he could. He never learnt his lesson either, going on to sign Ruud van Nistelrooy and Michael Owen, even though they already had Raul and Ronaldo as strikers. They could never consistently compete with Barcelona, who went through glorious years under Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola.
The glaring example where big money hasn’t worked has been the overall performance in the Champions League by Premier League clubs. Since Chelsea’s shock win in 2012, no EPL team has made it to the final, and only Chelsea and Manchester City have made to the semi-finals, back in 2014 and 2016 respectively. Instead, the teams that have has success in the Champions were built on a balanced mix of big money signings, home grown talent and shrewd business. Take Juventus, whom have won six consecutive Serie A titles, made two Champions League finals and have been a model for smart spending in the transfer market. While they did fork out £75m for Gonzalo Higuain in 2016, he had just came off a record-breaking season for Napoli, and in addition to gaining a star striker, Juventus weakened a rival. On top of this, Juventus have made a habit of signing players for free, and bringing the most out of them. Paul Pogba and Andrea Pirlo are the best examples, being brought in on free transfers before becoming integral to their recent successes. Pogba in particular was excellent as a move, as they then sold him back for what was at the time a world record £89m. Barcelona have been the best team of the modern era, and while they have made some big transfers, they were never for the sake of it. Luis Suarez for £75m was for a position of need, striker, and Suarez was no doubt the best in the world. But even then, their success was built on the back of La Masia academy graduates, mainly Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
Splashing the cash unnecessarily doesn’t bring success. Real Madrid finally started winning the Champions League again, not because they broke the world record twice for Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, but because they played effective football, and worked as a balanced team. Ronaldo may score all the goals, but players like Luka Modric keep the team ticking, and helped them get to the ultimate prize. The reason Zinedine Zidane turned Madrid’s season around as manager in 2016, and won the Champions League, was because he had the courage to bench Galctico signing James Rodriguez, in favour of the less glamorous but more important Casemiro. It was almost a reverse of the David Beckham situation, this time utilising a defensive midfielder over an attacking midfielder. Even though Real Madrid have spent a lot of money on their current squad, the reason it won two Champions League titles in a row, something that had never been done before, was because Zidane figured out how to balance his team, and spend money wisely on young talent and squad players, not throwing money at any big name he can find.
What happens now?
The next few seasons will define if big money transfers become the sole way to win trophies. Sir Alex Ferguson dominated the EPL for 20 years, using academy talent and smart transfers, without getting too expedient. Manchester City might just buck that precedent, having spent money all over their squad, and being set to shatter every record imaginable for a title winning side. PSG face their true test this season, having obliterated the world record transfer fee for Neymar, signing him for £200m. This season is their best chance to make some serious noise in the Champions League, and prove their excessive spending since 2012 has come to fruition. The next few years will define football as we know it, and many questions will be answered, as to what the best way to build a team is.
So can you buy your way to a title?
Still, there is no right or wrong answer. You can’t buy your way to a title, by throwing money at any player, creating an uneven and unbalanced team. However, Manchester City have thrown money at players they’ve needed, namely defenders, and spent all their riches on evening and balancing their squad out, and it’s now led to their historic season. At the same time, there is no substitute for smart transfers and excellent business acumen. Bayern Munich’s record signing is still only £42m for Corentin Tolisso, but they have built a squad based on smart loan moves, cheap and sometimes even free transfers, and they have dominated the Bundesliga and been one of the best teams in Europe.
History has proven that the best teams are built on a combination of star signings, academy talents and cheap transfers that turn out to be star players. This trend may change over the next few seasons, depending on whether certain team’s crazy spending pays dividends, but until then football remains football, there is no alternative for smart decisions, and effective team chemistry, when it comes to winning titles.