Premier League Big Six – when did they have their best days?

OVER the past few years, we have supposedly seen the “best ever” club sides in the Premier League and even Europe. When Liverpool and Manchester City went head-to-head in 2019, some were quick to proclaim them the greatest of all time, but in 2019-20, City fell short and a year later, Liverpool’s defence of their Premier crown was rather tepid. The real test of a great team is consistency over a period of time and both of these clubs have shown they have that quality. A team has a lifespan and it’s usually no more than three years, but clubs can rebuild and reinforce over that same time period. Manchester City’s team in 2017-18 is very different to the side that won the club’s fourth Premier title in five years in 2022.

City are enjoying the best period in their history. In the past five years, they have won nine major trophies, all under their enigmatic coach Pep Guardiola, including a ground-breaking treble of domestic honours in 2019. There’s only one prize that would complete the portfolio for Guardiola, and that’s the elusive UEFA Champions League. City have won four of the last five Premier League trophies, which could soon compare to Liverpool’s five in six between 1979 and 1984 and a similar haul by Manchester United between 1996 and 2001. Back in the 1930s, Arsenal were champions five times in eight years. City have won six in 11.

Periods of excellence

Arsenal

Arsenal became the first London club to win the Football League championship in 1931. It heralded the start of a glorious era for the club in which they won four more titles in the 1930s and also won the FA Cup in 1936. Arsenal’s success was triggered by Herbert Chapman, the legendary manager who also led Huddersfield to two of their three titles in the 1920s. In the 1930s, there was only the league and FA Cup, but as the game developed, there were more pieces of silver to win. Arsenal had their very lean spell, from 1953 to 1970 when they won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and then picked up an unexpected “double” in 1971. But the most consistent spell in the club’s recent history was undoubtedly under Arsene Wenger, when they won three titles in seven seasons and three FA Cups. Either side of the period 2002 and 2005, Arsenal almost added more trophies, notably when they reached the Champions League final in 2006, losing to Barcelona in Paris.

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Manchester United

If Arsenal were the most successful club in the inter-war period, Manchester United promised to dominate the early post-war years and the 1950s, only for tragedy to strike in 1958 when their most exciting young team perished in the snow at Munich airport. United had won two league titles with this side (1956 and 1957), and it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that they had a team that was worthy of being champions once more. This was actually quite short-lived (1964 to 1968) and after Sir Matt Busby retired, United declined. After a string of failed managerial appointments, United reclaimed their place at the forefront of English football under Alex Ferguson. After a stuttering start at Old Trafford, Ferguson eventually presided over the most successful period in the club’s history, which included 12 league titles and two UEFA Champions League triumphs. Even though the club’s position came under threat from Arsenal and then Chelsea, Ferguson still managed to bow out with a Premier League title in 2013.

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Tottenham Hotspur

In the early 1960s, Tottenham produced a team that people talked about for decades afterwards. Under Bill Nicholson, Spurs won the first 20th century “double” in 1961, playing a brand of football that delighted crowds all over England. Nicholson won four trophies in four seasons and then spent the next decade trying to replicate this period. Indeed, Spurs have struggled to win trophies ever since, their last accolade coming in 2008. There have been brief periods where they have won major prizes, notably in the early 1970s and early 1980s, but they remain an under-performing club that still promises much more than it achieves.

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Liverpool

Merseyside started to dominate football in the early 1960s when both Everton and Liverpool won the league title. Liverpool, under Bill Shankly, had a golden spell between 1963 and 1965, winning two league championships and the FA Cup. Shankly had to wait until 1973 for another trophy, but then retired, handing over to his number two, Bob Paisley. He began an even more successful period that included the continuation of the dynasty created by his predecessor. Liverpool dominated the late 1970s and 1980s like no other club had achieved before and became England’s first real European force. It all ended in 1990 and, predictably, the club struggled to recapture their status, not to mention the league title. Only in recent seasons have the club returned to the forefront of the game, rekindling the spirit that took them to the top in the 1960s. With Jürgen Klopp as manager, Liverpool have won the league, the FA Cup, the Football League Cup and the Champions League.

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Chelsea

Chelsea were another under-performing club for many years, winning four trophies in the first 90 years of their existence. They had a flurry of success in the late 1990s, winning two FA Cups, the Football League Cup and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, but it wasn’t until 2003 that their fortunes really changed when the club was acquired by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. Chelsea’s financial strength grew overnight and in their second season under Abramovich, they hired José Mourinho as coach and signed exciting talent from around the world. Chelsea’s reputation changed and their trophy cabinet bulged, culminating in their first Champions League title in 2012. The club became a revolving door with respect to hiring and firing coaches and their frequent forays into the transfer market meant their team was constantly being turned over. In 2022, with war raging between Russia and Ukraine, the club changed hands after Abramovich was subject to sanctions from the UK government due to his connection to the Russian administration. It would seem doubtful that Chelsea will enjoy the same level of success going forward.

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Manchester City

Manchester City have taken over where Chelsea left off in terms of financial strength. Before the club was acquired by investors from Abu Dhabi, City had won just nine honours, the last being in 1976. Their best spell before the current era was between 1967-68 and 1969-70 when they won four major trophies. Since 2018, they have secured nine prizes, including four Premier League titles (six since 2012). They were also the first club to win the domestic treble of league, FA Cup and Football League Cup. European success still eludes them, although they did reach the final of the Champions League in 2021, losing to Premier rivals Chelsea. City have become very proficient at making every signing count, they rarely make a bad buy and they are now an attractive proposition for any potential new player – they have the resources, the top coach in the world and the track record. This is really City’s golden age.

