It’s one of the quirks of our economy that once a commercial enterprise gets big enough, it pretty much takes care of itself.
Sure, every now and then you get a Carillion or Lehmann Brothers-type case – the collapse of a bona fide giant – but for the most part, wealth on such a vast scale is effectively self-sustaining: simply being at the top is enough to stay there.
Nowhere is this more true than in the world of football. For Lehmann Brothers or Carillion, read Leeds United or Aston Villa: collapses can happen, but are rare exceptions that prove the rule.
For the large part, the few clubs at the top of the game have set up fort, raised the drawbridge and are sitting merrily back as the money comes rolling in. While the wider world – and many a lower-league club – sits in the grip of recession-era austerity, football’s fat cats have never had it so good.
Chelsea, for instance, have Roman Abramovich to thank for their initial clamber to the top, but nowadays boast the eighth highest revenues of any club in the world (a sum they aim to double over the next decade).
In recent years Chelsea have blown £50m on Fernando Torres, £35m on Michy Batshuayi and £56m on Alvaro Morata, who they’re paying £155,000 a week to plod forlornly around up front. But such squanderings are negated, not by Abramovich's fortune but by the club’s broadcasting and marketing income, earned year on year simply by dint of being Chelsea FC.
Which brings us, of course, to Manchester United – the world’s highest-earning club, with annual revenues around the £600m mark, and the ultimate example of how, for football’s lucky few, wretched financial wastefulness needn’t be incompatible with staggering commercial success.
No club has exploited the endlessly lucrative potential of the Premier League era like United. Under Alex Ferguson, they timed their rise to coincide perfectly with the expansion and globalisation of England’s top division, and rarely missed a chance to monetise their success.
That knack has remained – United currently have somewhere between 50 and 70 sponsorship deals – and the club’s alarming post-Fergie tailspin hasn’t prevented them from getting richer each year, buying up the world’s most famous players and handing out the biggest wages in the business.
Yet it’s hard to overstate just how badly United have spent their money in the years since Ferguson’s retirement. For starters, the current squad contains four unremarkable bit-parters in Luke Shaw, Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini and Victor Lindelof, a quartet acquired for just shy of £150m.
Angel Di Maria, Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay were all bought for enormous sums and sold a year later at a loss. At one stage the club parted with £16m to take an injured Falcao on loan for a single bleak season, throughout which, to no one’s great surprise, he was hopeless.
These are merely the worst examples of transfer dealings that have incurred the club a net cost of half a billion pounds during a five-year period when they’ve plummeted from reigning champions to sixth. United will be hoping that Alexis Sanchez, the 29-year-old to whom they’ve handed a four-and-a-half-year contract worth somewhere between a third and half a million pounds a week, will not join that list.
Yet despite this reckless extravagance United’s coffers have remained bulgingly full, and thanks to this financial clout – beating rivals to Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku, re-signing David de Gea – they are, at long last, clawing themselves back up the table. They’ll almost certainly be back in the top four come the end of this season, and will sure as hell be splashing the cash in the summer to safeguard their place there. United, like Apple or Facebook or KPMG, are simply too big to fail.
Set against this are Wednesday's opponents, Tottenham Hotspur, the shrewdest and most well-run club in the division. Now Spurs are no minnows – and their majority shareholder, Joe Lewis, is no pauper – but in a transfer market where lavish loss-making has become the norm, they have made a net profit on such fees in six of the last eight seasons (the only top-flight club to do so in 2016) and made £59.5m profit since 2009/10. Nor is any of this compromised by wages: Spurs are famously stringent with salaries – Dele Alli, for instance, earns less than half as much as Ashley Young.
So well done them. But more impressive than this is that Spurs have done all this while continuing to improve. During the above timeframe, their league positions have been: 4th, 5th, 4th, 5th, 6th, 5th, 3rd and 2nd. Under Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs have weaved together quite the team: young, exciting, with a British core and spearheaded by a local-born superstar – they are, in short, every fan’s dream.
While Jose Mourinho’s MO is to buy ready-made A-listers who will deliver in the here and now, and to sell them sharpish if they don’t, Pochettino buys raw youngsters and, over time, makes them better. Some, like Kyle Walker, leave and net Spurs a healthy profit. Others, like Harry Kane and Dele Alli, stay and produce the goods on the pitch. It’s win-win.
Except it isn’t. Because while Spurs made a run at the title two years ago and finished second last term, this year they may well fail to make the top four. Which isn’t to say they’ve not continued to impress: Davinson Sanchez has been a terrific addition; Hugo Lloris, Son Heung-min and Christian Eriksen continue to excel; Kane’s heroics are unrelenting. They remain a thrilling side capable of beating anyone, as fans of Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid will testify.
Yet although Spurs could not be doing any more than they already are, the simple truth is that they are losing ground; that other, richer clubs have bobbed ominously upwards recently. They are having another fine season, yet they’re fifth. If United are too big to fail, Spurs seem too small to succeed.
Both have done their utmost to prove that statement wrong, but neither has managed it. United, who have spent five years chucking money around like a drunk in a casino, are finally gravitating back towards the top of the table while Tottenham, who have wrung about as much value from their budget as is humanly possible, could well be competing in next season’s Europa League.
Which makes you wonder: what’s the purpose of sport? If it’s to provide spectacle and entertainment, then the Premier League is certainly doing that – and Wednesday’s game, with plenty of talent on show, will likely offer plenty of both.
But if you see sport’s purpose as being to reward excellence, to strip away privilege and provide a meritocratic platform where every champion has earned their title, well, perhaps England’s top flight isn’t the place to look.
Because in the Premier League, as Spurs are fast learning, it pays to be rich.