Manchester City are on the verge of power shift in the city and the Premier League,’ said one report. ‘Balance of power takes critical shift,’ read another headline. ‘City’s dramatic crowning as champions yesterday represents a serious power shift in the game — unless United’s owners come up with the funds for Alex Ferguson to rebuild,’ said another pundit.
But that was 10 months ago. I often like to reflect on headlines that were written in those moments. If I heard the phrase ‘power shift’ once, I heard it a thousand times. There was a real sense from lots of people at the end of last season that Manchester United might struggle to keep up with the money that City had and that there was an opportunity for them to dominate for years to come. United were described as an ageing team with nowhere to go, a team without a midfield.
People who went down that route fundamentally misunderstand United and Sir Alex Ferguson as a person. Think of 1995 and losing the league to Blackburn and the FA Cup to Everton; think of 1998 and the Arsenal Double; think of Arsenal’s 2004 Invincibles; think of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2005 and 2006. Sir Alex Ferguson has shown time and time again that it is responding to disappointment that energises him.
There may have been some setbacks this season, such as last week’s defeat by Chelsea in the FA Cup or going out to Real Madrid in the Champions League. But think about where United are now — about to clinch the league by mid-April having rampaged through the season — and you can add some perspective to those hasty judgments last May.
It is not just that United go into tomorrow’s derby — one that was anticipated as a title decider — 15 points clear. Look at their playing staff: They have David de Gea, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, Rafael, Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa, Chicharito, Anderson, Nani. Immediately after losing the title last May, Sir Alex Ferguson congratulated City but added: ‘I know my young players will learn from this and be lifting titles in years to come.’
When you think about the vitality and stability that group represent, you can understand why he was confident. Then add in the experience of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra. They’re a club with a healthy future.
AS FOR City, they still have the potential to challenge and build next season. But you can sense the tension there has been at times this season with key players, and manager Roberto Mancini has been critical of the likes of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany and Samir Nasri on occasion. If a week can feel like a long time in football, 10 months can feel like an epoch.
The easy route out to explain what has happened this season is to pin the title race on one man: Robin van Persie. It’s comfortable for the manager to point towards that as the decisive blow and thereby blame his directors for not managing to persuade the striker to sign for City rather than United.
It is true Van Persie had a huge impact in the first part of the season and kept United going when their form wasn’t great. That built the foundation for the margin of victory we’re seeing now. But, to me, there has been more to City’s fall this season than the failure to sign Van Persie or the fact that most of their signings — Scott Sinclair, Javi Garcia, Maicon and Jack Rodwell — haven’t made an impact. City still spent £54million last summer and United spent £48m, so they should be a lot closer to United at this stage.
Complaining about the signings is not only too easy an option for Roberto Mancini, I think it has been a misjudgment. His clear frustration as to what was achieved in the summer demoralises a dressing room, especially players who have been signed, but also established players who may feel vulnerable.
I’ve watched City a lot this season and there has been a lack of creativity and pace. At times they’ve seemed disillusioned when there has been a change of tactical systems. Last season there was a refreshing unpredictability about them, with Samir Nasri and David Silva behind Sergio Aguero and Mario Balotelli. And they had power driving them on in Yaya Toure and a fully-fit Vincent Kompany.
I think the feeling among the players last May may have been: ‘Thank goodness! We’ve climbed the mountain! We did it!’ But you have to learn to be serial winners and United have done that over the years. Win or lose, the train doesn’t stop. You have to keep going. Instilling that relentlessness into his players over the years has been Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest feat.
It’s not a huge gap that City have to make up but they do have to lift their mentality to that next level. We should show some caution when assessing City, just as some of those commentators might have done last May when writing about United. Nothing is ever as bad as it seems and nothing is ever as good as it appears.
WE should not forget that the 2011 FA Cup and last year’s title were City’s first trophies for 35 years. A few years ago a semi-final would have been a huge cause for celebration. It may be a drop from last year’s standards but it is still a big step forward from where they were when Roberto Mancini arrived at the club.
And I don’t see how Champions League failure can be held against the manager. I believe any of the English clubs would have been knocked out of that group which had Real Madrid at their peak, Borussia Dortmund, clearly one of the top sides in Europe, and a very good Ajax team. None of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea were in particularly good form in the autumn and all would have struggled to qualify against those teams.
So now we will see what City’s new director of football, Txiki Begiristain, and the chief executive, Ferran Soriano, are about. Can they keep their fingers off the trigger? Or will they feel the need to change? The FA Cup semi-final next weekend against Chelsea now becomes a huge tie for the club and the future of Roberto Mancini, though it isn’t to my liking that he would come under pressure. I would always tend towards continuity, especially with a manager who has won the FA Cup and the Premier League.
City are building a magnificent new academy near the Etihad Stadium. All the noises coming out of the club are that they wish to construct a long-term sustainable model. Last summer’s signing of younger players with potential underlined that they are committed to that. Now comes the test.
I don’t believe you can build a long-term future for a club unless you have a core of players who are clearly committed, many of whom are likely to be British, with at least two or three having come through the youth team. That means they won’t want to leave when they get homesick or a major Latin side come in for them. These will be your dependable players around whom you can develop an ethos, the ones who can give the club soul and heart. At City, at the moment, I’d start with Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, James Milner and Gareth Barry then try to add some of the best British players around that.
The temptation now would be to think they have to spend another £150m to redress the balance or to sack the manager to bring about changes. But that way is addictive; just look at Chelsea. You continually need to spend ‘just another’ £150m to keep up, or to sack ‘just one more’ manager to effect change. If City’s aim is to be truly great, they should match their rhetoric about building a long-term future and stick to the philosophy they now espouse. – Mail On Sunday