Just over three months ago, Manchester City were still going strong in three competitions.
Since then, disaster has struck. Losses to Arsenal, Burnley, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Manchester United have left City scrapping for fourth-place in the league. Throw in their FA Cup loss to Middlesbrough and their defeat against Barcelona, and it’s clear that we’re looking at a dramatic capitulation.
But City had a similar slump in 2012/13; immediately after winning the Premier League, they won no trophies and their manager (Roberto Mancini) was consequently sacked. That clearly wasn’t a permanent shift, because City bounced back from that rut and won the Premier League again in the next season. Why shouldn’t we expect the same this time?
1) The core of their team is in permanent, possibly rapid, decline.
Most would agree that the key players at Manchester City are Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, Yaya Touré, David Silva and Sergio Agüero.
These players made significant contributions to both of City’s Premier League triumphs. However, several of them have been a source of big concerns this season. Touré, Zabaleta and Kompany’s bad form has persisted for many months – indeed, Kompany’s game has become increasingly error-strewn and decreasingly imperious for the last three years.
The others have so far resisted this decay – however, Silva is nearing 30 years old, the point at which attacking players’ powers traditionally begin to wane. Of City’s current 23-man squad, fifteen players are now aged 29 or older. Their squad could very soon be in need of a near complete rejuvenation and that process would take a lot of time, money, and expertise.
2) Their recruitment strategy remains poor and this time no ‘quick fix’ is available.
Since Pellegrini’s arrival in summer 2013, City’s big-money signings have included Stevan Jovetić, Fernandinho, Álvaro Negredo, Jesús Navas, Eliaquim Mangala, Fernando and Wilfried Bony, costing £160m-£170m altogether. So far, most of these players have failed to significantly impress.
Moreover, City haven’t merely wasted a lot of money. Other aspects of their recruiting staff’s decision-making have also been poor. For example, the club originally signed Frank Lampard until the end of 2014, with the stated intention of then allowing him to join sister-club, New York City, for the start of the MLS season in March. The club then reneged at the eleventh-hour and decided to keep him until May. That caused considerable upset amongst NYC’s staff and fans, yet Lampard’s impact since then has been negligible. The episode has come to feel like a farce.
Poor transfer dealing are a familiar story in the blue half of Manchester”
Of course, poor transfer dealings are a familiar story in the blue half of Manchester – think Jack Rodwell, Javi García and Scott Sinclair.
What sets this time apart, however, is City’s hiring of Txiki Begiristain as their new director of football in October 2012. Begiristain has considerable input into the club’s signings and presided – in the same role – over Barcelona’s phenomenal success from 2003-2010.
Hiring him was a clear attempt to bring cohesion and class to City’s recruitment policy, and expend minimal effort in doing so. However, it seems that this plan has failed almost entirely. Moreover, it isn’t clear whom City can now turn to in their next attempt to improve it – the search will take a great deal of patience.
3) Financial Fair Play will continue to bite.
Financial Fair Play, imposed by Uefa, is a complex system of financial controls. The relevant facts are that every team is permitted to have only a certain amount of financial losses – €45m over three seasons – if they wish to compete in Uefa competitions without risking punishment. City have incurred such penalties already, comprising a wide range of player-related and monetary restrictions that will operate for at least one more year.
Let’s assume, for now at least, that the quality of City’s current players is permanently dwindling. In that case, they will need to pay a lot of money to restore their squad. It is by no means certain that they could do that at a fast-enough rate, given the FFP restrictions, to prevent the quality of their team entering a long, downwards trend.
Fall out of the top four as a consequence – which is plausible – and the attendant loss of revenue would make the road back to the top even steeper.
4) City will have to pay great costs to comply with the new “home-grown rules”.
According to the new rules, which will be gradually phased in from 2016-2020, a “home-grown” player is now someone who has been registered with an English or Welsh club for at least three years prior to their 18th birthday. By 2020, clubs will be able to list a maximum of 13 players that don’t fit this description in their Premier League squad.
Of their current batch of home-grown players, only Joe Hart is a strong long-term prospect.
Furthermore, due to the increase in demand that this amendment wll cause, home-grown players will become even more expensive than they already are. A cheap alternative to buying such players from other clubs is to create them oneself through one’s academy. However, City’s academy has produced very few top players in recent years.
All this, combined with the FFP restrictions and the rejuvenation that their squad may soon require, means that in just a couple of years City could be left needing to spend a gigantic amount of money – rendered impermissible by FFP – if they are to avoid falling out of England’s elite.
Is that a likely outcome? Maybe it is. One thing’s for sure – City fans ought to be at least a little bit worried.