Chief executive Ferran Soriano predicts success at Manchester City if 'vision' of 'City players' is followed
Chief executive says trophies will come if a 'core' of suitable players is in place, he tells Ian Herbert
Ferran Soriano is sitting at the top of the world – in the vast, airy "SoHi" room at the peak of a New York hotel with views across the place he calls "the greatest city in the world," having momentarily left Manchester out of the mental equation.
This is the first chance to engage with the man whose task in converting Abu Dhabi millions into sustained Premier League and Champions League success for Manchester City is the most challenging job in European football. First impressions include his meticulous command of the language of English business – that modern way of prefacing answers with "so," – and a less suspicious approach to those who want to write about his club than had been expected from one who has kept such a very low profile. He confides, before we talk, how half his working life in Barcelona was consumed by courting the newspapers Sport and Mundo Deportivo who have such an influence on the members, or socios, who vote in the president every four years. "In Britain, you're less interested in people like me," he says, which is a long way from the truth of it.
Soriano has hardly started our 45-minute discussion when he provides the detail which reveals most about his approach at Manchester City. His first day in the job – 1 September last year – entailed watching the side beat Queen's Park Rangers 3-1, he reveals. And on the second day he was flying to New York to begin the task of securing for Abu Dhabi the 20th Major League Soccer franchise, which was announced here this week. The chief executive-designate at Old Trafford, Ed Woodward, is a confident and hugely capable individual but you imagine he would want more than 24 hours to get his feet under a Manchester boardroom table.
Time will tell how wise the establishment of a "mini-Man City" in New York will actually be. Some in the football industry say that trying to run a foreign club simultaneously is a distraction. But Soriano's utter conviction in the philosophy he wants for City does not appear to require hours agonising over small details back at the Etihad. He is to the point in everything – just ask City staff about how succinct their emails have become in the last nine months – and does not waste time on those who, like the departed manager Roberto Mancini, believe they can challenge the authority of a club. It was why Soriano always hated the idea of signing Jose Mourinho as Frank Rikjaard's successor at Barcelona, opting for Pep Guardiola instead, and while he is deferential about the man he again calls a campeon (champion), it is clear Mancini just did not buy into the agenda.
"We were not very worried about this public criticism," Soriano says of Mancini's utterances. "It is something we don't like but we are not going to hide. If somebody wants to criticise, it is their problem. What we do want to say is that none of the criticisms out there were, in my mind, real."
It also went deeply against the grain of a collaborative philosophy City are seeking to inculcate to see Mario Balotelli in a public ruck with Mancini on the training pitch. "Maybe it is a cultural thing," Soriano says of Balotelli's behaviour. "I am not an Italian. I am Catalan. But I am closer to that culture, so I knew from the first minute I saw the photos that there was nothing to worry about. But, yes, I was worried about the image we were giving to the world."
Mancini also gave the message to the world – frequently so – that City were slow in last summer's transfer market, though Soriano does not buy that argument, either. "I think, personally, it is unfair to criticise anybody for what happened last summer. It's not only the desire of the manager, it's the market, the competition, the prices. And, by the way, regardless of all of this, the squad we have is a fantastic squad – not only in England, in Europe, so nobody should complain about the players we have."
The vision the chief executive has is of a Manchester City in which the players are bound together in the cause, having worked at it together for years – very much Sir Alex Ferguson's philosophy. "The objective – the vision – is to have a team where at least half of the players will be 'City players'," Soriano says. "A 'City' player will be like Joe Hart, who has been there a while. They love the club and can be the core of the squad. So that when a young boy or a marquee signing comes, he knows there are some people who are going to tell him, 'This is City, this is how we play, this is how we behave'. They are the core of the team. So, the vision is that we will have at least half of the team as this core and we will be adding players every year as we need them. The players might come from other clubs, continents, cultures, but we have to have stability in the culture and the way we play."
And – drawing another aspect of the philosophy which made Ajax and Barcelona great – the way of playing – 4-3-3 – will be technically proficient. "The only way to win is to play good football," Soriano adds. "You can win one year playing not so good football and being lucky and having two extraordinary players but that's not sustainable. You can't go to the market every year and buy the most expensive players."
Soriano volunteers that he would not swap his players for United's. "It would be very hard for us to change the players for any others in the UK and that includes the champions of the league," he says. "We don't need to change our players for other players [in the UK]."
The question is how, with an academy which seems a few years off creating the production line Soriano enjoyed at Barcelona, City really can compete with the twin challenges of the Old Trafford commercial juggernaut and the strictures of Financial Fair Play. "It's fair to say United have been very successful in the past but we are catching up very fast," he says. "And I am very self-confident. When I started in another club in 2003 [he is noticeably reluctant to keep bringing the word 'Barcelona' into the conversation] our revenue was €123m and United's was €251m. After three years, our revenue was higher than United's. So we are second to none. Our revenues will increase and we are not worried about FFP at all."
He does not disagree with the notion that United being allowed to sail through FFP with all their debt is unfair. "You know, this is arguable. But from our perspective, we want to be sustainable."
None of what lies ahead will be easy. Barcelona came at United from a greater position of strength than City command now and there were no spending strictures from Uefa. But all that can be said with certainty is that Soriano will not fight with a faint heart. "We're working in a changing environment, sometimes a chaotic environment, so we'll make some mistakes," he says. "There will be trials and errors, but overall we're in a good place." Succeed or fail, the skyline is the limit.
Words of wisdom: Soriano's bon mots
Guardiola for City?
“We didn’t try to sign him. Because I know Pepe. Txiki [Begiristain] knows Pep. So we don’t need to be in the market for Pep. If Pep decided to come to England I think he would have called us, right?”
What Mancini’s targets were...
“Roberto wasn’t set targets about winning titles, I can assure you. The target was to improve in the way we play football, so the target for the next manager will be exactly the same.”
What system City’s new holistic approach entails...
“We want to play good football, beautiful football in the sense of ball possession and managing the concepts of football which can give you a good show. The basic formation is 4-4-3 because that is the one which allows you to teach the kids how to play this kind of football.”
Rows in the Manchester City dressing room...
“We are not too worried about this and it’s not the reason why we decided to change the manager. Having said that, we are asking him the new manager that the dressing room has as much harmony as possible - knowing that total harmony is impossible.”
Why do England perform so poorly? “I don’t have a view on that.”
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