Manchester City and Manchester United could be forgiven for not paying that much attention to the league table this weekend. The FA Cup is center stage and it must be pretty annoying anyway to see three London clubs in the top three places with just Liverpool representing the north-west in a Champions League position.
The way it looks at present at least one Manchester side seems likely to miss out on Champions League qualification and it is possible, if Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham continue to forge ahead, that the north-west will have only one representative in Uefa’s main event next season for the second year running. This is surely not what anyone had in mind when coaches as successful as José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp were lured to the region to add their authority to rebuilding work at either end of the East Lancashire Road. At the start of the season it might have been imagined the top four by now would comprise City, United, Arsenal and Liverpool, with City clear on top above United, Arsenal and Liverpool holding a steady course for third and fourth place, and perhaps West Ham and Chelsea occupying the Europa League positions.
The actual league table, the one based on actual points won over the course of a season, looks nothing like that. Yet funnily enough, as the chart below shows, there is a table that does. This one works like Pointless – the lower the score the better. The Manchester clubs hogging the top spots with a joint net spend of getting on for £1bn must find it even more galling than the real table, especially when both are considered together.
Most pre-season predictions and assumptions are based on the wealth and ambition of clubs, as demonstrated by the swagger they show in the transfer market. If Manchester United have just broken the world record to re-sign Paul Pogba, for instance, because Mourinho says he is worth it, they must be about to make a similar-sized statement on the pitch. Ditto Guardiola at City, with his summer acquisition of John Stones, Ilkay Gündogan, Leroy Sané et al. A table based on net spending over the past five seasons obviously has City at the top and United in close pursuit, because no one has spent more and few clubs are as cavalier about wastage rate or resale value. Here is the difference with assumption and reality, however, the reason so many of those early predictions are wrong. Splashing the cash just wins you attention, it does not necessarily deliver results.
All things are relative in the mad world of Premier League spending – just look how quickly Chinese valuations have made England’s habitual excesses look small time – and for Chelsea to be leading the way in the real table while coming only sixth in terms of net outlay is remarkable. Almost parsimonious, except a shortfall of £132m would not be judged smart accounting by anyone in the real world, and the figure would have been much worse but for the £51m windfall provided by Chinese interest in Oscar. The undoubted winners in the smart accounting category – with a nod of respect to Wigan, who appear to have made a tidy profit from falling all the way to League One – are revealed as Tottenham Hotspur, whose net loss of £7m over five seasons is practically negligible by prevailing standards. Spurs are title contenders too, one of the season’s form teams, not propping up the table like Sunderland (seventh biggest losers with a net spend of £93.5m), struggling in a new stadium like West Ham (£138m net spend) or out on a financial limb like Watford (£92m down, almost all of it spent in the last two seasons).
Spurs are moving into a new stadium too, one that will cost around £750m but will significantly increase match-day revenues, and on this evidence it seems their chairman, Daniel Levy, is a man who gets his sums right, in addition to his ability to drive a hard bargain. There will be those who argue Spurs have not won anything in the last five years, not to mention failing to win a title in the last half century, but financially that misses the point. Sunderland have not won anything in the last five years either. Or West Ham and Everton.
Supporters of those clubs must envy their counterparts at Spurs, who are winning plaudits for attacking football with one of the youngest squads in the division, qualified for the Champions League last season and seem set to do so again, and are even producing and sourcing young English talent for the national team. It seems a long time ago now that people were complaining the Gareth Bale income was being mis-spent on players of inferior quality. Since Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival Spurs have visibly improved as a team and as a force in the Premier League. Naturally the £86m contribution from Real Madrid in the 2013-14 season went a long way towards helping balance the books over five years, though close examination of the figures reveals Spurs made a net profit on transfers in 2015-16 too, as well as posting single-figure losses in two of the other seasons under review.
There is a happy medium, in other words, and Spurs appear to have found it. The northern powerhouses will not be unduly worried, United’s idea of trumping City in the summer will most likely involve another record fee for Antoine Griezmann, though the eerie silence in the present transfer window can be partly explained by the lurking fear that come the end of the season China might be about to trump everyone. Most clubs – Hull may be an exception – are naturally reluctant to release their best players at this time of year, even for good money. January is for emergencies, as Mourinho recently put it.
But for the Premier League the real emergency might come this summer, a crisis of confidence no less. China may be about to show England how to really throw money away. One would never guess it but so far, to judge from the sums China seems able to come up with, English clubs have just been playing at it.