You could almost sense the disappointment on the faces of everyone at Sky last weekend when Everton sprung a surprise by beating a deeply out-of-sorts Manchester City side 2-0 at Goodison Park. The title race was officially over. Not mathematically yet, but this was no longer a race, well none more so than one between myself and Usain Bolt would be. No, this was a coronation, with Manchester United the clear winners. It wasn’t supposed to be this easy. There are still nine games of the season left to play, which is an embarrassingly meek defence of their maiden Premier League crown, but what do they need to do to become more of a threat next season?
Firstly, let’s establish that City have improved immeasurably under Mancini’s reign and up until this season, they’ve improved year on year, winning the FA Cup first in 2011 before pipping rivals United to the title in the most dramatic of fashions last season. Nevertheless, post-mortems of where it has all gone wrong for the club this season haven’t been in short supply over the course of the past week or so, but in all reality, despite the Sky rhetoric, it’s been over long before that. What has been a noticeable trend, though, has been the glee with which some of them have been written; Mancini is obviously a man who can occasionally rub people up the wrong way, but the sight of him being portrayed as some sort of clueless clown, when you consider the mess he inherited from predecessor Mark Hughes, really is quite bizarre.
The immediate reaction with City now from most observers is that they’ll just throw money at the problem. They’ll buy a new squad. Or the very essence of one at least, while the newspapers have been flooded with reports about ‘huge summer clear-outs’, which in reality almost actually never happens, and just like player exchange deals, they appear to be confined solely to either the print media or the realms of Football Manager.
Bearing in mind the future of the manager is not guaranteed, given that there is an all likelihood set to be something of a managerial merry-go-round in the summer involving some exceptional coaching talent, it makes discussing likely transfer targets a futile gesture if ever there was one, but departures are easier to judge.
A revealing interview with City chief executive and former Barcelona transfer puppet-master Ferran Soriano in the Gazzetta dello Sport published Wednesday hinted that there may be a more radical approach to transfers on the horizon: “My way of football? One year you can win with luck, but in the long term you need planning and investments to reach the final of the Champions League.
“In 2003 we did a study at Barcelona. For each player landed in the first team from the ‘cantera’ there was an average cost of £2m. Nothing if you think the current costs. Even at a age of five years you should get the style of the club, then the rewards will come.
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“Our problem is to find players stronger then ours. It’s not easy. There are rumours associating them [Stevan Jovetic and Erik Lamela] to City, but I never comment on market rumours. In the last three years there have been losses of £200m, then of £100m and now there is a ‘red’ of £50m. But we also have just invested £150 million for the structures of the youth sector. It’s a fantastic project, focusing on financial sustainability.”
That last line is perhaps the most interesting, seeing as it implicitly acknowledges the need for the club to adjust and reign in their spending so as to comply with Financial Fair Play. As an initial compromise, clubs will be able to record maximum losses of €45 million (£39.5m) in total over the first three years (which includes right now). That can be subsidised by an owner but only if they invest the money permanently in return for shares, not by lending it as Roman Abramovich did when he first took control of Chelsea. If owners are unable to subsidise debts, the maximum loss is €5m (£4.4m). From 2014 to 2017, the overall permitted loss will fall to €30m (£26.3m) for each three-year block monitored by Uefa. After that, Uefa hope clubs will have learned financial balance and be genuinely breaking even, or that’s the idea at least.
The problem facing City at the moment, though, is that despite spending approximately £54m last summer padding out their squad in terms of numbers and depth, they still looks woefully short of options in key positions and don’t have a lot to show for their investment. Meanwhile, key members of the squad such as Vincent Kompany, Joe Hart, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero simply haven’t performed as well this season as last, while only really Matija Nastasic has had any sort of lasting impact on the starting eleven of the new faces brought in, with the jury still firmly out on the top flight’s most handsome man, Javi Garcia.
While the ‘big summer clear out’ stories are often ridiculous, as many as 10 players could feasibly leave in the summer – Santa Cruz, Bridge, Maicon, Kolarov, Dzeko, Lescott, Nasri, Sinclair, Tevez and Kolo Toure – with Yaya Toure’s agent kicking up something of a stink by threatening that his client will leave at the end of the season over his disgust that contract negotiations have taken so long to get going.
That doesn’t leave a lot to work with and what you’re left with is a side short on quality and depth, hardly helped by Mancini’s seeming inability to rotate his squad at all, instead counting predominantly on a core cast of players to support them on multiple fronts. Sinclair has in essence just replaced Adam Johnson in all but name, even playing less, giving credence to the thought that Mancini sees his squad as a two-tiered hierarchy based on prestige and status. It’s certainly a difficult party to break into.
When it comes to challenging for the title next season, should they keep the main spine of their side, remarkably, they still look better prepared than any of their so-called rivals to truly give United a run for their money. In the end, it all comes down to what you define as a ‘title challenge’. City being second in the league ensures they have at some point challenged by virtue of being the closest to the eventual winners of the league, but a 15-point gap with nine games left to go doesn’t point to a very good challenge, more of a leisurely disagreement over how to split a hefty bar bill.
Considering they’ve spent an awful lot of money, the current City squad isn’t in fantastic shape, even if they possess, when everyone is fully fit at least, a side to be feared. The financial constraints on the horizon mean a concerted push like the one in the summer of 2010 or even 2011 just isn’t possible, and the restructuring needed will have to be levelled out over a couple of years. The good thing about being such a wealthy club is, though, that there aren’t many bigger fish in the proverbial pond to bully you around, so keeping hold of their best and brightest shouldn’t be a problem, but the road back to the summit looks a longer one than we could have ever imagined just a few short months ago.
They’ve done it once before, akin to scaling Mount Everest by taking a helicopter all the way to the top bar the last ten feet, now a more scenic and altogether tougher route is required. A lot can change in just a few short months, as this campaign has taught us, but there looks to be a busy summer ahead for Mancini, Soriano and co for them to go into next term with any real hope of wrestling the title out of the clutches of old red nose.
They remain a threat, but a fragile one at that. They’re far from a club in crisis, but this year they’ve been made to appear just a little more mortal than seemed possible. Rediscovering that ruthless swagger and restoring the team’s confidence is the most economical path available at the moment, even if a spot of spring cleaning may also be in order, but whether the man tasked with carrying out both jobs is Mancini or not remains to be seen.
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