Fans eager to make a point can tell us a lot about selective use of data in long-running disagreements

You never have to look far in life before you find a dispute. Most recently I stumbled upon a classic dispute in the comment section of an online sports article. It was a common tussle trying to explain why a particular team has been successful (or unsuccessful) over some period or other. Most the disagreements centre around money and who has it.

There was a debate about how much money had been spent on transfer fees and whether or not this has resulted in success on the pitch. Although most comments are entirely unsubstantiated and often wrong, there are stats out there which you can draw on if you know where to look, such as German-based football information website

However, that is only the start of the debate. How many seasons do you consider? Do you just look at expenditure or do you look at net spend? Having played around with the various figures, whether you make the data set the last one, two, three, four or five seasons, the top three biggest spenders overall always include both of Manchester United and Chelsea.

If you go for net spend instead, it is generally Manchester United and Chelsea again. That said, Chelsea actually made a profit on transfers in the season 19/20 and 21/22.

What? No Manchester City you cry? On a five-year net spend view they’re down in 13th – below Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers. They also made a net profit in player transactions more recently.

People can use one figure to prove their point, but things are often much more complicated than that! A starting point is actually getting the right data and then deciding which bits of it are relevant, as well as trying to work out what timeframe should be adopted.

As ever, transfer fees are not the whole story: there’s also wages, particularly in the post Bosman era which means free transfers are more frequent and contracts have buyout clauses and clubs are competing on wages. Unless of course the buyout clauses are for stupid money – five players in Europe are said to have release clauses of €1 billion.

The problem with wages is the figures quoted can vary wildly. I found two articles not so far apart in publishing dates which respectively described Manchester City’s annual wage bill as £163.1 million and £335 million. I was then introduced by a colleague to the genius (and more scientific approach) of SwissRamble – a blog which analyses club finances. SwissRamble put City’s total wages in the three years up to 2021 at £1 billion – and no doubt Erling Haaland’s wages could have nudged up the annual figure since then (the recently reported suggestion being that he is on nearly £900,000 a week). Put in context, Haaland’s annual wage is roughly equivalent to the transfer fee Man City paid for him.

So what does this teach us about disputes? Sometimes it is the unwillingness or inability to get the facts, sometimes the tactical exclusion or myopic view of them and sometimes it is interpreting them incorrectly. And, no doubt, sometimes it is something completely different!

By the way, go back and look at the figures from 08/09 (when Manchester City was bought by their current owners) to present and the biggest spenders in Europe are… Manchester City (£2.06 billion) and the biggest net spenders in Europe are… Manchester City (-£1.29 billion). Perhaps City got better at spending their money over time or perhaps they sold some of the players they bought before, so their net spend has fallen recently.

I should mention that I have no skin in this game. My beloved Oxford United over that period spent £1.62 million with a net profit of £15.98 million which just about kept them afloat (for comparison, Manchester City’s U18’s team spent £23.41 million and had a net loss of £3.79 million).

Richard Norridge
Richard Norridge
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