I will be honest here, I dearly wanted to see Dani Alves and Alexis Sanchez at Manchester City under Pep Guardiola. With glittering career resumes, costing a fraction of their worth, both would have given much needed big stage experience and calmness to the Sky Blues. The sort of calmness that evaded ManCity at Anfield, mid-January, for all of just ten minutes and yet cost them their Premier League unbeaten run. The broken streak didn’t matter to me at all; Pep never sets out teams to draw games so it would have got broken eventually. In fact, it should have got broken last year itself – on the last day, at Selhurst Park.
What’s more unsettling for me is the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Virgil Van Dijk and the two ex-Barcelona boys deciding not to join the most inform and ambitious team in Europe. The Lionel Messi chatter was too dreamy stuff to believe instantly anyways. The English media and surrounding ecosystem, constantly hyping the Premier League, are now left with no option aside declaring ManCity version 2017-18 the best team ever to grace their shores; and in some corners, Guardiola is being hailed as God! This, even before Man City are yet to face any of the big boys of football – Read: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris St Germain, Bayern Munich or Juventus. The ones who compete for multiple trophies year on year. So, Guardiola has got a title he didn’t ask for, and God Guardiola isn’t getting the players he’s asking for. I try to analyse the potential reasons for this.
1. Club history / Brand Power
Manchester City are a very much work in progress club and have no major history to share. Their seven trophies in the last 48 years have come mainly this decade. Two of the notable ones (Premier League titles) were unconvincing wins – uncertain and needing upsets from other teams in the run-up to the last match day to stay afloat with their chances. In a way, City are still brick by brick trying to make history. Guardiola is expected to start filling the trophy cabinet in the coming months. and soon challenge to buy another cabinet. A larger one; but that’s for the future. Who has seen the future?
There is a past which is seen and needs to be respected. Players come to the Premier League to be part of the biggest brands – ones who have the largest followership all over the world, who dominate media spaces irrespective of on-field performances, ones with richness in culture and tradition. This is one big reason why Manchester City need blockbuster signings – to enhance their fanbase, get new and younger fans, louder fans and who can shout out the great players who played for them.
Did you hear the noise generated by Liverpool fans at Anfield? Those passionate decibel levels took Raheem Sterling out of the game, completely; not to mention making the City defenders nervous time and again. Pep Guardiola said after that defeat “We were involved in the environment of Anfield for many reasons and you have to try and be stable, especially for lessons in the knock-out games in the Champions League…We have a young team and maybe it can be good for the future”. That’s what big club culture and tradition does.
Virgil Van Dijk said from day one that he only wanted to join Liverpool. Liverpool deserves that loyalty. It would have taken the reds to put a really bad offer for Van Dijk to consider elsewhere. Superstars were eager to join Guardiola’s Barcelona or his Bayern Munich. But City, for now, need to top up with big money, with guaranteed playing time, guaranteed choice of playing position and maybe some more incentives, to get megastars to sign.
2. Bound to a culture and system
The playing position is an important aspect of where a star player feels he could be most efficient. Guardiola is a strict advocator of a system and culture – one of the reasons, free willing and free-roving players have at times failed to adapt to the levels of discipline he demands. The brand ambassador for this category of failures, under Pep, is none other than Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Even Alexis Sanchez was benched often when part of Guardiola’s Barcelona and the mentor has admitted lately his inability to use the Chilean to best of his skills. A year ago, Premier League’s best player this decade, Sergio Aguero (as per media, I personally think that’s David Silva) was also benched for some time as he wasn’t showing enough willingness to get the ball back from opposition teams.
Guardiola doesn’t believe that a player needs to have a singular role and singular position on the field. When he is the manager, each player in the eleven does equal work, gets equal focus and credit. Leroy Sane gets as much importance now as Sergio Aguero or Fernandinho or Fabian Delph. It was the case with Guardiola’s Barcelona too. None, barring the best in planet Lionel Messi, grew to megastars. They were all labelled the best but never got to be megastars – Sergio Busquets, Javier Mascherano or Philipp Lahm got far more respect than say a Xabi Alonso, Marco Verratti or De Rossi, but the latter three would demand more market price. Yaya Toure was amongst the best in Barcelona, under Guardiola, but after he came to Manchester City (pre-Guardiola) his personal stock price soared!
