Arsenal’s wage bill for the 2012-13 season was £155m, while that of treble-winning Bayern Munich (who knocked out the Gunners in the Champions League last 16 round) was approximately £130m over the same period. Even if you factor in amortization costs -- transfer fees divided by the number of years of the contract -- last season’s Arsenal team will still have cost more than Bayern’s.
While it’s true that the Londoners came close to eliminating Jupp Heynckes’ side with a creditable 2-0 win at the Allianz Arena, even the most ardent Arsenal fan would find it hard to look at the relative quality of the two squads and consider his side the stronger one. That leaves us with two possible conclusions: either Arsène Wenger is not spending the club’s money effectively, or Bayern are incredibly good when it comes to allocating their slightly lesser resources. Or perhaps both are true.
Wenger, however, wouldn’t agree with this analysis. When a similar point was put to him ahead of the second leg in Munich, the Frenchman rejected the comparison altogether. “Bayern can do whatever they want in their own league,” he said.
Unlike Arsenal. Referencing Bayern’s dominance of the Bundesliga and their quasi-status as the German Manchester United sounded like an easy excuse at the time, but I now realize Wenger made a perfectly good point. In fact, it’s become an even more pertinent point since quite a number of Premier League top clubs messily fought with each other over the same small players over the summer, while Europe’s continental elite strengthened with minimal fuss, the Gareth Bale saga notwithstanding. It might sound counter-intuitive -- we’ve all been brought up to believe that increased competition leads to better teams - but could the Premier League’s vast fortunes and fierce battle at the top of the league actually work against the English teams in Europe?
Let’s stick with Arsenal at the moment. A look at the wages of their domestic rivals shows they finished the season exactly where they should have: in fourth place. Manchester City (£202m, 2012) Manchester United (£181m, 2013) and Chelsea (£176m, 2012) all spent more than them, local rivals Tottenham (£90m, 2012) less. Or to put it differently: you have to spend more than Bayern Munich simply to come fourth in the Premier League.
In an earlier article for Pickourteam.com, I wondered if the English team’s disappointing performance in last season’s Champions League was due to Manchester City’s emergence in 2008. City, I argued, systematically targeted their domestic rivals best players and inflated the wages in the league. Robin van Persie’s move to Manchester United further hurt Arsenal, while Chelsea’s (ill-fated) move for Fernando Torres effectively finished off Liverpool’s European ambitions.
This process of cannibalization has only gathered pace with the advent of the new TV deal. Spurs, flush with money from the Bale sale, were rightly praised for bringing in a raft of interesting players from the continent, and Manchester City successfully changed their tactic to target exclusively non-Premier League based pros, too. The rest of the elite struggled, however, being busy fighting off English offers for key personnel and making plenty of their own. You know that something is wrong when Manchester United, still the leading club in many ways, celebrate Wayne Rooney’s continued employment as major success in the transfer window. Can you imagine any other leading club in Europe peddling the same line? Of course, this was meant to deflect from failure to secure new star signings, but the fact that there were willing domestic takers making offers in the first place shows the problem: even United can’t focus on new arrivals because of fear of losing their key players to other Premier League clubs. And this is not simply a question of a media frenzy or disquiet in the changing room either. In the light of rival offers, United will be forced to pay even more than the £250k-£300k Rooney already makes, if and when his contract will be extended.
Compare the situation to Germany, where Bayern more or less control the domestic market for players and can basically do as they please. Once signed, their players can only earn more abroad. This near-monopoly keeps wages in check and allows them to use their resources more efficiently. Juventus are in a very similar position in Italy, and in Spain (Barcelona, Madrid) and France (PSG, Monaco) there are only two clubs to hoover up the best domestic talent.
The relative equilibrium in the Premier League, however, where even Arsenal can now bid for the likes of Suárez and Rooney, increases costs and spreads (native) quality too thinly between too many teams.
There’s no quick way out of this. In the light of an ever-increasing demand, wage inflation (and a drag on individual teams’ quality) could only be kept in check with a similar increase on the supply side. If there were more really good English players on the market, clubs could fill their squads easier (i.e. more cheaply) and then use the surplus to spend it on genuine superstars rather than middling ones. But that’s not going to happen soon. The other way is to generate even more money, enough of it for clubs to leave each other alone and to add genuine quality from outside the league every single year. That seems much more realistic.
If the marketing and TV rights bonanza continues at the same current pace, Premier League clubs will probably resume their European dominance again in a few years time, when even the fourth-wealthiest side in England might be able to significantly outspend big European teams. In the meantime, however, Premier League teams will continue to punch slightly below their weight, relative to their wealth. It’s the prize you pay for having a league with more than two genuine contenders.