The "look at all my shit" era of Manchester City is over. When Sheikh Mansour, of the Abu Dhabi royal family, purchased the perennially underachieving club in 2008, a period of spending took place that was both stunning in its largesse (about £930.4 million as of May 2012) and amusing in its resemblance to a 16-year-old putting together a team on FIFA with the transfer difficulty sliders turned all the way down. There may have been a method to the madness — City were expert practitioners of the Michael Corleone school of transfers, weakening the teams that could possibly challenge them for the top four in the Premier League, buying players from Arsenal and a then-strong Aston Villa — but it still felt like they were going for names rather than finding players who fit into any kind of club philosophy. They bought title-winning terriers (Carlos Tevez), showboats (Robinho), temperamental creators (Samir Nasri), midfield monoliths (Yaya Touré), English water carriers (Gareth Barry and James Milner), erratic strikers (Emmanuel Adebayor), experienced strikers (Roque Santa Cruz), first-class strikers (Sergio Aguero), strikers who hit other people with golf clubs (Craig Bellamy) … and then there was Mario Balotelli.
These players, most of them already established names, gave City something it craved almost as much as silverware: global awareness. If you followed European football, you didn't need to refer to a team sheet when City walked out on the field. You knew who these guys were.
To an extent, this plan worked. City famously won the 2011-12 Premier League title in the last moments of the last day of the season, when Aguero did this …
But something was preventing City from joining the truly elite, globally recognized clubs like Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Manchester United, and Real Madrid: success in Europe. Roberto Mancini was deemed partly responsible for City's inability to get out of the Champions League group stages over the last two seasons (or even to win a single match last season), and that's one of the reasons he is no longer cashing City checks. But given who the club have hired to replace him, and analyzing City's transfer market activity, you can see that (a) City have learned from their mistakes, (b) they have a plan, (c) they still have more money than God to spend, and (d) we should all be very afraid. Let's take a look at how Manchester City have remade themselves over the past couple months.
The Brain Trust
In the beginning of the Mansour era, City looked around and bought the best players that outrageous amounts of money could buy. But this, ultimately, was an unsustainable model. They risked running afoul of the coming Financial Fair Play rules. Back in September 2011, then–football operations officer Brian Marwood said, "Everybody is getting quite concerned about financial fair play, and rightly so … We know that we have still got a huge amount of work still to do before we conform, and this is part of that process. To develop your own home-grown talent is a big part of what we do. Barcelona had eight home-grown players in the Champions League final and that is an ambition for our football club."
Barcelona, you say, Brian? Marwood has since moved to a position overseeing City's youth academy, and in his place come the two-headed Spanish hydra of CEO Ferran Soriano (hired in September 2012) and director of football Txiki Begiristain (who joined him one month later). Since those two arrived, City's spending has become a lot more targeted, and the club's direction is a lot more clear. If everything goes according to plan, we are looking at the Blue Barcelona.
While with Barcelona, Begiristain oversaw, along with president Joan Laporta, two incredibly successful eras for the club — the Ronaldinho–Frank Rijkaard iteration, and the Pep Guardiola sides from 2008 to 2012. He's got an elite pedigree. Those Guardiola teams were especially notable for the way in which players were bought to fit a system that was implemented from the senior team all the way down through the youth ranks at the famous La Masia.
Barcelona wasn't built in a day, and it will take years for Manchester City to turn itself into the sporting institution that the Catalan club is. To develop an infrastructure like Barça's, it could take a decade, regardless of how much they spend. They've started building an approximately £100 million "training village" to ensure their future, but what about their present?
With all this talk about Barcelona, and with conventional wisdom holding that Spain is producing the best football in the world right now, it should come as no surprise that Begiristain is counting on some recruits from La Liga to make City into a power not just for the foreseeable future, but for right now. And it starts with the manager.
In Manuel Pellegrini, Manchester City has found themselves a manager with a Champions League pedigree, experience with the pressures that come with a high-profile job, the ability to make the most of the resources at hand (not a problem at City), and a record of getting his teams to play an attractive, winning brand of football.
The 59-year-old Chilean was reportedly City's second choice. But after Pep Guardiola chose to join Bayern Munich, you would be hard-pressed to think of two or three tacticians (Mourinho? Klopp? Who else?) better suited for the City gig.
