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Why Manchester United Are the World’s Biggest Underachievers

When your club makes more money than anyone else, just being good isn’t good enough

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

How do you reward someone who’s taken unmatched financial resources and turned it into the 14th-best soccer team in the world? If you’re Ed Woodward, you give that man a contract extension.

On Thursday, Manchester United announced that they were extending manager José Mourinho’s deal by an extra year, stretching it through the end of the 2020 season. The initial three-year deal Mourinho signed with the club in 2016 paid him around £15 million per season—Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola makes closer to £20 million—and earlier this fall there were rumblings that the 54-year-old wanted a raise. There hasn’t been any reporting on the financial details of Mourinho’s extension yet, but it’s not like United can’t afford to pay him whatever he wants.

Earlier this week, the accounting firm Deloitte released its annual Football Money League rankings, which summarize the financial pecking order at the top of the European soccer food chain. Revenues among the top 20 teams are up 6 percent from last year, and thanks to their 2017 Europa League victory, United (€676 million in revenue) claimed the top spot for the second year in a row.

Much like a Europa League trophy, though, winning the Deloitte Money League is worth celebrating only if you’re not fighting for a Premier League or Champions League title. While United have qualified for the knockout rounds of the latter, they’re nowhere near the former. Record-signing Paul Pogba, who is a midfielder, has become one of the best attackers in the league, but Mourinho’s side is 12 points back of Guardiola’s history-chasing City side, and they’re fortunate to even be that close. Based on expected goals, United should have nearly 12 fewer points—the biggest gap in the league—and they’ve maintained their second-place position by standing on top of a hot start to the year and the continued infallibility of goalkeeper David de Gea, whose save percentage (83.7) is the highest this decade by nearly five points. Money can buy you a world-class keeper (and entice said keeper to stay in Manchester rather than return to Madrid), but it should also be able to afford a defense that doesn’t require said keeper to make the third-most saves in the league.

Here’s the top 30 of the Money League, plotted against FiveThirtyEight’s SPI, which rates the underlying quality of a team:

Roughly, teams above the line are underachieving their riches, while the teams below it have found ways to punch above their financial weight. As such, United have underutilized their resources more than any team in the top 30, and it’s not even close. According to 21st Club’s Omar Chaudhuri, this was also true during Mourinho’s first season, when United finished sixth in the Premier League, and during Louis van Gaal’s utterly bizarre stint with the club, too.

On the opposite side of the, uh, coin is Napoli, who are currently in first in Serie A and rate as the 10th-best team in the world but come in at 19th in overall revenue. Thanks to savvy recruitment and youth development—the so-called “marvelous smurfs” frontline of Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, and José Callejón has combined for 36 goals and assists this year while costing a combined £17.08 million in transfer fees—along with the two-way tactics of Maurizio Sarri, one of the most innovative managers on the planet, Napoli is threatening to break Juventus’s six-year hold atop the Italian league.

Three non-top-six Premier League teams made more money than Napoli: Leicester City, who fired their manager in October and currently sit in seventh in the Premier League; West Ham United, who fired their manager in November and are just four points clear of the relegation zone; and Southampton, who are in the relegation zone.

Due to its massive and semi-egalitarian broadcasting deal, the Premier League dominates the Money League top 30, with 14 teams composing nearly half of the list. But outside of the top six, no team has really been able to use that money efficiently. The edges of the above graphic get skewed—Barcelona are the best team in the world, so they’re not underachieving—and that’s especially obvious in the bottom half. Here are the non-top-six Premier League teams that made the Money League rankings, compared to their standing in FiveThirtyEight’s world club rankings:

Money League vs. SPI Rankings

Team Money League Ranking (Revenue) 538 Ranking (SPI)
Team Money League Ranking (Revenue) 538 Ranking (SPI)
Leicester City 14th (€271.1 million) 57th (66.0)
West Ham United 17th (€213.3 million) 94th (58.2)
Southampton 18th (€212.1 million) 89th (59.6)
Everton 20th (€199.2 million) 103rd (56.5)
Crystal Palace 26th (€164 million) 71st (63.1)
West Bromwich Albion 27th (€160.5 million) 107th (56.0)
AFC Bournemouth 28th (€159.2 million) 101st (57.2)
Stoke City 29th (€158.3 million) 129th (53.4)

Manchester United’s inability to convert its wealth into correlative on-field performance, then, is just the most egregious example in a country filled with squandered funds. Despite all the incoming cash, Mourinho hasn’t been able to build his trademark sustainable defense: They’ve conceded the joint-fewest goals in England, but they’re allowing just the seventh-fewest shots and the eight-fewest shots on goal. They’re also allowing more passes to be completed within 20 yards of their goal than Watford, Huddersfield, and—man, this is a weird thing to type—fellow Money League club, West Bromwich Albion.

United’s recent move for Alexis Sánchez, one of the best players in the league but most definitely an attacker, seems to confirm what Deloitte also shows: The Premier League quite literally has more money than it knows what to do with.