James Lawton: Clueless City failing to pay heed to the first rule of team building

Never mind the flourishes, solid foundations should be the priority in the club's breathtaking spending spree

Thursday 15 January 2009 01:00 GMT

Kaka the born-again Christian appears to be resisting reincarnation as Mammon's number one disciple. On the other hand, he and his agent may simply be upping the ante, but then at what point does hard-to-get negotiation become outright plunder?

In these straitened times, the £500,000 a week Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan and his apparently clueless football advisers have put on the table might reasonably be said to have hit the mark.

This isn't to say that Kaka is not a beautiful talent, a 22-carat megastar with a temperament that at 26 has helped him win most of the game's great prizes; but does City's reported £91m bid belong anywhere outside of football's funny farm?

Not if you believe in the principle of building a team pretty much as you would a well-made house: we all know the basics, a sound foundation, good damp course, airy, spacious rooms, free of subsidence and earthquake fault lines. Then, of course, you bring in the grace notes, the interior décor and some classy furniture.

You don't dump the Queen Anne chairs amid the piles of sand and the bags of cement.

When City signed Robinho, one of the Mammon men if we have ever seen one, for £32m, they hadn't really asked a quite important question: where do we put him?

Where it was, of course, was in a team whose lack of rounded, fundamental strength has had the new manager Mark Hughes, whose track record suggests that he does know a bit about team-building, tearing at his hair for most of the season. Where will City put Kaka if he submits to the most extravagant blandishments in the history of football? In the same place they put the talented Robinho – in a mighty pay bracket and a work force in which as much as half its number were eyeing nervously their future prospects at football's job centre.

Of course the Sheikh has the money and is eager to lash out in pursuit of the desired impact. At the moment, however, the Kaka initiative seems to represent an irrational desire to put a Classic winner in between the shafts of a somewhat rickety cart.

Imagine, for a moment, the reaction if it was Aston Villa bidding for Kaka rather than City. It would never be the likeliest possibility, admittedly, with Villa manager Martin O'Neill constructing a team rather than a star system and this suiting his American patron Randy Lerner and his NFL background, where such bizarre concepts as wage ceilings are sometimes entertained, so well. A Villa move would be laughed off because the club are plainly not at the point where a man like Kaka, approaching the prime of a brilliant career, could be expected to find anything like an appropriate challenge.

So what are the main differences between City and Villa? One is that Villa are several years ahead in the vital matter of team construction and the development of a winning philosophy. The other is that Villa do not have an owner who has been advised that it is possible to make a great team in precisely the opposite way to making a great building, ie by starting at the top.

If it happened, City would be investing in a superior version of Robinho, a player of high talent and class but one with a limited ability to change the fortunes of a team still awaiting a secure defence, a consistently business-like midfield and an adequate strike force. Kaka, his recent form certainly suggests, is not the kind of player likely to make a team revolution. He is the one you bring in when the reforms have been completed, when a new dimension is a possibility not a wild hope.

A little delving into history might be of some service to a club who have so long been cut off from the oxygen provided by genuine growth. City became one of the best teams in England and Europe in the late Sixties because their management team of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison correctly identified the players who could carry the club to the next stage. There were three of them, Mike Summerbee, Colin Bell and Francis Lee. They weren't stars plucked out of the galaxy. Their talent and their character had been examined exhaustively, and then they came in with a force that carried a well-built team on to an entirely different level.

Yet even the Mercer-Allison partnership proved that it was capable of rushing its fences. In 1972 Allison not only wanted to win his second First Division title, a possibility that was looking good as City led the race by four points, he also felt the need to compete with the panache and the showmanship of the people a few miles across the city, for whom George Best was still reproducing at least some of his native brilliance.

Rodney Marsh, at £200,000 a player of superb natural skill, was the choice. Unfortunately, he wasn't fit, he didn't know the culture of a superbly drilled team, and City collapsed.

Admittedly, this is a small echo from the past, but it may have relevance in that City broke a pattern – and tried to impose a glamour that did not grow naturally out of a team which had been made with brilliant practicality.

A voice in the Sheikh's ear seems to be saying that if you have enough money you can buy anything. You can't – and this is as true of football as anything else.

It is a voice that needs to be silenced. The club have some basic work to do before they begin to sign up that football galaxy. They have to reorder their priorities. The first is to make a team fit for a man of Kaka's calibre to inhabit.

This may have been what he was saying in the gentlest way in Milan yesterday. At least that must be the hope, not least among those City fans who remember what it was to have a team that grew up before their own eyes.

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