Heart Of Football

Reds, Gunners no longer the big spenders

Liverpool versus Arsenal. There was a time when these were the two super powers of English football - when Anfield rocked with standing room only, when the last kick of the last game of the season won the league for the Gunners and stole it from Liverpool. That time passed, some 28 years ago.

Arsenal were then in the vanguard of the revolution towards the Premier League. And if any fixture reflects the change in financial power, it is today's contest.

Anfield is bigger, better, and wealthier in the all-seated era.

The Reds of Liverpool line up a front three of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.

Arsenal should have Alexis Sanchez, Alexandre Lacazette and Mesut Ozil together for the first, maybe the last, time.

A clock is ticking. Not only have the years eroded them but the omnipotence of these two clubs has long ended.

If you look and listen to the managers, Jurgen Klopp and Arsene Wenger, you sense their angst. Between now and Thursday, the last day of the summer transfer window, Liverpool could be forced to sell Philippe Coutinho and Arsenal to sell not only Sanchez but also Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

There are no paupers in the Premier League. How could there be when even Sunderland, the bottom club last season, banked £100 million from the TV pool and the prize money shared out among the 20 EPL clubs?

The buyers are at their gates. Barcelona have turned Coutinho's head by making one, two, three bids and persuading him to say that he no longer wants to play for Liverpool.

And Coutinho, the creator around whom the team were built, hasn't played since. A "back injury" is the stated reason.

Sanchez knows that Manchester City would pay him what Arsenal will not, and cannot without breaking their wage ceiling. And if not City, Chelsea would welcome Sanchez with an open cheque book.

Even the Ox, at times Arsenal's hardest runner in recent games, has rejected a pay offer of £180,000 (S$315,000) per week. Unless he doesn't read the papers or pick up the telephone, he knows that Chelsea (again) would pay him what he thinks he is worth.

So yes, times have changed. David Dein was the power behind the throne when Arsenal won the old Football League Division One back in '89.

That night at Anfield will remain forever in the memory of those of us who were there. It was a match delayed by a month because of the horrific tragedy of Hillsborough in which 96 Liverpool fans died.

When, finally, there was appetite enough to play the league decider, Liverpool were still heavy favourites for the title. It would have to lose by two clear goals at Anfield, and that had not happened in three seasons.

But it would. Arsenal led by a headed goal from Alan Smith, now a TV commentator. But the clock remained Liverpool's friend... until injury time. Then, after 91 minutes, Arsenal broke the length of the field and Michael Thomas toe-poked the ball over Bruce Grobbelaar.

George Graham's Gunners won the league. Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool were runners-up. And Thomas was later to change sides and become a Liverpool player.

What we didn't know then, what not even Dein, the mover and shaker of Arsenal and a leader of the Premier League breakaway knew was how profound the power shift would become.

Liverpool and Arsenal are these days both owned by Americans. But Americans are not the big noises, certainly not the big spenders, of the EPL.

Chelsea's oligarch Roman Abramovich threw roubles at the league. Man City's sheikhs of Abu Dhabi poured in petrodollars. Man United are fighting back with backing from the biggest portfolio of sponsors on earth. And there are outside forces, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain rubbing incredible financial sums between thumb and finger.

There are no paupers in the Premier League. How could there be when even Sunderland, the bottom club last season, banked £100 million from the TV pool and the prize money shared out among the 20 EPL clubs.

Sunderland surrendered that status in May. But like Hull and Middlesbrough, they get compensated with so-called parachute payments to ease their fall. The compensation is considerable - £47 million in 2017-18, £38 million in 2018-19, and £17 million should they still be below in the Championship in 2019-20.

If they wish to cash in by selling off players, that is their prerogative. And where dog eats dog, the relegated clubs have to sell, or choose to sell, their best players.

Hull's Harry Maguire is now a Leicester defender, Gaston Ramirez has fled Middlesbrough to pull the strings for Sampdoria's midfield in Italy, and Sunderland's fine young goalkeeper Jordan Pickford went for £30 million to Everton.

This is small change in the £2 billion summer window turnover of Premier League players. Yet, over and above that, when PSG broke the world record to entice Neymar from Barcelona, that money is bound to be recirculated while the market remains open.

Borussia Dortmund complained, but in the end sold Ousmane Dembele to Barca for approximately half the €222 million (S$359 million) that PSG paid to make Neymar far and away the world's costliest transfer.

The other half of that sum still burns in Barcelona's pocket. It will go to Anfield unless the Liverpool owners stick to their word and refuse to sell Coutinho.

Klopp is the manager in the middle of all this. He adores Coutinho, wants to keep him, but admits that the decision is not his.

"We have bosses," he said when this saga, and Coutinho's apparent back injury, began. "We feel the power of this club, of the people, the skills and all that stuff."

And can that power hold a player whose heart is set on Barcelona?

"It's not about us," Klopp said. "Sometimes it's all about the money."

Whether your money is on Liverpool or Arsenal tonight, the league in England is no longer all about them. They are neither the biggest players - nor payers - in the game.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 27, 2017, with the headline 'Reds, Gunners no longer the big spenders'. Print Edition | Subscribe