The days of paying a 'Manchester City Price' for foreign players are over - in their place is a club structure to be admired
Yes, City did win the lottery and buy success but this summer will see only squad refinements
When The Independent published a gentle editorial praising the managerial press conference debut of Ryan Giggs a few weeks ago, it provoked the type of abuse in my direction from Manchester City fans which I’ve written about in this space once before as a phenomenon. It had not entirely abated at the weekend. “Knob” one City fan tweeted me to say on Sunday, when you might have imagined he would have had better things to do, like celebrate the prospect of a domestic title.
But it’s in weeks like this that you realise where some of it is coming from. The prospect of winning the league will be clouded, probably on Friday, by a detailed picture of Uefa’s sanctions against City for breaching Financial Fair Play regulations. City will most probably – and quite ludicrously – be bracketed with Paris Saint-Germain, the team which has viewed FFP with contempt and made no attempt to comply with its strictures. There will be the same mildly racist inference that has existed about City ever since Abu Dhabi investment arrived five years ago: that this club is all about Arabs with money spending their stash in a wild and profligate way.
Well, they certainly did spend wildly for a time. Delivering a modest club to the big stage involves vast front-end investment in the squad. The players who can take you to the top just don’t fancy a team who only claim they can get there. Hence the madness. Nabbing Gareth Barry ahead of a bitterly disappointed Rafael Benitez and Liverpool, by getting him into a cab from Dubai to join up with the Manchester City squad in Abu Dhabi. Putting up with the sneering first response of Yaya Touré’s agent – “why should he leave Barcelona for you” – during the initial meeting at a hotel in Rome. And saying “yes” to Roberto Mancini’s demands for a vast backroom staff (including the man they called “the butler”) at the critical meeting on Sardinia, when there was urgent need for someone to take things on from Mark Hughes. The salaries that City paid back in those days provide a taste of what Manchester United face in the next three months. “Every agent knows you have a patchy squad and are desperate,” says one who saw that period up close at City.
But the last of the players for whom the club paid what was grimly known as a “City Price” in wages – Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, Wayne Bridge and Gareth Barry – are gone or on the point of going, reducing the breathtaking most recent £233m wage figure which included hefty pay-offs for Mancini and his entourage. That leaves City on course to break even at the end of this year, having halved their losses from £189.9m (2011), to £97.9m (2012) and £51.6m (2013.) Yes, there is wealth, City did win the lottery in 2009 and have bought success, but the spending this summer – on Eliaquim Mangala, Fernando and Bacary Sagna they hope – will be the squad refinements they always wanted to move towards.
The black and whites of FFP don’t tell us anything about the philosophy behind the spending. Football remains a deeply unreconstructed business world in many ways: a world so ridiculous that one of its greatest clubs, Manchester United, were last week waiting on the result of the Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich to decide if the losing manager might perhaps fancy the role of spending £150m and rebuilding the entire structure after the Sir Alex Ferguson era. And because neither Carlo Ancelotti nor Pep Guardiola was available, they will go now with a manager who has a diametrically different personality to either of those, in Louis van Gaal. Where is the philosophy in that?
The comments City chief executive Ferran Soriano made at a Dubai seminar three months ago came to light last week, and though his observations on Van Gaal’s autocratic management style grabbed attention, his thoughts on managerial recruitment – incredibly relevant to United – were the more significant. “Before you decide how to manage your team, decide what you need,” Soriano said. “Do you need to be more direct? Do you need to delegate more? Do you need to be more of a coach?” City’s decision to appoint Manuel Pellegrini was based on the decision that they needed the latter, because that is how to exact optimum commitment from the complex dynamics of the dressing room. “In the competitive environment of football, just a bit less commitment means losing,” as Soriano put it.
Manuel Pellegrini speaks to Samir Nasri during the 3-2 win over Everton
It’s a personal view that Pellegrini’s uncommunicative nature in press conferences is more of a problem than City realise. He, more than anyone, could articulate the fact that City have taught old school British football a few things, while investing more on infrastructure and player development than any other club in this country. And that they have put in place the talent identification and player acquisition systems that means City are no longer at the mercy of agents – power-brokers in a sport which just can’t get to grips with learning its own business properly. Tony Pulis, current flavour of the month, left no infrastructure behind at Stoke and is not interested in developing young players. One of Crystal Palace’s best, Johnny Williams, is out on loan at Ipswich.
City’s reluctance to explain in fine detail some of the income figures which Uefa is scrutinising, has been a source of suspicion – to me and others. The £22.45m they say they have earned by selling intellectual property is puzzling, though my understanding is that the figure includes the “sale” of a raft of expertise, including know-how to other clubs which want to replicate elements of City’s Etihad Campus, which brings Academy and first team together from next summer. Creating an area where young players work and live, for example, has taken three years to develop.
The hope that this will help City develop a supply-line of young talent is tempered by a knowledge that such an achievement will take far longer than the five years they have already been committing to it. City’s young players reached last week’s Under-21 Premier League semi-final, losing on penalties to Chelsea, but it is actually the Under-12s and Under-14s where the future might lie. “No one ever believes it until you do it,” one insider says of the view that City are only about paying foreign signings to deliver success.
There will be more talk this week of Arabs and petrodollars and inconspicuous wealth and more succinct 140-character abuse will flow back in response. But behind all that, a significant story about a way of doing football business is going on.
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