The Sweeper: Has the Recession Finally Caught Up the Big Four?

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Stamford Bridge seen from Brompton Cemetery

Heading into the busy post-Christmas Premier League schedule, Paul Hayward has written one of those Observer op-eds that gets your fist pumping shortly before you start scratching your head.

In it he argues that the current slipshod form of the Premier League Big Four—combined losses of 19 games between Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea since the start of the season—can be linked to their extravagant debt-spending:

In a year when the British economy was shown to be a con trick perpetrated by the banks and their gimps in government, the big clubs stopped spending on the scale they had when leveraged loans could be had like Smarties. Manchester United, who paid £263m in interest in the three years to 2008, banked 75% of the £80m they received for Cristiano Ronaldo. Arsenal trousered most of the £30m they took for Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Adebayor as City chased their dream of building “a successful business where the core competency is football”. Liverpool groan under borrowings of £313m, and threw away £36.5m in interest charges last year.

Yet as as nice as it would be to say the rich are finally “getting theirs” this season after persisting in spending money they don’t really have, the league table doesn’t yet tell the tale.  Despite recent high-profile losses, Hayward admits three of the four big clubs still occupy the top three league spots.  Those same three clubs have also qualified for the knock-out stages of the Champions League.  Liverpool are the clear outlier, with seven losses of those 19, but their squad isn’t substantially different from the one that almost won the title last season.  Meanwhile, Manchester United are suffering one of the worst defensive injury bouts in memory, Chelsea are comfortably five points ahead, and Arsenal are as consistent as they have ever been in the post-Henry, post-Viera period.

In other words, the Big Four’s woes this year can be traced largely to more mundane footballing matters, rather to some sort of epic fail in the transfer market.  Even the one club with the ability to buy players with little fear of debt interest payments, Manchester City, have fired their manager after an “unsatisfactory” sixth place finish before Christmas.  While we can all dream of a 2009-10 season that ends with a Tottenham or an Aston Villa—paragons of prudent spending and good management according to Hayward—crashing the Champions League party, their ability to do so will likely have to do more with what happens on the pitch this year than off it.

Worldwide Stories

  • The Chief Executive of the Scottish Football Association, Gordon Smith, has told the Telegraph that Scotland’s failure to qualify for the World Cup came in part from former-Scotland manager George Burley‘s inability to communicate with the press: “[Burley] didn’t have those personal and working relationships with the media.”
  • ESPN presenter Ray Stubbs was taken to hospital “as a medical precaution” at half time during the Liverpool v. Wolves telecast.
  • Match Fit USA believes 2022 should be the USA’s year to host the World Cup, in part to help shore up MLS’ status as a world class league.
  • River Plate midfielder Diego Buonanotte was seriously hurt in a car crash that killed three people in the southern Argentine province of Santa Fe yesterday.
  • Run of Play’s Brian Phillips is cooking up something tasty for 2010.

Richard Whittall writes A More Splendid Life.

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