Why these Manchester City criticisms don’t really add up

Manchester City celebrate winning the Barclays Premier LeagueAfter being crowned as Premier League champions at the end of last season, Manchester City were roundly criticised, namely by supporters of their rivals Manchester United, that Roberto Mancini’s side had ‘bought the title’, but does this claim stand up to closer scrutiny? Do United really have that much of a sound footing when it comes to talk of success being directly linked to money?

Since the Premier League’s inception in 1992, Manchester United have spent upwards of £15m on 12 separate occasions on the following players – Veron, Ferdinand, Rooney, Carrick, Anderson, Hargreaves, Van Nistelrooy, Berbatov, Valencia, Young, Jones and De Gea.

Now there’s nothing scientific to this cut-off point, but I think is a fair summation of what a big transfer has been for the best part of the last 10 years at least, not huge, but out of the realms of the majority of teams in the top flight, particularly in terms of consistency. Of course, given the context of the period, the deals involving Saha, Stam, Yorke, Kagawa, Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo were all pretty sizeable too.

The school of thought is that Manchester United are able to operate on such a sphere due to their prolonged spell at the top and the success that they’ve enjoyed in the process. They’ve only really been spending that amount of money since 2001-2, preferring to utilise home-grown talent and operate within their means (which they still do, to be fair to them, but for different reasons) up until that point.

Since the Premier League began, the club have spent £501m and recouped £310m from their dealings in the transfer market, which gives them a net spend of £190m, which spread over 21 seasons comes in at £9m per season which seems a very reasonable amount given their huge success. Even when you take out the hugely distortive figure of the Cristiano Ronaldo sale of £80m, the net spend is still a respectable £270m which works out at £12.7m per season.

Let’s take a look at Manchester City now then, bearing in mind that the club haven’t competed in the Premier League anywhere near as frequently, but they’ve been regular members since 2002. In that period they’ve spent £649m, recouped £175m for a net spend of £473m a huge increase on the figures mentioned above to do with United.

Using the same loose barometer for transfer activity, Manchester City have spent upwards of £15m on 16 separate occasions on the following players – De Jong, Robinho, Jo, Lescott, Toure, Adebayor, Tevez, Santa Cruz, Dzeko, Milner, Balotelli, Kolarov, Silva, Yaya Toure, Nasri and Aguero. Sizeable fees have also been forked out on Bridge, Bellamy, Wright-Phillips, Barry and Boateng in that period.

There’s clearly a more scattergun approach at work here as best typified by the fact that the club have had three managers in five years. People often forget the gradual period of investment that the club had prior to Abu Dhabi’s takeover in September 2008. They spent £45.8m the summer before under Sven Goran Eriksson and Thaksin Shinawatra before the real bug bucks were spent under Mark Hughes.

It’s only really now that you begin to realise how poor Mark Hughes spent while he was at the club keeping in mind the resources that he had available to him at the time. He spent a staggering £127m in 2008-9, but only Vincent Kompany (£6.7m), Nigel De Jong (laughably bought for £16m with just six months left on his contract) and Pablo Zabaleta (£6.5m) played any sort of part during their title success last season, while Joe Hart was bought for a pittance two years before for £600k from Shrewsbury.

Indeed, the club have spent £141m on players since 2008-9 which weren’t at the club last season, either being loaned elsewhere or having since been sold since, so they played no part at all during their title success, which is being extremely kind to Kolo Toure at the same time. The sheer level of mis-management and wasted resoruces is astonishing. It makes the often used figure of £528.6m that the club have spent in the past five years somewhat irrelevent without the context of the managerial change and the fact that half of those signed no longer play for the club anymore.

It would seem churlish to discount this period altogether, though, because the Robinho move in particular helped to create the conditions by which they could then move for the likes of Aguero, Silva and Tevez later on. However, in terms of the impact that they had out on the pitch, it’s pretty threadbare, which is essentially what we are talking about when we talk about them having ‘bought the title’, because otherwise if you’re just lending to the wholesale purchases of every player that’s walked through the door since 2008 and it loses all perspective.

Since taking over in December 2009, Roberto Mancini has spent £237m on 16 different players, which seems a fairer figure to use to judge their title success by, because it’s only since then that they have become a genuine threat to Manchester United. The significant outlay was needed to bridge the gap, they couldn’t afford to wait, so to speak, and planning methodically over the course of a number of years in the way Manchester United had done wasn’t a realistic option. Ferguson has still spent about £120m himself in that period, hardly small change as a standalone figure.

