A near flawless league campaign saw Liverpool become the first team to secure 97 points and not win the league. They were bested by Manchester City who, in consecutive seasons have achieved an unprecedented and colossal 198 points, enabled by their manager and squad.
Understat’s xPoints model has Liverpool on 83.45 points, whereas City is on 90.64. This disparity, far greater than the actual points difference is the product of all the chances faced and created, by both sides, simulated against what is normally expected. Both seasons were freak performances, but it was even more so for Liverpool. How can a Liverpool side compete consistently with such a phenomenon?
According to Mo Chatra, speaking on Anfield Index’s Money Talks podcast, it would certainly help if both clubs were on an even footing. It’s common knowledge that Manchester City is the richest side in the Premier League, supported by the Abu Dhabi state. Furthermore, given Manchester City accepted a £49m fine from UEFA in 2014, for breaking Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, it is also common knowledge that the club has a history of pushing the legal limits to advance its own interests. What is not yet common knowledge and proven in a court of law is the scale of the club’s disregard for those rules in the years since the 2014 ruling, leading Chatra to claim it is simply “an unprecedented level of cheating”.
Sport and football, in particular, represent far more than simply the clubs and fanbases themselves. Sport is a cultural medium, accessible to all, which can embody and represent far deeper cultural phenomena. Many sports carry connotations of national identity, and events such as the Olympics have famously been used as means to assert a message of oppression by participants, or as a screen to divert attention from oppression, discrimination, and unsavoury practices, by the host state.
Football, like all sports, is a meritocratic institution. The implication of breaching FIFA, UEFA and FA rules signifies that Manchester City’s practices in recent years challenge and disrupt the meritocratic nature of football, instead, gearing the sport towards a stratified and kleptocratic structure that will tend to eliminate and marginalise competition through financial imperialism.
This challenge to the moral underpinnings of football features within a wider geopolitical battle which Abu Dhabi is engaging in. A state with a history of significant human rights abuses and an obsession with improving its geopolitical stature, the Manchester City project and City Football Group venture feature as mechanisms through which it can better its image.
To better the image of the Abu Dhabi state, the club management appears willing to bend, warp and contort the rules of the game.
Chatra outlined a number of questionable sources of income and financial declarations in his analysis, on the podcast. For example, in the Financial Year 2017/18, Manchester City declared revenue of approximately 500m GBP. This was around 50m GBP more than that of Liverpool FC.
Of the total revenue, just under half, 236m GBP was classed as “Commercial”, which Deloitte defines as “sponsorship, merchandising and other commercial operations”. In comparison, in 2013, this comprised 49m GBP. Nonetheless, Chatra details that of the 236m commercial revenue in FY 2017/18, c.60m GBP came from retail, licensing and sponsorships. According to Chatra, this leaves c.176m left over, which is most likely provided by Abu Dhabi sources.
This in itself is legal. That is, using linked businesses to have sponsorship deals. For example, Arsenal FC has Fly Emirates sponsoring both their kit and stadium. The legal provision for this though, is that sponsorship deals are made at “fair value”, i.e. a business cannot inflate its own value through deals which are out of line with current market value deals.
As Chatra argues though and supported by the Der Speigel leaks, Manchester City’s sponsorships from Abu Dhabi linked parties are approximately 110m GBP over and above “fair value. Of course, “fair value” is a normative term, but also a product of a value judgement, meaning that there is scope for discussion over what defines it. However, given the precedent set by UEFA previously, the c.110m GBP discrepancy does appear above “fair value”. The Der Speigel leaks details a particular example, in which a 10 year deal with Etihad, supposedly valued at 40m GBP p/a, was actually providing between 53-60m GBP for the City coffers, a discrepancy of 50 per cent, if we take the upper bound estimate, and 32.5 per cent with the lower bound estimate.
More pertinent to Liverpool FC, and the competition between it, Manchester City and the rest of the league is the issue of wage bills. Manchester City’s wage bill and revenue streams allow it to possess a squad of players far stronger in quality and depth than arguably any other club side in the world.
Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, in a response to media reports surrounding the legality of Manchester City’s signings, relative to FFP, that,
“It’s not easy for our competition, we know that. But the reality is, we didn’t buy the most expensive player in the Premier League [Pogba], we didn’t buy the most expensive goalkeeper [Kepa Arrizabalaga], we didn’t buy the most expensive midfielder, we didn’t buy the most expensive striker [Lukaku].”
Yet, with 60m GBP record signing, Riyad Mahrez, occupying a position on the bench for the majority of the season, alongside c.40m GBP Leroy Sané and 52m GBP Benjamin Mendy, without even accounting for the injured 55m GBP man, Kevin De Brunye, it’s abundantly clear that the Manchester City side is blessed with a depth that other squads simply cannot compete with. A Financial Times report detailed the importance of squad size and depth in securing success for clubs, but the most important enabling factor to a large squad size is that of exceptionally large revenues which can support it.
Chatra’s analysis also pertained to both Liverpool and Manchester City’s wage bills: between 2013-2018, Manchester City’s wage bill increased by 13 per cent, from 233m GBP to 260m GBP. In the same period, Liverpool’s wage bill increase was over 100 per cent, from 131m GBP in 2013 to 264m GBP. Amongst all top six sides in the same period, the average wage growth was 60 per cent. For the top six, excluding Manchester City, wage growth was 69.4 per cent.
“Financial doping” was the term Chatra used. It was not one deployed lightly. However, it’s exceptionally hard to look past the impact unprecedented spending has had on the Premier League. The 198 points achieved in consecutive seasons is evidence of groundbreaking and unrivalled developments, but feats that would not be able to have been achieved without the financial support enabled by the Abu Dhabi state. Financial support that is arguably illegal, according to FFP rules.
For the sake of football as a meritocratic institution, and the principle of fairness within the Premier League, action must be taken, and clubs which break the laws of the game held to account. Liverpool’s, and all other sides in the Premier League’s fortunes in the next decade are linked inextricably to whether the Premier League is a fair competition. Take away fairness from football, and it loses its charm and magic. Take away fairness, and sports are no longer sports, they no longer provide the escape and release from the real world. Money, regrettably, already does have a huge role in football. But this is an issue for the heart of what makes football special. We can only hope money does not take that away from us.