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.
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.
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.
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.
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.