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The Premier League is Not in Decline, But is Plagued By Instability

England’s continental campaign has gone sourly. The Mancunian clubs crashed out in the Champions League group stage. It’s likely both London clubs will exit in the Round of 16. An England-free quarterfinals could threaten the Premier League’s official rating as the best league in Europe.

Reading too much into Champions League results is foolish – just as it was in 2008 when the Premier League had three teams in the semifinals – though the insipid European performance from the top EPL clubs seems symptomatic of a broader malaise. Scores fluctuate wildly when the teams meet. The enduring impression watching is that not all is well.

Calling this a decline would be inaccurate. A decline would imply a clear descent pattern or just a pattern of any sort. Almost every top English club is presently unstable, though that’s through isolated circumstances of their own making.

Manchester City: Though neophytes, the Manchester City is the club best situated for the next few seasons. Their owner Sheikh Mansour is the sport’s richest, worth around $31 billion. That is merely his personal fortune. His family’s holdings are worth significantly more. City’s squad is deep, powerful and loaded, even if it does feel as though it was built on Football Manager. If you think the club’s project will be foiled by UEFA’s “financial fair play” regulations, think again. The regulations do not force clubs into the black. Clubs can “only” run a deficit of $20 million per year under the new system. Man City can employ work around measures (for now), such as having family owned Etihad Airways sign a record 10-year $532 million sponsorship deal. Even if UEFA were to find them further in the red, would they face any meaningful punishment?

Enacting a rule is one thing. Enforcing it effectively is quite another. UEFA could boot one of Europe’s top clubs off the gravy train, and spend oodles on lawyers trying to make it stick in court. The clubs hold the power balance though, and harsh action may hasten a European Super League outside UEFA control. Manchester City should be fine. Their crosstown rivals, however, may notice their water temperature rising.

Manchester United: The Red Devils have had an imperious run under Sir Alex Ferguson, winning 12 league titles, nine domestic cups and two Champions Leagues. The Scot turned 70 in December, however, and must leave the club eventually. The Glazers potentially could replace Ferguson with a manager of similar quality, though it’s doubtful they will provide the resources for him to build a similar squad. United announced record profits last year, but 46 percent of said profits went toward paying off interest on more than $700 million in debt. The club will mask that debt with bonds and public offerings, but, ultimately, they still owe a lot of money. That money was spent on loans to buy the club, not constructing longterm infrastructure.

Man U has still been buying players, though much of the recent expenditure has been offset by the $126 million Cristiano Ronaldo sale. The club’s net expenditure the past three seasons has been just $33 million, less than Man City spent buying Samir Nasri from Arsenal. They still have a squad in need of an overhaul and no Ronaldo to sell. United could not afford the ball-playing midfielder they needed last summer, and settled for a 38-year-old Ryan Giggs in a central role before recalling 37-year-old Paul Scholes from retirement. Those two need replacements, as do Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra in the back four, each on the wrong side of 30. Replacing those veterans with less than world-class talent could see the club struggle.

Tottenham: For most of the Premier League era, Spurs have been mired in an endless cycle of potential and disappointment. Things have brightened the past two seasons. Tottenham presently holds third place (despite losing a potential nine points in three matches on 4th place Arsenal), which would be their best league finish since 1990. They are in position to qualify for the Champions League for the second time in three seasons. Harry Redknapp, while dodging tax evasion charges, has brought the club to this apex. What happens if/when he leaves for England?

‘Arry is famed for his “wheeling and dealing,” which (see Portsmouth) can leave his former clubs on the brink of financial ruin. That’s not a danger for Tottenham, though the post-Redknapp fallout could still be troublesome. After spending $186 million in the transfer market from 2005 to 2011, the club shut off the taps last season, turning a $42 million profit. Despite jettisoning some players, their roster remains full of veterans and dead weight earning hefty paychecks, either in residence or out on loan.

With Champions League play not a given, the club should lose elite talents such as Luka Modric and Gareth Bale. They might lose them anyway. A return to the cycle of expensive, perpetual rebuilding seems almost inevitable, especially without a new stadium.

