My favorite British soccer team did a crazy thing this summer: It spent money. Lots of money. Arsenal spent early on a world-class striker, the Chilean Alexis Sanchez, and then more on a French defender, a Colombian goalkeeper and an English defender/midfielder. Add that to last year’s last-second splurge on German star Mesut Ozil, and you’ve pretty much guaranteed the club’s coach won’t be hearing “Spend some (freakin’) money!” chants on opening day of the Barclays Premier League season this year.
That opening day is Saturday, and thanks to its big spending this summer, Arsenal starts the Premier League season among the top favorites, alongside Chelsea, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool. Perhaps more than any American sports league, success in British soccer is strongly linked to spending. There are 20 clubs in the league, and more than half of them start the season with almost no shot at hoisting the winner’s trophy on the final day.
This creates an uneasy economic tension for fans. Is it better to buy a trophy – or never to win one?
On the eve of the season, I posed versions of that question to several Premier League die-hards in The Washington Post newsroom: White House bureau chief Scott Wilson and Capital Business reporter Amrita Jayakumar, who pull for Chelsea; The Fix’s Chris Cillizza, a Tottenham supporter; and two Arsenal fans, Ishaan Tharoor of WorldViews, who just wrote the best Premier League preview you will ever read, and Storyline’s Todd Frankel, who once interviewed Arsenal’s principal owner Stan Kroenke. Yes, the column is 50 percent Arsenal fans. Come at me, Man U.
Warning: Heavy soccer nerdery ahead.
Jim Tankersley: Chelsea spent more money buying players over the last five years than anyone in the Premier League, even Man City. You spent 200 million pounds more than Manchester United! As a fan, does that diminish your enjoyment of the club in any way? Or does it raise it, knowing you’ll always spend big to reload the roster, every year?
Scott Wilson: On balance, I have to say that it diminishes my enjoyment. Yes, Roman Abramovich will spend his fortune to ensure a winning club, although it’s been four years since they won the league (and arguably Chelsea’s UEFA Champions League title three years ago was won by its weakest side in quite a while).
Chelsea, of course, is spending big money not only on players but on managers (we’ve remarried the “Special One”). Accountability is high, given the resources Abramovich has sunk into the team, and that’s a good thing, if it often feels like no one is given any time to build a side with much identity.
Does all this sound vaguely familiar to the American sports fan? Yes, it’s uncomfortable because rooting for Chelsea can feel like rooting for the Yankees. The hot new item (Diego Costa, this season) is immediately snatched up – proven or not. Do they pan out as planned? Sometimes (see Juan Mata, since been sold), but not always (see the much-maligned Fernando Torres). All of that said, like any fan, I like seeing new players (and I love Chelsea’s international flavor) each year, and, as ambivalent as I sometime feel about Chelsea and its riches, when it buys the players I admire, I’m all for it (Yes, Cesc!).
At the end of the day, I’d rather watch a spoiled, somewhat neurotic Chelsea team than be a devoted, long-suffering Fulham fan. Life is too short.
Amrita Jayakumar: As a fan, I look at (this year’s spending) as a wise investment. We aren’t buying a trophy, we just needed the final piece of the puzzle to build a good team; one that now has a real shot at winning the league. (in Chelsea’s case, we already have a great coach and good defenders, but we really, really needed strikers). Plus, we’re not the only team with deep pockets and talent, so the trophy is never a guarantee.
Jim Tankersley: Your team – Tottenham – is one of the rich ones. You spent 200 million pounds on players in the last five years. You also sold Gareth Bale! You have the lowest net transfer spending in the league over that time. In America, we’d call this “Moneyball.” In the Premier League, you finished out of the coveted Top 4 last year. So what would you rather see: a big signing (which you don’t have this season) or a bunch of interesting smaller ones?
Chris Cillizza: So, Spurs are never going to be a perennial EPL powerhouse. They are much more like the Oakland A’s than the New York Yankees. And, in that, the Moneyball comparison is apt.
