Before the mid 2000s, football was very set in its ways. Big teams with impressive history dominated the league for decades at a time, with Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool everpresents in the upper echelons of football, especially after the conception of the Premier League. Whilst other big teams like Leeds and Sheffield dropped off the pace there were no ‘small’ clubs taking their places and it was widely accepted that only the very biggest teams stood a chance of winning the league, with very little chance of anyone joining their elite. Aside from the one shock result in 1995, where Blackburn won the league and then were promptly relegated the next season, only Arsenal and Manchester United had won the Premier League until Chelsea finally cracked it under Mourinho in the 2004-05 season.
And that’s the point of this article. Arsenal and United are the two traditional ‘big’ clubs of the Premier League era, and the only times a team has surpassed them is through spending a colossal amount of money. While Blackburn spent millions on Shearer and co, they were relegated next season due to running out of funds; it is only with the new introduction of billionaire owners that football is finally changing. Abramovich’s £140m purchase of Chelsea back in 2003 has forever changed football as we know it. Tens of millions are now spent every year on big money transfers, with clubs like Arsenal and United – who both used to have almost free reign of the transfer market – being complete outdone financially. This has spread to other clubs in other nations, with Madrid spending huge money on players like Ronaldo and Kaka for their Galaticos project and Barca forking out on Zlatan Ibrahimovich.
A number of teams have taken up their lead, with PSG, Malaga and Anzhi Makhachkala (which I am never trying to spell again) the trio attempting to replicate the English clubs’ domestic success and even the Chinese entering into it with Shanghai Shenua. However, they are quickly proving that it is far more difficult than first perceived to build a new ‘super club’.
The main problem is prestige. Chelsea and City, despite being far from the biggest names in the world, managed to lure players in with the promise of playing in what is widely regarded to be the best league in the world; the Prem. Most players looking to make a name for themselves at the highest level dream of playing in the Premier League, with the huge pay packets an added bonus. This is a vastly different proposition to moving to the French Ligue 1, which is in far lower regard. And what player seriously looking to reach the top would consider a move out to Russia? Even Malaga, playing in the highly successful (at least in Europe) Spanish La Liga, struggle to draw in players due to two major problems: Real Madrid and Barcelona. If a player makes a big money move to Spain, he goes to Barca or Madrid, end of.
This basically ends any hope of these clubs for a quick splash of cash and a leap into the Champions League Final. Even if Malafa suddenly announce the signings of Messi, Ronaldo, Van Persie and Thiago Silva they wouldn’t be guaranteed CL football, let alone a spot in the final. Players take time to gel and building a whole new team from scratch is an incredibly hard task – just ask Andre Villas-Boas. Instead, these new mega-rich owners must revert to their favourite new phrase; a ‘project’. Sheik Mansour and his Abu Dhabi compatriots were the first to apply this term to their new plaything and it has to be said they’ve gone about it the right way. People say the sacking of Mark Hughes was harsh but he quite frankly deserved it, wasting huge amounts of money of players like Santa Cruz and generally revealing himself to be what he always was and always will be – a completely average manager with no experience of real success. So City drafted in an experienced replacement. And kept him.
That part is key. Chelsea may have achieved success pinballing managers around and sacking one every time Abramovich sneezes, but that’s only because they found one of the best managers in recent history in Mourinho and they started this big-money game before they had any serious competitions. They could literally afford the disruption because they were head and shoulders above everyone else financially. Now they have more competition and Abramovich’s impatience is taking its toll – hiring a young manager to rebuild a team and giving him 7 months to do it? The new breed of financial powerhouses cannot afford to do this.
City gave Mancini a number of seasons to build his squad, not even demanding immediate CL qualification. This has paid dividends in allowing players like Silva, Aguero and Yaya Toure to find their feet in an intense new league and blend together as a team. Malaga and PSG in particular are attempting to do this, with varying degrees of success. Without any real big names in their lineup – either management or players – Malaga are instead focusing on slowly improving their team with proven internationals like Demichelis, Mathijsen and Toulalan, as well as experienced veterans like Van Nistelrooy and prospects like Santi Cazorla. This has seen them creep up the league table and their now 4th in La Liga which, despite the weakness outside of the top two, is no mean feat.
PSG, on the other hand, have shot straight to the top of Ligue 1 and are battling it out with surprise package Montpellier for the title. This is perhaps unsurprising due to the potential PSG has and always had. Situated in Paris, PSG undoubtedly has more appeal on a cultural and lifestyle level than clubs like Anzhi, and has a rich history as France’s sleeping giant. Promising young players like captain Mamadou Sakho and hot prospect Alphonse Areola give PSG a core of homegrown players to build around and this young core has been complemented with the additions of experienced players like Thiago Motta, Alex and Maxwell. They also have a handful of big names as well, with Javier Pastore, signed for big money from Palermo in the summer, one of the most sought-after talents in Europe. They have an experienced, world class manager as well in the form of Carlo Ancelloti, who is used to building title-challenging sides with big money from his days at original moneybags Chelsea. Already on the verge of domestic domination, PSG are the best placed on the new breed to have a huge impact on Europe. A few key signings is all they need.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for teams like Anzhi and Shanghai. Although they have as much if not more funds available than their rivals – as shown by Samuel Eto’o's ridiculous wage packet – they are sorely hurt by their locations. Anzhi, aside from residing in the less-than-prestigious Russian league, is situated in the town of Makhachkala, which is so unsavoury the home team don’t even live their, but instead live and train in Moscow and fly in to home games. Playing for a club representing a town so dangerous you can’t even live their is not an attractive proposition. However, Anzhi are doing their best, bringing in big names like manager Guus Hiddink, Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos and the world’s highest-paid footballer Samuel Eto’o, as well as solid players with PL experience like Zhirkov and Samba. Also, the Russian league is at least semi-prestigious, with Zenit and CSKA giving a good account of themselves in European competitions.
Shanghai Shenua are a completely different proposition and are easily in the worse shape. Despite tying up the signing of Nicolas Anelka in January – and even the possibility of Drogba following – it is unlikely Shanghai will ever achieve much else of note. Whilst their city is a cultural marvel, something that cannot be said of Makhachkala*, their footballing appeal is almost non-existent. Football is not a Chinese sport and they are yet to follow Japan’s example in developing an entirely new youth system to change that. Because of this, Shanghai, and, to a lesser extent Anzhi, are almost certainly resigned to picking up average players in their prime and legends well past theirs looking for a healthy paycheck to see them into retirement. Don’t expect any miracles.
PSG and, to a lesser extent, Malaga, on the other hand, both stand genuine chances in breaking into the footballing elite. Although it would be a minor miracle for Malaga to breakthrough and compete with domestic rivals Barca and Madrid, it is achievable with the right planning and PSG are already well on their way in their own league and just a handful of signings away from being a real European force.
*If you’re wondering what happened to my ‘no spelling Makhachkala’ policy, I have three words: Copy. And. Paste.