When Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan purchased Manchester City in 2008, the model for his ownership had already been laid down. A passel of superstar purchases, very little concern for business sense, and the titles would come.
It had worked for Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. But for both Abramovich's Chelsea and Sheikh Mansour's City, building that first title-winning team is the easy task. It takes a structured long-term plan to turn one title-winning team into a new one several years later. That still means buying expensive talent, but you need a mix of younger and peak-age players to lead the transition into the next great team. Chelsea struggled through this transition a few years ago because they failed to plan for it in advance. Now Manchester City may be making some of the same mistakes.
On Wednesday, Manchester City confirmed the signing of striker Wilfried Bony from Swansea City. The reported transfer fee is about £25M. Bony has excellent numbers this season, with eight non-penalty goals in about 1,400 minutes played. That rates out to about a goal every other match, very impressive at a mid-table side like Swansea. His underlying numbers are even better. I rate his shooting chances about 8.8 expected goals, so Bony's season cannot simply be chalked up to a hot run in shot conversion.
However Bony is 26, currently at his peak. His contract will carry him with the team until he is 30, likely into his decline years. Most of City's recent purchases, including Fernandinho (28 last summer), Jesús Navas (27), Álvaro Negredo (27) and Fernando (27) have been on the older end. Eliaquim Mangala and Stevan Jovetic, both 23 at their signings, stand out on the younger side.
In general, midfielders and forwards peak between the ages of 23-28, with midfielders tending to peak a little bit earlier.
The recent run of signings at City gives Manuel Pellegrini a roster with a lot more players on the declining curve of the graph than the rising side. For now, the club is winning games and is a lock for Champions League football again next year. It's hard to say there should be great worry on the blue side of Manchester. But what are the risks?
Chelsea here provides a good comparison. Abramovich started pouring money into the Blues for the 2003-2004 season. His spending focused on peak-age players for the most part, a sound strategy if the goal is to win now. The Blues made some silly purchases of big names clearly on the decline, in particular the 29-year-old Andriy Shevchenko, but the money and the mostly peak-age stars were enough to carry them through.
Eventually, however, decline did come. After winning a title in 2009-2010, the Blues averaged just 70 points per season the next three years, never really contending for the title, and staying in the Champions League only with a shock upset run to the CL title. If you look at Chelsea's purchasing in the years leading up to those seasons, you can see a club patching its holes with stars and not really building a foundation for the future.
The following chart shows Chelsea's transfer spending under Abramovich, smoothed into a three-year rolling average. By 2010, the Blues were spending almost none of their funds on the young players who might make up the next great Chelsea club. (All price data from transfermarkt.com.)
Following their short decline and the advent of financial fair play regulations, Chelsea changed their transfer strategy drastically. A focus on younger players to both rebuild the squad and to sell to fund other purchases developed. So far, the strategy looks a strong one.
Manchester City's graph bears some worrying similarities to what Chelsea looked like before the decline. The club is not buying the foundation of a new club in the age 20-22 subset, and their purchasing is focusing even more strongly on the late peak 26-28 age group. While City at first seemed to have learned some of the lessons of Chelsea's poor spending strategy, their recent acquisitions reflect a new form of risk-taking.
While City have avoided the more embarrassing missteps of Chelsea's Shevchenko and Fernando Torres purchases, they are currently building a club primarily by spending on players late in their peak years. And very little money is going toward buying the sort of young players who can form a new core in later seasons. At the same time, it appears they have not responded to the advent of FFP. Chelsea's graph shows an obvious inflection point with the imposition of FFP regulations, while on Manchester City's graph it might be a randomly-placed white line. It still remains to be seen if financial fair play rules will actually have effects, but at the very least planning for FFP to lack bite constitutes another form of risk-taking.
This year, Manchester City should be more than fine. And Chelsea shows that the downside risk for football's hyper-powers is likely not much worse than a few years out of the title race and maybe a season removed from the Champions League. But Chelsea's example still suggests a note of caution. It was Chelsea's failure to structure transfers around both short- and long-term goals that led to the club's short time in the (relative) wilderness. Manchester City seems to be running similar risks in their current transfer strategy.