Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan peered into his neighbours’ gardens and caught a glimpse of his Emirate’s future. Abu Dhabi was once reliant on the pearling industry but The Great Depression of the 1930’s had cut it to it’s knees. Unlike other states surrounding the Persian Gulf (including Bahrain and Kuwait) he had no oil, so agreed to grant expanding oil companies concessions to hunt for the commodity he craved. In 1950 the Iraq Petroleum Company drilled the first boreholes in the ground of what would soon be known as The United Arab Emirates; a year, a million pounds and 13,000 feet later the mission was deemed unsuccessful.
A small provincial club in north-west England wasn’t even a dirty though in the Gulf state’s mind back then.
The Sheikh grew more desperate. A subsidiary of British Petrolium, Abu Dhabi Marine Areas Ltd., was given permission to raid the sea in the hope of extracting oil from beneath. Jacques Cousteau was called in to survey the seabed. In August 1958 using a drilling platform imported from Hamburg, ADMA struck black on their first attempt, 8,755 feet deep into the Umm Shaif field. “A nice sweet crude”, said the engineer on the barge.
50 years later, today’s Manchester City were born.
Manchester City hadn’t tasted major success in over forty years when they clinched the Premier League title from their cross-city rival’s back pocket in the most exhilarating fashion in 2012. The club is now a Champions League regular and has collected two of the previous three domestic championships whilst enjoying some cup success on the side; fifteen years ago they sat in the third tier of English football. Dunne, Barton and Dickov are gone; it’s now Kompany, Toure and Aguero.
Based on this transformation it seems delusional to suggest the club have underwhelmed; they currently sit just five points behind Chelsea at the top of the table and could reduce that to two in their next fixture.
The elephant in the room here is cash. City have more money than God and aren’t afraid to show it; yet they’re still shooting par for the course.
The next month and a half will be integral if Manuel Pellegrini’s side want to shed this perception.
The club aren’t given the credit they deserve for their first title success; people often suggest it wasn’t a totally credible victory because goal difference was required to separate them from Manchester United (and also Ferguson’s team’s slump towards the end of the season). This bitter contention neglects the fact City delivered an outstanding performance in the must-win clash between the two sides on the last day of April that year; Joe Hart wasn’t required for any of United’s meagre five shots over the ninety minutes.
The problem lies in the fact that the display in the club’s biggest game in decades that night stands as an exception as opposed to the rule. City have struggled in games against the sides they should be competing against; last season Chelsea took six points from them including a comprehensive beating at the Etihad, they lost to Liverpool at Anfield after regaining the momentum of the game during the second half and their Champions League knock-out round debut was anticlimactic.
After their defeat to Arsenal at the weekend Gary Neville argued the side today hasn’t displayed enough signs of progression since they won their first title three years ago and looking at results it’s impossible to argue against him.
“The majority of them have been together for a long time now; three, four, five years. It’s a mature team now. They’ve got to progress, they’ve got to get better… back-to-back titles, Champions League semi-finals (because) that’s the ambition here. I’m not sure whether this team are as good as when they first won the league”.
Ferran Soriano was appointed CEO of Manchester City four months after their comeback against Queens Park Rangers. By the end of October he was joined by Txiki Begiristain, a former colleague of his at Barcelona, who became City’s Director of Football.
As a businessman Begiristain doesn’t spend money like it is his own. In the summer of 2013 Martin Demichelis signed for Atletico Madrid on a free transfer after his contract with Malaga expired; two months later the 32 year old Argentine signed for Manchester City for five and a half million euro.
Big money deals have been orchestrated by the Catalan but the group of players City rely on remain the same; Aguero, Silva, Toure, Kompany, Zabaleta.
An even more pertinent issue is the club’s aging squad; only seven of their current squad (excluding Scott Sinclair for obvious reasons) are under the age of 28. Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany and David Silva are among those on the wrong side of time.
In order to lower the average age of the squad while remaining competitive, serious financial clout is required. Fortunately for City they have some cash to throw around. If however UEFA begin to impose effective punishment for going against Financial Fair Play regulations the club will rue the way they spent their money in the last few years.
During the Laporta Era at Barcelona Soriano’s policy was always geared towards fulfilling what the club’s governors referred to as ‘The Virtuous Circle of FC Barcelona’. The first step in this cycle was simply “sign the best players”. The best are only the best for so long.
Soriano (on the field at least; he has broadened the City brand) and Begiristain have done little to suggest their roles at City couldn’t have been filled by others. The latter’s time in Catalunya was littered with expensive, abysmal signings (Keirrison, Chygrynskiy) and poor sales like Samuel Eto’o. Despite this, the 17 players he signed (although he wasn’t responsible for some like Ronaldinho and Eto’o) who went on to play a role in winning a Champions League title with Barcelona will be remembered with more affection.
His job at City in comparison however has been poor; he has acquired players who belong on the fringes of successful teams, but no world class talents who will define a club’s fortunes. Their importance and competence has been, to some degree, inflated because of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side at the turn of the decade.
The logic behind the make-up of the current City squad is bewildering. Their biggest weakness is at the heart of midfield where they lack a player capable of stitching together their play. Fernando, Fernandinho , Frank Lampard and Yaya Toure are players with a number of functions but none possess the ability to control a game, thus increasing the burden on the more cerebral David Silva.
Up front Sergio Aguero’s preference to play alongside a striker means they often line up with two forwards, limiting their numbers in midfield. While that may be perceived as a slight toward old school 442, it isn’t. Manuel Pellegrini’s insistence on possession play isn’t compatible with the formation in the way Diego Simeone’s Atletico side is for example.
A revamp is required at the club in the near future. In order to prove this current side hasn’t merely stagnated after their initial success they must beat Barcelona in a rematch of last year’s knock-out stage tie. In order to banish the idea that today’s City are happy to rest on their laurels they must get to the Champions League quarter finals at least. They must wrestle it out with Chelsea to prove they have balls.
If the season ends without a major trophy ending up at the Etihad the men in the Gulf will be entitled to ask serious questions when they check up on their toy during the summer. If the right questions are asked it’ll see changes on the pitch, in the dugout and in the stands.