Chelsea's Millions vs. Competitive Balance

(Palace match report is down some, in case you get here late.)

Football is a business. It always has been (romantic notions of the past aside)...the sport is now just more honest about what it's always been about. As in any business, having more available money (hard capital) than your competitors is an advantage not to be taken lightly. Today, the question on the minds of many supporters is whether Chelsea’s recently-found Russian billions are going to disrupt whatever competitive balance remained in the English Premier League. Given some of the hysterical cries from some corners of the media, and the equally ridiculous wailing from many fans of other clubs, a non-fan would be forgiven if they thought that Chelsea was going to easily stroll to every major championship for the next 20 years. I wouldn’t go that far. The west London club is now certainly a major player at the high-stakes table, but the dealers aren’t going to surrender every chip in the casino just because the billionaire Russian strutted in. Since analysis is a dirty word in today’s soundbite media, there haven’t been many voices aiming to add a little levity to the situation. Allow me to be one of them.

But, before I do, let’s get something straight. I’m not saying that rich clubs like Chelsea, Manchester United and our own Arsenal don’t have a major headstart over mid-table clubs like Charlton Athletic or relegation fodder such as West Bromwich Albion. That would be naïve at best. But, while Chelsea will not win every title for the next 20 years, it is safe to say that as long as most factors stay the same, the aforementioned three richest clubs will likely win in the neighborhood of 16-18 of those titles.

That said, my feeling is that for the moment, the perception of what defines “success” has to change on a basic level, relative to where the club you support is on the totem pole…at least when it comes to one’s domestic league. If you support Birmingham City or Osasuna or Borussia Monchengladbach or Brescia, the days are gone where you could reasonably expect to have a real chance at winning the title…if they existed at all. Going back through history, most of the major and mid-major domestic leagues have always been dominated by the few rather than shared among the many. More accurately, most leagues have a few mainstays who have been at or near the summit every season since the beginning, with intermittent dynasties lasting a decade or so from other sides. To wit, from 1889-2004, only 23 different sides have won the top division’s title in the English game. It breaks down like this:

Liverpool - 17
Manchester United - 14
Arsenal - 13
Everton - 9
Aston Villa, Sunderland - 8
Newcastle United, Sheffield Wednesday - 4
Blackburn Rovers, Huddersfield Town, Leeds United, Wolverhampton Wanderers - 3
Burnley, Derby County, Manchester City, Portsmouth, Preston North End, Tottenham Hotspur – 2
Chelsea, Ipswich Town, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield United, West Bromwich Albion – 1

It’s not as bad as say, Scotland’s league, but 23 champions out of 110 seasons or so is not all that big of a return when you think about it. If one is going to make the argument that competitive balance is worse now than it was then, how do you explain the fact that there are big clubs like Newcastle who haven’t won titles since the 1930s? There weren’t any Russian billionaires in the 50s or 60s, were there?

I mentioned the word “dynasty” before, and that was quite intentional. Much like the dynasties now consigned to the pages of history, nothing lasts forever in football. Most human beings have the irritating habit of believing that current events and factors will continue on in perpetuity. Chelsea has a lot of money now, so they always will. Manchester United wins many titles now, so they always will. It never ceases to amuse one who thinks along a more historical timeline. Look at it this way. Imagine that you travel in time to 1890, and you tell a Preston North End supporter that their team has since gone 114 years without winning another top-division title. They’d have either laughed in your face or challenged you to pistols at dawn. I mean, they’re the two-time defending champions, the best team in all the land! Surely you can’t mean that things…*gasp*…change! Right now, I’m reading the Chinese historical classic “Three Kingdoms.” In short, it’s a half-historical, half-fictionalized account of the fall of the Han Dynasty, which lasted over 400 years. The (historical) event that sent the dominoes falling was, of all things, an uprising by a bunch of peasants called the Yellow Scarves. I know this has nothing to do with football, but work with me here. If a bunch of farmers with pitchforks can indirectly take down a 400-year old dynasty, how can anyone think that the current power structure will last forever? Roman Abramovich has made Chelsea a player now, but he could get bored in 5 years and move on to the next time killer (I don’t know…shagging supermodels on piles of cash, maybe?). When Alex Ferguson finally retires, Manchester United could be cursed with terrible managers for the next 10 years. Look, Greece just won Euro 2004…we have officially entered the realm of “absolutely anything can happen at any given time.” Anyway, this paragraph was mostly facetious, but I think you get my drift. The teams at the top have a very good chance of staying at or near the top consistently, but nothing is ever certain. That’s the first major point I wanted to make.

