Premier League

The Etihad Experience

Not everyone appreciates the modern football model – the excess, the hubris, the invasive marketing and the extraordinarily high wages. It’s easy to find fault with it and dismiss the achievements of clubs propped up by the cash of oilmen or oligarchs as an inevitable consequence of inflated investment.

Manchester City are one such example, a club that is now part of the City Football Group, a multi-club model that some might say contributes to the imbalances in the global game today.

Of course, if you’re a City fan, it is a case of Harold McMillan’s “never had it so good”, for this is a new golden age that has all the trappings of wealth: a great stadium; an all-star team; and the world’s most coveted manager in Pep Guardiola. It is conceivable that City’s team of all talents could become the best in Europe in 2018-19, especially if the UEFA Champions League finds its way to the Etihad Campus come the beginning of June. In some ways, City are waiting to be anointed, completing a 10-year transformation since the club was taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group.

When GOTP visited City, the club had just announced its financial results for 2017-18, posting record revenues of £ 500 million and a profit of £ 10.4 million, the fourth consecutive year of profitability. Moreover, City’s wage-to-revenue ratio was 52%, a relatively healthy figure. Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarek said the results were part of a “carefully crafted strategy, one in which organic evolution has been allowed to thrive.”

On the face of it, a lot of things are thriving at Manchester City. Stepping off the Metrolink tram (a very commendable service), there is almost a carnival spirit among the pre-match proceedings outside the stadium. “This club goes beyond the call,” said one City worker trying to sell club membership. “They really make an effort to get people enjoying themselves.” The person in question wasn’t a City fan – her colours were for the other side of town. “I’m United.”

Maine Road vs The Etihad

There was a rock band, some face-painting, selfie hosts, multiple eating spots, lots of noise, a busy store and a genuine upbeat buzz about the place – well, City are the champions. It’s a far cry from Maine Road, a classic, inner-city stadium sitting among the red-brick terraces, but it is very much of its time – the football match as event. And given its location, the Etihad Stadium has a big advantage over some cramped back-street venues still hanging onto their roots – there is room to breathe and expand.

The exterior of the ground itself, adorned with huge pictures of past glories – Billy Meredith, Bert Trautmann, Colin Bell, Malcolm Allison et al – looks a little municipal in places, but it still remains an impressive and imposing stadium.

Big stadiums and big ambitions call for top talent to fill it and City’s expenditure in the transfer market reflects the wealth of the owners and their objective of making the club the best in Europe. Since 2008-09, City have spent £ 1.2 billion on new players, £ 500 million of which has been consumed since Guardiola became manager in 2016. According to CIES Football Observatory, the current City squad has cost € 976 million to assemble, the most expensive in world football.

Football’s most expensive squads

Source: CIES Football Observatory

Have the club’s owners had value for money? In theory, yes, although since 2008, City have won seven major trophies compared to Chelsea’s 10 (the club most comparable to City). Since City won their first Premier title in 2012, they have won six trophies versus Chelsea’s seven. However, Chelsea entered the elite in 2003, some five years before City. It has taken time, but City now seem to have the upper hand and the manner in which they won the Premier in 2017-18 suggests a prolonged period of dominance, although the same sentiment was expressed in 2012 and 2014. Certainly, City’s financial clout has enabled them to lay the foundations for sustainable success by signing sought-after players still in their prime – Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and John Stones, among others.

Securing Guardiola was part of that plan and the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach is in his third season. While the media has been trying to second guess the next move by Manchester United’s Jóse Mourinho, some people have overlooked that Guardiola is not a “lifer” and his managerial career has included four seasons with Barca, three with Bayern and he’s in year three at City. There are signs of longer-term commitment, however, with Pep financing a Catalan-style restaurant in Manchester.

Guardiola is “cool” personified. He resembles a trendy Yoga guru or a partly-shaven Silicon Valley executive unveiling a new piece of ground-breaking technology. No sheepskins or suits here, he’s dressed in the most appropriate garb for a modern football manager, trainers, jeans and a Jobsian black sweater. He looks comfortable, in a zen-like way, and not unlike the sort of motivational speaker you find at business conferences.

The Guardiola era

Perhaps it is easy to be cool and relaxed when you’re presiding over half a billion pounds worth of talent, especially when your opponents are a newly-promoted club, albeit one that has spent over £ 100 million on new players in the summer. Against Fulham (squad costing € 167 million), it took just 90 seconds for City to open the scoring, a slip-up by the normally impressive Jean-Michaël Seri capitalised upon by Fernandinho and he ran on to set-up Leroy Sané who tapped the ball home. Exactly what Fulham didn’t need against the champions.

The most costly squad ever?

Source: Current valuation* CIES

City eased into gear and were 2-0 ahead after 21 minutes, David Silva shooting high into the net after a suspect “ball-to-arm”. Every time City attacked, they worried Fulham, whose passing was poor and their confidence fragile. The third goal came after 47 minutes, Sterling finishing off a pass from Sergio Agüero. It could have been worse for Fulham, whose best chance came from Aleksander Mitrović late in the game. Guardiola was charitable about Fulham, but it had been an easy three for his team. One player who stood out was Bernardo Silva, who had an outstanding game in the absence of the injured De Bruyne.

It was very much “business as usual” for City, but strangely, the ground started to empty well before the end of the game. By the final whistle, the family stand had huge gaps of sky blue where people had vacated their seats. Maybe it is the rush for the tram as the queues are long (but do evaporate quickly), or perhaps they want to take advantage of the catering facilities outside the stadium?

The early signs are that City have stiffer competition this season in the form of Liverpool and Chelsea, and there’s still the possibility of a sustained challenge from other clubs. Of the contenders, City may fear Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who seem to have worked out the Guardiola alchemy. The Champions League is, apparently, the top priority (Pep hasn’t won it since 2011) and City have been named favourites ahead of their group games with Lyon, Shakhtar Donetsk and Hoffenheim. The ease and elegance by which they disposed of Fulham, like a well-oiled, purring machine, made you wonder who will beat Guardiola’s skilful, patient and slide-ruled team in 2018-19?

You can read more from Neil and the team at gameofthepeople.com.

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