Can Man City ever be more than Barcelona-lite?

Daniel Storey

The Manchester City owners have taste, in a way that Roman Abramovich, stuck as he is in the foothills of billionairedom, cannot afford to have.  You can gauge this taste in two ways – either they have the most expensive taste imaginable, in that they’ve decided they want to recreate Barcelona in Eastlands, or they have the sophisticated taste to forego easy gratification now and seek a more long-lasting reward later. Hint: probably the first one.

There’s something blissful about the things that money can’t buy that stops the world, like a force-field around it, from feeling like a set of pedals being stamped on by billionaire’s feet.  It can’t buy you good sense, evidently, despite how convincingly your deep pockets can masquerade as good sense. And to be fair to billionaires, they will spend a lot on that masquerade.

The club has made repeated protestations that their investment in their academy project is its own thing, but we are in serious walks-like-a-duck-quacks-like-a-duck territory, given that it’s now overseen by not only the ex-CEO and ex-sporting-director of Barcelona but arguably the most famous tactical overseer of that model too, plus the performance analyst, fitness coach, ‘Head of Player Protocol’, and three assistant coaches. The charitable reading of this demands you don’t see it all as way to fire the dreams of an oil-oligarch, late at night, that he might pat the bed made up for a certain small Argentinean and say look, it’s just the way you like it.

The first item of nonsense for why the Barcelona model is impossible to copy is that the true force of it belongs only to the inventor. You feel those people believed, in a way that was beholden to no-one, that this was the football way that worked.  Whatever model City’s resources conjure up, it will at the very least be beholden to Barcelona. The cornerstone of any plan to create a dynasty must surely be that it’s self-derived, not that you can afford all the people involved in a great plan somewhere else.

The second thing is that, without wishing to cast aspersions on people who become insanely wealthy by being in the right place to seize control of a country’s natural resources, the model contains emotional subtleties people like that are sometimes liable to miss. We all know what Barcelona represents to the Catalan people, and the almost cult-like adherence to La Masia values within is fuelled precisely by that desire to show they are other to Spain, that their way is superior. No hi-tech training pitches and multi-faceted performance-analysis systems or price tag of any sort can recreate that soulful drive to make it work.

The question is, do the City owners really, truly want to make it work? No doubt if they could wave a magic wand and make FC City then they’d want that, but in terms of what it would actually take? Kids from the system being regularly blooded in the team, until being a City junior actually has some meaning beyond total dominance at academy level and irrelevance at professional level; two or three or four trophyless years being written off as a necessary learning experience? The vastly expensive also-rans? Never getting to take your seat in the box for a Champions League semi-final? We are truly talking about the overhaul of a club’s model from one polar opposite to the other, and that will have a lot of teething pains, the kind that no bank balance can alter. You feel Barcelona’s overlords have endless patience for their model; City’s allow managers who’ve won the league usually one bad year before they tire of their face and want a new one.

In the previous era, the lack of billionaire-demand on the club meant its youth system could filter through to regular game-time: Shaun Wright-Phillips, Micah Richards, Michael Johnson, Daniel Sturridge. Whereas now, the sole youth-team product City can legitimately claim – Kelechi Iheanacho – has been deemed, in the last two games when Guardiola began to feel the inevitable minute-by-minute pressure of his environment, a luxury he can’t afford. When will that time come, when the model’s development is given precedence ahead of a manager feeling the billionaire heat? Players only learn that they’re important if they’re used in important situations.

And it’s the players, ultimately, who make it work – players money can’t buy. Since I’ve started watching football there’s been at least one player in every Barcelona team who money didn’t buy. He’s generally the one dictating the play, who makes the ethos of the club seem a real, tangible thing. Do City’s owners actually like players who money can’t buy? Perhaps.

It’s not impossible that whoever pulls the ultimate strings at Manchester City is a particular breed of gazillionaire, who’s grown bored of being able to immediately have everything he wants and actually craves a harder, more slow-burning reward. In which case, there’s a pathos to the way he’s going about it, in the evidence of the inevitable downside to limitless wealth. He doesn’t have the imaginative drive to create which a struggle against the limits enforced on you by the world gives. He just sees the Barcelona way and thinks ‘I want that’.

Still, a lot of kids in a lot of unloved areas of Manchester have been given a serious lift by the knock-on effects of City’s investment, so a genuine round of applause for that.

Toby Sprigings