So, while we can never predict what will happen 5 years from now (let alone 20), the second point I want to make is rooted more in the present. At this moment in time, yes, Chelsea is going to be difficult to compete against. However, to what degree will they be a fiercer rival than the ones we’re already in mortal combat with, that being Manchester United? United is a global force, with no shortage of money to throw around. While Chelsea has the rich sugar daddy, they are going to have the rug pulled out from under them if he ever decides to take on the world with, say, Spartak Moscow. United and our own Arsenal, on the other hand, are well-positioned to maintain their finances for the long term (United being admittedly even more of a juggernaut than us at the moment, although we’ll see if the gap narrows some when the new stadium is ready to go). Both have strong boards of directors that always have the future in mind. That said, United doesn’t have the sheer amount of quality players that Chelsea does, and we will have to wait two or three years to be in that discussion as well. In fact, our London rivals could probably field a reserve side that could claim a European place if they entered the Premier League separately. But, the gap between us and them is not all that large in reality. Now that the need for a goalkeeper has been made abundantly clear this season, only a madman would think that Arsene and David Dein won’t go out and get a top-class netminder once this current campaign is done. Our current squad with a solid anchor in between the sticks will always be a match for Chelsea, no matter how many millions the Blues spend. You can only have 11 guys out on the pitch, and even with injuries and suspensions, most clubs do not honestly have a need for more than 16 or 17 top-class players in a season (statistical anomalies aside, of course). Hell, if Liverpool continues to buy as well as they did before this season, they could threaten Chelsea as well.

Buying well not only requires being a judge of talent as it stands in the present, but you also have to be able to project the future worth of the player as well. Looking at some of the most expensive transfers of all time, one can see that there are as many risks as there are rewards to being a big spender. Take a look at some of these transfers, and then consider what their worth was just several years later.

2001 - Javier Saviola – from River Plate to Barcelona – 15.7 million
2003 – Adrian Mutu – from Parma to Chelsea – 15.8 million
2003 – Hernan Crespo – from Inter to Chelsea – 16.8 million
2003 – David Beckham – from Manchester United to Real Madrid – 17.25 million
2001 – Hidetoshi Nakata – from Roma to Parma – 19.1 million
2000 – Marc Overmars – from Arsenal to Barcelona – 21.6 million
1999 – Nicolas Anelka – from Arsenal to Real Madrid – 23.5 million
2001 – Juan Veron – from Lazio to Manchester United – 28.1 million

All of these guys are good players, but given their relative ability after the transfer, contribution to the new side and so on, even staunch supporters of these players or teams would have to admit that in most cases, these transfers are not anywhere near value for money. In our own near past, we have Sylvain Wiltord for 13 million…which was a disaster, relatively speaking. It especially looks bad in comparison to most of the other deals Wenger has done since coming to Arsenal.

Actually, that brings me to my next point. Money is only as useful as the intelligence used in spending it. Sure, the fact that Chelsea has bucketloads means that they can afford to make far more mistakes than most other clubs. But, how often do the main players in the chasing pack make mistakes of that caliber? Chelsea are so far ahead this season because in the last two seasons or so, they have bought as well as they possibly can while Manchester United and ourselves have arguably done only a C- job or so (I still believe Howard was a good buy for United, and most of our moves were made with 2-3 years from now in mind). The thing is, squads like Chelsea’s can never maintain themselves for too long. The guys who aren’t playing inevitably find their patience wearing thin, and they start dreaming of first-team football in someone else’s colors. The guys who are playing won’t necessarily be as good as they were this season, although some invariably end up even better, of course. To maintain the level of dominance that Chelsea has had this season, you have to spend as wisely as they did last offseason every year, with no let-up. The Manchester United teams from 1990 to 2000 or so were a special case. Ferguson won the first few titles with the old core, but he was finding and developing an entire class of young players who not only were amazingly talented, they gained experience playing together at many different levels (this should sound familiar to current Arsenal fans, by the way). The core of that team was kept together, and it was supplemented brilliantly year after year (of course, having Schmeichel in goal was a gigantic help as well). Chelsea hasn’t really done that, as their team is almost entirely comprised of mercenaries. And, you know what eventually happens to squads like that, right?

Well, let me use an example from American sports. The New York Yankees are one of our oldest baseball teams, and they’ve been by far the most successful. They’re not an exact comparison to Chelsea, but they’re close enough. They’ve had their sugar daddy owner, George Steinbrenner, since (I believe) 1973. In the years since then, with their payroll climbing higher and higher into the stratosphere, they’ve won the World Series 10 times. Not a bad return at all, wouldn’t you say? But, they have won almost all of their titles in spurts, when they had a solid core of players to work with. They won 4 times from 1976-1981, but then the exact phenomena that I went into in the paragraph above came into play. George threw his millions around, the expensive players became his boys, and he traded away all the guys who won him his championships. From 1982-1995, the Yankees, despite still throwing money around like it was going out of style, did not win a single championship. In fact, they had several years where they were one of the worst teams in the league. Not only that, but they didn’t even make it to a final in that entire time period. Why is that? Simple. Throwing money around for any other reason than to supplement an existing core will never work, no matter what the sport. Of course, there’s a difference between “throwing money around” and “building a core.” Building a core comes from using your resources to acquire players based on the long-term goal of your franchise, often also based on the type of team that the manager wants to have. Throwing money around is more like:

“Ohh, shiny!”
“That’ll be 20 million quid, please.”
“Sure! It’s shiny!”

