Sunday's juicy contest between Arsenal and Manchester City will likely have real implications for the top of the Premier League standings.
A loss in the late game on a twin bill of titanic clashes would seriously damage City's title chances if Manchester United also beat Liverpool in the early game. If Liverpool were to win that game, however, and City were to beat Arsenal, the Citizens would be just four points out of first place. The Gunners, meanwhile, could find themselves seven points removed from the coveted third and fourth places, which offer a place in next year's UEFA Champions League and the riches and glory it offers. And they would suddenly have a new direct rival in that race in Liverpool, who would match them on points.
But the subtext of this affair is possibly even more intriguing, acting as the latest referendum on an argument that will ring true to observers of recent American politics. On the one side stand City, who spend like there's no tomorrow, in spite of their claims that they want to address their structural budget deficit in the long run. On the other stand Arsenal, who worry only about tomorrow, and are so fiscally conservative that it hurts them in the present.
As you might have guessed, the fiscally conservative don't typically fare well in the world's biggest and most spendthrift league.
In their seminal work Soccernomics , Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski establish that the correlation between a team's payroll (rather than its transfer outlay) and its finishing position in the standings is about 90 per cent.
Arsenal's payroll last season was $229 million (60.9% of their overall revenue) and they ended third, 19 points behind City and United. City's was a Premier League record $322 million (87% of revenue - down from a startling 113% the year prior) and they won the championship over United (whose payroll for 2011-12 was $256 million) on the strength of an extra time goal by Sergio Aguero in their final game of the season.
City have quickly spent their way to the top since Sheikh Mansour and his endless well of oil money took control of the club in 2008. They ran a $230 million loss on transfer fees during the last three summer transfer windows alone. Arsenal, by contrast, made a transfer profit of about $50 million over that period as part of more than the $1.5 billion the Emirati has pumped into the club in order to buy superstars David Silva, Yaya Toure, Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli, among many others. City have run some $475 million in losses over just the last two seasons, but Mansour expects no returns beyond wins.
Even when they needed no further players, City have gone out and gotten more. Before the season, manager Roberto Mancini insisted he needed some depth in his already stacked squad, so Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair were bought in short order to provide some cover. They cost a cumulative $54 million, about what Arsenal spent on three new starters, but have combined for just 11 starts in 21 games.
Arsenal, meanwhile, relies on home-grown (or at least home-raised) talent like Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, mercurial wingers picked up young before they became unaffordable, like Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, and whatever they find in the transfer market's discount bins. This year, that yielded Santi Cazorla, a gem of a playmaker priced down by Malaga's financial troubles; Lukas Podolski, a gifted German striker who has had a meandering career, never quite sticking at the top; and Olivier Giroud, a largely untested French striker who has proved second rate. Arsenal's $63 million outlay for them looks respectable on paper, but it was almost exactly the amount the club received for selling two of its best players, striker Robin van Persie (who went to United) and midfielder Alex Song - making the net effect of the transfer window dealings a wash both on the field and the balance sheet. That's the Arsenal way.
Arsenal, unlike City and Chelsea , can't compete by the grace of their ability to absorb heavy losses, written off by their sheikh and oligarch owners. Nor can they produce the kind of revenue generated by Manchester United and their global brand - although United are bogged down by the service fees on the enormous debts the American Glazer family leveraged against the club when acquiring it. Arsenal have a very rich owner too - Stan Kroenke, also an American, is estimated to be worth $4 billion - but one with a powerful distaste for flagrant spending. To wit, Arsenal posted a $58 million operating profit for the 2011-12 season.
When Arsenal did take on debt, they did so not to land better players and win things immediately, but to build a gleaming new stadium that would boost revenues in the future and help it compete. That's been Arsenal lately: the club of tomorrow, never today. They are forever the young upstart team that is a year and a player or two away from being a championship contender. But tomorrow never comes. Minutes before midnight, the likes of City cherry pick their best two or three players and Arsenal are left to rebuild.
But most galling to their fans, Arsenal also haven't been the club of yesterday. It's been nine years since Arsenal won the Premier League and eight years since they won anything at all. This season promises to offer no solace. Arsenal were knocked out of the League Cup by a club in the fourth tier and were almost eliminated in the third round of the FA Cup last Sunday. They sit in sixth, 18 points out of first place in the league and three grueling rounds stand between them and the Champions League final, another target that's no longer realistic.
In Sunday's clash of ideologies, the money is with, and on, City.