Philosophy is an important word in the soccer world. Evermore, project is becoming another one. But it’s not Plato and Friedrich Nietzsche behind the game’s philosophical revolution; rather, those drives are being fueled by projects from the likes of Marcelo Bielsa and Josep Guardiola, both of whom have spurred a search for identity within every club in the world.
Manchester City is one of the clubs looking for meaning. In 2008, it became the latest club to be injected with millions and millions of dollars, before eventually adding millions and millions more. Sheikh Mansour was the man providing the cash but since we have been taught to question anything that looks too good to be true, his long-term commitment to his new project in Manchester was doubted.
Approaching seven years later, those doubts have begun to vanish. “We’re building a structure for the future, not just a team of all-stars,” Mansour said when he first turned up at the club. He has stuck to his word.
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It was only 16 years ago that City was playing in the third-tier of English soccer, Since it hit the jackpot, however, it’s been elevated to the top of the Premier League. The club’s won England’s top flight twice, is the league’s reigning champion and on Tuesday evening welcomes Barcelona to the Etihad Stadium for the second time in 12 months.
That it’s Barça that’s visiting in the UEFA Champions League is significant. The Catalans’ success in recent years has caused jaws to drop across Europe, with Guardiola enhancing a passing philosophy which had been synonymous with the club for decades. People claimed they were becoming bored of the team’s quick-passing-high-press game, yet club owners still wanted a piece of it. They wanted their clubs to have the philosophy which is rooted in Barcelona’s La Masia academy and runs through to its first team; they wanted to produce swathes of homegrown superstars; and they wanted a positive image projected across the world.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Mansour has done more imitating than most. To call City an out and out copycat would be unfair — as Yaya Tourés pointed out, “the Premier League’s different to La Liga, you need more power, strength and running” — but the Sheikh’s project has certainly borrowed what it could.
Ferran Soriano worked at Barça under Joan Laporta between 2003 and 2008 and has been City’s chief executive since 2012. Aitor ‘Txiki’ Begiristain has also swapped Barcelona’s beaches for Manchester’s rain. Txiki worked as director of football under Laporta regime and is now fulfilling the same role at City. He is largely credited for the Guardiola appointment at Barcelona.
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If Soriano and Txiki had gotten their way, Barça’s influence at the Etihad would be even more pronounced. They targeted Guardiola two years ago, while he was on his sabbatical in New York, and former Barcelona president Sandro Rosell blasted City in 2013 for making “offensive approaches [for staff and players] at all levels of the structure.”
“We chose a philosophy,” Laporta smugly smiles when he remembers the success Txiki and Guardiola brought to Barça. With Laporta’s deputies in Manchester, City is making the same choice.
With Guardiola out of reach, they chose another Spanish-speaking manager, Manuel Pellegrini, with the hope he could bring the desired playing style. “We ask that the new coach builds a squad, but also a way of working that will last for 10 years,” Soriano said when City tempted the Chilean from Málaga. “It is a long-term decision which involved a lot of careful analysis.” Pellegrini said he took the job because he was “convinced [Man City] knew my footballing model.”
Beneath the boss, there are also several players who wouldn’t look out of place at Camp Nou. David Silva and Sergio Agüero immediately spring to mind, with Touré already having played for Barcelona. Denis Suarez, currently on loan at Sevilla, swapped City for Barça a couple of years ago.
On top of that, City has now opened a new training complex which they hope will one day be as world-renowned as La Masia. Its Etihad Campus cost close to $400 million and boasts 16 pitches, three gyms, six swimming pools, cryotherapy and ultra-sound rooms and a 7,000-seater academy stadium — and that’s just scratching the surface.
Argentine right back Pablo Zabaleta said he’s never seen anything like it. “Even Lionel Messi was impressed,” he added, after Argentina trained there at the end of last year.
Soriano’s hard work has already yielded an impressive turnaround in the club’s finances. He halved its losses in his first year in charge and has improved its media image around the globe. Now Mansour will now hope his chief executive, along with his friend Txiki, can ensure the club’s off-field success will continue translating into success on the field.
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That has already started domestically, but the club’s still trying to find its way in Europe. It’s never made the quarterfinals of the Champions League, and it was Barça who eliminated it.
“I think it was too much of a big game,” Samir Nasri admitted on Monday, talking about last year’s 2-0, first leg defeat at the Etihad. “We were not ready, this year will be totally different.”
The French midfielder believes this is the chance for City’s project to finally flourish on the continent: “In the Champions League we need to create our history to have a special relationship with the fans and a game like Barcelona can be a step in the right direction.”
Although a visit from players like Messi, Xavi and Iniesta offers another chance to reflect on City’s progress, Mansour’s project does not end here. There is no expiration date. A Barcelona blueprint has got it off the ground, but in 10 years, it’s Manchester City who he hopes clubs will be looking to for philosophies, infrastructure and success. Not Barça.