Pellegrini engineered one of the true Cinderella stories of modern football history when he took a Juan Roman Riquelme–led Villarreal team to the semifinals of the 2006 Champions League. He went on to rack up a team-record 96 points in his one season at Real Madrid. After being dismissed from Real, he popped up again with Malaga. Despite being forced to sell off two of his best players (Santi Cazorla and Nacho Monreal, both to Arsenal), Pellegrini piloted the Andalusian club to the quarterfinals of this past Champions League (and he probably would have taken them further, had it not been for some dubious calls made in the second leg of their tie with Borussia Dortmund).
As much as City needed recognizable names on the backs of their shirts, they also needed a style of football that pleased fans and neutrals.
Roberto Mancini won two trophies in three and a half years. Despite his failures in Europe, there's no reason to believe he couldn't have won more if given the time. But his Manchester City teams, in general, played like a bunch of guys demolishing a quarry. He emphasized physical fitness (he made them run up hills like some kind of '50s Brit drill sergeant), liked workers (Milner!), and appeared to prefer holding on to a lead rather than increasing it. Pellegrini, for his part, seems to understand that while results are key, the aesthetic pleasure he provides along the way is almost equally important. Take it from him:
One of the important [factors why] I am here is the way my other teams always played. I think fans of Manchester City will see a different way to how they played in the other years. I am sure we are going to play an attractive game. We will always try to play in the opposition's [half], try to be an attacking team, do what all the other teams I worked with before did.
When Pellegrini's Villarreal, Real Madrid, or Malaga teams were on television, you wouldn't change the channel. The Guardian's Michael Cox does a far better job breaking down Pellegrini the tactician than I could ever do. But suffice it to say, he's a flexible manager who likes to play variations of a 4-2-3-1 formation, usually with a classic no. 10 playmaker in the middle of that attacking midfield three. Under Pellegrini, Riquelme was a languid, yellow-clad God. At Malaga, Pellegrini helped make Santi Cazorla a (Spanish) household name, and was well on his way to helping Isco become one of the best playmakers in Europe (Isco has since been sold to Real Madrid).
There have been suggestions that Pellegrini will have City play the Barça-preferred 4-3-3. Regardless of the way they line up, his teams consistently appear very well drilled. They know when to attack, and they hold their shape when defending. They keep the ball well, and are aggressive in trying to win it back when they lose it.
While he may have clocked 96 points in his one season with Real, Pellegrini lost the league to Barcelona, saw his side infamously dumped out of the Copa Del Rey, and went out of the Champions League in the Round of 16. He became a punching bag for the Madrid press, and there was some speculation that maybe he was the kind of manager who makes smaller teams like Malaga and Villarreal punch above their weight, not the kind who can run one of the biggest sporting institutions in the world.
I don't agree with this, and neither does Pellegrini. He has some swagger. When he was asked, earlier this month, how he would cope with the pressure of the Manchester derby, the former River Plate manager cited his time in the Argentine capital: "If you lose the Superclasico you can't go out of your home for at least a week. You have to hide. It's very difficult to go out of the stadium the same day. And you must stay in the training ground at least two or three hours after a session has finished. So I'm not concerned about the pressure here at City."
And what about the internal pressure at City? Soriano has set a pretty hefty goal for Pellegrini and the club: five trophies in five years. It's the kind of number that would make even Alex Ferguson take a few extra chews of gum. Pellegrini's reaction to this standard?
This should be fun. To help employ Pellegrini's system, Manchester City bought four players this offseason. And unlike past years, when City just copped shorts of every color, to paraphrase Alien from Spring Breakers again, this transfer window has seen purchases with a purpose.
According to Transfer Markt, Manchester City has spent about £97 million this summer on four players. The numbers on the checks may look familiar — £30 million here, £27 million there — but for the more casual fan, the names those checks are made out to are not. In June, they bought Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Fernandinho and Sevilla winger Jesús Navas. The following month they completed the transfers of Fiorentina forward Stevan Jovetic and striker Alvaro Negredo (also from Sevilla).
Fernandinho is a midfield engine guy. He might not be the destroyer that Nigel de Jong was/is, or look as much like a Yorkshire detective as Gareth Barry does. But City don't need a destroyer or a detective, they need a dynamic presence to go with Yaya (or rotate with him). I haven't watched enough Shakhtar to really assess Fernandinho as a player, but I like his attitude about life in Manchester. He told Four Four Two: "I hadn't [heard of Oasis] before, but after doing a bit of research I found out they were one of the best bands of the '90s! I prefer quiet music; it helps me focus." Guess he's a "Talk Tonight" kind of guy.
