By Paul Tomkins.
Note: this was originally a draft version of the Introduction for the follow-up to Pay As You Play. In the end, due to other commitments, we’ve shelved the project, and will use the 2015 content for TTT and the TPI blog instead, and maybe look to do a book at some point in the future.
What Wins League Titles? Here is the Answer…
People will always argue that a certain type of playing style – relating to tactics, formation, attacking intent, and so on – or a particular managerial quality – everyone’s friend, or strict taskmaster who doesn’t allow the poor players any tomato ketchup – is what’s required to win the league, especially when a team lacking that supposed quality falls short. But if you look at the past decade in the Premier League I’m not sure that this idea holds water. Perhaps certain managers make life easier or harder for themselves with specific approaches, but playing style or managerial philosophy doesn’t seem to be the key factor behind being crowned champions.
If you go back to 2004 (and more will follow on why I chose this date) you can see how the trends in the second-half of the Premier League era have unfolded.
First, the notion that you have to be attack-minded, supposedly just like Alex Ferguson. This falls down when you look at Roberto Mancini, whose style was seen as far more defensive; and even Jose Mourinho, who is regarded as a tactical coach rather than an exciting up-and-at-‘em manager.
You can argue about whether these are indeed ‘defensive’ coaches, because they often have some of the world’s costliest attacking players at their disposal (and so you’d expect a decent amount of goals), but often anyone who doesn’t go hell-for-leather 100% of the time gains the label. And let’s face it, there aren’t many truly negative managers at the top end of the game, because they have to be looking to win two-thirds of their matches. Perhaps in different seasons you need different qualities, depending on what everyone else is doing that year – if you can find a point of difference by doing the opposite particularly well you may flourish – but you can’t know in advance how rivals are going to perform.
What about all the other claims made at various points?
Do you need to be British, like Ferguson, and ‘understand’ the league? Well no, because again, Mourinho and Mancini are foreign, as are Carlo Ancelotti and Manuel Pellegrini. What about needing prior Premier League experience? Well no, because those four foreign bosses all won the title at their first (and, to date, only) British club; indeed, three of the four did so in their debut season. Since Kenny Dalglish in 1995, no British manager bar Ferguson has won the title.
Maybe just experience in general counts? Do you need to be a wise old owl, again like Ferguson? Well, no, because Mourinho and Mancini won it in their 40s, Ancelotti was 50, and Pellegrini had just turned 60. That’s a fairly broad spectrum of ages when you consider that Ferguson was in his 70s when he won his final title.
So, do you need league success in Europe’s other major leagues? Mancini and Ancelotti both arrived with Serie A titles, not to mention plenty of other trophies; and it’s always hard to argue against a winning pedigree. Mourinho, in 2004, had only the Portuguese title (but had also just won Champions League).
However, Pellegrini’s only prior successes dated back to his days in South America, over a decade earlier. Of course, bar one season at Real Madrid he hadn’t previously been at clubs set up to challenge for the title, so it’s not that he had proved himself incapable – he just hadn’t had the realistic chance (and at Real Madrid his team finished second with a quite incredible 99 points). But equally, he didn’t arrive with the aura of a winner. Obviously all of these managers are good managers – it’s hard to think that you’d win the league with a bad one (few clubs have that much money) – but Pellegrini and Mancini aren’t revered in the way that, say, Arsene Wenger used to be (going back to before the cut-off point of 2004/05).
So, does a manager have to keep a settled team? Well no, because no one rotated as much as Alex Ferguson, despite the allegations of tinkering labelled against other managers. (If you have a smaller squad and rotate you’ll be accused of fielding sub-strength players when you fall short; if you have a smaller squad and you don’t rotate you’re likely to tire in the final stretch of the season.)
What’s clear, surely, is that you need homegrown and/or British talent? Manchester United’s titles were built on them, and Chelsea had a couple of stalwarts in Frank Lampard and John Terry. But Manchester City’s outfield ten in 2011/12 was often foreign, and the same was true in 2013/14. British players like Barry, Hart and Milner, although English, were all purchased from elsewhere, rather than brought through the ranks, and none was local to Manchester.
Perhaps having a local core can help bond a team that bit better, because there are fewer ‘mercenaries’ just passing through, but by the same token, it’s better to have true professionals like Vincent Kompany – who had no connection with the city before he moved there – than inferior players in the team because they were born in Manchester or graduated through the ranks. It’s obviously not easy to find world-class local youngsters, as how often does a world-class talent emerge in any city?
