It’s not just hype that makes Manchester City look like a club who can compete in Europe this season. They are not simply a club throwing money at a problem: they’re a club throwing lots of money at it. But they’re throwing it at targeted areas, and doing it well. No longer do City have a scatter-gun approach to investment.
‘City used to be set up to try to win the Premier League, now they’re looking to Europe,’ says BT Sport German football expert – and possibly the best-dressed man in football – Rafa Honigstein, ‘they’re the English team looking to go all the way.’
The addition of Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne to the attacking line is quite simply frightening. This City side have already surpassed the achievements of the club’s golden era of the late 60s and early 70s years on a domestic front. Now their front four of Sterling, Silva, De Bruyne and Aguero is looking to surpass it on a European front too.
In 1968 Manchester City stunned English football by winning the league, wresting it away from Champions Manchester United. After the triumph, City’s assistant manager Malcolm Allison promptly declared ‘we will terrify the cowards of Europe’. Thanks to those years, Allison’s place in City’s history alongside manager Joe Mercer is assured, but he’s also the man who changed City’s away kit to red and black stripes: a homage to AC Milan whom Allison thought were the best team in Europe.
The next season City, the English champions, were knocked out of the European Cup in the first round by Fenerbahce. Ironically, it was AC Milan who won the competition, beating Ajax 4-1 in a final where Milan’s Pierino Prati became the third man – after Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano – to score a hat trick in the final of the European Cup. No man has done it since.
Allison, as it turned out, was right to lionise Milan; that was Milan’s second European Cup victory, and they’ve won the trophy five more times since then. City, meanwhile, would have to wait until 2011 for their next appearance in the competition. Success came in the 1972 Cup Winners’ Cup, but there was little else in the way of European terrorising.
But Allison may yet be right about City’s ability to terrify Europe on a grand scale. ‘De Bruyne will bring an explosiveness on the counter attack,’ adds Honigstein, something that City lacked last season as they struggled to get out of their own half against Barcelona over two legs.
The counter will be crucial to City’s ability to achieve European success this season. They may have bags of possession in some Premier League matches, but against the big European sides they’ll need to toil hard without the ball and take their chances on the counter. But they seem set up to do it this time. There’s a pace and power to frighten defences more habituated to helping out their midfields than keeping out attacks, but there’s enough guile and class in that attack to break down the more stubborn defensive units. There’s no worry about City’s firepower.
There is a worry, however. BT Sport French football expert Julien Laurens – who may be the only man to rival Honigstein’s sartorial elegance – says, ‘my concern is their balance between defence and attack. I don’t think Yaya Toure is defensive-minded enough to do that job.’
City, at their best, have never really had that player. The closest they came was Gareth Barry, the Premier League’s most cautioned player, and Nigel De Jong who was sidelined somewhat during City’s 2011-12 title-winning campaign, mostly used as a substitute brought on to allow Yaya Toure more attacking freedom. That kind of proves Laurens’ point – Toure is at his best when marauding forward, but he’s not going to be the link between the defence and the attack. It proves Honigstein’s too – that was all well and good in the Premier League, but City are looking beyond the home front these days, and will play with an extra midfielder this time around to cope with the demands of Europe.
It remains to be seen how Pellegrini will approach the problem, though. Fernandinho is an industrious box-to-box midfielder who gives extra steel to the midfield – particularly useful when playing 4-4-2 as City did in Pellegrini’s previous two seasons in charge – but that’s not really what’s needed in Europe. Fernando is the obvious choice to slot in beside Toure.
Nicknamed ‘the octopus’ he could play the role of the midfield anchor, but his performances last season were poor, he was caught in possession too much and gave the ball away in dangerous areas as well as being caught out of position too often. Rakitic and Iniesta can slice through your defence even if you don’t make a mistake, they will certainly punish you if you do make one.
But from the opening few games of this season – hardly a perfect litmus test for the whole season, but it’s all we have to go on so far – Manuel Pellegrini seems to have something else in mind. Against Chelsea, as Yaya Toure tired towards the end of the game he neglected his defensive duties. The Ivorian talisman neglects his defensive duties at the best of times, but at 32 he’ll get tired more often, and there’ll be a gaping hole in the midfield that needs plugging.
Pellegrini’s solution in the Chelsea game was to bring on Martin Demichelis for Raheem Sterling and play Demichelis in the midfield anchor role, letting Toure and Fernandinho play without having to worry too much about closing out the result.
The ageing Argentinian has played there before, notably for Bayern Munich during his spell in Germany, so why shouldn’t Pellegrini play him there? We know he’s an adept passer, has a wealth of European experience and will not neglect defensive duties. In the big European games, when City need a bit of extra presence and a player who can facilitate the transition from defence to attack, perhaps he’s the one they’re looking for – he’s not a long term solution, but if no one else is available, then why not?
But it’s a step in the right direction in terms of Europe for Manchester City this season. They are embarking on a campaign where they feel they have a chance of topping their group and avoiding the bigger teams in the next round, and they look set up to give the Champions League a bigger go.
The Cup Winners’ Cup was as close as City – and Malcolm Allison – ever came to terrifying Europe and emulating Milan. These days, with Milan languishing out of the European picture a changing of the guard is taking place. Whether City go on to win the trophy or not, this could finally be the season where City fulfil Allison’s prophecy and terrify Europe.