In the executive lounges at the Allianz Stadium on Wednesday, there were naturally a few knowing looks and wry smiles between officials of Manchester United and Juventus about this week’s spate of Football Leaks stories, and how most of them focused on Manchester City.
It was actually a fitting coincidence that the Old Trafford club were facing the Italian champions at this exact time, ahead of the derby and with all of these headlines, since the Serie A club are one of the examples United have specifically looked to follow as they attempt to keep pace with City. How things have changed. With executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward looking to finally install proper football expertise between the boardroom and the manager’s position, former Juve CEO Giuseppe Marotta and current sporting director Fabio Paratici have already been spoken to . United sources specifically talk about how this could be a way to just wholesale import a successful technical department, “in the manner City did with Barcelona” a few years ago.
It is the ambitious plans of those Catalan executives like football director Txiki Beguristain and - above all - CEO Ferran Soriano that formed such a central part of Der Spiegel’s engaging and often damning series on the English champions this week, plans that have provoked Soriano to write of concerns that they could be “pointed out as the global enemies of football”.
The repeated message from some close to City’s hierarchy is that the reality of these stories is a lot more “complicated” than all of the leaks have made it look but, whatever the truth of that, it’s undeniable that this whole story has been less complicated for the club than many might have expected.
A lot of the details regarding how they approached Financial Fair Play are eye-opening and damaging - particularly the evasion of rules they signed up to - but it is still a complicated subject that leaves many cold, and there doesn’t exactly appear much heat from football’s authorities to punish them. The justifiable debate about the very merits of FFP, and how it protected football’s old money, only further muddies the discussion.
What cannot be muddied, however, is City’s new attitude. It is an attitude of “we can do whatever we want”, the words literally written by club executive Simon Pearce.
That is something that feels far more relevant than the past issue of FFP, because of the concerns it throws up for the future of the game. It goes hand in hand with quotes attributed to chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak about just paying whatever it takes to get the best lawyers in the world.
This is what City are now, unprecedented levels of money with almost unstoppable levels of ambition, and supremely intelligent focus. The best money can buy.
Many at the club might dispute the idea they have political power, but that’s what such wealth brings, as it has already afforded them a central founder’s place on documents about a potential European super league and seen Soriano warned - in leaked emails - about the need to “avoid at all costs the perception of a cartel”.
Whether they like it or not, though, City are now a part of the cabal. They are what their fans railed against for so long.
They are up there, with United, and certainly ahead of United in performance.
There’s also a sobering thought. This has probably been City’s worst week since the 2008 takeover, and yet it looks like they’re going to go unpunished, and with the actual team completely unruffled. Pep Guardiola’s side continue to batter everyone in sight, having scored six goals in each of their last two games. What crisis?
It is no coincidence City are coming into such sensational form now, but instead a consequence of complete design. Guardiola’s physical conditioning is planned so his sides hit peak performance around November and April. It is what was strategically started at Barcelona, and what City’s expensive sports science infrastructure have allowed him to further hone. These are the allowances of a super club.
It was indeed at this time of year that Guardiola enjoyed perhaps his career performance, and his greatest victory over Jose Mourinho, as Barcelona humiliated the Portuguese’s Real Madrid 5-0 in November 2010. His City side are in similar form now, as the Catalan renews another club rivalry with Mourinho.
Because, at the end of all this, there’s of course some actual football to be played. There's the derby.
Mourinho meanwhile goes into it in good form of his own, and not just in terms of results, although the two are obviously connected. As regular wins have returned, so has the sense of endearing mischief to the Portuguese. That had been replaced by a more tedious sourness for most of his time at United. Now there are proper smiles, not least when asked about the Football Leaks revelations.
“I have thoughts from a few years ago,” Mourinho responded on Tuesday. “But I keep the thoughts to myself.”
He did reveal some of them in 2017, mind.
“The FFP authorities, they have big work to do,” the Portuguese said then. “Big work to do, because probably there are some strategies of disguise but I have to believe that the FFP [authorities] are going to have difficult work to do.”
United have difficult work to do on Sunday, but that will at least be fortified by the confidence and assurance that comes from three consecutive wins and especially the nature of that latest victory over Juventus. The extreme fragility of a month ago is gone, replaced by a serious resilience, and a result of the squad deciding to come together. It is understood a sense of professional pride really came into play for United. They realised they were letting so much from outside affect them in the way they shouldn’t after a difficult period.
Hence they will be far better primed to take on a prolific City than they would have been a month ago.
And there is suddenly the growing feeling that United are in a good position to unsettle the champions, and inflict their first defeat of the season - in the same way they ruffled Juventus on Wednesday. There is a spikiness there again.
It is funny how things turn out.
Then again, you only have to look at the wider recent history of the Manchester clubs. United’s historic power, from the luck of having Sir Alex Ferguson on top of his game right at the start of the Premier League and the explosion of money in the game, has afforded them the highest paid squad in football but no longer one that is at the very top of the game. City’s new power, from the luck of being selected for takeover by the Abu Dhabi Group in 2008, has afforded them one of the most lavishly sensational sides the game has seen.
All of this has led to a week in Manchester with more storylines than any other - and it still hasn’t had an ending.
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