THE LONG-awaited arrival of Norwegian striker Erling Haaland in the Premier League was marked by two goals and a comfortable 2-0 victory for Manchester City at West Ham United. Haaland, who already looking like a bargain at just over £ 50 million, showed what a powerful player he is and might have netted a third with a little more composure. But Haaland is young, has the appearance of a player designed by scientists for a team made by engineers, and he’s nowhere near his peak. It will be a surprise if he doesn’t hit 30 goals in 2022-23.
For the opening weekend, City fielded players that cost them £ 700 million-plus in the market. In this age of five substitutes, the power of Manchester City’s wallet is really going to tell, possibly more than ever. With 50% of the outfield team now replaceable during a game, those teams with bigger or better quality squads are going to have a significant advantage over their poorer stablemates. City are already a step ahead of everyone else, so their strength in depth is going to possibly lengthen the margin of superiority. Certainly, it is not hard to interpret the early season angst of some clubs about their squad.
Compared to their “big six” rivals, City’s first round squad cost substantially more – Manchester United’s team that took the field cost £ 459 million, Chelsea’s £ 422 million and Liverpool’s £ 400 million. Tottenham, who didn’t play their big signing Richarlison, spent £ 204 million on the players who received appearance money in their 4-1 win against Southampton. Arsenal, meanwhile, won 2-0 at Palace with a team that cost £ 370 million. Let’s be clear here – Manchester City’s squad on the first day of the 2022-23 season cost £ 346 million more than the average for the other “big six” members (£ 371 million) – so goodness knows how it measured up against the rest of the Premier.
In days of old, when one, two or three substitutes were permitted, the relative strength of a squad was always determined by the quality of the benched players. That measurement has never been more relevant, but it comes with unprecedented strain for some clubs.
Looking at Manchester City’s replacements at West Ham, which included new signing Kalvin Phillips as well as Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva, the quality was far greater than the men that came on for Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United.
Naturally, the cry of “you’re buying it” can be heard in Liverpool and the other side of Manchester, but City have also started to sell talent in the market. Liverpool have spent big on key players, but they cannot afford to bolster their squad in the same way. Manchester United have spent prolifically but their expertise in the transfer arena in recent years has to be questioned. Arsenal have also bought poorly at times, while Chelsea seem to make costly mistakes on a regular basis, such as Romelu Lukaku, Timo Werner and Alvaro Morata.
In the 2022-23 window, Manchester City’s net spend is a positive of £ 46 million (as at August 13 2022), thanks to the sales of Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus. Over the past five seasons (including 2022-23), their net spend has been £ 173 million, which is less than every other member of the “big six”. But extend that over 10 years and you see where City’s arms-race gathered momentum; their net spend from 2013-14 to the current window has been £ 824 million, topped only by Manchester United, who appear to have frittered away £ 900 million-plus. The lowest among the top half dozen include Tottenham Hotspur (-£291 million) and Liverpool (-£300m).
Interestingly, in the period between 2016-17 and 2021-22 – the completed Guardiola v Klopp seasons – City’s net spend of £ 711 million is more than three times Liverpool’s £ 226 million. City have won nine major trophies to Liverpool’s four under their current managers, but the gap between the two clubs is small, which tells you that the differential in market prices is far higher than the relative qualities of players.
And yet there are few failures at both clubs, indicating that the player acquisition model, driven by data as much as gut-feeling, is generally sound. There appears to be fewer “forgotten” individuals at City or Liverpool, which says as much about the administration teams and recruitment strategy. The issue is that man-for-man, their starting elevens have very little between them, but City’s wealth allows them to acquire high quality options. A missing key player or two will have more impact at City’s rivals than it will at the Etihad.
City’s other advantage, like it or not, is the business philosophy of their ownership. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United are all owned by US investors. Their approach is very different to the one adopted by Roman Abramovich when he owned Chelsea, in other words, no desire to pay himself anything in the form of dividends. City are very much on their own in the Premier (although Newcastle may eventually join them) as “Sports team ownership” becomes more common and increasingly attractive to entrepreneurs and business people both sides of the Atlantic.
The increased substitutions will have a profound influence on the outcome of the Premier League because it can provide transformational impetus to struggling teams. Replacing half your outfield team should/will change the shape of a game dramatically. Hence, Manchester City’s rivals may see them accelerate into the distance in 2022-23, a season in which the term “squad game” has never been more relevant.