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Man City have declared all-out war on Premier League – and their rivals

Pep Guardiola with chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak - Man City have declared all-out war on Premier League – and their rivals

The Premier League clubs who break bread with their Manchester City counterparts at their annual general meeting in Yorkshire this week at least know now what they are up against: a complete demolition of the financial controls that protect the league’s competitiveness.

If there were any doubts then they were dispelled in the Premier League’s outline of its defence against City’s legal case circulated to clubs on Tuesday. English football is in a battle for survival against a club owned by an Abu Dhabi royal to spend everyone else into oblivion. City wish to blow up the rules that determine a fair value for commercial deals without which the league turns into an unfettered spending frenzy for those with unlimited wealth.

The description of the democracy of the Premier League’s super majority of 14, in which Bournemouth have the same voting power as Liverpool, as a “tyranny of the majority” was the document’s most telling phrasing. Drafted by a lawyer on behalf of City Football Group’s [CFG] principal owner Sheikh Mansour, a man born into a family of dynastic Emirati rulers, it at least gave an insight into the mindset behind it all.

Without serious controls on the value of commercial deals earned by clubs from entities in the same state from which that club’s owner originates – associated part transactions (APTs) as they are known – there can be no financial fair play. It is extraordinary that this still requires saying, And yet here we are, with one club trying to collapse the whole structure.

Since the Abu Dhabi-based 2008 takeover City’s commercial revenue has soared from €26 million in the last season before the sale, to €399 million in the most recent Deloitte audit. That figure for commercial income was just short of the €403 million earned by Real Madrid for the same 2022-2023 season.

Man City with Premier League trophy
Man City have won six of the past seven Premier League titles and eight of the past 13 - Getty Images/Alex Livesey

Without oversight of what Abu Dhabi entities like Etihad and e&, formerly Etisalat Group, pay to City; or Sela or others from Saudi Arabia pay to Newcastle United, there can be no profit and sustainability rules (PSR). The same PSR that has led to points deductions for Everton and Nottingham Forest, with more likely for Leicester City, are simply washed away. Neither can there be squad costs, the PSR successor, which is introduced in its place for 2025-2026, and will limit spending to a percentage of revenue.

Without robust APT rules, these are meaningless. A limit to spend 85 per cent of revenue on players costs becomes 85 per cent of whatever a club like City wants it to be. It would put no limit on their pursuit of the best players. It would put no limit on them signing players simply so that others could not have them.

Football works on a consensus that the primacy of the competition has to take priority. The outcome in six of the past seven Premier League seasons has been a City title, but at least those have been close run. On any given matchday there is jeopardy and surprise defeats. Without jeopardy there is no interest, and without interest there are not the broadcast deals upon which the Premier League has built its power.

‘They know dragging the Premier League to court does immeasurable damage’

The rise and fall of each dynasty – be it Liverpool, Manchester United or City – is what makes the game so compelling and without which is just the monotony of the same hegemony stretching out endlessly into the future.

The apologists’ argument is that it is all a conspiracy to keep the established elite in situ. If one was to assume that was the grand plan then one would have to say its execution has been far from perfect. City are currently the most dominant side in the history of English league football. All the rest of the game is asking is that they comply with the rules that they signed up to.

Project Big Picture and the European Super League have weakened the Premier League. The long delays in bringing the 115 charges against City for historical breaches of rules, including those over APTs, seems to have emboldened the vast legal resources at City’s disposal. Now they are on the attack. They wish to dismantle the dynamic that has made the Premier League less iniquitous and more successful than European rivals. Part of which is an acknowledgement that while some clubs are richer than others, none should be allowed unlimited owner-equity investment.

Those at City know this is fundamental to the success of the league, because many of them worked at the club – or at other clubs – before 2008. They know that all kinds of ownerships, big and small, must be encouraged to thrive by good regulation – because City too were once under an ownership of much more modest means. They will know that dragging the Premier League and their fellow clubs to court does immeasurable damage. Yet it would appear the edict from Abu Dhabi is irresistible.

The soft power of that Middle East fossil fuel wealth stretches to other owners of other clubs too, and it will be intriguing to see how they respond. Some have chosen to mollify CFG, the great mothership at which the Manchester entity sits at the centre. The Premier League is well past that point now. Clubs such as Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, who spend what they earn and try, can see a future in which they simply cannot compete.

Klopp Liverpool trophy
Under Jurgen Klopp Liverpool won a title and ran City close, but without the current rules in place can they continue to do so? - Reuters/Phil Noble

City meanwhile, have a squad to renew over the coming years with Kevin De Bruyne hinting this week at a potential summer departure. Other greats such as Kyle Walker, John Stones and Bernardo Silva are nearer to the end and soon perhaps Pep Guardiola and his sporting director Txiki Begiristain will decide they have done their time. Replacing them will not come cheap, and the commercial deals and renewals that are agreed in the next few years will be critical.

The Premier League’s pre-eminence has always been complex. An awkward, shifting coalition of 20 different partners. It has had its rebellions and its divides, but this is new. An attack from one of its members that suits only themselves and perhaps one other – at the expense of the success of all the rest.

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