Given that, I’d rather see us spend our money on a bunch of signings rather than one big one. Couple of reasons for that:
- The big, BIG players only want to play for clubs that are virtually guaranteed to be in the Champions League every year. That’s not going to be Spurs. And so, the big name transfers are just not going to gravitate to us.
- Like the A’s, I think our best recipe for success is to take a chance on talented players who just haven’t put it all together just yet or young guys with potential. If a few of them hit, we get several years of them before we sell them to one of the bigger clubs in Europe and then use the money from that sale to begin the process all over again.
Looming over all of this, of course, is Gareth Bale. He was the ideal Spurs player in that he turned into an absolute first-class player on the world stage. We sell him to Real for a massive fee. We use that money on a bunch of players — most notably Soldado — who really don’t work out all that well.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure Spurs have any real option. Bale was never going to stay because he wanted to be on one of the eight (or so) huge clubs in Europe. We sold him for absolutely top dollar. But, what we spent the Bale money on wound up being (I think) largely a bust.
Jim Tankersley: Last summer Arsenal fans moaned through July and August that the team wasn’t spending money. Then Arsene Wenger, the manager, signed Ozil at the deadline for a record fee. This year, Wenger has spent earlier and more freely. Is there an economic advantage there? How do you feel about it?
Ishaan Tharoor: It’s excruciating trying to divine Wenger’s strategy. Talking to folk at the club, you get the sense that if, left to his own devices, he would make his youth acquisitions — your Sanogos, your Ramseys of an earlier moment — and not splash the cash. Others peddle the narrative we’ve all heard now that Arsene was waiting for the stadium’s debt to be mostly paid off before loosening the purse strings.
Whatever the case, the transfer market is not a rational, logical thing. The oligarch/sheikh run teams pay over the top for certain players, which drives someone like Wenger–who has made a fetish of fiscal prudence–totally nuts. There are still plenty of loopholes to financial fair play. English players are as a rule always overpriced — that Luke Shaw cost ManUtd almost as much as Sanchez cost Arsenal is absurd.
It’s a better to do business earlier in the summer than later. Sure, brinkmanship can sometimes drive down prices. But doing your shopping early allows the new recruits to settle in sooner and communicates to your own squad, fans and the outside world that, hey, we have a gameplan. What was maddening about previous summers was not just the absence of new players but the creeping sense, week by week, that this club you love and invest far too many of your waking hours obsessing over just doesn’t know what it’s doing.
Now that Arsene wrapped up those quick deals soon after the World Cup ended, you can sense how much more confidence and optimism there is around the squad. And we still need a couple more additions. But narrative matters.
Jim Tankersley: You interviewed Arsenal’s owner four years ago. What insights did you get into his economic thinking? Has that thinking changed in recent years? Do you like the current spending strategy, as a fan?
Todd Frankel: When I spoke with Kroenke, as he was moving from sizable stakeholder to outright owner of Arsenal, it was clear he liked the club’s financial restraint. A lot of that Kroenke credited to the club’s longtime manager Arsene Wenger. Arsenal wasn’t known for buying pricey free-agent players. Arsenal and Wenger developed young players in-house and scouted for hidden gems. That kept the payroll down.
“Year in, year out, financially responsible,” Kroenke told me. He was worried that the Premier League doesn’t have a salary cap, such as the NFL. (He also owns the St. Louis Rams.) The spending on players seemed over the top. He had high hopes for UEFA’s “financial fair play” rules that were meant to reign in club spending, making the playing field more level.
But he seems to have evolved from that strict stance. Financial fair play’s effects have been mild. Arsenal’s fortunes have risen. And last year, Arsenal bought Ozil and this year they bought Sanchez. Those were two big, pricey free-agent signings. So it’s clear that Kroenke’s thinking has changed some.
One of the old charms of Arsenal is that it didn’t spend vast sums. It wasn’t a big-dollar mercenary club, such as Chelsea or Real Madrid or Manchester United. But also it wasn’t like Arsenal was truly ever like an Everton or Borussia Dortmund – an over-achieving underdog. And Arsenal still shows restraint, still breaking fans’ hearts by not spending.