Is The Top 4 Now Locked In?

Money, Money, Money

UEFA have announced that the prize money in the Champion’s League is increasing significantly for the 2015-2016 season. Previously clubs would receive £6.4m simply for reaching the group stage of the competition, with a further £750,000 per win and £370,000 per draw on top of that.

That will rise to £8.9m for group stage qualification, with an additional £1.1m for a win. Prize money will increase for teams that reach the latter stages of the competition too, with those reaching the last 16 getting £4m, the quarter-finals earning £4.4m and the semis £5m. If they make it as far as the final then a team will be guaranteed a minimum of £7.8m (up from £4.8m) and the winners will get £11.11m instead of £7.8m.

It means that if a club goes on to win the competition then they’ll stand to receive £74m in prize money. In the 2013-2014 season Manchester United received £33m for reaching the quarter-finals.

The real increase in money, though, comes from the TV revenue, with BT Sport’s new deal kicking in at a value of £897m over the three years. It’s worth double what the Sky deal was worth and the majority of money will find its way to the English clubs in the competition.

Last season the English clubs shared around £52m; United received the most of that with £17.8m. That was in addition to the £33m they got from UEFA for their success in the competition. The amount of TV money is being increased to somewhere between £78m and £93m, though the exact amount hasn’t been confirmed yet. The English club that earns the most could get around £30m of that pot, with more likely if not all four clubs make it through the group stages.

The upshot of all of that is that, before any ticket revenue is added, the English clubs that make the group stage of the competition will earn a likely minimum of around £30m.

Leaving The Rest Behind

The relaxation of the Financial Fair Play rules that seem to be on the way mean that money matters more than ever. The playing field isn’t going to be level for any longer. If Manchester City or Chelsea want to throw the cash around then there’s little to nothing anyone will be able to do about it.

But with Manchester United and Arsenal’s stadium revenue they’re at least able to stay in touch with the richest two in the league. Add in the newly increased Champion’s League money and all of a sudden the teams at the top of the table are in a much better financial position than those outside of the top four. The question is, though, are they too far ahead of the rest?

Liverpool showed last season that it can be done, but they were definitely the exception rather than the rule. In the 2004-2005 season Everton pipped their local rivals to a top four spot. In 2009-2010 it was Spurs that got the Champion’s League place. Then in the 2010-2011 season Manchester City made it into the top four and haven’t let go since. 2011-2012 saw Spurs sneak back in, though that was the last time they were able to do that.

That means that, over the past ten years, five teams have dominated the top four: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. Only two teams have been able to break up that cabal: Everton and Tottenham.

Prior to Roman Abramovich’s arrival at Stamford Bridge in 2003, Chelsea qualified for the Champion’s League just twice – in 1999 and 2003 itself. And what does that mean? As far as qualification for Europe’s biggest competition is concerned, money talks.

By Ivan PC from Vigo, Spain (Anfield  Uploaded by BaldBoris) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ivan PC from Vigo, Spain (Anfield Uploaded by BaldBoris) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Match day revenue is an area of genuine concern for the clubs outside of the top four. Manchester United’s earnings in the 2012-2013 season were £109m, Arsenal earned £93m and Chelsea received £71m. Liverpool earned just £45m – less than half United’s revenue. Spurs’s match day revenue is around £85m according to Forbes, whilst Southampton’s was just £16.9m. Liverpool’s is due to increase when the improvements to Anfield are completed, though that is unlikely to be until the start of the 2016-2017 season.

Combine significantly better match day revenue with increased earnings and the teams at the top are financially superior to those outside of the top four even before you take their owners into account.

Lady Luck

Looking back at Liverpool’s breakthrough into the top four at the end of the 2013-2014 season, there were a number of contributing factors that slotted into place in order for them to get there. The form of Luis Suarez was unexpected to say the least, and the lack of European football allowed Liverpool more time on the training pitch than their top four rivals.

By BohemianFC (flickr.com) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By BohemianFC (flickr.com) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

On top of that, Alex Ferguson’s decision to retire and appoint David Moyes in his place mean that Manchester United were a weaker proposition than in previous seasons. Equally, Jose Mourinho’s return to Chelsea meant that the club was in a state of upheaval, even if the Portuguese manager had significant experience of that particular title race.

Everton’s trip into the top four was at a time when Liverpool were also at a low ebb, and Spurs took advantage of similar problems when they crept into the Champion’s League spots.

But luck isn’t a reliable way of breaking in to the top four, and money is always going to be a problem, so what can the chasing pack do to get themselves into the mix?

Setting Up Right

The reality is that if any of those that sit outside of the top four want to break through then they’re going to have to think outside the box. Einstein said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results”.

So they have to mix things up, to come from a different direction and hope that the stars will align in their favour. Maybe looking towards a Director of Football model might be an alternative to the usual footballing ideals.

Liverpool have installed a method of banking on youth, bringing in players such as Lazar Markovic, Emre Can and Philippe Coutinho, as well as recalling Jordan Ibe from his loan at Derby. It hasn’t worked out so far, but if they’re able to mix youth and experience it could be a clever move.

