Why You Can’t Buy Trophies In Football Anymore

Football Business MoneyIt was June 2003 and the blue half of West London was starting to dream, following Roman Abramovich’s unprecedented takeover of Chelsea football club, essentially becoming the first billionaire club in history and unlocking the promise of multiple free-spending transfer windows.

That summer saw just over £120 million invested into the first team squad on marquee players such as Damien Duff, Joe Cole, Hernan Crespo, Claude Makelele, Juan Sebastien Veron and others (11 in total) which considerably improved the level of talent available to their then boss, Claudio Ranieri.

While they didn’t win the Premier League that season, with Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ team sweeping aside everyone they came across, the following season was a different story.

In came Champions League winner Jose Mourinho on a multi-million pound contract and all that changed. An outlay of just over £90 million on eight players – notably Didier Drogba, Arjen Robben, Petr Cech and Ricardo Carvalho helped to set the tone. Chelsea won consecutive league titles and a league cup.

Abramovich continued to splash the cash in the years that followed, but found it increasingly harder to compete, as more clubs began to be taken over by billionaires and started to challenge. Manchester United, under Sir Alex Ferguson responded, Manchester City, after multiple attempts following their takeover eventually won the title and went on a run, with Chelsea intervening. Success was no longer guaranteed for the first privately-owned billionaire football club.

Over the last decade, many clubs have found it increasingly harder to win major trophies, regardless of how much they spend, especially with even more competition. It has become a case of getting all of the right elements in place. The most in-demand players know that they have a handful of options to choose from now with many elite clubs able to meet their wage requirements.

Below, we take a look at some examples of clubs that, no matter how much they spend, have been unable to buy the required success that they deemed appropriate.

Manchester United

love united hate glazer anti man united owner sticker on post
Sunfox, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A club that essentially dominated English football throughout the nineties and early 2000s, under Ferguson, since his departure, their decline has been quite dramatic. On a number of occasions, they failed to qualify for the Champions League and fell significantly behind in the title race.

Despite this, they were still able to spend hundreds of millions on top talent, as well as essentially hiring whoever they wanted to as manager. However, for a number of years, it has been a case of throwing money at players to paper over obvious cracks, left behind by Ferguson. While they have enjoyed Europa League and League Cup success, this is considerably way off the standard that a club as big as the Red Devils have been used to.

Although it appears that this has a chance of changing under current boss Erik ten Hag, following somewhat of a rejuvenation, there is still a long way to go, with quite a few other clubs seemingly a lot better in the Premier League.


tottenham stadium empty

Spurs fans can be forgiven for thinking that they might just be one of the Premier League’s unluckiest clubs. For years, it has seemed that, on paper at least, they have had one of the strongest and most exciting squads in England, in addition to numerous talented managers, though they just haven’t been able to make it click when it counts.

Chairman Daniel Levy and owner Joe Lewis have invested hundreds of millions in the playing squad, in addition to a billion pound stadium recently and the gulf still appears to be considerable.

It is understandable why the duo might want to be cautious about spending big in future transfer windows, especially if the same thing continues to happen – some of their best players, certainly under wheeler-dealer manager Harry Redknapp were relative bargains and he assembled one of their most exciting squads of the past decade.

Their best chance of winning the Premier League – which was and perhaps still is a realistic target over the next few years – was the 2015-16 season, when 5000/1 underdogs Leicester City shocked everyone. It looked like it could have been any one from three of the Foxes, Spurs and rivals Arsenal – certainly a credible case could have been made for the navy and white half of North London.

Manchester City

man city etihad stadiumNot what you think. It is the Champions League that owners of the blue half of Manchester crave the most – a big part of the reason for hiring boss Pep Guardiola was that he had done it on multiple occasions while in charge of Barcelona.

Although he has missed out on a few Premier League titles, it has to be said that he has shown that he can do this. The one they really want is the Champions League and they have spent 10s of millions on players to try and make this a reality.

Undoubtedly, their best chance came in the 2020/21 season when they reached the final, where they were considerable favourites against Premier League rivals Chelsea, only to be stunned by the highly effective tactics of the then Blues boss Thomas Tuchel.

Now with serial Champions League marksman Erling Braut Haaland leading their line, City have a definite chance, especially given the creative talent that operates behind the youngster.

Although Guardiola might on the face of it be relieved to win the Champions League trophy (should this happen), he will then want the big two – if not all four trophies; a task that appears to be getting increasingly harder to do in English football and which, indeed, has never been done.


paris saint-germain flag and badge

Same same but different. The French billionaire nation-state owned club are on a similar level to City (barely any difference), when it comes to resources and despite winning everything there is to win in France almost every year since they were taken over, the Champions League continues to prove elusive.

Having spent hundreds of millions on the very best talent available, with an attacking trio of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, this has to be a priority very soon. It is perhaps on the touchline where they may be missing the midas touch.

