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Manager, Not Players, Is the Difference at the Top of Premier League

© REUTERS / CARL RECINEFILE PHOTO: Champions League Final - Manchester City v Chelsea
FILE PHOTO: Champions League Final - Manchester City v Chelsea - Sputnik International, 1920, 22.09.2021
Manchester United have spent heavily on players in an effort to replicate the success seen at Liverpool, Manchester City, and Chelsea. All of their investment has yet to bear the hoped results. In today’s game, to be at the top of the footballing hierarchy, a club needs more than the best players, it needs one of the world’s top managers.
The idea that spending is the key to winning in top-flight football is nothing new. In fact, the history of the sport is littered with the biggest spenders being the biggest winners.
Real Madrid is perhaps the best example of this. The club has consistently spent the money to have the world’s best players and they have a record 13 European Cup/Champions League titles to show for it.
Having the best players remains any club’s best bet to secure trophies. However, how the best teams in the world acquire top players is showing signs of change. The difference between trophies, European football, and mid-table purgatory has become as much a tale of who has financial might and who has the best manager.
A fantastic manager touches all aspects of a club. Not only do they provide the tactics and inspiration to lead the team to glory on the pitch, but their acumen has a massive impact on the economics of a club.
For example, a great manager will take a new signing, integrate them into a side, and play them in a way that maximizes their talents. This makes the team’s transfer and wage investment in the player worth it, but it also means the player will maintain or increase their value. A great manager can, on their own, make any team’s transfer policy look fantastic, and, conversely, a horrid manager can make the best board of directors look like fools.
Looking at purchase value, the total amount spent to build a team, you can see which teams should be the best in the Premier League. According to TransferMarkt, Manchester City leads the charge at $1.12 billion, followed by Manchester United at $979.25 million, Chelsea at $716.98 million, and Liverpool in fourth at $622.55 million. According to purchase value, United should be neck and neck with City for the title of best team in England, and miles ahead of Chelsea and Liverpool. Except that’s not how it has played out.
Since the 2017-18 Premier League season, Manchester City has averaged 91.25 points a season, Liverpool 85 points, United 71.75 points, and Chelsea 68.75 points. City has claimed three Premier League titles, Liverpool have snagged a League and Champions League title, and Chelsea just beat City in the Champions League Final this summer. The difference between these clubs and United is the quality in the manager they’ve had.
Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool has long been hailed as one of the game’s best, and he has more than lived up to that distinction.
Pep Guardiola revolutionized the game with Barcelona and has won everywhere he’s managed.
Chelsea was in a bit of a rough patch, but with their mid-season appointment of Thomas Tuchel, they won a Champions League and look poised to challenge for the Premier League this season.
On the other hand, United went from Jose Mourinho and 81 points in 2017-18 to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and an average of 68.6 points per season.
Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo reacts  - Sputnik International, 1920, 12.09.2021
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Manchester United has outspent almost all of their adversaries but they simply haven’t found a manager capable of utilizing it properly.
Take Chelsea as an example, the club looked lifeless under Frank Lampard for much of his tenure. The club had a wealth of talented options all over the pitch but the results simply weren’t up to the standard of the players. Chelsea went out and got the best available manager in Thomas Tuchel. He turned Chelsea into the best defensive unit in the Premier League and guided them to Champions League glory.
Further down the table, the same trend emerges. The teams with good managers overperform their spending and the teams with poor managers underperform. Leeds, managed by Marcelo Bielsa, finished ninth in the table with 59 points.
Arsenal, managed by Mikel Arteta, finished 8th with 61 points. Leeds entered the 2021-22 season having spent $183.01 million on their squad, compared to Arsenal at $606.16 million. Arsenal shouldn’t be anywhere near Leeds in the table, but the value of a great manager and the damage of a poor one is perfectly encapsulated by them finishing two points apart.
Arsene Wenger  - Sputnik International, 1920, 03.09.2021
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The league tables on the continent also point to the value that a top-class manager adds. In Italy, Inter won the Scudetto under the guidance of Antonio Conte, while Juventus, the winner of the previous nine, fell to fourth in Andrea Pirlo’s first season managing.
In Spain, Barcelona has fallen on hard times with Ronald Koeman, while Athletico Madrid secured the title under the guidance of Diego Simeone. In Germany, Red Bull Leipzig is floundering this season since Julian Nagelsmann left for Bayern Munich.
Perhaps the best piece of evidence was on display at this summer’s Euro. Italy won the tournament playing stupendous football under the guidance of Roberto Mancini. A man who won three consecutive Scudettos with Inter and then guided Manchester City to their first Premier League crown in 2011-12. England, with a far more talented squad but a far weaker manager in Gareth Southgate, lost to Italy in the Final. Fans blamed players for missing penalties, but the game was lost on the sidelines. One manager got the best out of his players and the other was just along for the ride.
The difference at the top of European football has become the manager. The game is too competitive for a top team to outspend the ineffectiveness, inefficiencies, and insecurities of their manager. Manchester United is paying, literally, for that right now. They’ve already caught up to their rivals, they just need the right manager to unleash it.
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