Perhaps authority is an issue, with a tough manager essential? And yet the league has been won by teams with “dictators” as managers (Mourinho, Ferguson, Mancini), and it’s been won by placid “thinkers” (Pellegrini and Ancelotti). So an aggressive demeanour is not essential, even if, more often than not, big, combative personalities win the Premier League. The authority that’s required is respect.
Is the age of the team important? Well, in the past 11 seasons the title has been won by teams with a low average age (Chelsea, 25, in 2005), and much older average ages (Chelsea, 30, in 2010, with much of the side untouched – Terry, Cech, Drogba, Lampard, et al – and simply five years older).
So, is having the league’s top scorer the key? Well, the title has been won by teams with low-scoring strikers (Drogba in 2005 and 2006), and great forwards compensating for relatively weaker players in midfield and defence (Manchester United in 2013). It’s been won by teams with the best defence who didn’t have the best attack, and it’s been won by teams with the best attack who didn’t have the best defence.
There are doubtless many other vagaries. You probably don’t want to play too many cup games if you want to win the league, as injuries can mount, fatigue can set in and fixtures can pile up, but then sometimes it seems to lead to what we perceive to be momentum (even if some studies dismiss the concept as a fallacy). The very biggest squads can just about cope with the extra demand, and perhaps even thrive on the relentless rhythm of games. And while the colour of a team’s kit may provoke strong psychological reactions that apparently lead to advantages, the last 10 titles have seen a 50-50 split between reds and blues.
So, what’s the one true common denominator?
Well, there’s the fact that all 10 titles went to teams whose £XIs and squads were significantly higher than the rest; and barring a miracle, the same will happen again, with Chelsea odds-on to succeed.
This is the only thing I can find that unites the title-winners over the past decade. Have an £XI and a squad cost that exceeds a certain level and you’re in the club. This is what I dubbed the Title Zone in a recent article. (The £XI being the average cost of the team over 38 games, adjusted for TPI inflation.)
You can have an expensive side and still have a terrible season (see Manchester Untied under David Moyes), but the odds on all three of the mega-rich clubs having a bad season at the same time are very, very slim.
Indeed, including 2014/15, which looks set to belong to Chelsea, it hasn’t happened in the last 11 years; each time one, two or all three of them have posted (or are on course to post) great points tallies. In the past 10 seasons the average points tally posted by the champions is 88.2, whilst in the previous nine seasons (after it moved to 38 games in the mid-‘90s) the average was just 81.6. In other words, you used to need roughly 80 points to win the league (or, to put it another way, to finish above what were otherwise the best team that year) and now you need almost 90.
For me, this is evidence of the übersquads being able to share around the required energy load, and how the richest clubs are now much wealthier in relation to the rest of the competition.
Wenger As Proof?
My theory suggests that if Arsene Wenger had been manager of Man City over the past five seasons he’d have won two or three league titles. This can never be proved, but I think it makes sense all the same.
Arsenal, like Liverpool, have been adrift of the Rich Three, to the point where squad and £XI costs are almost half that of the wealthy trio. When Wenger was winning the league he had squad and £XI costs that were comparable with the richest teams of the day. At most they were around 10% worse off, whereas now they’re 50% behind the others, and there are more ‘others’ (with City having joined United and Chelsea).
There is no better metaphor than to say that Chelsea, City and United are Formula One cars, and Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs are decent road coupes. Obviously driving ability is important, but you can’t expect even a BMW to match an F1 Ferrari. A good driver in a Formula One car will always beat a great driver in a coupe (assuming that it’s not rally driving we’re talking about here).
In Spain there are two giants, rather than three. They may happen to be the world’s biggest giants, but the odds of those two clubs having struggles in the same season are better than the Rich Three all failing over here. This is not to diminish what Atletico Madrid achieved last season, which was remarkable; but Real Madrid were 6% down on their average points haul over the previous four seasons (which had been an amazing 93), and Barcelona were down a whopping 10% from their eye-watering four-year average of 96.5. Atletico did brilliantly to take advantage, but they took advantage in part because the elite pair were below par. The fact that Diego Simeone’s team also made it to the Champions League Final shows what a strong team they were, but right now they sit 4th in La Liga. It doesn’t seem as sustainable as it would be for a richer team. If the best clubs run perfect ‘marathons’ then you don’t stand much chance.
People often mention Atletico and Borussia Dortmund to me as examples of how you can win league titles on a much smaller budget, but as I’ve already noted, it’s more realistic to be able to overtake two off-colour giants once in a blue moon than it is to overtake three. These are not countries who had mega-benefactors before FFP was introduced.
