Chelsea vs. Manchester City payroll breakdown: Champions League final is a battle of super-rich clubs

If you sit back and think about it, we should’ve probably all seen this Manchester City vs. Chelsea matchup coming in the 2021 UEFA Champions League final.

And how ironic it is that in the same year that the ill-fated (but not yet defunct) Super League concept was thrust upon the soccer world, that fans are now treated to a final showcasing two of the deepest pockets in global soccer — in fact, two Super League founders before they withdrew under public pressure.

Yet the fact that Chelsea and Manchester City are battling for the most prestigious trophy in club soccer is not just a product of the deep pockets of their respective owners. It’s that those deep pockets have been investing and building their respective clubs for years now. It’s the result of asset accumulation and compounding wealth.

And to assign hedge fund terminology to soccer clubs is not to somehow characterize what has transpired as sinister in any way. It’s actually quite the opposite: Those two ownership groups were yes, rich, but also bold, visionary and persistent. They stuck to a plan, whether or not the ball bounced their way.

Chelsea set blueprint, ManCity supersize it

When the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich took over Chelsea in 2003, the novelty of the benefactor owner captured the imagination of fans and it would serve to ignite the rush of foreign investment into club soccer in England and across Europe. Abramovich made headlines by his seeming desire to invest whatever it took to make Chelsea a world power.

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The approach was emboldened by the Galacticos era at Real Madrid a few years before. The Spanish giants made headlines of their own by gobbling up as many big stars as they could get their hands on beginning in 2000. That strategy turned Real Madrid into a global marketing and money-making machine. The experiment helped to evolve the concept of a soccer club as a global brand and it accelerated the evolution of the yet untapped business potential of the sport.

Back at Chelsea, as the trophies began trickling in under Abramovich, so too did new faces investing in the sport and looking to compete with him. A few years after Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, took over Manchester City in September 2008. But his plan was even grander than Abramovich’s.

The new ManCity owners similarly invested in the roster and the club’s infrastructure and youth development academy, but they went one step further. The Abu Dhabi Group began investing in clubs around the world, building a soccer network — more like a soccer empire, coined City Football Group — from Australia to the USA, Japan and South America. The various teams would share assets, collaborate and grow by working together.

Showdown of soccer super powers

About 15 or 20 years ago few would have imagined a Chelsea vs. Manchester City final in the Champions League. It’s no surprise today. The two clubs have continued to spend and invest massive amounts of money over the span of years.

In the cash-rich Premier League, there were two clubs that finished the 2010-2020 decade as the leaders in player transfer spending. You guessed it: Manchester City and Chelsea.

And in last summer’s 2020 transfer window, while other clubs played the market conservatively in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, that was not the name of the game for these two clubs. Once again, it was Chelsea and Manchester City finishing No. 1 and No. 2 in summer transfer spending, per Sky Sports.

A look at their Champions League final squads (see table below) is a glimpse into the behemoths they have become. A total of $759 million in transfer fees have allowed Chelsea to build a 25-man first team that’s today worth about $100 million more. Manchester City’s 24-man squad for the Champions League cost them over $1 billion.

And both teams are not just spending to acquire players. Their world-class infrastructure is allowing them to develop top talents with Phil Foden ($88 million per Transfermarkt) and Mason Mount ($82.5 million) among the most valuable young players in the world. The end result? Between the two, they have claimed 8 of the last 12 English Premier League titles.

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But the term “spending” belittles their strategy. In reality, both clubs are investing. Chelsea and Manchester City are in the Top 10 in the world in revenue (per Deloitte 2021 rankings). It’s success begetting success. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that has made the clubs more powerful as the seasons have progressed and they stick to their strategy. The financial difficulties brought on by the pandemic, which have weakened a handful of their competitors, have only worked to expand the gap between the two clubs and the purported chasing pack.

To think this is only Manchester City’s first trip to the Champions League final. It’s the third for Chelsea. And their runs to the final has earned each around another $100 million and untold more in global exposure they can leverage.

This is probably only the start. The trends point to Manchester City and Chelsea hoisting trophies as an annual rite of spring. They’ll be here again. It’s exactly what the blueprint was designed to accomplish.

Chelsea and Manchester City UEFA Champions League final squads below with reported transfer fees (in millions) paid per player and the current market value as determined by Transfermarkt.

Chelsea FC Squad

Manchester City FC

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