The records Manchester City broke last season in the Premier League garnered significant plaudits. The players, the manager, the goals they scored and the style of their play were frequently cited as critical factors in the success.
Nonetheless, despite having world-class players, one of the top managers in the game and bottomless finances, it’s the strategy off the field that may be City’s most valuable asset.
‘The Ball doesn’t go in by Chance’ is the title of Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano’s book, which, as the title suggests, argues that a successful football team is more than 11 players on the pitch, and moreover, it not just a good squad coached by an exceptional manager. He cites and recommends the level of planning and strategies necessary to have in place at a club for it to be successful, suggesting both extensive business and footballing practices; the latter, he advises, requires a clear identity and playing style.
This is unsurprising as a former vice-president of Barcelona, and the book outlines how he achieved the level of success the Catalan club had in his tenure. When he arrived the club had won no honours and finished only once in the top three in La Liga in the previous four seasons. It ended with Pep Guardiola’s team winning six trophies in a calendar year, through the efficient and creative management of the business.
What his hiring from Manchester City in 2012 represented, despite a three-year stint as chairman of Spanair which ended in that company’s bankruptcy, is how the club has been transformed, focused and driven to success under the Abu-Dhabi ownership.
The majority will undoubtedly point to the vast finances of Manchester City, and yes, that is unavoidable; Manchester City could not have become the club they are today without that investment. However, football has changed. Money alone used to take you far, Jack Walker at Blackburn is a prime example.
Nonetheless, with the immense finance in the wider game, particularity in the Premier League, where clubs consistently squander and misuse these vast riches afforded to them by television income, an insightful, coherent strategy driven by being the best is where Manchester City get their real competitive edge on the field.
2012 also saw Manchester City hire Txiki Begiristain, the Director at Barcelona during that golden period under Pep Guardiola; they had also been former teammates during their playing days together. From the outset of Beigirstain’s appointment, he and Soriano immediately set out in persuading Guardiola to join Man City. At first, they failed, Guardiola chose a sabbatical rather than coming to Manchester in 2012. In 2013, he joined Bayern Munich over Manchester City, and eventually, after his stint in Bavaria, City got their man.
By this time, the club had been transformed into Guardiola’s every wish. The training facilities were world leading, staff from Catalonia had been brought in (much to the dismay of FC Barcelona). They played attractive, attacking, possession-based football and signed players, even with Manuel Pellegrini as the manager, that fitted the Guardiola team mould. Guardiola has spoken subsequently of how he wanted Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane at Bayern Munich, before City’s interest.
Guardiola, therefore, came to City with a huge advantage. Not only could he outspend any club in the world, but there were also degrees of the structures he looked for in regards to style, players and facilities already in place. In addition, while their top Premier League rivals battled against glazernomics, transfer committees, new stadiums, outdated practices and reductions in investment, Manchester City, even before a world class coach such as Guardiola arrived, were already ahead of their rivals.
This ideology is something they plan to perpetuate. Namely filling, what Soriano describes, as the ‘development gap’. He argues that English clubs are at a disadvantage to big clubs in other large European nations who have their B teams in the lower divisions. Soriano cites Spain and Germany as examples, where players gain vital developmental experience with these reserve sides.
However, this is not the case in England and recent initiatives to incorporate such changes such as the EFL trophy or the recommendations of former FA Chairman Greg Dyke’s, which endorsed putting B teams in the Football League, was roundly criticised and rejected.
The style of play and the ability to transcend teams seamlessly through the generations is crucial to Soriano and City. This ‘Barcelona’ way is predicated on having youth players playing the same system and developing specific technical and tactic attributes, which the traditional English loan system doesn’t afford.
Soriano explains the ideal model “we control exactly what they (the players) do. The coaching is exactly the same. The playing style is exactly the same”. City set out to achieve this mantra through farming players via a portfolio of clubs, throughout the world with very close (some say too close) working relationships.
The City Football Group since 2012 have bought clubs in Melbourne, Montevideo and New York, while purchasing minority, but sizeable stakes in Yokohama Marinos in Japan and La Liga side Girona (with the involvement of Pep Guardiola’s brother – Pere). In addition to partnerships with various academies all over the world, this allows them not only to cultivate talent in different regions of the world, but also enables the players of these clubs to gain experience in competitive games.
Once deemed good enough, youth products are ferried to Manchester where they can be sold on, loaned out to other European sides, or, achieve the primary objective; play and star for Manchester City’s first team.
Aaron Mooy is the most high-profile example to date of this system in action. Signed in 2014 for Melbourne City, where he won player of the season in his first two years. He was then transferred to Manchester City for a nominal fee of just over £400,000, then immediately loaned to Huddersfield Town. That season, he helped gain them promotion to the Premier League, which subsequently saw City sell him to Huddersfield for £10 million and at over a 2,300% profit margin.
The next prominent player to come through was Daniel Arzani, seen as the next big star of Australian Football. Arzani, at just 19 years of age, represented the Socceroo’s at the World Cup in Russia. He joined Manchester City from Melbourne City and has been sent straight on loan to Celtic, where he will gain valuable experience of British and potentially European football. Manchester City will hope this prepares him for a first team place in their side in the future.
Although this system and City’s financial clout has caused an outcry, worry and even rule changes into the broader game, and the morality, certainly within their farming structure is questionable, it’s abundantly clear that they are far superior regarding strategy to other Premier League clubs. For all the great players and managers that come through the club and the glorious football they all play, the biggest gain will come from strategic planning, which is a precedent in the modern era that City are not just setting, but excelling in too.