What £100m meant in Manchester

What £100m meant in Manchester

Back at the start of the season, What £100m means in Manchester looked at the two differing approaches Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho took to their respective rebuilds at Manchester City and Manchester United. The main crux of the issue was Mourinho’s seemingly small recruitment drive, with a large portion of his budget splashed on one man – Paul Pogba. Guardiola was applauded for a policy of planning for the future.

As ever, football is a results business. Both managers had the luxury of being able to impress upon the board the size of the task ahead. José could nod to the failing of two previous regimes, Pep had – and still has – the bonus of being so vaunted by his employers, he is virtually “unsackable.”

This doesn’t mean he, or his United counterpart, is beyond criticism and analysis. Each would have entered the season with personal objectives, presumably closely aligned with the board’s. Despite the early bookmakers’ odds, neither would have courted the idea of a Premier League title.

Even six straight wins to kick off the league campaign, with cup victories interspersed, Pep seemed reluctant to talk-up City’s title chances. He went as far to say a defeat would be a good thing. Was this the first sign he realised his squad couldn’t live up to the hype? Did he want to see how players would react under adversity?

He didn’t have to wait too long.

Many point to the 3-1 home defeat by Chelsea as the season’s turning point. It was a game City rightly feel hard done by, but it wasn’t the significant moment many point to. That came on 21st September, with the laborious League Cup victory away to Swansea City.

Brendan Rodgers was declared the architect of City’s new tactical demise when they faced off in the 3-3 Champions League group stage match a week later. All he did was apply the same approach Swansea had. It was simple: City don’t like the pressing game played back on them.

When teams are winning, every decision the manager makes is genius, his transfer policy justified. By the 10th December’s 4-2 defeat by an underperforming Leicester City, with three defeats, three draws and three wins in the league since the start of October, it was time to ask questions.

A transfer policy that planned for the future failed to deal with problems in the present. It was no secret City needed full backs before a ball was kicked, and yet the team had no reinforcements and was even converting one into a makeshift centre-half.

Managers live and die by signings; the Claudio Bravo move was never popular with a core base of fans due to the Joe Hart connotations. It didn’t take long for the rest of the crowd to turn on the mistake riddled Chilean. It’s ironic that for a squad with two players named Jesus, it’s the goalkeeper that appeared to have holes in his hands.

Bravo Transfer Man City

City began to look one dimensional – good at the front, weak at the back, no plan B (a remark Pellegrini would smirk at now) – but signs of life were to come.

Over at Old Trafford, Mourinho did was he does best. He made the team hard to beat after suffering two consecutive defeats early on in the league. Unlike the Van Gaal awkwardness, there were signs the Portuguese manager was making strides forward. The problem was those around him took bigger ones.

United became experts at finding draws.

In hindsight, his more direct approach in the transfer market deserves plaudits. The four players brought in – Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba – all had good seasons. Pogba was the only player to face negative remarks, but that’s the cost of a £89m transfer clouding judgement.

Zlatan Ibrahimović United

Ibrahimović, season ending injury aside, did maintain the same high level throughout, dispelling concerns about his age.

All this United based positivity does, is fail to acknowledge one small minor issue: this isn’t the season José planned or talked about.

Before a ball was kicked, he spoke of getting his four players. It’s all he wanted. He gave his requests list to Edward Woodward and stated the quartet mentioned above was all he needed to make Manchester United competitive again.

When he made this claim (or should that be promise?) he wasn’t alluding to a sixth-place finish, England’s secondary cup and the Europa League.

This isn’t to devalue United’s achievements. Every fan that travels to Wembley wants to win and holds the League Cup in high regard on the day. And even though Mourinho himself has denounced the Europa League in the past, it is now an important prize.

Added to the equation it was the only piece of silverware United had never won and it feels like a grand achievement.

MUFC UEL

And it is, if only for the return of Champions League football, the riches it brings, and the players it allows clubs to attract.

But it was a last-ditch gamble from Mourinho. He went into the casino and placed all his chips on one colour (we’ll assume red) and hoped for the best. When he made his transfer requests to Woodward, so publicly as to bend his arm on the Pogba chase, a top four spot was the least of his desires.

To dip out, and in some fashion, would never have been the plan.

So, who spent their £100m best?

It’s hard to say – which indicates failings on both sides – but it comes down to who is positioned best moving forward.

City and United have slipped straight into the Champions League group stage. This will aid with some transfers and Guardiola doesn’t need to juggle an awkward qualifier this year. But just being in Europe’s elite competition isn’t good enough on its own.

The year of grace for both men has passed. Gambler or not, Mourinho needs to identify fast which players will turn his solid unit into a team with a sharp bite. Regardless of European performance this year, it’s hard to see the Old Trafford hierarchy accepting a league campaign that doesn’t have them in the title race.

The same goes for Guardiola, there has to be a clear upward trend. His transfers were a mixed bag. When the original article was written at the start of the season, the £100m figure was neat and tidy regarding both clubs’ Net Total. In reality, City spent a further £56m (£4m deducted for a youth transfer signed for in 2013) following the closing of the books at the season’s end.