There are reasons to suggest that it is shocking that since Carlo Ancelotti left the club in 2013, none of their five managerial appointments since have had any experience winning the Champions League and given Frenchman Zinedine Zidane’s track record with Real Madrid, it is maybe equally shocking as to why he hasn’t been appointed.

AC Milan

zlatan Ibrahimovic playing for ac milanMany people don’t seem to realise that the Italian giants have a billionaire owner (Red Bird Capital), and while they only just won the Serie A again (2021-22) for the first time since the 2010/11 season, focus will be on establishing themselves as a European force once more.

All eyes are going to be on Rossoneri to see if they are able to build on their Serie A success and follow it up with a Champions League victory for the first time since 2006/07, with many more billionaire clubs now dotted around Europe.

RB Leipzig

goalkeeper makes a save for rb leipzigThere is no doubt that the German Red Bull franchise has hundreds of millions at its disposal and while it has spent a modest sum over the last few years, it has never been able to truly make the impact that many of their fans expect them to.

Frustratingly for many fans, they also appear to be somewhat of a ‘feeder’ club to Europe’s elite, though unbeknown to many, another Red Bull franchise, Austrian side RB Salzburg tends to act as a ‘feeder club’ to them.

While it is a significant challenge keeping up with Bayern Munich, RBL certainly have the resources to push them at the top of the Bundesliga, while they have invested enough to be able to do this over the years.

A domestic cup trophy should be the minimum expectation for a club of its stature – even on a regular basis, with the Bundesliga’s big two (Bayern and Borussia Dortmund), distracted by other priorities and this finally happened when they won the 2021-22 German Cup. Doing this on a regular basis, or at least reaching the final and pushing the top two close in the league should be the minimum expectation.


valancia badge held in foreground stadium blurred in backgroundOne of La Liga’s ‘vogue’ clubs of the late nineties and early 2000s, the Spanish club became known for challenging at the top of the game; even winning the league title under Rafa Bentiez and reaching the final of the Champions League in 2000/2001, where they lost to Bayern Munich.

However, a resurgence from other clubs in Spain, saw them drop off for a number of years, though after billionaire Peter Lim bought the club in 2014, it looked as if a revival could happen.

While they have invested in the playing squad over the years, it is perhaps strange why they haven’t been able to become the previous force that they were again and it is easy to understand fans’ frustrations, with so many resources available to the club.

West Ham United

west ham london stadium entranceHammers’ owners David Sullivan and Daniel Kretinsky have a reported combined net worth of £4.5 billion.

Having invested heavily in the playing squad over the last few years, it could be fair to say that they should have been pushing consistently for a top four place, reaching the latter stages of the Europa League and at least winning the FA Cup.

It will be interesting to see whether they can do any of these things over the next few years, with so much wealth clearly available to them and having already spent heavily on players.

Successes since 2012/13 Season

ClubMajor Trophies (Domestic League & Champions League)Squad Investment (to nearest million)
Manchester United1 (PL)£1.674 bn
Tottenham0£920 m
Manchester City4£1.731 bn
PSG10£1.483 bn
AC Milan1£929 m
RB Leipzig0£610 m
Valencia0£566 m
West Ham United0£820 m

While you could possibly make a case for quite a few more clubs to be included, the ones mentioned represent reasonable examples of those that really should probably have done more in terms of at least making a dent in the respective competitions that they have been in.

Interestingly, the table above provides a curious insight into the amount that clubs have spent and a conclusion could be made that those that have spent over £800 million, probably should have invested double that to at least having a hope.

There are of course many variables. Manchester City were and are an elite club – easily able to attract any player they want. However, while it looks like they spent a lot (indeed, the most), out of all the clubs mentioned, it could well be them who potentially got the best return (when considering the difficulty of the Premier League compared to Ligue 1).

It is also easy to suggest that the club spent at least £100 million on players every year, though this is not the case. There were two or three summers, where they would invest heavily into the squad to replace ageing players and then in the following years, just make a couple of additions, though still spending a considerable amount.

And, arguably, they made some very astute decisions. In the summer splurge of 2015, the club spent just over £200 million, with the nearly £70 million capture of Kevin De Bruyne proving to be one of the very best signings in the Premier League era. In 2019, they invested in the capture of Rodri for just over £60 million to plug the gap of veteran holding midfielder Fernandinho; a wise investment so far.

Indeed, in the summer of 2022, they took advantage of a clause in Haaland’s contract to snare arguably the best deal in the history of the transfer market (time will tell), for a shade over £50 million. Four Premier League titles, certainly isn’t a bad return. Despite this though, they really should have won the Champions League for the amount that the club spent.

Tottenham are a really interesting case. Having spent nearly £1 billion on players, many owners rightly would have expected a return for this and the question remains how long they can afford to keep this up.

What certainly seems to be true now, is that regardless of how much money a football club has to spend, there is a lot more to factor into a winning strategy than simply investing large transfer fees. This may well indeed become the new ‘norm’.

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