Arsenal: Arsene Wenger revitalized Arsenal in 1996 and has synthesized the club with his own philosophy. There are questions whether that philosophy has gone bankrupt. Arsenal has won nothing since 2005 and, despite a recent winning streak, remain in peril of missing the Champions League for the first time during the Frenchman’s reign. Even if the movement lives and this season has been simply an amalgam of misfortunes, the 62-year-old cannot continue indefinitely.

On paper, Arsenal are in a brilliant position. They purport to be incredibly profitable. They have a glimmering new 60,000-seat stadium that ostensibly prints GBP. It will be paid off by a reasonable payment scheme, funded largely from real estate developments in the surrounding area and on the former stadium’s site. In a few seasons, outmoded sponsorship deals will expire, offering a further boon. That boon being reinvested into the club is another matter.

Arsenal has turned a $48 million profit in the transfer window since 2006, the lowest net expenditure in the EPL. Penny-pinching with fees costs them players. Penny-pinching sees established stars leave for Manchester City. Those in the know repeatedly assert funds are available, though said funds never seem to be spent. Fans want trophies. Owner Stan Kroenke may be content oiling the brand identity’s gears on a minimal budget.

Chelsea: Thoughts of Chelsea being self-sufficient by 2012 were laughable. Chelsea remains the plaything of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and it is he, with his fleet of dubious advisors, who will decide the club’s future. Abramovich has spent more than $700 million in the transfer market since 2003, well over $1 billion if you include wages. Except for a brief period of stability under Jose Mourinho, much of that expenditure has been ill-advised and unfocused. ($80 million for Torres? Let me write a check…)

Unplanned player assembly has been accompanied by constant managerial turnover, which is both disruptive and expensive. It could cost Chelsea upwards of $50 million, counting wages, just firing Carlo Ancelotti and hiring/firing Andre Villas-Boas in the past 10 months. Caretaker Roberto Di Matteo is is their seventh manager since 2007. Number eight will take up residence this summer. Who might be available depends on how they finish this season.

Chelsea’s situation is precarious. They won yesterday, though unconvincingly. The Blues are a potential three points out of fourth place. They also have the toughest road left of the three teams in contention, playing Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool on the road and hosting speedy Tottenham in a London derby. If the new manager provides no bounce, Chelsea could be staring at a disaster. Even if they qualify for the Champions League, will Abramovich provide yet more transfer funding? Will the next manager be strong-willed enough to keep him from meddling? The Terry/Lampard/Drogba nucleus seems to be the only thing holding up Chelsea’s floor. Those gents are aging rapidly.

Liverpool: Reds fans were jacked about playing Cardiff City in the Carling Cup final this year. They played AC Milan in the Champions League final as recently as 2007. That’s a fair indicator of how the last five years have gone. The Merseyside club finished 7th in 2010, 6th in 2011 and, despite fanfare and big signings from Fenway Sports Group for a run this season, they are back in 7th. Liverpool was already in a disappointing stretch before this, having not won the league since 1990.

The difference can be seen in the squad quality. Lifers Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher are cascading down the far slope of their careers. Midfield rocks Xavi Alonso and Javier Mascherano are playing in Spain. Fernando Torres of years past is no longer leading the line up front. The replacements have ranged from not quite good enough (Charlie Adam) to outright disasters (Carroll, Downing). The one brilliant addition, Luis Suarez, has been far more trouble off the field than he’s worth on it. Craig Bellamy, who left as an afterthought in 2007, is now one of the squad’s best players.

Liverpool face a summer of fraught decisions. Manager Kenny Dalglish is a club legend, though returning after more than a decade outside English soccer, he has been ineffectual at best. Some of his tactics and selections have been bizarre. The club’s form, under another manager, might have seen him given the boot. Someone must have the fortitude to oust him. They must part ways with Andy Carroll and accept a $30-40 million loss on a player after one season. They must buy again as well. Factoring in the Torres transfer, the club “only” has spent around $47 million in the transfer window over the past two seasons. Though, after being burned so severely on Carroll and failing so dismally in the table one wonders whether the owners will be too reticent to make an even larger investment.

The Premier League is not enduring a broad decline. The good news is the problems are not systemic. The bad news is a number of clubs sit on a precipice. Their troubles could get much worse.

[Photo via Getty]

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