Where Mourinho added several and worked with the rest, Pep brought in three times this amount but only kept six of the faces at the club. His nose for a bargain in the form of Nolito petered out, as did the belief John Stones would transform into a world class player before our eyes. It may still happen, but it was a burden the young Yorkshire man struggled with.

İlkay Gündoğan arrived injured and is so again. A gamble taken in a dressing room that often resembles a Bupa clinic. But eyes on the Leroy Sané’s second half of the season and Gabriel Jesus prove the Spaniard has a solid plan in place.

Gabriel Jesus

This was always a big undertaking. He isn’t trying to build upon the success of former managers, instead it’s a process of ripping out the footballing foundations at the club and starting again in his image.

Pep overvalued the talent at his disposal and underestimated the Premier League.

Unlike Mourinho, Pep – quite often to a fault – never criticises his players to the press. But one has to assume behind closed doors he’s been fuming. He must have expected more from them or that initial £100m would have been spent on emergency measures rather than youngsters – like Oleksandr Zinchenko and Marlos Moreno – who have yet to see a City shirt.

Mourinho’s experience and insight afforded him a more tailored approach. But the table never lies, and a year on from a change of managers, there has been clear – albeit, slow – progress at City. This will allow Pep more time to complete his vision.

He appears to appreciate the size of the task now, his early big money moves in the post-season prove this.

As for United, the Europa League success has given them a return to the perceived top table. If they fail to press those above in the coming season, a new type of pressure will come down on José. The safety net has been removed.

£100m meant both teams in Manchester breathed sighs of relief by the end of May. United had silverware for their endeavours but both clubs will look at the Premier League table and realise a monumental task still awaits.

Come August, we could be asking what £300m means in Manchester.

United for Manchester

United for Manchester

Divide and conquer is one of the oldest tricks in the book. If Wednesday’s terror attacker had that goal in mind, he failed miserably. An already close-knit city has formed an even tighter sense of community. Things that are usual cause for division have been shelved. Manchester stands together.

They say by not carrying on with life, the terrorists win. That’s why after the 1996 Manchester bombing, a Euro ’96 game was played the next day, and the Manchester Arena continued to host events the following week.

This time can be no different. The Courteeners will play Old Trafford Cricket Ground on Saturday, and the team from the football stadium still face a Europa League final tonight.

To give an example of this togetherness, a week ago, this Manchester City fan was trawling the Internet for an Ajax shirt. It was going to be worn as I cheered on the Dutch side. The idea of ever supporting Manchester United – up until the events following Ariana Grande’s concert – seemed alien, unlikely: downright impossible.

Now, for tonight at least, it would be preposterous not to get behind a team flying the flag for Manchester. Many of the players – especially younger members like Rashford, Lingard, and even Pogba who lived in the area from the age of 14 – will feel a personal connection. The same goes for members of staff making the journey.

It also goes for the 9,500 United fans in the Friends Arena, and the thousands more travelling to Stockholm to show support.

They will all become the embodiment of a mourning but determined spirit.

For weeks, the press has made The Red Devils favourite to claim the only major piece of silverware that has yet to grace their trophy cabinet. The tragedy aside, it was always going to be a harder game to call than those assumptions.

Ajax are a younger side that play free-flowing football – when given the chance. It sets up an interesting match where the pragmatic Mourinho style will be expected to absorb the early flurries and eventually see off the promising Dutch side.

AC Milan probably had a similar idea heading into the 1995 Champions League final until Patrick Kluivert had his say. United need to make sure nobody becomes the new Kluivert tonight. It would have been easier had Zlatan Ibrahimović been able to signoff his Man United duties on home turf.

Instead they will look to other – rested – faces for success. There are enough mature heads, with plenty of experience, in the Manchester United contingency to ensure the sense of occasion, and the gravitas of events back home, do not overwhelm. You can imagine someone like Rooney using it as motivation to propel the players forward rather than sink with the burden.

After the terror attack, the United players observed a minute’s silence in training. Tonight, they will be greeted with ninety minutes of raucous support from the red and blue sides of Manchester. Sure, at the start of next season, if they’re sitting in Pot 2 of the Champions League draw, it’ll be mildly annoying.

But for now, they have nothing apart from unequivocal support as they represent a great city, unity, honest people, the innocents affected, and the freedom of our way of life.

This City Stands United.

Fan Friendly Prices

Fan Friendly Prices

We’re poised to embark on another exciting Premier League season. Our clubs are working hard to secure players in the transfer market, at the same time we lay down cash to keep our season tickets. For those that can’t make a season ticket viable, a quick look to the fixture list highlights months where savings are required in order to attend games. Financial Fair Play was all about making sure football was healthy. My disdain for the system has been duly noted before; today I take a glance at the cost for those attending games this season. Unsurprisingly it makes for disappointing reading. FFP hasn’t protected the game’s most important commodity: the fans. Nor has it managed fairness in FFP’s execution.

