The price of success

With every team desperate to find the quickest route to success, the debate over clubs' spending patterns rages on

It’s rare enough that Rafa Benítez and Sir Alex Ferguson have an exchange of views that could be described as entertaining but they achieved it mid-March. It started with Benítez claiming that in his five seasons at Liverpool they had spent £100 million less on players than Man Utd. One can imagine that Sir Alex was a picture of wounded dignity as he asked a couple of United’s sports scientists to lay down their stopwatches and clipboards for an afternoon to look into this claim. Wouldn’t you know, they came up with figures to refute it.

Sir Alex duly announced that Benítez had out-spent him by £24m and that the gap would widen this summer: “There’s talk about a recession but I don’t think there will be one at Liverpool this year.” Newspaper research in the wake of this spat suggests that the two clubs are roughly equal in net spending. But Liverpool may indeed forge ahead in the close season if the club follow through with a widely quoted promise to give Benítez, armed with a new five-year contract, at least £30m on top of what can be raised by player sales. The first target is the same as last year, Gareth Barry, who has instructed his agent not to discuss extending his contract with Villa, which is due to expire at the end of 2010-11. Even Martin O’Neill, who was vehemently opposed to losing the player last summer, seems resigned to him going if Villa don’t finish fourth: “If we didn’t make it, the chance to go and play at a club involved in the Champions League is not something that I would begrudge him.” Liverpool’s failure to wrap up the Barry deal in August was one of the causes of the irreparable breakdown in relations between Benítez and his soon-to-depart chief executive Rick Parry. Many observers were surprised at the Liverpool manager’s dogged pursuit of the then Villa captain given that he was prepared to offload Xabi Alonso to do so. Then again, when you’re given as much as Benítez, you can afford to take a few gambles that don’t come off – and Villa might have a reasonable chance of getting Barry back a few months on at half the price.

Meanwhile the owner of Liverpool’s perennial Champions League opponents has apparently decreed that the club must jettison most of its older players and buy for the future. When Roman Abramovich set out to buy success for Chelsea, the aim seemed to be to have two players for every position in the team and therefore a much stronger first- team squad than any other club could afford. A few years on, Chelsea have an experienced first team but less strength in depth than the rest of the “big four”. As buying established names hasn’t worked out too well lately, notably with Deco and Michael Ballack, there is to be “a ruthless summer purge of Chelsea’s pensioners” as the News of the World put it, in favour of recruiting a batch of young players. The fact that Abramovich sacked half his European scouting network at the onset of the recession suggested that he had little interest, or faith, in the academy. Yet the head of scouting, Frank Arnesen, now seems to be line for a promotion to director of football. Arnesen’s spell in charge of youth recruitment has been strikingly unsuccessful, however, with Michael Mancienne the only player to have come through the ranks in recent times.

Giving primacy to youth over experience still looks an attempt at an instant fix. To emulate Man Utd in constructing a squad gradually would require a manager to be in place for several seasons. This would mean accepting that there will be years when the team is not competing for the title. With Guus Hiddink insisting that he won’t stick around beyond May, Chelsea will soon appoint their sixth manager in seven years. That ratio will continue for as long as the owner isn’t prepared to think ahead – but maybe that’s too boring a prospect for a man who can buy everything except common sense.

From WSC 267 May 2009