We all know the Premier League’s monetary side has gone almost completely out of control these days - the seemingly endless supply of TV money, the ever-rising cost of tickets and merch, and the still-huge popularity of the self-styled Best League In The World have all contributed to making the Premier League one of the financial juggernauts in the sports world.
One of the other contributory factors to that, of course, is the infusion of money from, shall we say, governmental sources. Manchester City’s ownership is fundamentally changing the way the game is played at the top of the top level, at least, and the eyewatering sums of money the Premier League spends on players as a result of City’s, and to a lesser extent Manchester United’s and Chelsea’s, nearly unlimited resources has codified the Premier League as a league of a tiny minority of haves, a few have-lesses, and a bunch of have-nots.
To be fair, the league has always been this way - it was literally founded to keep as much of the money that football in England generates as it possibly could, and it follows from there that the money kept would flow to the biggest clubs first and what was left would be shared among the rest. In that model, there have always been tiers; it’s just that now those top two tiers are wider.
It used to be that Manchester United was the biggest, most financially muscular team in England by a long shot - their tradition of success in the PL and their flotation on the stock market in 2012 both turned them into a seemingly unstoppable financial machine. Roman Abramovich’s oligarch money bought Chelsea in 2003, and as much as many of us thought that he’d get bored with his toy and move on at some point, here we are, nearly 15 years later, and Chelsea are nearly as unstoppable financially as anyone.
And then there’s Manchester City. Backed by literally bottomless government oil dollars, City Football Group’s 2008 takeover of the “lesser” Manchester team (at the time) has fundamentally altered the underpinnings of the game. What City want, they generally get, and they’re building a worldwide empire that will, they hope, cement their dominance not just in England but elsewhere as well.
This, naturally, doesn’t make Jose Mourinho happy. After United’s 2-2 draw with Burnley at the weekend, Mourinho made a bunch of points that, if they came from someone not named Jose Mourinho, would be salient, but instead, since they came from him, are hilarious. Points like:
“One thing is a big club and another thing is a big football team. They are two different things,” he said. “We are in the second year of trying to rebuild a football team that is not one of the best teams in the world. Manchester City buy full-backs for the price of strikers. When you speak about big football clubs, you are speaking about the history of the club.”
“When you tell [describe] a club like Manchester United, do you think Milan is not as big as us? You think they are not as big as we are? Do you think Real Madrid are not as big as we are? You think Inter Milan is not as big as we are? There are many big clubs and you say big clubs, I know what is a big club.”
Poor dear spends £90 million to buy back a player his team sold and frets that he can’t keep up. Guess what, Jose? That’s the reality now. And that’s the way the reality has always been, since the league started. You know who knows that? Arsene Wenger. Arsenal has been on the outside looking in, financially, for Wenger’s entire reign at the club - they are in no way poor, but relative to their aspirations or “title rivals”, they absolutely are the lesser side as far as financial muscle.
Building a new stadium was supposed to vault the club into the financial stratosphere, but those particular goalposts shifted pretty hard - by the time the Emirates opened, in 2006, Chelsea was drinking from the financial firehose, Manchester City were a couple years away from being the UAE’s Ministry of Football, and what was a once-promising project ended up leaving Arsenal exactly where they were, albeit in nicer digs.
So when Arsene was asked for his thoughts on Jose’s cry of poverty, I mostly imagine him falling off his chair laughing at his Manchester counterpart. Instead, because he’s more dignified and a better person than I, he said a lot of interesting things:
“I have been in that position for 21 years so I will not start to complain now,” Wenger said. “There is always one team, sometimes four, who were richer than I was, so I learned to cope with that and to deal with that.
Arsene Wenger is a well-educated man, as we all know. He has an economy with words and a way of being cutting with a smile, and this is another great instance of that. He knows he can’t just say “suck it up, buttercup”, even though he probably, hopefully, really wants to, so he took the high road instead.
“I think what is most important is you deal with your own situation as well as you can and, yes, Manchester City are richer than us; yes, Chelsea are richer than us and Manchester United are richer than us but I still believe we have to find a way to be successful.”
Words to live by, and words that the Jose Mourinhos of the world will never internalize. Whether Arsene has found that way is, for purposes of this discussion, beside the point; the point is that Arsene has always been clear-eyed about where his team fits in the financial hierarchy of the game, hasn’t ever complained about it, and has tried to find ways to find other advantages. Jose should do the same. But he won’t, because he’s Jose Mourinho. He’ll just moan.