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Overachievers and Underachievers

Overachievers and Underachievers: Snapshot of the 2023/24 season in the Big Five leagues

The 2023/24 European football season was a year of diverse achievements and unexpected outcomes in the Big Five leagues. From dominant performances to historic upsets, clubs navigated varied paths towards success or challenges.

This article examines the 2023/24 season’s highlights across financial and competitive metrics. It contrasts expectations with actual outcomes to identify the overachievers and underachievers of the season, through a comparison between financial figures and on-field performance.

Top 20 clubs by total operating revenue and their 2023/24 final league positions

The top three clubs by 2022/23 total operating revenue dominated their domestic leagues in 2023/24: Real Madrid CF (EUR 830.5m), Manchester City FC (EUR 826.0m), and Paris Saint-Germain FC (EUR 807.3m). Among the other league winners, FC Internazionale ranked only third by revenue in Serie A with EUR 385.9m, behind Juventus FC and AC Milan. Bundesliga winners Bayer Leverkusen instead do not make the list as financial statements were unavailable at the time of writing.

Rather than showcasing unexpected positive surprises and “dark horses”, the comparison between the top 20 revenue list and the final league positions highlights clubs that fell short of expectations and potential. Manchester United FC, second by revenue in the Premier League and fifth overall, finished the season in 8th place in the league. Similarly, 2022/23 Serie A champions SSC Napoli ended the season in 10th place.

Transfer market balance shaping expectations

The initial expectations for a season are often heavily influenced by transfer market activity. However, ending the season with a positive transfer market balance does not necessarily hinder a club’s sporting performance. On the other hand, largely negative transfer market balance due to an aggressive incoming transfer strategy does not guarantee success on the pitch either.

Atalanta BC exemplify a club that effectively combines a conservative approach in the transfer market with financial sustainability and on-pitch success. The Bergamaschi won the UEFA Europa League, secured a 4th place finish in Serie A, and reached the Coppa Italia final during the 2023/24 season, all while achieving the second-best result in terms of transfer market balance (+ EUR 83.5m) among the clubs in the Big Five leagues. Similarly, in Serie A, FC Internazionale made this list as well and secured the coveted second star by winning their 20th Scudetto.

Despite underwhelming performances in their respective domestic leagues, Borussia Dortmund and AS Roma mitigated the results of their season through their run in the European competitions. Borussia Dortmund reached the UEFA Champions League final, while AS Roma advanced to the UEFA Europa League semifinals.

This list is dominated by Premier League clubs, with Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid being the only exceptions.

Chelsea FC recorded the largest negative transfer market balance among the Big Five leagues (- EUR 204.7m), yet only managed a 6th place finish in the league, qualifying for the UEFA Europa Conference League play-off round.

Further down the standings, the significant transfer market expenditures of Bournemouth FC and Crystal Palace FC resulted in mid-table finishes, while Burnley FC’s spending was insufficient to avoid relegation.

Overachievers and Underachievers

Aston Villa FC, Girona FC, Bayer Leverkusen, VfB Stuttgart, Atalanta BC, Bologna FC, and AS Monaco FC are among the top overachievers of the 2023/24 season in the Big Five leagues.

Bayer Leverkusen ended Bayern München’s 11-season dominance streak in the Bundesliga by securing their first domestic league title. Remarkably, they are also the only club in history to complete a season unbeaten in Bundesliga. While Leverkusen’s financial statements are not available yet, it is worth highlighting that this major achievement occurred with a transfer market balance close to break even.

Stuttgart also finished ahead of Bayern München in the final standings and next year will take part in the UEFA Champions League for the first time since 2009/10. Similarly, in Ligue 1, Monaco finished right behind Paris Saint-Germain in the standings, qualifying for the final phase of the Champions League after missing out for four editions.

Aston Villa, 9th by total operating revenue in their league (EUR 243.7m), secured a top-four finish in the Premier League, earning qualification for the 2024/25 Champions League for the first time since 1982/83 ending their long absence from the major UEFA competition.

Moving on to LaLiga, Girona, part of the City Football Group, finished the season in 3rd position in the league table. The club (EUR 60.8m total operating revenue in 2022/23) outperformed more prominent clubs like Atlético de Madrid (EUR 403.4m total operating revenue in 2022/23) and achieved its first ever entry to the UEFA Champions League.

In the Italian Serie A, Atalanta further solidified Gian Piero Gasperini’s legacy by crowning their recent achievements with a title – the UEFA Europa League, won against the previously unbeaten Bayer Leverkusen in the Dublin final, after also defeating English powerhouse Liverpool FC during their run.

While Atalanta are gradually establishing themselves as regular contenders for top table finishes in Serie A, consistently outperforming other historical sides, Bologna aim to close the gap on the pitch with Italian top clubs soon. Under the management of Thiago Motta and Sporting Director Giovanni Sartori — who previously worked his wonders at Atalanta BC — the club achieved a historic 5th place finish in the domestic league, their best placement since 1971. This achievement has also earned them a spot in the final phase of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in their history.

