The Elite within the Footballing Elite

The Elite within the Footballing Elite

December 2018 | Sport

Spurs may be the world's 10th richest football club, but the hype linking Mauricio Pochettino to Old Trafford shows their rivals are in a different league.

After decades of underachieving, Tottenham Hotspur are having their best season for more than 30 years. They're third in the league, with a higher points tally than any other season in the Premier League era. The team is still young, but has plenty of experience and look to be on the verge of winning trophies after years of drought. Next year, they will be moving into one of the best stadiums in England to match their state of the art training facilities.

Yet, fans are openly panicking about the future of the club. Especially after Manchester United sacked Jose Mourinho last week. Their bright young manager, Mauricio Pochettino, is openly being talked about as the next person to step into the Old Trafford hot seat. If he goes, there is the nagging suspicion that he will take many of his team with him. This fear is not baseless as both United and Real Madrid have a long history of stealing Spurs' best players. The current squad have been spared from this due to the presence of regular champions league football, but this may not last. There are already question marks about whether Christian Eriksen will extend his contract beyond next season, and Toby Alderwiereld was heavily linked to a move to United in the summer.

Many observers question whether the club have the financial resources to push to the next level, and become regular trophy winners. The current squad were largely assembled on the cheap, with the few big money purchases balanced by player sales. A failure to strengthen over the summer has contributed to this concern. While young players are coming through, a genuine title challenge will require major signings in several key areas, most notably attack where the team are overly reliant on Harry Kane for goals. However, costs associated with the new stadium are likely to curtail budgets for the foreseeable future, as Arsenal also experienced after building the Emirates.

Media Expectations

The media expectation that Pochettino will inevitably pack up and move to Old Trafford has annoyed both Spurs fans and the club. Sections of the media are talking as if it is a done deal on the basis that the Argentine has not immediately rejected United's advances. Spurs have been here before. Real Madrid made a big money offer for Pochettino over the summer that he turned down. He is settled at Spurs and has been given total control over all footballing matters with Levy restricting his influence to financial and business concerns. The club don't even have a Director of Football, despite pioneering the role in the English game.

Contrast this with the turmoil of a Manchester United hierarchy still living in the shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson. One of Jose Mourinho's primary complaints was the interference of Edward Woodward in transfer policy. He vetoed several deals over the summer for footballing rather than financial reasons much to the manager's displeasure. Their scouting network and backroom is a mess due to neglect from a succession of managers who have no interest in such matters. To sort the situation, United intend to appoint a Director of Football. Former Spurs Head of Recruitment, Paul Mitchell, is in the frame for that job in part because he has an excellent relationship with Pochettino. Both men will want assurances that they will be given free rein before even considering leaving their current jobs for Old Trafford. It's not just Woodward that they will be worried about in this regard, Ferguson still has a seat in the United boardroom. Pochettino may yet stay and wait for the next opportunity at a super elite club. The only job he's ruled out ever taking is Barcelona due to his past association with Espanyol. Real Madrid's interest in him is as strong as ever.. Time is on his side, and a lot will depend on when he believes that he has taken Spurs as far as he can.

Big is not Enough

Throughout all this, it is worth remembering that Tottenham Hotspur are still a massive club. They're the 10th or 11th biggest club in world football, depending on whether you believe Forbes or Deloitte. In Premier League terms, they're the sixth biggest club roughly equivalent in size to Manchester City. However, their revenues are still £100m lower than the other top 6 clubs. That's not an easy gap to make up, but no other club in the Premier League has the potential to do it. Daniel Levy speaks of Spurs as a project, with the end goal of joining the European elite as equals to Manchester United or Real Madrid. The club have made massive strides towards achieving that goal, with his investment in a new Stadium and training facilities intended to attract top tier players and supercharge match day revenue. This was the primary reason behind building a new stadium - the 36,000 capacity of White Hart Line simply wasn't large enough for a club with Spurs's ambition. The club's old facilities were run down, and simply couldn't compare to those offered by their rivals.

A new stadium are only part of the solution. Even City with their wealthy Emirati owners have only been able to close the financial gap by breaking the rules, as recent press reports reveal. Exactly how much difference the extra capacity and upgraded facilities will make to the club's cashflow is unknown, but it will definitely help. The emergence of a top 4 monopoly in the early 2000s was not a coincidence. It was a reflection of the financial realities of the time. Spurs typically finished 5th, because this reflected their position in the financial league at a time when equivalent status clubs were being badly run. Extended that top 4 into a top 6 without first closing the money gap indicates that Pochettino's men are overperforming on the pitch.

A Global League

A comparison with other top leagues is even starker. Manchester United are the richest club in the world, only Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich come close to matching them. The Bayern comparison is a particularly pertinent one given that Spurs closest continental peers are the other top German clubs such as 04 Schalke. Much has been written over the years, about how Bayern's dominance in the Bundesliga has been sustained by their ability to poach the best players of their rivals at will. This is because they are 2-3 times richer than any other German club, with the fanbase to match. The same pattern exists in the other top leagues, and the result is that most European leagues are dominated by one or two clubs.

Ironically, the sheer wealth of the Premier League has helped mitigate this problem by spreading the wealth across all the top clubs. United are 50% wealthier than the other top English clubs, but the law of diminishing returns means this is not reflected on the pitch. If the financial position of the Premier League were to deteriorate then their dominance of the 90s could return backed by their extensive global fanbase. The London clubs would be harder hit by a decline in TV revenues than United. Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool do have worldwide fanbases but they are nothing compared to the scale of the support for Manchester United. In large parts of the world, there is only one Manchester club, and it's not City. The Premier League's popularity is based on the fast and pressing style of play, and as the most successful club in that league, United have the most overseas fans. It is going to be a very long time before another club can hope to close the gap.

Written by Alan Chatfield