The comprehensive nature about yesterday’s result has predictably led to inquests and consequently huge over-reactions about the distance between Manchester United and Manchester City. There has to be a reasonable middle-ground, doesn’t there?
This morning I tweeted a few things about the overreaction to City’s win, as predictable as it was in nature.
This is what I tweeted, over a few tweets –
I do wonder how long it will take between the sort of fawning we’re seeing and observing that what City are doing is so destructive for the game. It might be fun to see a team win the league by Christmas and break all the records, but it’s not sustainable this way. The footballing world rejoices because the Harlem Globetrotters turned up and put on such a show against the team closest to them. How much money do they spend before people realise they’ve just eliminated the competition? The usual retort to this is : “United spend money!” – Sorry, if you can’t see the difference between them and City, then I guess you will just have to wait the two years or so it takes to become obvious. City were brilliant last season because they had all those great attackers. Pep said he doesn’t coach tackling, so breaks transfer records for a goalkeeper and new defenders. They improve as should be expected and Pep is declared the purist’s choice. Lol.
Ending with this –
You’ve got to laugh at some of the coverage. They were wasting time in the corner from the 88th minute. (And ironically could have scored 2 more in that time!)
“Wow they even waste time with more style than everyone!”
— Wayne Barton (@WayneSBarton) December 11, 2017
Of course, some people disagreed with the point I was making. Pasha Haijan, a podcaster, told me I was ‘neglecting’ and ‘abusing’ Pep Guardiola to ‘get RT’s. He also called me arrogant and then deleted the tweets, why, I’m not sure, but my Twitter app is quite useful in that it’s a bit dysfunctional and his deleting of them prompted me to save them and share them here:
Twitter isn’t the best place for elaborating on points so I will use this space to do it better. I wrote in my post-match reaction piece that what City were doing was sailing dangerously close to not being sport.
Obviously some people will contest and insist that United have spent money too. This is true but pays complete disregard for the context. Fortunately I’m here to provide a little bit of that. It goes without saying that since City were taken over in 2008, their level of investment dwarves that of United’s in the same time.
There should be an obvious point picked up about artificially creating a team with gifted money; I will presume the reader doesn’t need it spelling out for them, but I will take on board the accepted wisdom that such investment was required to take Manchester City from a team who lost 8-1 to Middlesbrough to one that was celebrating winning the league four years later.
Even though I could use those figures from 2008 to further emphasise my point, I don’t need to. I can use a shorter period of time and I’ll even be kinder to Manchester City and draw a line in the sand, starting right after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013.
The comparative spends since that summer are as followed : Manchester City with £724m, and Manchester United with £610m.
I’m going to use two examples from that period. At the time, United had Rafael at right-back, trying to make that role his own after starring in that position in Sir Alex’s last season. He was not fancied by David Moyes and was soon on his way; United’s solution from that point has been to play Antonio Valencia there. This is a normal footballing issue, re-positioning of a player, and United have made do with that solution until present day.
At the same time, City had Pablo Zabaleta who had arrived pre-takeover for £6.5m; they were able to convince Bacary Sagna to leave Arsenal on a free (taking from a rival) and then spent £50m on Kyle Walker, again, taking the best option available in the league. It is simply a different level of operating.
In the summer of 2014 Manchester United lost Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Ryan Giggs, a year after Paul Scholes had retired. If the club have come somewhere close to getting a Scholes replacement in the return of Paul Pogba, perhaps the commonly accepted fact that they have failed to do so with any of the others tells you something about the scale of the transition.
Under Louis van Gaal, United spent heavily. They spent £60m on Angel Di Maria, £25m on Memphis Depay, the same sum on Morgan Schneiderlin, this coming after David Moyes had broken the club record to sign Juan Mata for almost £40m and over-spending by at least £5m on Marouane Fellaini. It was obvious that there is a lot of wastage in the expenditure of those managers.
It is odd to have to explain squad regeneration at such length but it seems that it bears repeating for those who insist that Guardiola and Mourinho have been working under the same conditions.
When Pep Guardiola took over at Manchester City he took a look at Joe Hart, the England goalkeeper, and decided he didn’t want him. He promptly spent £18m on a replacement. When that didn’t work out after a few months, he was already arranging to spend a world record transfer fee on Claudio Bravo’s successor.
Almost exactly a year ago Guardiola admitted openly that he didn’t coach his players to tackle. City had just lost 4-2 to Leicester City with their defensive problems exposed for all to see. Guardiola’s response was to strengthen his already strong defence with approximately £130m of re-inforcements.
