When Xherdan Shaqiri signed for Stoke in 2015, it looked like a watershed moment.
In February 2015, Sky Sports and BT Sport paid £5.14bn for the rights to broadcast Premier League football in the UK, with a further £3bn coming from overseas rights. English clubs instantly became richer than God, able to pour riches into the transfer market with liberal abandon, as if it were vinaigrette on a salad. Since then, they’ve attracted the kinds of names who would usually have ended up around Europe’s grand old clubs. Now, instead of joining the likes of the Milan sides, Valencia or Schalke, or even Ajax and Benfica, the Premier League’s mid-table clubs have taken on a glamour they could only have dreamed of a decade or two ago.
The broadcast rights deal is only likely to go higher in the short-to-medium term, too, and is still driving the league’s spending sprees. We’re now seeing a situation where Crystal Palace, rooted to the bottom of the Premier League, can boast the likes of Christian Benteke, Andros Townsend, Wilfried Zaha and Yohan Cabaye in their squad. It doesn’t seem to have made them a very good football team, though.
Stoke, themselves, have the highest number of Champions League winning players in their side this season, and even that’s after selling Marko Arnautovic, who played for Inter Milan under Jose Mourinho in 2010, to West Ham United this summer. The Potters have five players with winner’s medals in their squad despite never having played in the competition themselves; more than Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool put together, in fact.
They have, however, played in the Europa League. But the problem is that, since that season when the potteries welcomed European football for the first time since the 1970s, there doesn’t seem to have been much progress. Not in tangible ways, at any rate.
It’s hard to believe that there should be a glass ceiling in a situation where there’s so much money coming into the Premier League from companies who want to broadcast the games. The rights deals are so big that the sky should be the limit, attracting the best players, the best coaches and getting better every year.
That’s an impossible ask, though. There are two reasonably obvious problems.
One is that the rest of the league has just as much money as Stoke City have. Everyone is in the same boat, and, obviously, not every team can win.
The other problem is that the biggest clubs will always have more. Whatever the Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Chelsea have in the bank in terms of media rights money, they will also get more from their commercial deals, too. Partners around the world pay large sums of cash to sponsor football clubs in various ways, and they’ll pay more for Manchester United or Liverpool than they will for Stoke.
But as the league becomes a battle of franchises, it’s to their credit that Stoke have recognised this problem. Over the last few years, the change in their style of play has, presumably, been less about following a trend and more an attempt to imbue the club with an added class. And there’s a very good reason why: a side with prestigious players with pedigree who have played for some of Europe’s biggest clubs and who now ply their trade with a charmingly stylish Premier League club has marketing potential.
That way Stoke can attract fans and commercial opportunities outside their core Staffordshire support, a key factor in the growth of most Premier League teams’ wealth. Indeed, overseas TV rights will probably a key reason for the continued growth of wealth in the Premier League over the next few years, and even the likes of West Bromwich Albion and Southampton have seen significant overseas – particularly Far Eastern – investment.
But that’s business, something very different to football. And whilst, in this day and age, no one would argue that clubs shouldn’t be working hard to get their off-the-pitch competitiveness right, surely that’s null and void if sporting success falls by the wayside. For all but the biggest clubs, anyway. Manchester United’s season or two outside of the Champions League didn’t change their status as one of the biggest clubs in the world. But not many teams have that sort of commercial clout.
For Stoke, though, their best moment since their arrival in the Premier League under Tony Pulis was surely their appearance in the 2011 FA Cup final. But whilst they were beaten by Manchester City, that still allowed them a Europa League place the next season, where they went furthest of all the English teams to enter the competition in the group stages. Since then, their run of three ninth place finishes have been bookended by two seasons when they finished in 13th. The first bottom-half finish came in the season they played Europa League football. The other came last year.
And that highlights how difficult it is to get the balance between off and on the pitch right for Premier League clubs these days.
In 2012, Stoke were the only English club to make it out of the group stage of the Europa League, before losing to Valencia in the round of 32. One of the English teams who went out in the groups was Tottenham Hotspur, who, since Stoke’s arrival in the top flight have probably shown more than any other club how you don’t need to spend money on Champions League winners and big names in order to make a mark on the league. And, in turn, they’re making a mark off it, too. From Europa League failures seemingly every season, Spurs are now part of the league’s defined top six and Champions League regulars. They are building a new stadium with the help of the NFL and look like they’re joining the very top of the elite. And they’ve done it all by bringing through players and giving a chance to a young coach who places more emphasis on team structure than individuals
No one could suggest that Stoke should be emulating Spurs’ success. For one thing, the north London side have more resources, are a bigger club and have spent more money than Stoke have. They’re one of the established teams who will always have more than Mark Hughes’ side even with new riches being given to the league. But what they have done is gone about changing their image in a very different way.
It’s been sporting success that changed how people feel about Tottenham as a force in English football, and as a result, their standing around the world will grow.
They’ve spent money – not always very well – and they’ve had some failures along the way, but in a similar time frame as Stoke, Spurs have gone about their business in a different way. Instead of attempting to grow their standing both around the world and within the Premier League, through building a team of recognisable talent, they’ve done it by creating stars, not attempting to revive the likes of Shaqiri and Ibrahim Afellay.
Stoke’s capture of Shaqiri may well have been a watershed moment in the Premier League’s history, showing that the league has become a place where everyone wants to play; even those whose name recognition may well have seen them at clubs who match that stature more comfortably.
But what it’s also done is shown that growth is a holistic thing. Off it, as well as on it, the best way to get recognition is by building something which rises towards the top. In a league where everyone has money, nothing short of obscene riches can take you above everyone else. Instead, the Spurs route of making your team that little bit better every season through coaching and tactics is surely more applicable.