Manchester City have hit their stride, but the prevailing feeling is—as they now lift their second English Premier League in three years—that they’re just getting started. Since the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment, led by United Arab Emirate royal Sheikh Mansour, bought Manchester City in 2008 for £200 million, they’ve spent more money on players than any team in professional sports. A £509.6 million net spend will do that.
And for Mansour, whose personal fortune is in excess of £17 billion, and whose family is worth over $1 trillion, a few billion to bankroll the best team in the most powerful soccer league in the world is a relative pittance. As with many owners of sports teams who treat them as toys rather than for-profit businesses, the money is a secondary thought. Winning, and being responsible for winning, is the ego drive that gets the checks signed.
Manchester City have now finished the last four seasons in the Premiership’s Top 3, and in the 2013-2014 European season, have the highest scoring team throughout the continent, ahead of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Juventus. These are the clubs to which Manchester City have aspire to hold the same company as. While no amount of money can rewrite history to give Manchester City the decades of equity built by the Madrids and Bayerns of the world, they’re well on their way to becoming this century’s Liverpool or Madrid, even if the Sheikh’s oil runs dry.
Petrol-pounds aside, it’s a core soccer philosophy that will win Manchester City trophies in the long-term. Jason Kreis, NYC FC manager, has spent the past few months in Manchester to learn from the club’s coaching staff. In a recent documentary on his journey, he spoke about the “City way,” and how it’s been modeled after Barcelona and their famed La Masia academy.
That “way,” as can be observed through Manchester City’s week-to-week play, is based on possession-oriented, quickly-paced attacking soccer. When the boys in baby blue take the pitch, everyone watching already knows what’s going to go down. Manchester City will grip the match by its throat from the first whistle and use their World XI of stars to overwhelm the opposition with their intelligence, creativity, technique, tight passing, other-worldly athleticism, and straight-up hustle. It’s a 90 minute blitz, and it’s the most beautiful thing to watch in England.
It’s hard to believe that Manchester City are serious about developing from within when they’ve spent these past 6 years buying just about every flavor-of-the-month superstar in global soccer, but with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play sanctions breathing down their accountant’s slimy necks, spending a few million quid on player development isn’t the worst idea. A holistic approach to soccer, rather than one purely built on the power of the pound, is what separates Manchester City from their petrol-garchy brothers in London.
Chelsea, with returning manager Jose Mourinho at the helm, finished the Premiership season in third place, and made it to the Semi-Finals of the Champions League. It’s an end result that has fans of Arsenal and Manchester United in envy, and for 99% of the soccer clubs on the planet, would be regarded as a successful campaign. Yet for Chelsea, who’s spent over £2 billion of owner Roman Abramovich’s oil-soaked pounds since 2003, this is an abject failure. The 1% doesn’t accept second place.
It’s not necessarily the results themselves that are unacceptable by Chelsea standards—it’s the manner in which Mourinho has gone about acquiring them this season. On May 2nd, he was quoted as saying, “At a certain moment of the season I made the decision to stop our evolution in style and philosophy of play and go the only way, with this team and these players, we could get results.”
Essentially, Mourinho was admitting to the world, “I didn’t think we were good enough to play attractive soccer, so I decided to have us defend and score on the counter.” Chelsea boast the best defensive record in the Premiership, but the two teams in front of Chelsea in the table—Liverpool and Manchester City—have scored over 30 more goals, and have done so by playing the brand of attacking soccer that puts butts in seats, and moreover, gets billionaire owners excited about their play-things.
For a club with Chelsea’s money and decade-long run of success, there shouldn’t have to be a compromise between style and results. Pragmatism is a word left for the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal, and Everton, clubs that need to squeeze out every bit of value and ability from their more modestly paid stars just to compete year-to-year to survive amongst the English elite.
And yet Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers and Everton manager Roberto Martinez have won plaudits for instilled their own “pragmatic style” at their respective clubs, while also keeping the product on the pitch entertaining and results-driven. Juxtaposed with the bright ideas of the younger Rodgers and Martinez, Mourinho looks contrarian, especially when Rodgers (who once served as a youth coach under Mourinho) drops lines like this:
“There were probably two buses parked today instead of one,” in response to Chelsea’s anti-football tactics after being beaten 2-0.
Oh, and this gem: "José is happy to work that way and play that way and he will probably shove his CV and say it works, but it's not my way of working.”
He’s not done:
“I like to take the initiative in games and let players express themselves.”
Mourinho’s Chelsea have devolved stylistically, even with last summer’s inclusion of established attackers in Samuel Eto’o and Willian. The very thought of abandoning a path to free-flowing soccer leading to a confluence between style and results—the kind of set-up that Abramovich has gone through 10 different managers to obtain—is mad. Attacking midfielder Eden Hazard, winner of the PFA Young Player of the Year Award, and safely the third-best player in England, took shots at Mourinho after Chelsea crashed out of the Champions League to Atletico Madrid: “Chelsea is not made to play football. We are good in playing on the counter attack, a bit like Real against Bayern.”
It’s a quote that surely opened Abramovich’s eyes. “Not made to play football.” Then why even bother? £2 billion doesn’t buy “football? Well fuck.
What’s even more troubling is that Mourinho’s dispatched striker Romelu Lukaku, who would immediately become Chelsea’s first team striker upon returning from his loan to Everton, and attacking midfielder Juan Mata, who was Chelsea’s best player the previous season. These are two elite attacking talents who Mourinho genuinely could’ve used to further Chelsea’s style, but instead, were deemed expensive spare parts not befitting of a rigid system. Mourinho will have an unlimited line of credit this summer, but will his signings lead to the level of play Manchester City and Liverpool have obtained?
Granted, Mourinho has taken Chelsea this far with a squad of players who are distinctly not his, even if the style has been. Every year, the international arms race for Champions League spots and titles gets more elaborate, more deadly. The Premiership and the Champions League are as competitive as they’ve ever been—juggling the league, the Champions League, and two domestic cup competitions, while expecting silverware in all of them based on transfer outlay is slightly insane. No squad is deep enough to do that. Trophies won’t be won every year, but that doesn’t mean a core club philosophy and half-decent soccer can’t be cultivated.
Although Mourinho maintains that it’s been a “transitional season,” and in that sense has been “very good,” peddling the thought of a transitional season at Chelsea is a notion that gets managers fired. Former Blues boss Andre Villas-Boas, who’s in St. Petersburg right now waiting for the ice to thaw so he can coach Zenit, knows this all too well. Mourinho, however, has too much clout for a first-year sacking. Two European Cups and two Premier League titles, and titles in Portugal, Spain, and Italy will earn you that—even if you do blow the league title at home to Sunderland and let Atletico score three unanswered goals at home in the Champions League Semi-Final. Next year will lead to something.
A transitional season, however, should actually give the club a philosophy to transition to. As the Premiership calendar ends though, there’s no “Chelsea way” to hold up. There’s merely “The Defensive One.” Nobody within that club is gushing over what they watch. There’s nothing to invoke La Masia, or even a semi-structured holistic approach. There’s just Mourinho. For all the money spent and trophies won, it’s ironic that in six years, Manchester City have achieved what Chelsea have desired for over a decade: sexy soccer and titles to go with it. Bar Carlos Ancelotti’s juggernaut in 2009-2010, the Abramovich Era has never yielded a team like the one Manchester City currently has bubbling in champagne and sticky league winner’s medals.
That’ll take some time.