About a month ago, the manager of the richest team in the world was bemoaning his side’s financial inferiority.
“One thing is a big club and another thing is a big football team,” said Manchester United’s José Mourinho after a 2–2 home draw against Burnley in late December. “They are two different things. We are in the second year of trying to rebuild a football team that is not one of the best teams in the world. Manchester City buy full-backs for the price of strikers. When you speak about big football clubs, you are speaking about the history of the club.”
It was the latest example of — to borrow a phrase from Slate’s Jack Hamilton — Manchester City Derangement Syndrome. Despite roughly equivalent resources, United trail City by 12 points. Mourinho is the master deflector — willing to claw at an opponent’s eye if it’ll distract from a lackluster on-field product — and, at the time, the comment was just the latest entry in a long and storied catalog of irrelevant noise.
Except, now a month has passed, and Mourinho might be right.
On Tuesday, City agreed to a club-record £58.5 million transfer for Aymeric Laporte, a 23-year-old French center back from Athletic Bilbao without one senior-level international cap to his name. The signing was immediately followed by reports that City were also considering a €68 million bid for Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez in an effort to replace the injured Leroy Sane.
When the numbers over the past decade are adjusted for inflation, City’s net transfer spending stands way above anyone elses — and that’s before they bought Laporte and weighed the purchase of Mahrez.
City are a smart club, and Pep is an utterly brilliant coach, but with purchase of Laporte and £50m bid for Mahrez, you've gotta admit they've *way* outspent the competition lately.— John Burn-Murdoch (@jburnmurdoch) January 30, 2018
Here's spending adjusted for transfer price inflation: they're the dot waaaay down at the bottom. pic.twitter.com/MDCTrvuQGq
Now, net spend is typically a facile way of assessing a club’s business. In short, clubs account for the cost of a transfer over the duration of the incoming player’s contract, rather than putting the entire fee on their books right away. For example, Jake Cohen wrote for The Guardian two summers ago about Arsenal’s move for Granit Xhaka: “Xhaka signed a five-year deal and will reportedly earn around £125,000 per week at Arsenal. The transfer fee will be spread out over Xhaka’s contract at £6m per year (£30m divided evenly over five years). So including Xhaka’s wages, the overall cost to Arsenal is £12m per year.” And so, when a player like Zlatan Ibrahimovic is signed by United on a “free transfer,” that doesn’t get calculated into net spend — even though the club paid him more than £10 million in annual salary.
Yet, City pay salaries that compete with just about every club in the world, so if they’re way out ahead in transfer spending, and not making up for it by some kind of Daniel Levy–esque wage suppression, the point stands: Funded by the Abu Dhabi royal family, City are outspending the competition.
That’s not to take away from what Guardiola and his players have done: Only six Premier League teams this decade had a better goal differential than the 2017–18 City team … and they still have 14 games left. But it seems like City, if they’re not already there, are on the verge of becoming one of those seemingly unstoppable modern sporting forces, like the Dodgers or Cubs: They’re smarter and richer than almost everyone else.