Few sports are as economically stratified as European league soccer. With no salary caps, limited revenue sharing and the ability to simply purchase players from other clubs, spending big goes a long way toward success. Since 2004-2005, only one team outside the top two in total payroll has won the league: Manchester United in 2010-2011, which operated under the severe disadvantage of merely having the EPL’s third-highest payroll. The last team to finish in the top four with a below-average payroll was Everton in 2004-2005.
But even within a stratified system, better- and worse-run clubs stand out. I did a quick regression based on points and inflation-adjusted payroll to find the expected points for a club based on its total payroll. This does not include transfer spending, but for most clubs transfer spending tracks with wage bill reasonably well. The results can be seen at the end of the article. A few top clubs stand out. In the scatter plot below, I have marked a few clubs in particular. At the top end, you can see the impressive numbers of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and David Moyes’s Everton teams. At the bottom end, Newcastle United shows up as a consistent underperformer regardless of who has been in charge.
Both Everton and Manchester United under Alex Ferguson maintained consistent inflation-adjusted payrolls and consistently performed better than other clubs at their level. Newcastle’s performances and wages have fluctuated, but it has only one above-expectations season (fifth in 2011-2012) and many seasons in which above-average wages paid for a mere mid-40s point total.
This chart stands as yet another statistical marker of the unparalleled greatness of Ferguson, but it also reminds us of the tremendously impressive resume of his successor David Moyes. On a budget running about one-half to one-third of the biggest clubs in the Premier League, he consistently built competitive sides. There is hardly a mid-table side in England now that would not most likely benefit from his stewardship.
Here’s another way of looking at the numbers. Which clubs have the greatest average over- or under-performance of their wage bills?
If I remove Moyes’s failed 2013-2014 season from the United list, the Red Devils jump to an average of plus-10.9, only very slightly behind Everton. At the next level down, we find Swansea City and Tottenham Hotspur. On the unhappy side, joining Newcastle is its Tyne-Wear rival Sunderland as well as Aston Villa, which has consistently failed to capitalize on being the biggest team in England’s second-largest city. There is little reason, structurally, why Aston Villa should not at least be in the running with Tottenham and Everton for those fifth- to seventh-place positions, but poor management and an unimaginative ownership group have prevented Villa from growing as its competitors did in the past half-decade.
I used a minimum three-season cut-off in the above chart, so Swansea City only barely made the cut. If I had required only two top-flight seasons, the underperformance chart would be dominated by Tony Fernandes’s Queens Park Rangers. The Hoops had above-average payrolls in two Premier League seasons, one in which they were relegated and the other in which only fortunate results on the season’s final day kept them up. I have QPR’s underperformance at just under 20 points per season, a rate roughly double that of Newcastle. It appears that QPR once again is carrying a big payroll and look like relegation battlers, so expect a new leader in the futility table in the next year.
Thanks for Cruyffian at Reddit for the creation of this data set. See below for the regression equation used to estimate expected points based on payroll.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.