Manchester City – Buying the Premier League?

Following their victory against Stoke last night, Man City will be top of the Premiership come Christmas Day, two points clear of arch rivals Man United and favourites to win the title. Their imperious form this season has won them many accolades from fans and pundits alike for their free-flowing attacking football and record-breaking goal scoring. However, City’s success has come from their extravagant spending under Sheikh Mansour’s ownership, which in turn has led to the inevitable criticism of the club for trying to buy titles.

Whilst it is impossible to deny that City have spent astronomical amounts on players in order to compete with the best teams in the league and win silverware, they are not the only team in the league to be spending vast amounts in the transfer market each year in the pursuit of success. In the last five years, three of the traditional ‘big four’ have ensured their continuing success by spending big on transfers: Man United have spent just shy of £200m on players, Chelsea and Liverpool over £250m each. Even perennial skin-flints Arsenal have managed to spend £125m in that period – though they made a net profit of £32.3m on their transfers – and have not won any silverware since winning the FA Cup in 2005.

However, City’s spending dwarfs that of their competition, having spent a whopping £535m on signings since 2007 – almost exactly what United and Chelski spent combined, and four times more than Arsenal – with only a solitary FA Cup win last year to show for it. City, though, have been improving year-on-year and are almost certain to win more trophies in the near future, which begs the question – can their success be justified as anything more than buying titles?

It is easy to criticise City’s spending, but unlike the traditional ‘big four’ City had not won a major honour since 1976 prior to the FA Cup last year and were the butt of many jokes between 1996 and 2002 as they yo-yoed between the top flight and the old Division Two before attaining mid-table mediocrity prior to Thaksin Shinawatra’s ill-fated take-over of the club in 2007. Consequently, two waves of big spending were a necessity as they sought to propel themselves up the league; the first to buy enough high calibre players (to replace the likes of Émile Mpenza) in an effort to gain European football and attract world-class players, and the second to bring in such players to be able to challenge for domestic and European silverware.

The first wave of spending began in 2007, with City spending a total of £45m on players such as Elano, Geovanni and Martin Petrov, followed by a further £127m the following season – £50.5m of which was spent on Robinho and Jo. Though these two players both turned out to be among the worst buys in the history of the Premier League, the signing of Robinho on the day that Sheikh Mansour bought the club at least put City on the map. Since then, City have shown no sign of tightening the purse-strings, spending vast amounts on big name signings like Carlos Tevez, Yaya Toure, David Silva, and Sergio Agũero. Even more alarming is the fact that they have spent £157.5m on strikers alone since 2009, all of whom are still at the club at the estimated combined cost of £935k per week, and have scored 39 Premier League goals between them this season (including the eight from on-loan Adebayor).

With City willing to spend so much money on players and their wages, it is a miracle that other clubs can keep touch with them on far tighter budgets. Man United currently sit second in the table, just two points adrift of City, having spent £30m less than them in the summer and with a far more sensible wage budget. However, with City lacking the years of previous success and the inherent financial clout that brings with it, can their spending be excused as anything more than buying titles?

While many argue that City’s spending on transfers and wages is exorbitant and inexcusable, they had little other option than to spend as much as they have for several reasons.

Firstly, as a club with a relatively small reputation in England prior to Sheik Mansour’s takeover, they had a squad befitting of the mid-table Premier League side that they were, and thus essentially had to overhaul an entire squad over the course of several seasons in order to be in a position to challenge for major honours. This put City in a completely different position than Man United, who have always bought to replace individual players when required, and slightly different from Chelsea in that Chelsea had strong side which was regularly there-or-thereabouts in challenging for a Champions League spot anyway prior to Abramovich’s takeover. This is also a major reason why City spend a fortune on wages – with little in the way of club history and prestige to attract players to the club, and only an FA Cup as solid evidence of success, offering higher wages than other teams is often their only way to compete for the signature of the very best players. The extent to which City do this, though, is almost impossible to excuse and they will only have themselves to blame if they fall foul of UEFA’s financial fair play rules when they come into force in a few years’ time.

Secondly, clubs selling to City look to take advantage of the fact that they have almost limitless funds and know that they can hold them to ransom for players that they need in much the same way that Chelsea have been under Abramovich; remember, for example, the £30m they were forced to for Shevchenko in the middle of the last decade, and of course the fifty-million-pound-flop that is Fernando Torres. Whilst this is undoubtedly an issue that affect United as well, it doesn’t affect them to the same extent because clubs know that United historically have enough strength in depth that Sir Alex will not pursue a player irrespective of cost. That said, United have not entirely avoided falling victim to extortionate prices in recent times: the £17m spent on Owen Hargreaves for just 39 appearances in four season (34 of which were in his first season) was reckless at best with his injury record, and the £18.6m spent on Michael Carrick was about £18m too generous for a player so bereft of talent who seems determined to undermine United as often as humanly possible without being cast out to the reserves – the FA Cup final last year being a case in point.

The final defence against the charge that City are simply buying titles is that throwing money at a team does not guarantee results. The financial implosion at Leeds United was the starkest example of this, but it is also easy to forget that Chelsea have only won the league once in the last five seasons, and that Liverpool have only come in the top three in two of those seasons. Although both teams would argue that they have won the other major domestic trophy, with Chelsea winning the FA Cup three times and Liverpool once in the last five seasons, the main prize for any club is, and always will be, the Premier League title or the Champions League.

So, if Mancini does manage to bring more silverware to the blue side of Manchester in the years to come, it will be down to good management and a strong work ethic amongst the players; and although it will only be possible due to the millions upon millions that they have spent, City will not have bought a single title. At least not unless the the FA and UEFA become as corrupt as FIFA.

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