Manchester City: Will Summer Shopping for Players Decide Next Season’s League Title, Too?

Premier League champion Manchester City has vowed to spend millions more this summer to further strengthen its already formidable roster — and hopefully win the title again.

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Fans climb on any available vantage point as Manchester City players parade the Barclays Premier League trophy in front of thousands of fans during their victory parade around the streets of Manchester on May 14, 2012

Sunday’s last-minute goal that turned Manchester City into Premier League champions just when all seemed lost reminded us of why we love this game, allowing us to forget, however briefly, the fact that the league title had essentially been bought through an investment of more than $1 billion. And many of the key decisions that may decide next season’s title will be made in back offices over nine weeks of frenzied trading of players — and coaches — in the coming summer.

Nobody captured the drama of Sunday’s finale better than the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor:

“(City) were 2-1 down going into stoppage time, on the verge of a defeat so harrowing they would never have been allowed to forget it. There were supporters leaving the ground in tears, scarcely believing the team could have been so reckless. What happened next was so extraordinary it is difficult to know if there are enough superlatives in existence to do it justice. Edin Dzeko’s header to make it 2-2 came in the 92nd minute, at a point when the crowd were watching in almost numb disbelief. On the sidelines, Mancini and his coaching staff could be seen imploring everyone to go forward, desperately relaying the news that Manchester United were winning at Sunderland. [Which would have given United the title had City failed to score again.] Except City had played dismally all afternoon, consumed by nerves against the team with the worst away record in the league…

Four of the five minutes of extra time had elapsed when Sergio Agüero found himself with the ball. He was inside the penalty area, on his right foot, and it was then that everything suddenly seemed to go into slow motion. This was the moment football blurred with pandemonium.

His shirt was off, the victory run had started and the stadium was a mosh pit of flailing bodies. City had wrenched the title out of Manchester United’s grasp, with 60 seconds to spare and the Etihad Stadium crowd roared and sobbed and bounced and screamed…”

(MORE: Can Manchester City Finally Win the League or Will Manchester United Spoil the Final Day EPL Party?)

It warmed the heart of every neutral to see the elation of those City fans at being freed from decades of taunts by their insufferable-braggart Mancunian neighbors — and that at the end of the most extraordinary season in the history of the Premier League, where the gap between the playing abilities of the top and bottom teams has narrowed to the point of making outcomes so unpredictable that it was not until the final seconds of the final game that the title race was decided.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Manchester City’s victory may have been sealed by Aguero’s finish (and, of course, he could have missed), but it was orchestrated in the back office. Aguero was signed for $61 million last summer, along with midfielder Samir Nasri ($35 million). Dzeko, who headed the equalizer, was brought in for $43 million the previous summer, as were key midfielders David Silva ($40 million), player of the season Yaya Toure ($38 million), and the mercurial Mario Balotelli ($39 million). You get the picture; those fees, and the salaries City pays to tempt the players to sign simply can’t be matched by any other team in the league.

The difference between City and its rivals is largely the more than $1 billion spent by owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan of the royal family of Abu Dhabi to build a winning team. (None of the long-suffering City faithful are complaining, of course, and nor would the rest of us if our clubs had owners capable of such largesse.) The Moneyball idea of finding inefficiencies in the market and extracting hidden value may be in vogue in sports media, but it has no place in Manchester City’s march to glory — they were simply the best team that money could buy.

And the outcome of next season’s Premier League may well be largely settled long before the kick off on opening day in the business done by various clubs during the “transfer window” that formally opens on July 1 (although business is effectively already under way)  and closes on August 31. During that time, clubs are allowed to buy and sell players to strengthen their squads. Unlike in U.S. sports, when City buys Aguero from Atletico Madrid, the team is not acquiring his existing contract, but instead paying for it to be torn up so that he can negotiate a new one at City. The player gets 10% of the transfer fee (and his agent, a further 10%), while the rest is kept by the selling club — and, of course, the player gets to negotiate a new, and usually substantially larger wage from his new employer. (Star players are often sold when they still have two years on their contracts if they won’t renegotiate a new, longer one, because the player becomes a free agent at the end of his existing contract, meaning that his value depreciates precipitously once there’s just a year to go.)

