Manchester United is special. Chelsea and Manchester City can spend a little bit more on players, but only United has the underlying revenue to support its massive wage and transfer bills. As the blogger Swiss Ramble shows, Manchester United stands out in the English Premier League for both its wage bill of over $300M per year and its “wages to turnover ratio” of around 50 percent, under the sustainability line of about 60 percent.
After the 2013-14 season, Manchester United is now special in another way. Of the world’s superclubs, none has finished as low as seventh in their league in the last decade. The Red Devils led by the now-sacked David Moyes managed that feat last year. With a new manager in Louis van Gaal, key purchases midfielder Ander Herrera and fullback Luke Shaw in the squad and probably more to come, the club expects to bounce directly back into contention.
To consider the precedents for Manchester United’s season, I looked at the recent history of other clubs ranked at the very top of the Deloitte Money League for revenue: Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. In the last decade, neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid has finished lower than third in La Liga. While they are aided by a ludicrously unfair television contract, in any case both teams offer little help in projecting Manchester United.
Bayern Munich offer one comparand. In 2005-2006, the Bavarians did the double in Germany, winning both the Bundesliga and the German Cup, the DFB Pokal. But the next season Manager Felix Magath, Bayern struggled, limping to fourth place and failing to secure a spot in the Champions League. The Bayern board acted decisively, firing Magath in February and replacing him with old hand Ottmar Hitzfeld. Further, they transferred out the team’s scoring leaders Roy Makaay and Claudio Pizarro and spent about $70M on a new attacking corps of Luca Toni, Franck Ribery and Miroslav Klose. The housecleaning worked and Hitzfeld’s side did the double again in 2007-08.
While Bayern’s one season in the wilderness offers hope for Manchester United, it is notably different. The aggressive rebuilding of Bayern’s team stands in stark contrast to United’s offseason of tinkering and strengthening. The core of the club remains the same. This is not to say that United should have sold off Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie just to make the comparison with Bayern work out more cleanly. But Bayern bounced back with a remade squad as well as a new manager, while United is looking for a new manager to juice the results of an improved but quite similar roster.
If I expand the definition of the world’s biggest clubs to include some of the more longstanding ownership-backed teams, there is one other comparison. Chelsea’s 2011-2012 season is not looked on by fans as any kind of failure because the team won the Champions League. However, the Blues finished sixth in the Premier League and easily could have been knocked out of the Champions League at a number of points along the way. We can see the club’s recognition of this in its transfer dealings, as it allowed core players Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Raul Meireles to leave and replaced them with young stars Eden Hazard and Oscar. Chelsea kept on their interim Manager Roberto di Matteo, but sacked him midway through 2012-2013. The club under Rafael Benitez finished third and reestablished itself at least near the top of the Premier League table.
While neither of these teams is a perfect comparand for Manchester United, I think there are two points to take away. First, super clubs almost never fall out of the top absent an economic collapse behind the scenes, as happened at Inter Milan. All I can find in the last decade are single-season blips. If United were to suffer a second season in the wilderness, it would be unprecedented. That is an argument in itself against projecting a fifth or sixth place finish for the Red Devils. While a full return to dominance like Bayern’s does not seem likely given the contrasts between the two clubs’ transfer dealings, a reestablishing season like Chelsea’s is probably the most likely outcome.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.