The State of English Football: Part Two

This piece originally appeared on the Carvalho Peninsula.

World Cups are always watershed events. Reputations are made or destroyed over the course of one month, and the next few years are largely founded on the principles of the preceding tournament. In Part One of this series, it was established that the 2010 World Cup highlighted the Premier League’s decline. Part Two will deal with the probable situation going into the 2014 tournament. Part One also saw criteria set out to define ‘a great league’. Essentially, there must be high-quality teams, players and matches at all levels of the division. With these attributes disappearing from the Premier League at some speed, it is natural to worry that before the next World Cup the division will resemble Ligue 1 between 2001 and 2008.

Part Two: Where The Premier League Is Heading

In terms of competition at the top, the Premier League’s next few seasons appear to be a foregone conclusion. With the correlation between budget and short-term success well-established, it seems obvious that Manchester United and Chelsea will almost certainly fall away, leaving Manchester City to dominate by default. Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool can try to stop the Citizens, but each must overcome significant problems to do so.

At the start of the next World Cup season, Manchester United will – barring a miracle – be without the services of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and, most importantly, Sir Alex Ferguson. Although tightened purse-strings mean they currently have promising youngsters in abundance, none of them appear to be the next Cristiano Ronaldo. With the club in £716.5m of debt and the club’s owners themselves struggling financially, it is hard to see United sustaining the strength that has seen them dominate since the Premier League’s inception.

There are two ways they can finance the first team from now on: either a leading star is sold for truly exceptional money, or a number of products of the youth setup are sold each year. The first scenario seems unlikely. With there being only one player they could currently sell for the amount required to bankroll three or four years of spending, the damage the club’s reputation would take presents a significant obstacle. In any case, players will be sold to fund relatively modest additions to the first team – hardly the stuff that supremacy is made of. With the right manager it is possible to challenge using this business model, but whether a manager of sufficient calibre to replace Ferguson is willing to take the reins with the odds so firmly against him is yet to be seen. The words ‘poisoned’ and ‘chalice’ spring to mind.

Chelsea are in a similarly precarious situation. In August 2013 the current contracts of Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka will have expired. Frank Lampard and John Terry will still have years to run on their deals despite having reached a combined age of sixty-seven, and will still earn a combined weekly wage of around £310k. Roman Abramovich’s finances are obviously somewhat healthier than the Glazers’, but he will not repeat the garish spending that defined his early years as the Blues’ owner. After all, 2009/10 was the season that the club was supposed to break even, yet in December 2009 Chelsea announced a loss of £47m. With their budget so inhibited by their owner’s sensibility and their icons’ salaries, Didier Drogba’s replacement, for example, will probably be coming from football’s equivalent of a bargain bin. With that in mind, a lot rests on the development of youngsters like Gaël Kakuta and Daniel Sturridge.

Inevitably, some will put Liverpool forward as potential challengers. Until the ownership situation is resolved, this notion is unrealistic at best.

As things stand, Arsenal set to be the only current challenger capable of matching City’s financial muscle. Of their current stars, August 2013 will see Thomas Vermaelen aged twenty-seven, Robin van Persie thirty and Cesc Fàbregas at Barcelona. Arsène Wenger has spent the last three or four years repeatedly praising his youngsters’ ability and those in the current squad should have combined talent with experience to sufficient effect to mount a genuine challenge 2013/14. However, there is with Arsenal a series of doubts plaguing their recent history, and consequently their immediate future. Above their predictable tactics, injury-prone players and stubborn manager, the club’s ownership will determine whether they challenge in the coming years.

The probable leveraged takeover that Alisher Usmanov or Stan Kroenke will undertake would have two consequences. Firstly, the club would take on debilitating levels of debt comparable to those of Manchester United. Their spending is currently limited by the fact that they owe £203.6m, but a takeover would see that number rise manyfold. Secondly, having seen his years of patient building ruined, Arsène Wenger would almost certainly resign. Usmanov/Kroenke will arrive with the familiar press conference, announcing the intention to make Arsenal the biggest club in the world and promising a myriad of big-money signings, but without Wenger, it’s hard to see immediate success following at Arsenal.

Contrast these situations with that of Manchester City and there is a very different outlook. In January 2010, Sheikh Mansour paid off the club’s £305m debt. They spent around £125m on players in the summer of 2010 alone. Despite posting a loss of £92.6m for the last financial year, Mansour’s practically limitless wealth makes the figure irrelevant. Unlike Abramovich at Chelsea, he has made no plans to turn a profit by a certain date. Even if this level of spending does not continue, the depth of their squad and backroom staff should see them considered as challengers for every trophy between now and 2016. If they spend another £125m next summer, the Premier League may as well engrave their name on the trophy there and then. It would take serious mismanagement to prevent their victory.

With the recent years’ most successful sides set so awkwardly, there will likely be openings to cement a place in the Premier League’s top four places. Although they certainly won’t win the title within five years, Tottenham are well positioned to become Champions League regulars in that time. The Premier League’s upper echelon was a closed shop until they stole in via the back door last season, and their squad looks strong enough to hold that position. Although Tottenham’s controlling company, ENIC, was affected by the global economic crisis, they carry less debt than their rivals.

There are, however, two important caveats. Firstly, that expansion will be unavoidably slow. Even with Champions League money pouring in, it would be irresponsible of Daniel Levy and Harry Redknapp to plan for anything other than domestic consolidation in the coming seasons. Secondly, with Manchester City set to dominate, Tottenham are the fifth contender for four Champions League spots – sixth, if Liverpool find a suitable owner before 2011/12. With such a challenge ahead, it is clear that 2010/11 will play a huge part in deciding their future.

Of course, all of the above is mere speculation. There is nothing to prevent a billionaire taking control of Liverpool at the end of the season, spending £200m on Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué and Dani Alves and making the Premier League better than ever. Manchester City’s project could yet be botched. Tottenham could always revert to type and sink into mid-table mediocrity. However, the scenarios explained remain the most probable. Logic dictates that with so many of English football’s giants confronting severe economic problems, the decline in the standard of the Premier League will be accompanied by a decrease in competition. If things looked bad following the 2010 World Cup, just wait to see what lessons 2014 has in store.

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About robbro7

I mostly write about football but occasionally go off on one about music or film too. I talk about Argentina a lot. If you have any questions or want to get in touch, tweet me @robbro7 or send an email to robbro7 [at] gmail [dot] com.
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