(MORE: Manchester Divided: How a Local Rivalry-Turned-Global Capital Clash Will Decide England’s Soccer Season)

City’s ability to pay massive transfer fees and massive wages allowed it to assemble the squad that won the title, and coach Roberto Mancini has vowed to spend many millions more in the coming weeks to further strengthen what is already a formidable roster. The inflationary impact of City’s new-money spending spree, as well as the need for some established high-rollers such as Chelsea, Milan and Juventus to undertake substantial rebuilding, means that austerity is unlikely to be any more fashionable in this summer’s transfer market than it is among Europe‘s electorates.

City is currently in pole position to sign the much-admired Belgian attacking midfielder Eden Hazard from French club Lille — Hazard has already indicated he will be playing in Manchester next season, leaving open the question of whether he’ll join City or United. City can pay the club and the player more, making it the odds-on favorite. But it won’t stop at Hazard — the club is also trying to tempt the outrageously talented Arsenal talisman Robin Van Persie (recently voted player of the season by his fellow Premiership pros) to follow the path trodden by Nasri last season by offering him more than double what Arsenal can pay. That, and the opportunity to play on a team that wins silverware. Financially unable to compete in the top tier of the market, Arsenal has been unable to buy players that Van Persie might deem as his peers, which could help persuade him to move to City, or Real or Barcelona if either came in for him.

A fiver says City will also swoop for Newcastle’s midfield anchor Cheikh Tiote as a more creative destroyer than Dutch clogger Nigel De Jongh — although United and possibly Chelsea may also seek the Ivorian’s signature, potentially sparking a bidding war. City will also want at least one more centerback and possibly another fullback. It ought to surprise no one if they spend another $200 million on reinforcements in the coming weeks.

City can spend freely because its owners are stumping up the cash to burnish a vanity investment; the club is running huge financial losses. In other words, they’re doing a Chelsea. The London club, after it was acquired by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich also went on an extended, giddy billion-dollar streak that bought it more than one title. But the rust has started to set in, and after young Andre Villas Boas’ disastrous attempt to rebuild the squad failed dismally, Chelsea will miss next season’s Champion’s League unless it beats Bayern Munich in the final on Saturday. (Only the top four English teams qualify, and Chelsea finished sixth.) Exile from Europe’s elite competition is not acceptable to Abramovich, and Chelsea, too, can be expected to splash hundreds of millions of dollars on rebuilding a squad far too reliant, still, on waning thirtysomethings Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, John Terry, et al, and the $80 million underachiever Fernando Torres.

(MORE: Manchester (Dis)United: Why Can’t City and United Just Get Along?)

I’d be surprised if the wonder goal by Newcastle’s Papis Cisse that sank Chelsea’s hopes of making fourth place didn’t prompt Abramovich to whip out the checkbook there and then, seeing the prolific Senegalese Number 9 as a natural replacement for Drogba. But expect the Londoners to also swoop for Napoli’s Uruguayan flyer Edinson Cavani and/or Atletico Madrid’s Colombian hit-man Radamel Falcao, as well as Everton midfield anchor Marouane Fellaini and possibly also Borussia Dortmund’s Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa. For some of those players, and others, they’ll get some competition from Manchester United, of course, more desperate now to reclaim the top spot, but with the structure of their debt militating against heavy spending. Expect to see United in the market for at least one striker — I’d not be surprised if they put in a bid for Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente — and a top-drawer midfield playmaker to replace 37-year-old Paul Scholes (who has signed on for another season), a right back and a centerback.

Llorente, of course, having demonstrated his brilliance in Bilbao’s extraordinary Europa League run, will also be much in demand — with suitors hoping to tie up his signature before Euro 2012, which kicks off on June 8: Llorente will lead the line for titleholder and favorite Spain, and a good international tournament typically adds millions onto a player’s transfer value.

But right now, among the English clubs, only Manchester City and Chelsea really have the pick of the players they want — a status long enjoyed by Real Madrid and Barcelona (although the latter, too, has looming debt problems), AC Milan and possibly the Turin giants Juventus.