Guardiola’s work at Barcelona is much heralded and his work with that team shouldn’t be discounted, even if the development of the likes of Xavi and Iniesta wasn’t exactly down to him. Under Guardiola’s tutelage, Barcelona enjoyed a dominant period in their history and the Spaniard’s work is rightly heralded. One of the points put to me (as it has been repeatedly) is how Guardiola has improved his attacking players. Fair enough, he may well have done, but to heap the praise on a manager for improving £50m Raheem Sterling and £55m Kevin De Bruyne is insulting to the intelligence to anyone who knows football. He is not responsible for those players being as good as they are; a premium was paid to acquire those players, and they are performing as they should.
The same point can be made for the City point in general and here is the point I’ll stop talking about them because I think what I’ve been trying to get across is clear enough. I’m not debating Guardiola’s capability as a manager. I’m just saying that I don’t think his work at City is proof of it or revolutionary in the way it’s been heralded. Remember last October when Guardiola was being heralded for re-inventing the fullback position? It’s easy to do it when you’re spending £50m on them.
Despite all of this, and however much I stand behind my point that United should not be expected to challenge City, more is expected of United than what they put on display yesterday. They were poor and even worse than that, they had the personnel available that suggested they might have done better, even if their best combination yesterday wouldn’t have been good enough.
To admit this translates into a criticism of Jose Mourinho because in a game between two opponents, especially when one (United) is celebrated for playing in a certain way, it just goes against the grain to see a game pan out as it did yesterday. And so, consequently, the recriminations begin, looking at where Mourinho is going wrong and what he must do in order to improve and close the gap.
Here’s a horrible truth you might have to accept before reading on – City’s resources mean that the gap is unlikely to be closed, certainly during Mourinho’s tenure, most likely through that of the next manager or two. United have the resources to compete and outspend all others but City operate at a higher level in the transfer market. It means that when United have to replace their leading goalscorer of all-time by spending £75m of their own resources, City can address their own weaknesses without thinking about regeneration in the real term.
United have made do with Antonio Valencia for years. Smarks may comment on Guardiola’s use of Delph to temporarily replace the injured £50m Mendy; but Delph’s error led to United’s goal yesterday. Even if the former Aston Villa midfielder’s temporary re-deployment is a feather in the cap of Guardiola’s management, then consider Valencia’s permanence, and Ashley Young’s similar spell on the other side. With one you might get away with it when your squad is so rich. With two or more players serving as round pegs in square holes, you begin to create the sort of gap which is evident between the two sides as seen yesterday.
The Valencia and Young issues are football problems and let’s be honest, partly caused by Mourinho. He’s had time to address an upgrade on Valencia and many people have constantly scratched their head that Young, and Darmian, and Blind, and Rojo, have all had periods at left back when Luke Shaw is at the club.
United’s need was pressing in many areas of the team. The poor over-spending on certain players had left the club with issues at full back, centre half, midfield, on the wings and up front. Mourinho has systematically and progressively dealt with those issues and by and large he has made a success of it.
It has been done his way, and maybe that’s not always been the most entertaining especially away from home, but United have progressed to a team that won two trophies, one of them a European, last season, and their status as clearly ‘the best of the rest’ is an indication of how far he has taken a team that were being bullied by Norwich City at Old Trafford. Under Louis van Gaal United were a team who were 5th or 6th best; Mourinho has controlled a huge improvement and that is being ignored because of the shadow of the achievements of the lot across town.
Even if United cannot compete with City they can still improve. They can find a way of playing effectively without Pogba, even if it’s unfair to simply suggest that replacing a player of that quality should be straightforward. They need to find the right solution at centre-half and they urgently need to address the right side of their attack. The issue Mourinho has is that these are football issues, normal to any manager in the game except for two. By the time he addresses these issues then the need to replace Valencia will be urgent and another issue – centre-forward? – may also be rearing its head.
These are the issues that face most football managers. Even United’s treble side wasn’t perfect. Gary Neville at right back, Ronnie Johnsen at centre-half, and even Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke up front – there were areas where the team wasn’t world class, but this was in a football environment where relationships, combinations and team spirit were far more valuable commodities than they are today. For football managers who don’t have limitless resources, these are the unquantifiable qualities that often make the difference.
Mourinho can’t handle all of the transition in one fell swoop because he doesn’t have Guardiola’s resources. The hard truth is there, though; no matter how much Mourinho improves, he will still not have the resources of Guardiola. Again, let’s re-emphasise the point – this is not about whether or not Guardiola is a better manager. In this situation, he doesn’t need to be, because what is happening at City isn’t a case of good management.
That isn’t the end of the story and it isn’t the bottom line. It’s no good just saying City will win forevermore and it is the sort of challenge that Sir Alex Ferguson faced when Chelsea first came into money. The question isn’t whether or not Mourinho can overcome Guardiola – he has done that before – it’s whether or not he has the quality as a manager to find a way away from money to rise to the challenge.