The swing in Manchester’s football politics that took place between the eighth minute at Old Trafford yesterday, when City took the lead, and the 24th, when United decided they would not only have it but keep it was as dramatic, in its relatively trivial way, as anything that might happen on general-election night. It is also likely to be something the blue faction will have to deal with for some time.
City fans and neutrals alike may regret this apparent development, for two titles in three seasons came as a welcome interruption to the United ascendancy that held almost throughout Sir Alex Ferguson’s long reign, and opponents of UEFA’s financial fair play will cite the red restoration as evidence that the policy favours old-established powers at the expense of those who would challenge them through the transfer market. But Louis van Gaal looks to have made United formidable again. And City are going to have to perform a lot better, both on and off the field, if they are to have any hope of keeping pace.
The Abu Dhabi ownership at the Etihad took over in 2008, just in time to build the side that took those two titles - £120 million was lavished on captain Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Edin Dzeko, and there were plenty of other expensive signings in a spree comparable with the early years of Roman Abramovic at Chelsea – but once UEFA sanctions began to bite City had to be more careful.
Time will tell if their more recent signings, the likes of midfielder Fernando and defender Eliaquim Mangala, are of the required quality but the signs are not good, Hence the rather familiar look of the team that was all but outclassed by United. To call it ‘’ageing’’, as many have done, is ever so slightly harsh – the five players I mentioned earlier average several months under 30 – but it certainly cannot be expected to get better without major surgery, or the classic football treatment of a change of management, or both.
Naturally attention will focus on manager Manuel Pellegrini, for football discussion tends to demand easy scapegoats, but it would he harsh to write off a man who steered City to the Barclays Premier League title less than a year ago – and the Capital One Cup a couple of months before that. Pellegrini also brings a welcome dignity to the dugout. Might he be just too nice for the nasty job to be done? That’s another question. But another thing we don’t know is how much say he has had in recent recruitment, or will have in the forthcoming battle for the best players available in the summer market.
Which brings us to the former Barcelona executives Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain. Soriano, who is essentially a businessman, was nevertheless reported to have promised City fans in Australia last week, that the playing style – possession, high line and all the other Barcelona staples – would never change. Begiristain, by contrast, has an impeccable football pedigree. As a winger or striker, he averaged around a goal every four games for Real Sociedad, Barcelona and Spain. Yet, if it is he who has most influence over the composition of City’s squad, he could be doing better.
Worse still, City face an unfair fight in the summer, especially if they go for the same players as United, who can spend virtually as they like due to their high football earnings under the UEFA formula. United can now be considered certainties to return to the Champions League and, while City should at least have the qualifying opportunity that comes with fourth place despite their recent poor form, a serious refreshment is in order. And who is supposed to oversee it? The very men who hired Fernando and Mangala, not to mention Pellegrini. It’s very hard to be optimistic.