How Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City reinvented English football (Part One)

This past week was supposed to be a coronation for Manchester City and better yet one against a hated neighbour who for so long made their lives a misery. Instead there was only deflation.

Either side of the derby a tempestuous two-legged clash with Liverpool offered up the tantalising glimpse of European glory. Again there was only bathos.

Yet let there be no doubt that three costly blips do not define this incredible campaign undertaken by a side on the very precipice of greatness. It merely makes them mortal, for now.

Elsewhere there has been football that has bordered on the drop-dead gorgeous, crushing all opponents with a velvet glove. Elsewhere Manchester City have scored ninety goals in the league alone and crafted ninety minute spells of futuristic fare that has devastated the rest of English football right back to the drawing board. Who knows where they go from here but if it’s up then God help their contemporaries.

These are strange days indeed for Blues and being one myself it’s hard to make sense of it all. The human condition has a need to put everything that life offers up into boxes – that goes there and that goes there and that can be a few different things but let’s place it in that category so at least we know where it is.

How can you do that to what is essentially the most ludicrous day-dream imaginable occurring in real time? There hasn’t been a box invented yet of a shape and volume to put all of this in and sellotape it up and hold it in your hands and say ‘this, this is what it feels like’.

The past helps. It provides some sort of ground zero; ballast and contrast. Ten years ago this week City lost at home to Chelsea to cap off a largely miserable period that produced just three wins in 15. The latest defeat prompted under-fire boss Sven Goran-Eriksson to say: “When you lose like we did you cannot criticise the team. They tried and that is what you want to see”.  The Swede’s appointment was supposed to herald an exciting new dawn for the club after decades of farce and struggle. Now simple effort was more than sufficient.

Going back further still, 20 years ago City were rock-bottom of the second tier despite being pre-season favourites to win the division. Protests against their chairman Franny Lee were vociferous and heartfelt while chants of ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’ were commonplace. It was a claim that had substance given that the squad included Tony Scully, Jason van Blerk, and a striker in Lee Bradbury who couldn’t hit a barn door for love nor money.

In between those two markers in time was a soap opera that ended each episode with the main character shooting his foot off with his own trigger-finger. City became a national punchline. They aimed for the stars and fell flat on their face. They flailed, going through managers at a rate of knots, and yes admittedly that Manchester City and this present Manchester City are so completely different as to only share strands of DNA but it’s right to start here when attempting to make sense of what came later.

Because what the Abu Dhabi United Group inherited when they shelled out £210m to take control of the club in September 2008 was an impressive ground (that the club did not own), a promising young keeper by the name of Joe Hart and a handful of highly proficient talent, namely the Brazilian Elano, Micah Richards and Shaun Wright-Phillips. Throw in Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany, two signings so recent the ink had not yet dried on their contracts, and that was the summation of City’s building blocks from which to construct an empire. That and a heritage of under-achievement.

Considering the enormous scope of their ambitions – both on the pitch and off – it would therefore necessitate a quantum leap to elevate the club into the realms of the elite. Or, to put another way, just to get into the room Manchester City would have to invest an eye-watering amount of money and this they duly did embarking on a period of free-spending that rival supporters still associate them with today.

So admittedly in those early days it is hard to see a linear and premeditated strategy other than an aggressive targeting of the very best talents available regardless of expense and when Mark Hughes was jettisoned after just 12 months the fear was that this knee-jerk approach extended to the dug-out too.

With hindsight though it can be said that Roberto Mancini was the perfect appointment at the perfect time for this vast, fledgling project. An arch disciplinarian blooded in winning meaningful silverware (the Italian had guided Inter Milan to three consecutive Serie A titles prior to taking the Eastlands hot-seat) Mancini’s demand for excellence and work ethic quashed any concerns of mercenariness that could have divided this collection of assembled personnel. Instead he forged a purposeful and driven side who quickly established themselves as a top four inhabitant and better yet one capable of consistently displaying brilliant football.

We all know how his tenure peaked and when it did – at precisely 4.51pm on May 13th 2012 with Sergio Aguero peeling off his shirt and a ground now rechristened as the Etihad exploding in disbelieving jubilation – just as we know what it meant in every conceivable facet to the advancement of the modern-day Manchester City.

Yet later that year came a development that cannot compare in importance to a first league triumph in 44 years but can – to an extent – in relevance. With former Barcelona head honcho Ferran Sorriano having already replaced Garry Cook as the club’s chief executive a significant boardroom reshuffle was finalised that October with the appointment of Txiki Begeristain.

Sergio Aguero celebrates winning the Premier League title in 2012

Until his departure in 2012, Begeristain had been Barcelona’s director of football during a quite staggering era of continental dominance. He was a man widely respected throughout the game and more so a man widely credited with being Pep Guardiola’s mentor during that astonishing spell that saw Xavi, Iniesta and Messi reinvent what was possible on a pitch.

Naturally then his arrival led the media putting two and two together and in this instance coming up with three. “Two down, one to go?” asked the Guardian, heavily insinuating that City’s next step was to secure the services of the world’s greatest coach.

It was a fair assumption because City had put everything in place to make themselves as appealing as possible to a coach with such a singular vision including the procurement of his two closest allies. Away from the pitch meanwhile a breath-taking transformation had taken place in the area surrounding the ground including the completion of a £200 youth academy that made Barcelona’s famed La Masia resemble a village kindergarten, while it was hardly a secret that the club’s owners did not simply want them to be the biggest and the best but the most respected and admired. In short City’s model owed much to the template that made the Catalonian giants so formidable.

Manuel Pellegrini lifts the Premier League trophy at Manchester City

It naturally followed then that when Mancini’s strengths became only negatives and his disciplinarian ways turned dictatorial the club turned to the person they believed could take their grand project to its greatest heights.

Only Guardiola, refreshed from a self-imposed hiatus and keen to undertake a new challenge chose the Bundesliga and Bayern and we can only speculate what a blow that was to a club that now had a clear and concise blueprint of what they envisaged their future to be.

Spurned, they instead turned to Manuel Pellegrini and though it would be highly disrespectful to deem the Chilean as a mere placeholder (after all, the ‘Engineer’ did preside over a title win that accrued a hundred goals) it was evident throughout his three years in Manchester that City were playing a waiting game. They wanted Pep. They needed Pep. Everything was in place bar him for City to take that final quantum leap into the stratosphere.

When they finally got him in early 2016 it was unquestionably their most defining signing since the takeover. From here anything was possible as they aimed for the stars.

Now read part two of this three-part series – The Revolution >>