Navas and Negredo are almost a package deal. They are both proven talents, and both come with questions attached. Both are 27, so they're getting a little long in the tooth to adapt to a different culture (footballing and otherwise). But, with the English and Spanish games resembling each other more and more (Premier League teams, from Swansea to Crystal Palace to Liverpool, are increasingly adopting a pass-on-the-grass style), they should do just fine.
Negredo, as you can see by his 2012-13 La Liga shot chart from ESPN Stats & Info …
… likes to get after it around the goalmouth; he's a pretty classic no. 9. He has good positioning. I imagine he will be a nice backup striker, or someone to bring in with 20 minutes left to change looks.
Navas, for his part, looks like the kid from Weird Science and likes to hug the right wing. He has long been fawned over by scouts and technical directors, but nobody plucked him from Sevilla because he suffered from extreme homesickness, which held his career back for several years. He seems to have conquered that problem for now, and if he can pull off passes like this one to Negredo …
… the Etihad will start feeling like home.
Were the season to start tomorrow, City's starting 11 would likely be:
Four members of that front six — Yaya, Navas, Aguero, and Silva — have done time in La Liga. Negredo, off the bench, makes five. These are players who will be familiar with Pellegrini's style.
The wild card is Jovetic. He has the potential to be the crown jewel of this new quartet. His asterisk comes in the form of a knee injury that kept him out of action in the 2010-11 season. Since then he's had decent seasons for Fiorentina in Italy, scoring 14 goals in 2011-12, and 15 in 2012-13. But City didn't sign Jovetic for his goal-scoring, they signed him because of everything he does that leads to goals.
In Jovetic, Pellegrini has a different kind of playmaker than he is accustomed to. This isn't Riquelme, Cazorla, or Isco, or even the dream he must have had of what Kaka could have achieved at Real Madrid. He reminds me of Robin van Persie — more of a forward than a midfielder, but still incredibly creative. According to WhoScored.com, only four other players in Italy made as many clear-cut chances for others as Jovetic (who had 13) last season. At City he will be expected to get goals, but he'll also be expected to get them for others. He is probably the player I am most excited to watch in the Premier League next season.
Jovetic had been pursued by Chelsea and Arsenal, and Juventus were the favorites to land him, but in the end, Manchester City can just get these deals done. Such is their financial muscle. When he was signed, Jovetic made all the right noises about feeling wanted at City and how they would be competing for so many trophies, etc. He's right. But in the end, the reason he's in Manchester instead of Turin is money — wages paid to him and transfer fees paid to Fiorentina.
Over the weekend, Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech was quoted as saying, "Money has never won anything. You can spend as much as you want but you must build a team first." Cech, amusingly, was not talking about the infamously well-funded Chelsea; he was talking about City. The thing is, he has a point.
Since 2008, Manchester City's identity has been the money. Oh, sure, they tried to be the bad guys. They put up the Fergie-trolling banners, and Adebayor almost started a riot against his former club. But they didn't fit the part. City wasn't a villain's club. With their history, how could they be? For as renowned as some of their players were, for all the tabloid headlines, training-ground fights, and fireworks set off indoors, there was just something strangely anonymous about the team.
For several years, that anonymity, compounded by Mancini's punishingly pragmatic football, was an insurmountable hurdle for many football fans. It was like we were collectively wondering, You spent all that money for … this?
Now, this season could go very wrong. The new players could take half a campaign to adjust to the pace of the Premier League. Negredo could be just another Dzeko; Navas and Silva aren't exactly known for helping on defense, which could lead to a lot of pressure being heaped on the back four; Pellegrini could get into months-long pissing contests with Moyes, Mourinho, and the Daily Mail. City may find that they miss Tevez and Manchester may find that they long for Mario. All are possible outcomes.
But I don't think so. I think this team finally is a team. They finally have an identity. Say what you will about slick-passing La Liga imports bought by an Abu Dhabi billionaire. At least it's an ethos.
This season, something feels different. Like, maybe when that money is spent wisely, like it was this summer, and footballers are purchased because they fit needs on the field rather than a global brand strategy — when that money is given to people like Soriano, Begiristain, and Pellegrini, who know what they're doing ... I don't know. Maybe it's time to stop worrying and start loving the Blue.