But at the same time, football has changed since those days, long ago in fact and while Manchester United may not set market trends with concerns to the fees that they pay, rather they keep up with them, they can hardly plead poverty themselves over this period. Is what Manchester City are accused of doing really that different to what Manchester United have been doing to the rest of the league, Chelsea aside, this past decade?

You can’t have success without money, every league title since the dawn of time has been built upon the club in question being able to attract top talent at a cost, but at the same time, having money doesn’t neccessarily guarantee success. Sure, Manchester City could afford to indulge in the transfer market and speedily replace expensive flops that perhaps Manchester United couldn’t, but it’s been as much of a hindrance as a help to them as they’ve had to muddle through with players constantly trying to bed into the club and gel and a high turnover of players is never conducive to success.

Going further back, in 1987, manager Sir Alex Ferguson signed Brian McClair and Steve Bruce for £1.75m, a significant outlay. A year later, he spent roughly the same on Mark Hughes. A year after that, he made spent £2.5m on Gary Pallister, who was at the time, the most expensive defender ever. They have broke the British transfer record fee on three separate occasions over the past 20 years, spending £7 million on Andy Cole in 1995, £28.1 million on Juan Sebastian Veron in 2001 and £29.1 million on Ferdinand in 2002.

It does come across as slightly hypocritical, Manchester United fans moaning about another club spending big money, but at the same time, entirely understandable. They’ve never spent the amount that City have in such a short space of time before, but does that make their market dominance over a longer period any more palatable? For the other teams in the top flight, probably not.

Blackburn, Arsenal and Chelsea before City have all spent big at different periods while Liverpool have been consistently up there in terms of net spends for quite some time. To talk wistfully about the days before football was dominated by money is absolute folly, it’s played a huge part for the best part of the last two decades, except the wealth is now more extreme, hence the Financial Fair Play rules being instigated in an attempt to counteract the billionaire play-thing owners of the last seven or so years.

In light of the fact that Manchester United bid up to £27m on Brazilian starlet Lucas Moura, a 19 year-old international with less than two years experience, does mean that the moral high ground does start to evaporate beneath their feet. You could argue that they are merely trying to keep up with Manchester City and Chelsea now, but that’s approaching it from the perspective of the rich vs the super rich, something which the likes of Everton, Newcastle and Aston Villa, three pretty big clubs themselves, can only dream of and it’s difficult to feel sympathy for any of the parties involved, to be perfectly honest.

For example, if you take a look at the two side that line-up in the title-defining clash at the Etihad Stadium last season, using the universally accepted fees for each player, there’s not an awful lot of difference between the two teams. Manchester City’s starting line-up cost roughly £178m, while Manchester United’s cost around £148m. Adjusting these figures for the players which came off the bench, and City again lead by £219m to £181m, and when you factor in the entire bench and starting line-up, it’s around £286m to City and £220m to United. This is hardly the prince vs the pauper, so all the holier than thou stuff really has to stop.

Cries of Manchester City’s title success as being ‘the death football’ are seriously wide of the mark. It’s been dying for a long time now. Nevertheless, credit must got to Mancini for sorting out the mess that Hughes left behind and winning the FA Cup and then the Premier League. He’s bought the right sort of players (a skill in itself) at the right time to mount a challenge and potentiall usurp Manchester United as the dominant force in the English game.

Of course, Manchester United have had to cut their cloth accordingly due to the suicidal amount of debt leveraged onto the club by the Glazer family, but seeing as football didn’t start in 2005, the same context has to be applied to the Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008 and the Premier League boost in 1992. Over a longer period, Manchester United hardly stand up to closer scrutiny when it comes to the claim of having ‘bought the title’, but at the same time you wouldn’t begrudge them of their success or say that they haven’t been deserving of it either.

They may be the biggest losers of sheer scale of the Manchester City investment in the short-term, but over the long-term, they’ve been just as guilty. For those of us with longer memories than the beginning of the Premier League, it’s worth taking a look at the wider picture, because while City have set a worrying trend of their own, Manchester United have been setting their own trend for quite some time. Without trying to come across as too self-righteous, sometimes you just have to say ‘fair enough, well played’ because mud-slinging isn’t a good look on anyone, particularly on those with already dirtied faces.

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