Why Manchester United should have stuck with David Moyes

Opinion: What makes a successful football club?

 ‘What matters is the size of the wage bill.’ Fans take a picture of a statue for former Manchester United manager David Moyes. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

‘What matters is the size of the wage bill.’ Fans take a picture of a statue for former Manchester United manager David Moyes. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Wed, Apr 30, 2014, 12:01

It hardly matters who succeeds David Moyes as manager of Manchester United. It hardly matters even to Manchester United supporters. What matters most to the success of clubs in the English Premier League is not really the manager or even the huge amount of money spent on transfer fees – the evidence is that this is largely wasted. What matters is the size of the wage bill.

This determined 92 per cent in the variation of the league positions of the Premiership clubs during the period 1991 to 2000, according to data published in Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. It doesn’t quite explain variations on a year-to- year basis (the correlation is only 70 per cent), because of the luck factor which evens out over time.

Manchester United was the most successful club in the Premiership in the period 1998-2007 and during this time it paid a multiple of 3.16 in wages, compared with the average in the Premiership during this time. Chelsea paid a higher multiple, 3.50, during this period, but that was one of the few blips in the table showing the average league position and the wage spending relative to the average spending of all clubs.

Hardly ever does success come via the transfer market, perhaps with Manchester City excepted. While at Liverpool Rafael Benitez spent €147 million net in the transfer market between 2004 and 2009, that is €147 million more in transfer fees than he recouped in the sale of players. During that time Alex Ferguson at Manchester United spent a net €33 million. In that period Manchester United won three Premiership titles and Liverpool won none.

Brian Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor at Nottingham Forest from 1975 to 1993 were probably the best ever in playing the transfer market and one of their great coups was in buying Roy Keane from Cobh Ramblers for the equivalent of €57,000 in 1990 and selling him to Manchester United in 1992 for the equivalent of €4.5 million. One of their ruses, Soccernomics relates, was to buy players with personal problems – they usually came at bargain prices – then help them get over their personal problems and sell them on. They used to ask a player who they were thinking of engaging: “Let’s hear your vice before you sign. Is it women, booze, drugs or gambling?”

Based on data the authors and others have assembled, Soccernomics claims: “The vast bulk of managers appear to have almost no impact on their teams’ performance and do not last very long in the job. They seem to add so little value that it is tempting to think they could be replaced by their secretaries, or their chairmen, or stuffed teddy bears, without the club’s league position changing.” Jamie Carragher, the recently retired Liverpool defender, is quoted as saying: “If you assemble a squad of players with talent and the right attitude and character, you’ll win more football matches than you lose, no matter how inventive your training sessions, what systems you play, what team talks you give.”

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