The Premier League’s latest television deal has been well documented. Dreams that the £5.5 billion would convert to cheaper tickets for fans was always folly. As we are so often reminded, football is big business now. For most it was a way to bridge a gap to the top guns whilst getting closer to FFP conformity. I won’t argue against large TV deals, if the product is worth that price – or more importantly, someone is willingly to part with that amount of cash – then the Premier League clubs should lap it up. I do take umbrage with the idea UEFA is trying to introduce a soft cap on wages by limiting loss and expenditure, but fails to introduce universal limits on tickets and merchandise prices.

This failure from UEFA allows some clubs to penalise fans without ever facing the wrath of FFP restrictions. The grey area of different countries having to pay more to players each month for tax purposes (a player in England is taxed higher than one plying his trade in La Liga, thus, to match his wage a Premier League club has to pay a higher basic) is one area UEFA have failed to address directly. I suppose arguments over tax havens are best left to Starbucks, Amazon, or Jimmy Carr. But a failure to impose sanctions on clubs overinflating ticket prices would be easy to amend.

I’m not naïve enough to suggest a newly promoted club should be charging the same as a regular top four side. Clearly the established top teams are providing a constantly higher standard of product. In tandem with this their facilities exceed expectations. However, should Arsenal be allowed to set their cheapest season ticket at £1,014 when Manchester City manages to offer one at £299? This is the same club that argued City received too much sponsorship money from Etihad, missing the point that a value is only what someone is willingly to pay, then counterargument there is a market for high valued tickets in London. It’s unfair to the loyal fans and makes an uneven playing field. All clubs are punished by the same quotas if they fail FFP but allowed to run wild in other areas.

The disparity between ticket prices is now alarming. Arsenal’s most expensive match day ticket will be £127 this year. That’s just for ninety minutes of football. Crazy. Liverpool also play in the Champions League, are a club with a loyal fan base and extensive support, but they will charge no higher than £75 for a match day ticket this season, £19 being their lowest match day offering. You can argue that if fans of the Gunners are willing to pay it the club should cash in, but that misses the point. Other clubs can generate funds from their resources but aren’t allowed because of FFP. Yet UEFA aren’t stopping clubs from raiding the pockets of the most vulnerable first.

Understandably, it’s two of the newly promoted teams that see the largest percentage increase in ticket prices, as they meet the higher wage demands and chase players better equipped for top flight football. Burnley and QPR see an increase of 37% and 38% respectively on their highest priced season tickets (this takes Burnley’s price to £685; QPR’s to a whooping £949), both their cheapest offerings come in at £499. A tip of the cap to the other new boys, Leicester City. They have only made a 3% increase to the lowest priced season ticket (now £365) and a 2% one to the highest priced (£730). It’s worth noting Hull’s increased prices. For a club that has been very vocal – almost, overly proud – regarding their pricing structure, they have jumped prices by 25%. However, there is only a seventy quid difference between their cheapest and most expensive offering. Nobody is paying more than £572 to watch The Tigers this season.

I paid £675 for my season ticket this year. Would I have liked it cheaper? Of course, wouldn’t we all? But I could afford it, and would rather choose my seat than take the £299 offer. The highest priced at the Etihad this season was £860. Sounds a lot, I suppose, but it is the home of the champions, and a club that has failed FFP, so is clearly on the limit when it comes to breaking even. All clubs can squeeze a bit more. For some, any rise will be a deal breaker, but I dare say the 10% rise seen on City’s highest priced season ticket could have been pushed to 15% and the uptake would have been the same. The club won’t win any awards for keeping prices reasonable but others won’t be chastised for the ludicrously high bars that have been set. Arsenal, who haven’t been champions of England since 2004, sell their highest-priced season ticket at £2,013. A mere 3% rise, showing that prices have been inflated for a long time there.

So clubs are free to inflate and flog the fans all they want. No governing body will step in and protect the working man. What adds a touch of humour to this is how the FFP fines are going to be redistributed among other clubs. To appease teams that have competed domestically with clubs that “cheated” FFP, any fines they incur will be spread out amongst the teams that played in the league during the season in question. So Arsenal is set to receive some money from Manchester City’s FFP fine, topping the coffers that are overflowing from exorbitant ticket prices. No consideration is given to making clubs redistribute this cash to ticket buyers. Nor is the spreading of this cash fair when you consider some clubs – like Liverpool, for example – also would have failed Financial Fair Play last season had they been competing in Europe. UEFA only audited the clubs that competed in the Champions League or Europa League, so not only have some teams dodged a bullet, they’ll get a cash reward from those as guilty as they are.

If UEFA don’t act now the ticket prices will continue to rise. The working class man at top flight games will become a thing of the past. Short of introducing a cap on prices – something impossible to implement without a hard cap on a salaries – then a system should be in place to reduce a percentage of final turnover in FFP workings if ticket prices exceed an agreed market value. If sponsorship deals have to be justified then so should the cash received from fans.

FFP hasn’t protected clubs from themselves; it’s just made them the most dangerous predators to the fans’ wallets.