Southampton were meant to be fighting relegation this season when they lost Mauricio Pochettino to Spurs, to say nothing of seeing their squad gutted, with Lambert, Lovren and Lallana heading to Liverpool, Luke Shaw going to Manchester United and Callum Chambers finding his way to Arsenal.

Instead of sinking, though, Southampton brought in Ronald Koeman as manager and found some absolute gems of players from outside the usual top club’s radars. Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic and Ryan Bertrand have had brilliant seasons, together helping the South Coast club to a top four challenge and at least a seventh play finish.

Meanwhile at Spurs Pochettino has hardly set the world on fire, but by having Franco Baldini in place as their Technical Director they have ensured a degree of continuity, allowing them to build slowly. Spurs may not have caused waves, but they have done steadily well and played good football at times. More of the same may allow them to be ready to pounce should any of the teams above them falter.

Keeping Hold Of Their Assets

The reality of the current situation is that Chelsea and Manchester City, plus Arsenal and Manchester United to a lesser extent, are able to use their financial muscle to cherry pick whichever players they want from whichever teams they fancy.

Southampton discovered last season that it’s all well and good performing above your station in the league, but don’t be surprised if that means the big boys come calling for your prized assets.

The biggest obstacle that faces the clubs hoping to break the cabal at the top is to keep hold of their best players. Liverpool are currently facing a real battle to stop Raheem Sterling from leaving, with his agent apparently telling the Evening Standard newspaper that he won’t sign a new contract regardless of how much money is offered.

By Catherine Kõrtsmik (Flickr: U-19 England vs Greece.) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Catherine Kõrtsmik (Flickr: U-19 England vs Greece.) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The same fears may well be sitting in the hearts of Tottenham fans every time they watch Harry Kane score. Spurs have been a selling club for some time, with the likes of Luka Modric and Gareth Bale abandoning the London club when the bright lights of elsewhere came calling. If Kane keeps on banging them in at the start of next season then Pochettino may have difficulties in keeping him at the Lane.

Despite the expectations of the fans of the likes of Liverpool and Spurs, the truth is that those clubs are now merely stepping stone clubs for players hoping to move on to a bigger club. They are no longer the destination; they are just a stop on the journey to the top.

The increased money the top clubs are now going to receive for their Champion’s League exploits is only going to increase the likelihood that the teams below them will continue to lose their best players. There is little they can do to stop the rot.

Buy Goals

In the 2013-2014 season Liverpool conceded 50 goals – more than Manchester United, Southampton and even Crystal Palace – but they nearly won the league. How? Goals: they scored 101 of them.

Luis Suarez scored 31 league goals and Daniel Sturridge hit the back of the net 21 times. That’s 52 goals between them; goals that sent Liverpool to within two points of a league title for the first time since 1990. They also did so with Jon Flanagan and Aly Cissokho playing at left back. Sufficed to say, the goals were more important than the defence in Liverpool’s attack on the title.

It is surely no coincidence that when Liverpool lost their two best attackers – one to injury and one to Barcelona – they also lost their ability to challenge the top four.

Let’s look at the top four this season. After 37 games Chelsea have scored 70 goals, Manchester City 81, Arsenal 67 and Manchester United 62. Liverpool, meanwhile have notched up 51, Tottenham 57 and Southampton 54. All of which means that goals matter. The ones that have scored the most goals end up towards the top of the table, with Chelsea’s standard defensive work under Jose Mourinho meaning they could score less than City whilst still winning the title.

If the teams that are sitting just below the glass ceiling looking up at those above want to try to break in then they would do well to concentrate on buying goals. Goals allow you to steamroll the teams at the bottom of the table, as well as challenge the ones at the top when it comes to the crunch matches. Add in a reasonably strong defensive unit and you’ve got the makings of a team that can challenge those above them and cause some serious problems to the established order. The difficulty, of course, is in knowing which players can you get the goals and there’s no guarantee you can get that bit right.

Make No Missteps

The transfer market is notoriously difficult to get right. It’s estimated that only around 50% of transfers work out to be an unmitigated success. If the teams that want to get into the top four hope to pull it off then they really can’t afford to get it wrong with the transfer dealings.

The writer Paul Tomkins has done extensive research into whether or not the amount of money spent on a squad relates to where they finish in the league and the answer is: yes, it really does. His research shows that the team that spends the most money on its squad normally finishes top. The team that spends the second most will finish second and so on.

We’ve already established that the teams that are sitting just outside of the top four don’t have the financial clout to compete with those that have finished in the golden goose spots this season, so they aren’t going to be able to have the most expensive eleven.

But if they get it right in the market, if they’re able to pull off a few cracking deals and bring in exactly what they need, then maybe, just maybe they’ll be able to give the teams at the top something to think about. Chelsea identified their weaknesses at the end of the 2013-2014 season and brought in Fabregas and Costa. They went on to win the league.

That’s not to say that if Liverpool, Spurs or Southampton bring in exactly what they’ll need they’ll win the league, but if they are able to identify their weaknesses successfully and do what is necessary to make up for them, they could defy the odds like Liverpool last season and get into the top four.

Of course the real trick is that if any of them are able to break in the top four they need to do everything necessary to keep themselves there. Liverpool failed to do that this season and now look like they’re going to pay the price for it.