Although the new Premier League season is only in its infancy, Manchester City have shown enough on and off the pitch to suggest that the club hierarchy and the players alike are very keen on ensuring they do not have a repeat of last season.
It was a mere four months ago that Manchester United took apart their city rivals 4-2 at Old Trafford in a display that had all the vitality and swagger of a team on the rise. Conversely, an ageing, lethargic Manchester City looked down and out, with many believing that the derby defeat was indicative of a shift in the balance of power back to the red half – for good.
Fast forward to August 2015, and Manchester City are top of the league having won their opening two games 3-0 each – including a drubbing of current champions Chelsea FC at the Etihad. The club’s performance in the transfer window has been in similar vein, with the Citizens recently announcing the arrival of coveted center-back NicolA?s Otamendi from La Liga side Valencia.
The naked ambition shown by City this summer suggests that talks of a permanent power-shift might well have been a little premature. Although it is not as though the past few seasons have been building up to a crescendo for the Sky Blues in 2015-2016 – after all, Manchester City have won two of the past four Premier League titles and may not win it this season – the ‘noisy neighbours’ have arguably never been a bigger threat to England’s big boys than they are now.
Part of the reason for that assertion is the club’s awesome display of financial muscle during this summer transfer window. Freed from the shackles of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play sanctions, Manchester City have spent an estimated A?95 million this summer, and could well add to that before the close of business on the 1st of September. Saliently, however, the club have not spent that money with reckless abandon – as some manner of cathartic release – but have made a concerted, targeted effort to sign a certain type of player.
It is telling that the average age of the Manchester City summer signings is just 21.6. The powers that be at the club have seemingly had an epiphany during the off-season, and have since set about taking measures to freshen what was the oldest squad in the Premier League in 2014-2015.
To augment what was already a world class squad, City have added the likes of Raheem Sterling, Fabian Delph, NicolA?s Otamendi, Patrick Roberts, Enes A?nal and are now looking to add Kevin De Bruyne to that impressive array of names. Apart from Otamendi, every signing is at or below the age of 25. Manchester City have finally realized the importance of injecting some youth and vitality to rejuvenate their squad, and from the way the season has begun, it already seems to be paying dividends.
The fanciful notion that City are just a billionaire’s plaything, and will be in trouble if the owner decides to up and go, does not stand up to even the slightest bit of scrutiny. The nature of their signings this summer indicates that the Citizens are clearly thinking about the long term. That is one of the primary reasons rival fans should be worried – City will soon come to the end of a ‘cycle’ with one champion team, but have already begun to lay the foundations for the one that will follow.
Then there is the A?200 million investment in a brand new state-of-the-art training complex which opened last year, followed by the announcement of a three-phase plan to expand the Etihad with the ultimate goal of making it the second largest stadium in the division. Phase 1 – the expansion of the South Stand – is now complete, taking the capacity to over 55,000, whilst the planned expansion of the North Stand will increase it by a further 6,000.
These are not the actions of an owner who is not serious about the football club, much less of one planning to leave any time soon. The Citizens’ annual revenue from footballing operations is already amongst the top ten in the world, and improvements such as the stadium expansion are undoubtedly – at least in part – with a view towards making the club self-sustainable in the long run.
On the pitch, Manchester City have one of the best squads in the Premier League. The core of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Tour , David Silva, and Sergio AgA?ero remains the strongest in the division, with the Belgian and Ivorian in particular having started their seasons with a point to prove.
Kompany’s celebration at the Hawthorns was not just a moment of catharsis for the captain, but almost a war-cry ahead of a season of challenges – a declaration that the captain was more than ready to face them and silence his critics. In that moment, as he climbed the advertising boards and roared into the City crowd, the Belgian international appeared to be channeling the hunger and desire of his entire team – something that was so conspicuous in its absence during large periods of last season.
An area that Manchester City must improve on now is their performance in the Champions League. The Sky Blues have never progressed beyond the Round of 16 stage – a poor record given the level of investment by the club. That could explain, to a degree, why club chiefs Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano are reportedly interested in bringing two-time winner Pep Guardiola to the club next season.
The signing of a manager of his pedigree – if, of course, it materialises – would be another major statement by Manchester City of their desire to stay near the very top of English football for the years to come.
Success in the Champions League could also prove to be the catalyst for a fresh wave of City fans to join the already burgeoning army, which would translate to greater commercial success and ultimately, greater resources independent of the Sheikh’s personal wealth.
In terms of the domestic season though, the Citizens have started like a house on fire. With Otamendi having joined the club since, and De Bruyne reportedly on his way, the tag of title favourites will firmly be upon Manuel Pellegrini’s men. A top-four finish is a fait accompli given the quality in the squad, who will finish in the Champions League places for a sixth consecutive season after wallowing in mediocrity for decades.
The trite jibes from opposition fans about the club’s lack of history perhaps mask an underlying worry about the growing stature of Manchester City, who will be quite happy making history now. The club have shaken up the power structure in England and changed the face of the Premier League for good.
Perhaps that is why there is almost a sense of denial when it comes to the Citizens – a feeling that at some point, the noisy neighbours will pack up their things and move. Perhaps that is why there is a nostalgic urge to hang on to the Premier League of a bygone era – to the likes of Giggs, Bergkamp, Zola and Carragher. To Scholes, Vieira, Lampard and Gerrard. To Fowler, Ronaldo, Henry and Drogba. To a time when English football was at its zenith in the Champions League. To a time when domestically, there were fewer rivals for the title and fewer teams with the ambition or clout to upset the established order.
Change is inevitable, but rarely desirable. Premier League fans might indulge in this nostalgia for a time, but no amount of patronising monikers can change the fact that there are now two genuinely big Manchester clubs in the English top flight.
Manchester City are here to stay.