Manchester City’s slump and the failings of rich clubs

United 4-2 City

United 4-2 City

After Manchester City’s 4-2 defeat at Old Trafford, they have now lost 6 of their last 8 matches in all competitions. On New Years’ Day, the Citizens were level on points with leaders Chelsea, but a run of just 4 wins since then has ended all hopes of Pellegrini’s side beating the Blues of West London to become Premier League champions. A disappointing, trophyless season from Manchester City may lead to the sacking of a manager who 12 months ago, led them to the title – sound familiar?

Some say that a factor behind City’s poor title defence has been the Financial Fair Play regulations, which have prevented the club from making a marquee signing. This seems questionable given that over the past 12 months, the club have spent around £75 million on transfer fees, which is £5 million under what Real Madrid paid for Cristiano Ronaldo. The lack of spending power is clearly not the issue.

Rather, Manchester City’s problem is the opposite. Because they are able to spend so much money, they have lost the capacity to spend wisely, and get the best out of the players they have available. The quality of player they have been able to bring in has seemingly lulled everybody at the club into a false sense of security.


Yaya Toure

Manuel Pellegrini has come under intense scrutiny this season. Before we look at where he went wrong, it is worth remembering that last season, his side were playing some of the most entertaining football ever seen in England. The driving runs from Yaya Toure, the subtle inside movement of David Silva, the width provided by full-backs and the clinical finishing any two of four strikers could produce all combined to devastating effect. Manchester City were attacking, audacious, ruthless and simply brilliant.

However, their brilliance with the ball had begun to provoke attitudes of laziness without it. This was evident in the team, even before the title win. The adventurous mentality of midfielders such as Yaya Toure and David Silva meant that gaps would appear in midfield. This problem was dealt with partly by the tenacity of Fernandinho, who had an impressive first season in England, and partly the reluctance of opposing teams to push forward, due to City’s attacking prowess. Manuel Pellegrini could see this, and he brought in holding midfielder Fernando from Porto, to give the defence extra protection.

However, what Pellegrini has perhaps overlooked is that you do not defend well simply by having one brutish anchor man. Defending is not a solitary task that can be assigned to 4 or 5 players in a team. Rather, it is something that must be done by every single player, with each of them equally important to the common cause. Collective defending not only prevents the opposition from getting the ball into advanced areas, it indirectly creates better opportunities for your own team to attack.

Manuel Pellegrini

Manuel Pellegrini

For example, the act of pressing an opposition player can be considered part of defending, because it allows that player less time on the ball. However, it can also be seen as a form of attack, because the pressing may force that player to give the ball away, thus your team has the chance to get forward quickly. The most successful teams are constantly defending, constantly attacking, to the point that they at times forget which is which.

The key to success in football is flexibility, energy, teamwork and tactical cohesion. It is not just having a group of players who can do impressive tricks with the ball, and at the moment, that is seemingly all Manchester City are. Manuel Pellegrini must take a lot of responsibility for this. And yet, it seems common for the wealth of certain clubs to cause an unhealthy sense of arrogance and laziness at boardroom level, among the management team and within the dressing room.

Despite being arguably the biggest club in the world, Real Madrid did not win the Champions League in the years between 2002 and 2014. This was predominantly under the ownership of Florentino Perez, whose vision was to create a team of eye-catching, shirt-selling, big name players, which would sweep aside every other with the flair and quality on display.


Florentino Perez

The flaw in Perez’s plan was that because the players he brought in were so talented with the ball, they had developed a conceitedness which caused them to neglect their duties without it. That is why Real Madrid kept only 8 out of a possible 38 clean sheets in the knockout stages of the Champions League, in the time after their 2002 final victory over Leverkusen, and before the 2013 appointment of Carlo Ancelotti. 11 different managers tried and failed to foster the team ethos that Real Madrid needed to move to succeed in Europe.

11 managers cannot be that bad. Instead, this blog would argue that the excessive finances available at Real Madrid have caused carelessness, egotism and disunity, which is exactly the opposite of what is needed to succeed.

For evidence of what a team working collectively can achieve, one need only look at Real’s city rivals, Atletico Madrid. Having made a profit from 2013 summer transfers, they won La Liga last season, which is a very impressive feat. Diego Simeone’s side achieved more in the Champions League than Real Madrid had over the previous 10 years in reaching the final, although ironically, Real under Ancelotti were the side they lost to.

Teams who spend less money have an often overlooked advantage over their heavily-funded competitors. Firstly, there is usually more transparency at boardroom level. Those in charge are more connected to what is best for the fans of their club, rather than how they can inflate their own ego, which lends itself to balanced, rational decision making.


Diego Simeone

Because the management team are not handed an endless supply of cash, they are encouraged to think deeply and pragmatically about the tactical setup of their team. They are more likely sign a small number of players, which makes it easier for the coach to create tactical consistency, without disrupting the harmony of the squad.

If each new player is carefully selected, rather than hauled in as one of a whole batch of signings, they are more likely to appreciate the opportunity to join, and feel a sense of loyalty to their manager. Furthermore, lesser-funded clubs tend to gravitate towards signing young, hungry, unproven yet consistently developing players, who will enthusiastically buy into the manager’s plans. If every player already has a proven track record at the top of the game, they are likely to have a bigger ego. Although these types of players might possess more individual quality, they are harder to instruct and motivate; too many of them can lead to an imbalanced team.

It is no coincidence that in England’s top division, there is more money available than ever before, and yet the league is arguably at its weakest point in over 20 years. Weakest, not in terms of ability, because clubs can afford to cherry-pick the most talented players from around the world. Rather, Premier League sides are weak in terms of teamwork and collective defending. Because the players are so technically gifted – and highly paid – many of them have become self-centred, and lack the natural determination to help their team. They have become more interested in the perks of being a footballer, rather than simply playing football, and the pure fundamentals of the game.