There is an uncomfortable truth behind Manchester City’s on-field dominance of the Premier League in the last four seasons.
The narrative that the bumblers at Manchester United, and the shirt-tail clingers at Liverpool would have you believe is that Manchester City have simply thrown oodles of money at their football team, to become top dogs.
Nothing more, nothing less, just plain old lucre is what it takes, goes the argument, and the fact that they hatched and executed a plot to bring in one of the all-time great football coaches, who has shaped a carefully-selected group of players into a killing machine, is viewed as incidental.
No-one, but no-one denies that money has been at the root of what City have achieved. Pep Guardiola himself has repeatedly said that without the club digging deep to bring in the top-class footballers he needs, he would not have been this successful.
But that simple, undisputed fact tends to ignore the harsh truth – that to compete for the big prizes on a regular basis, you need money, and lots of it. Since Arsenal in the 30s, no-one has established an era of dominance without at least being financially competitive with the other top clubs.
Anyone who truly wants financial fair play, with everyone on the same level playing field, should be campaigning for an American-style draft and salary cap system.
City are playing by rules drafted by a handful of greedy, wealthy clubs, 30 years ago, to try to ensure that they would dominate the game, and reap its sumptuous monetary rewards, for years to come.
The difference is that City are now playing that game, not of their own making, much better than anyone else.
The talk of City’s big investment in their squad tends to ignore the fact that it IS an investment – and not just one that reaps rewards in terms of silverware, but also increases the value of any club’s greatest assets – its players.
The notion that City have simply bought and bought, with little regard for waste and profligacy, does not hold true.
There was some truth in the early days of the Sheikh Mansour takeover, when a few mistakes were made, but that was certain to happen in tumultuous days, and given the large scale of the necessary revamp over a short time-span.
It was not even financial fair play that curbed those early excesses – City’s executive team said from day one that the aim was to rev up the academy and commercial side of the operation so that in a decade, City would be a top club that stood on its own two feet, in a revenue sense.
That is exactly where they are now. Their revenue surpassed that commercial behemoth Manchester United for the last financial year – and even though the Reds’ superiority on that score will be restored with the lockdowns over and crowds flooding back, the Blues are at least now in the same ballpark when it comes to raising money.
And when it comes to INVESTING that money, City are in a league of their own.
The Blues are unhindered by the things that hold back United, and closest title rivals Liverpool – the need to service debts incurred in buying the club in United’s case, and the need to turn a profit in Liverpool’s case.
But that is only the start of it. City have proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are simply better at investing in footballers.
Good businesses invest money in areas where they reap rewards, and increase the value of the business as a whole.
City have certainly invested a lot of money in their playing squad, but the rewards they have reaped are not just football ones.
The academy has become a lucrative cash cow as well as a conduit of possible talent for the first team, regularly generating large amounts from sales
But the best measure of the wisdom of City’s investment is in the value of their playing squad.
The worth of a player in the transfer market is a difficult thing to measure, and is also volatile – it can rise with a goalscoring streak or plummet with an injury or run of bad form.
But we turned to the CIES Football Observatory, who make a regular study of the value of players at all of the clubs in Europe’s top teams, based on a number of factors, including age, contract duration, international status, performance, career progression and the sporting and economic level of their club.
Crunching the numbers reveals that City and United have spent roughly the same amount on the players in their current squads – around £800million.
But when you look at the estimated values of the two squads, the superior investment made by City becomes abundantly clear.
After an outlay of roughly £800m, City’s current squad is worth, at most, around £994m, according to CIES figures.
That means that, for all of the investment, the value of City’s playing assets has increased by nearly 25 per cent.
That includes huge appreciation of Ruben Dias – bought for £61m but who, due to his superb performances, his tender age at 24, and long-term contract, is already said to be worth around £125m, more than double in less than two years.
Other big appreciators are Alex Zinchenko (from £2m to £40m), Gabriel Jesus (£27m to £75m), and Bernardo Silva (£43m to £75m).
By stark contrast, United have spent around £801m on their squad, if you include the recently-loaned Anthony Martial – but the value of the players on their books has depreciated to about £504m, or a depreciation of about 37 per cent.
Big signings like Paul Pogba, Harry Maguire and Fred have plummeted in value – Pogba cost around £93m with add-ons but is now valued at £25m, with his contract expiring this summer; Maguire’s problems have been seen around £20m lopped off his purchase price of £80m, and Fred’s value has more than halved, from £63m to £25m.
The only big signings who are now worth more than when they arrived are Bruno Fernandes (up from £57m to £100m) and Jadon Sancho (£76m to £100m).
Twelve out of the 20 players in United’s squad who were transferred in have gone down in value.
Contrast that with City where, of the 18 players who came from elsewhere, 11 have increased in value.
And when you look at those who are not worth as much as they were, the common factor is that they are the wrong side of 30 – Kyle Walker, Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne. All three have more than repaid their transfer fees by making huge contributions to City’s heap of trophies in the last decade.
Liverpool have clearly spent better than United – their triumphs in the Premier League and Champions League in the last three years tells you that, on their own.
And, like City, the value of the playing assets they have brought in have actually increased. But the fact is that the increase is minimal, nothing like the near 25 per cent City can boast.
Liverpool’s current squad cost around £533m, and is worth about £555m, in the CIES valuation.
That figure is held back by the glut of players whose contracts expire in 2023 – Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Naby Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The uncertainty has depressed their transfer values to £58m for Salah, £42m for Mane, £33m for Firmino, £12m for Keita and £8m for Oxlade-Chamberlain.
On the positive side for the Scousers, those values will rocket up again if and when they sign new deals.
Virgil Van Dijk is Liverpool’s record signing at £76m, and the fact that he has turned 30 means his value – like De Bruyne at City – has dipped to around £42m.
The CIES figures are, obviously, up for dispute, but whichever way you look at it, City HAVE greatly increased the value of their players, Liverpool’s contract issues have seen their values shrink to a small positive, and United have had a reverse Midas touch – almost everything they touch turns to dust.
The conclusion is undeniable – City HAVE invested big in players, but they have also reaped greater dividends from that investment, both in terms of winning trophies and Champions League places, and seeing the value of their investments soar.
United are a mile behind, and Liverpool – as in the current league title race – are just about holding on.