Of course, Chelsea has the makings of a pretty decent core…that is, if they keep them together for more than one or two seasons. If they keep Cech, Terry, Lampard, Duff and Robben in the side and in the first team, they’ll be a force just like Manchester United has been in the past decade and change. Even still, that isn’t a guarantee of holding up a big, shiny silver thing at the end of the season. Remember? “Teddy, Teddy, went to Man United and you won fuck all!” Chelsea will always have to deal with Man United and us, and possibly Liverpool (I really rate Benitez as a manager, and he’s getting some good players in there. All he needs is a goalkeeper that he can depend on like he did with Canizares, and he’s set). Not only that, who knows who will come charging out of the ether? If Everton had kept Gravesen and completed the Beattie deal in the offseason, who knows where they’d be right now? Even still, in most seasons, they’d be closer to the top than they are now.

Speaking of which, it’s true that the top tier of teams seem to be separated by quite some way from the teams below them. How about we test that theory? Since the advent of the Premier League, this is what the difference between 1st and 5th has looked like (5th being a completely arbitrary choice, as there are usually only three or so teams in it after Christmas).:

1992-93: 21 points
1993-94: 21
1994-95: 16
1995-96: 19 (this being the first season with 38 as opposed to 42 games)
1996-97: 14
1997-98: 19
1998-99: 22
1999-00: 26
2000-01: 14
2001-02: 22
2002-03: 19
2003-04: 34 (this being an anomaly due to Arsenal’s unbeaten season).

In this respect, the theory seems to hold – the average is somewhere around 20 points, which translates into around 6 wins and 2 draws separating 1st and 5th. However, to just look at this and assume that there is little competitive balance is a mistake (taking away the point already made that relatively few teams have actually won the championship). If it were the same clubs year in and year out, then I’d be forced to agree. But, a shockingly high number of teams have broken into the Premiership’s top 5. Going through the tables, it turns out the number is 13 (Aston Villa, Norwich City, Blackburn Rovers, Queens Park Rangers, Manchester United, Newcastle United, Arsenal, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Liverpool, Chelsea, West Ham United, and Ipswich Town.) This season, both Everton and Middlesbrough have an excellent chance to add to that tally, with Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic also outside shots. In the overall scheme of things, that’s not so bad.

One final point, and I’ll call it a day. Football has its haves and have-nots (relatively speaking in many cases), just like any other business in the world. There’s stores that have franchises all over the world, stores that are the big chain in a country or region, little mom-and-pop stores, all the way down to a kid selling lemonade on his street. There’s a food chain, and that’s just the way it is…and always has been. But, unlike American sports, there is more than one chance per year to win a trophy. Sure, the trophies have a food chain as well, but if you don’t have a chance to win the league, then there is always the chance of taking the FA Cup or League Cup home with you. Over a 38-game season, the best team is usually going to emerge in the end. But, in a knockout situation, anything can and will happen…history is laden with tales of epic giant-killings in the cups. With the FA and League Cups, the number of teams who have won them are even greater:

League Cup, 21 different winners (1960-2004):

Liverpool - 6
Aston Villa – 4
Leicester City, Nottingham Forest, Tottenham Hotspur - 3
Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Norwich City, Wolverhampton Wanderers - 2
Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers, Leeds United, Luton Town, Manchester United, Oxford United, Queens Park Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday, Stoke City, Swindon Town, West Bromwich Albion – 1

FA Cup, 34 different winners, (beginning from 1884, when first modern team won it)

Manchester United - 11
Arsenal – 9
Tottenham Hotspur – 8
Aston Villa – 7
Blackburn Rovers, Liverpool, Newcastle United – 6
Everton, West Bromwich Albion – 5
Bolton Wanderers, Manchester City, Sheffield United, Wolverhampton Wanderers – 4
Chelsea, Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham United – 3
Bury, Nottingham Forest, Preston North End, Sunderland – 2
Barnsley, Blackpool, Bradford City, Burnley, Cardiff City, Charlton Athletic, Coventry City, Derby County, Ipswich Town, Leeds United, Notts County, Portsmouth, Southampton, Wimbledon – 1

So, in short, my honest belief is that Chelsea’s ascension to the throne will not spell the doom of football as we know it. Judging by the evidence above, I can’t help but think that competitive balance is about the same as it’s always been…not only that, but the fact also remains that Chelsea is by no means unassailable at the top. Arsenal and Manchester United will be there to challenge as long as current factors remain the same, and it is certainly plausible that teams like Everton or Middlesbrough will also throw down the gauntlet and become forces to be reckoned with.


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