These major achievements can also be tracked by observing improvements in squad values and social media followers. All the overachievers show a growth trend in these areas. Girona (+95%), Stuttgart (+90%), and Bologna (+50%) recorded the most remarkable increases in squad values compared to the beginning of the season. Moreover, Girona (+79%), Bayer Leverkusen (+63%), and Atalanta (+40%) experienced the most significant growth in social media followers.

Manchester United FC, Chelsea FC, Sevilla FC, FC Bayern München, SSC Napoli, AS Roma and Olympique de Marseille are among the top underachievers of the 2023/24 season in the Big Five leagues.

As anticipated, the Red Devils and the Blues fell short of expectations, especially considering their transfer market investments and their prominence in European football in terms of operating revenue and historical heritage. Despite finishing 8th in the Premier League, Manchester United managed to secure UEFA Europa League qualification by winning the FA Cup, whereas Chelsea will take part in the UEFA Europa Conference League, starting their campaign from the preliminary rounds only.

In the Spanish LaLiga, Sevilla FC, the 4th Spanish club by total operating revenue (EUR 215.6m), only managed a 14th place finish in the domestic league, missing out on European competition qualifications.

Moving on to Bundesliga, a 3rd place finish in the domestic league and the UEFA Champions League semifinal might not seem underwhelming, unless we are talking about Bayern München and a few other clubs of the European football landscape. The Bavarians ended their 11-season streak of domestic titles and did not even finish as runners-up. The pressing question is whether the club will immediately reclaim their domestic dominance in the upcoming seasons, or if Xabi Alonso’s tenure at Bayer Leverkusen will extend Bayern’s hiatus.

Napoli, fourth in total operating revenues among Italian clubs (EUR 275.1), recorded the worst points tally in Italian football history the season after winning the Scudetto. The Partenopei finished 10th and missed out on the qualification to European competitions. However, ahead of the beginning of the 2024/25 season, the hiring of Antonio Conte – four-time Scudetto winner in his career out of five full seasons in Serie A and the only manager along with Jürgen Klopp and José Mourinho to secure a domestic title in a league where Pep Guardiola was also competing – signals the club’s intent to return to the top of the standings in the upcoming season.

Roma and Olympique de Marseille closed the season 6th and 8th in their respective leagues. This is especially sub-par for OM which are the second-best club in Ligue 1 in terms of total operating revenue (EUR 258.4m). However, both clubs somehow mitigated the unsatisfactory domestic results reaching the semifinals of the UEFA Europa League. It is also worth noting that the Giallorossi are the only club among underachievers with a positive transfer market balance (+ EUR 68.8m), since the approach of the club on the transfer market was at least in part influenced by the 4-year period settlement agreement in place with UEFA after the violation of the UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Sustainability Regulations.

In contrast to the overachievers, the underachievers saw a decline or stagnation in squad value since the beginning of the season. However, social media followings have continued to increase. Sevilla FC (+63%) and AS Roma (+27%) were the only clubs to achieve significant growth in this area.

Real Madrid’s consistency in a season of surprises

The 2023/24 season saw a breath of fresh air across all competitions, highlighted by Borussia Dortmund, Atalanta BC, Bayer Leverkusen, ACF Fiorentina, and Olympiacos FC making it to the finals of the three European competitions, alongside other clubs exceeding expectations in their domestic leagues. Despite this extremely dynamic season, one constant standout was undoubtedly Real Madrid CF.

Real Madrid dominated the season by clinching their 36th LaLiga title and securing their 15th Champions League trophy. However, their success extends way beyond the pitch, as the global reach and brand stature of Real Madrid transcend that of a mere football club. This global impact is also evident in their social media following, with Los Blancos currently leading as the most followed football club worldwide, boasting 428 million followers, and experiencing a remarkable growth of 45 million followers (+12%) since the start of the 2023/24 season.

Real Madrid are setting the pace in the social media landscape also at the players’ level. 2023 Golden Boy winner Jude Bellingham and Vinicius Junior each amassed over 20 million new followers, placing them among the top players in terms of follower growth since the season’s inception.

Overall, out of the 15 players on this list, 10 were affiliated with Real Madrid during the 2023/24 season. With Sergio Ramos, a former Real Madrid player, and Kylian Mbappé, now joining Los Blancos and currently valued at EUR 244 million according to the Football Benchmark Player Valuation platform as of June 2024, the only exceptions to this trend include Erling Haaland, Phil Foden, and João Félix.

As observed in this season review of the Big Five leagues, 2023/24 marked a transformative period in European football, where different clubs pursued diverse objectives from championship glory to other milestones. Only time will tell if achieving significant results can be consistently paired with financial soundness over an extended period. Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether the current shift in football towards clubs currently forging their sporting legacy will persist, with only a handful of traditional powerhouses maintaining their foothold at the pinnacle of the football landscape.

This article was produced by Football Benchmark.