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Most clubs have enjoyed periods where they have been the pre-eminent force in the game, although it is a relative thing. Aston Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland all had their era when they were the top clubs around, but this was in the late 19th and early 20th century. Leeds United, between 1967 and 1972, were arguably the best team in England. At the moment, it is City’s time, but where will the next market leader come from? Newcastle United, with their new ownership model may be the next club to climb aboard the serious gravy train. They may have to push one or two stubborn contenders out of the way, though.

Manchester United’s financial performance should worry its many fans

MANCHESTER United’s increasingly disgruntled fans will find little solace in the club’s financial results for the 2021-22 season. The club made a pre-tax loss of £ 149 million, resulting in a net loss of £ 115.5 million, the equivalent of around £ 2 million per week. Since 2005 when the club was bought, United have made an overall pre-tax loss of £ 320 million.

In a difficult campaign, United paid record wages to their players and managed to give a dividend of £ 33 million to their shareholders, bringing the total since 2013-14 to £ 155 million. Furthermore, the club incurred interest costs of £ 62.2 million, bringing the total interest paid to almost £ 900 million during the Glazer era. With little success on the field in the past nine seasons, the fans’ patience is wearing more than a little thin.

However, Manchester United’s financial base underlines how powerful the club could be. Their revenues totalled £ 583 million in 2021-22, an 18% increase on 2020-21. Only twice, in 2019 (£627 million) and 2018 (£590 million) has the club’s turnover been higher. But even at that level, the bottom line was impacted by the cost of living crisis, the lack of a money-spinning summer tour in 2021 due to the pandemic, and weakness in the British pound.

Inevitably, the club was always going to see a huge increase in matchday income in 2021-22 and with crowds of close to 73,000 United’s revenues were £ 110.5 million, a 1,456% rise on the previous, covid-impacted season and close to record levels. There are promising signs for 2022-23 in the form of record season ticket sales and the continued positive trajectory around the club’s women’s team, with saw a 55% increase in season tickets.

United’s commercial income totalled £ 257.8 million, an 11% improvement year-on-year, with sponsorship revenues growing by 5.5% and retail operations up by 19.5%. United is clearly a cash cow when it comes to merchandise and memorabilia. They began a new front-of-shirt sponsorship deal in 2021-22 with global technology company TeamViewer, replacing their previous arrangements with Chevrolet. TeamViewer, who are German, was reported to have paid £ 235 million. United’s kit provider is Adidas, who pay £ 75 million per year in a 10-year agreement that runs to 2025. In normal circumstances, United should be benefitting from highest-ever commercial earnings by 2023.

In 2021-22, United’s broadcasting earnings totalled £ 215 million, 15.7% lower than the previous season. By their historic standards, the season was not a successful one and the club seems to be in a constant state of flux. In 2021-22, United played 15 fewer games across all major competitions. Manager Ole Gunnar Solksjaer was sacked and replaced by a caretaker and then the club hired Ralf Rangnick, who was clearly a clumsy fit. They did finish sixth, which meant they qualified for the Europa League, but their Champions League campaign in 2021-22 ended in the round of 16 against Atlético Madrid. There was no real momentum in the domestic cup competitions. United’s TV money could have been significantly higher with more stability and more focus on the pitch. Being out of the Champions League will obviously have an effect on their revenue generating potential in 2022-23.

The club’s operating expenses amounted to £ 692.6 million, a rise of 28.6%.  Within that figure, the wage bill reached £ 384.2 million in 2021-22, which is a record for any Premier League club. The club’s player costs have increased by almost £ 100 million in five years and the wage-to-income ratio is 65% for the second season running. Prior to the pandemic, United’s ratio was a constant 50%. Of the £ 4.8 billion the club has earned in the past nine years, 54% has been paid out in salaries. Net debt increased to £ 514 million and has doubled over the past five years. Amortisation also went up by 22% to £ 151.5 million, the highest level over the past decade.

Of course, having Cristiano Ronaldo back at the club will have skewed the wage bill quite dramatically and, according to football finance guru Kieran Maguire, the average weekly wage per player at Old Trafford is now £ 178,000. Media reports claim United paid £ 12.9 million to sign the Portuguese and his wage bill, over a two-year contract, is thought to be £ 450,000 per week. The initial deal will have cost United £ 60 million, but if the relationship extends to a third year, the cost of Ronaldo could reach £ 90 million. At this stage, that would seem an unlikely outcome.

United continue to be a major player in the transfer market and they made a profit on player sales of £ 21.9 million, a threefold increase on 2020-21. In terms of cash spent, their gross outlay in 2021-22 was £ 126 million and net spend £ 98 million. Only Arsenal and Newcastle had higher net figures in the Premier League. Their biggest purchase was the £ 76.5 million they paid for Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, a transaction that has yet to bear much fruit.

Despite their enormous potential – almost 140 million followers across the three main social media channels – Manchester United doesn’t seem to be a happy club. They have made a loss for the past three seasons and despite their enormous wage bill and activity in the market, they are getting a poor return on their investment. While they underachieve, the owners will always come under pressure and be blamed for everything that goes wrong. Since 2013, United have won three trophies, the last two in 2016-17. Compare that to Manchester City’s 12 prizes, Chelsea’s six and Bayern Munich’s 14 in the same timeframe, and the decline is very apparent. United’s net expenditure on players since Sir Alex Ferguson retired has been £ 854 million, just £ 19 million less than Manchester City. United are one of a handful of clubs who spent over a billion between 2013-14 and 2021-22, so nobody can blame their lack of success on a shortage of money. But it obviously hasn’t been spent wisely…