Last season Chelsea and United weren’t at their best, but City broke goalscoring records to win the league. Also, it appears that Bayern, always the biggest club, have become significantly richer than everyone else in Germany, and, like Manchester City, are buying up their rivals’ best players. In the past decade, as well as Dortmund, teams like Wolfsburg and Stuttgart have won the title, and Shalke 04 have gone close on three occasions. But perhaps as a result of FFP, Bayern are simply growing bigger and bigger.
It’s true that Dortmund and Atletico seemed to scout players particularly well. And yet, for a while, they got much better by selling their best players – because that allowed them to buy better ones. These are selling clubs, and it’s harder to get to the very top in England by being a selling club; and yet, if you don’t have the wealthy backing, you pretty much have to be a selling club. The trouble with selling to improve is that, at some point, you’ll make mistakes in the market and fall off a cliff. But clubs don’t always have full control over who they sell, particularly if the players are on short contracts and want out.
To me, it’s as if Jurgen Klopp was like Wenger in 2004, and now he’s like Wenger a couple of years later: his team have been weakened by an über-giant, whose increased strength came in part from raiding that rival (see how Ashley Cole moved to Chelsea in 2006, unthinkable a few years earlier).
You can pick faults in any manager, and say that those faults are what cost his team the title, but it’s often far more complicated than that. Arsene Wenger may have had a bit of reserve cash, but Arsenal were very vulnerable to seeing their best players picked off by both Manchester clubs over a handful of years, and as just mentioned, by Chelsea in 2006. If Arsenal had the wealth of the Rich Three, these departures probably wouldn’t have happened. Not only were they weakened, but in the process their rivals were strengthened.
It also didn’t help that Arsenal didn’t recoup full fees on a lot of these players, many of whom were down to the final year of their contracts. You can of course blame Arsenal for allowing that to happen, but it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Arsenal couldn’t quite compete with them, so it became harder to convince them to stay; they left for clubs who could pay higher wages and who were in a better position to win the league title. They then won the title in part because teams like Arsenal have been further weakened. Winning the title meant that they got richer, and the virtuous cycle continues.
Those at the top of the food chain – City, Chelsea and United – don’t lose their best players to other Premier League clubs, whereas everyone else does. That in itself tells a story.
Only Real Madrid and Barcelona, and maybe Bayern Munich, can lure players away from the Rich Three. This is in contrast to Liverpool, who lost Fernando Torres to Chelsea; and Arsenal, who lost Robin van Persie to Manchester United, and Samir Nasri and Bacary Sagna to Manchester City (plus Gael Clichy, although he wasn’t a key Arsenal asset), as well as Ashley Cole to Chelsea. Liverpool did manage to buy Daniel Sturridge from one of the Rich Three, but mainly because he was not someone they wanted to hold onto.
And of course, wealth isn’t just about buying the best players, but keeping them.
You sense that things are improving for Arsenal, with a trophy last season and the possibility of another this season, as well as now appearing to match Manchester City in the league and getting as far as them in Europe. But they are still seven points behind Chelsea, having played one more game. Their financial situation has strengthened with the Emirates stadium, and they’re perhaps less vulnerable to poachers, although it seems that any Premier League player can be lured to the big Spanish clubs if they come calling.
No matter what a team costs there will be fluctuating fortunes within a season, but over a longer period of time these tend to even out, and the cream rises to the top. In defence of Manchester City, it also seems true that defending the title is hard to do, because of several reasons: some players will naturally slacken off (Ronnie Moran would have had something to say to them), while others may have less energy; the opposition will raise their game, and expectations also rise; and there are rich rivals ready to take advantage, should the chance emerge. I also think that once a team wins the league its priorities shift towards Europe, because that is the logical next step, and if defending the title is hard, defending it while trying to win the Champions League is nigh-on impossible.
City are in an interesting position now, as they have an ageing squad, and, creative accounting aside, FFP means they can’t just do what they did five years ago and parachute in a load of new talent. Arsenal are also in an interesting position, as their wealth increases. Liverpool are in an interesting position, as they have the best young side in the country (roughly the same age as Spurs, but better), but are currently just outside the top four. And Manchester United are in an interesting position, as they struggle to escape the shadow of the Ferguson years, investing hundreds of millions in players in the process. They might not have looked much like a ‘team’ this season, but the hugely expensive squad allows individual talent to get them the points even when they don’t play well as a unit.
If Chelsea win their game in hand then they’ll be 10 points clear of Arsenal, their closest challengers outside of the Rich Three; and, for an 11th year in a row, the title looks set to go to one of that super-wealthy trio.