United are mostly strong enough financially to at least keep the players they have — although Wayne Rooney severely tested that proposition last season when submitting a transfer request in order to negotiate a bigger contract. Still, the players United has bought in recent years suggests there are clear limits on the club’s spending in order to remain competitive in a market driven crazy by the “stimulus” of billions of dollars of cash suddenly injected by the ambitious owners at Chelsea and City.

The rest, essentially, have become “selling clubs” — a status traditionally held by mid-table and lesser clubs that have long accepted that financial realities will force them to sell some of their best players after a couple of seasons if the billionaires come calling, and for their own purposes must sign lesser known talents and develop them into match-winners, at which point the big boys swoop. That has long been the business model keeping a number of European sides solvent — Ajax of Amsterdam with its awesome academy, or clubs like Porto in Portugal and Udinese in Italy that specialize in cultivating young players recruited for pittance in Africa and Latin America. But being forced to sell their best players is a new experience for some of England’s top clubs. Arsenal, for example, last summer was forced to say goodbye to captain Cesc Fabregas (bought by Barcelona), as well as Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy (both bought by City), replacing them with cheaper and less capable players. Arsenal’s fans will be praying the club can hold onto Van Persie now, but even that may be in vain.

(MORE: United and Chelsea Show That English Soccer is a Game for Old Men)

And Arsenal’s north London neighbors, Tottenham Hotspur, despite securing a Champion’s League place (at least if Chelsea loses in Munich on Saturday), is unlikely to retain the services of two key men, midfielders Gareth Bale and Luka Modric. (Spurs right back Kyle Walker may also be the man United identifies to fill that berth at Old Trafford.)

Liverpool’s hopes of rejoining the elite have dimmed after manager Kenny Dalglish spent the $160 million made available by Boston Red Sox owners Fenway Sports Group mostly on mediocre players, leaving a club that was once part of the Premiership’s Big Four languishing outside the Champion’s League elite for a third consecutive season.

Having fired Dalglish, the owners now face the unpalatable option of sending good money after bad in order to make the squad competitive again. Of Dalglish’s spending, $56 million went to Newcastle United to buy the hapless Andy Carroll, a player who at his best might be worth a third that amount, but even then, represents a kind of tactical throwback to an earlier era that’s unlikely to prevail at the top level today. And it’s Newcastle that has arguably been the Moneyball team of the season, setting the Premiership alight and narrowly missing out on Champion’s League qualification. Smart scouting allowed the club to assemble an outrageously talented midfield and attack  — Papis Cisse, Demba Ba, Hatem Ben Arfa, Johan Cabaye, Cheikh Tiote and Jonas Gutierrez — for a total cost of $51 million, or about $5 million less than they got for Carroll. And unlike Carroll for Liverpool, those players delivered in spades.

But here’s the problem with Moneyball in football: Great scouting enables less fancied clubs to punch above their weight, but even that is rarely enough to unseat those in the financial elite. The success of the Moneyball minnow basically serves as a pilot fish for the bigger predators, drawing attention to the riches in its ranks: Newcastle will struggle to hold onto Cisse, Ba, Ben Arfa, Cabaye and Tiote, with owner Mike Ashley able to see selling players scouted by his brilliant management team as a way of recouping on his investment in the club.

Wigan, another shoestring operation that has defied the odds to avoid relegation by giving the top teams in the league a run for their money (while playing attractive, passing football, rather than the defensive, physical stuff on which bottom-of-the-table battlers often rely), is unlikely to hold onto coach Roberto Martinez, whose achievements at Wigan have put him in demand among clubs with bigger budgets, as well as star player Victor Moses.

Such is the inequality between the game’s elite clubs and the rest that even those performing great Moneyball miracles know that they’ll have to repeat the exercise year after year. Good thing the pool of talented young players around the world is essentially bottomless. Good thing, also, that while money talks, the knife-edge victory that snared the title for City was a reminder that it won’t always have the final word. That’s what keeps the game interesting.

PHOTOS: Pictures from the 2010 World Cup

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