Quote from Zlatan’s book about his Barcelona experience below suggests the level of discipline, humility and down to earth nature which the players needed to exercise.
“”At Barca, players were banned from driving their sports cars to training. I thought this was ridiculous – it was no one’s business what car I drive – so in April, before a match with Almeria, I drove my Ferrari Enzo to work. It caused a scene.”
“When you buy me, you are buying a Ferrari. If you drive a Ferrari, you put premium petrol in the tank, you hit the motorway and you step on the gas. Guardiola filled up with diesel and took a spin in the countryside. He should have bought a Fiat.”
This is one of the possible reasons why deals are falling through. A superstar could be wondering there is someone going to pay me more, under whom I may be the bigger star, the biggest player of the club; then why do I bother joining Man City – live under a disciplinary system, play a certain way (which is stressful), demands focus irrespective of opposition, risk rotation or may even getting benched. My personal thinking is Alves, Mbappe, Sanchez didn’t sign up as they preferred being megastars in their new clubs than being ‘one in the system’.
3. Money Money
Money of course is the biggest driving factor and I don’t blame an average footballer for this. Even well paid corporate employees leave organizations for as low as 20% hikes. So, for a footballer, at the top division, the career span is an average of just over half a decade, notwithstanding the uncertainty of injuries. Hence such players going for money and endorsements is understandable. But Alexis, Kylian, Dani and Virgil are counted amongst the best in the trade. So ideally, money should not be their key most motivating factor. When it becomes that, players have an option to play in Russia, America, Middle -East, China or even India. Manchester City themselves have pulled off record-breaking deals over the past three years. So far from being miserly, they are a club who will stay in top flight, ambitious and can pay the money.
Yet the deals didn’t go. In Alexis case, it’s reported, Guardiola didn’t like the demands increasing with every other meeting and higher than what the best players in the Sky Blues squad were getting. The Manchester City management wanted to stick to the offer they had (almost) agreed in the summer and had their own Financial Fair Play constraints to manage. But goalposts changed from Sanchez and his agent. Paying the highest salary to a 29-year-old or a 34-year-old or a one season success starlet didn’t seem the greatest of ideas if ever the discussions came to that point. The deals failed through. It is also a clear indication that Guardiola’s Mancity are (while flushing out expensive dead wood) hell-bent on establishing a fair salary structure, that’s not based on stardom. Once again a culture is being established!
4. Playing Style
With 96 goals from 36 games played (at the time of writing), the sky blues are one of the most rampaging teams in Europe. Comfortably placed in Premier League title race, favourites for the Carabao Cup finals, likely to proceed to the next round in FA Cup and Champions League, Man City are one of ‘the’ teams to join. ‘Fluid Football’, ‘Poetry in motion’ … the superlatives keep piling up for Manchester City this season. I have blogged separately on this. So Citizens have an endearing, almost unmatchable style, never seen before in this part of the world. Any player would like to be part of such a project as long as they are confident in their own abilities. Each of the four players debated above are technically very sound and would have relished playing this kind of football. Too bad, if they thought otherwise.
5. The playing time myth
Yes, Guardiola does rotates his squad often and that may make a player joining wonder if his best years are going to be on the bench. The coach’s policies are more out of compulsion for (competing in multiple trophies) than out of choice. Had Dani Alves signed up with Man City, he would have been the automatic starter and Kyle Walker, his deputy at right back. Or would Walker then have signed with Man City? It’s debatable as Walker was anyways deputy to an unheralded Kieron Trippier at White Hart Lane.
City are craving for a quality solid centre back so Van Dijk would have started all games alongside Otamendi. Stones and Mangala would then have been the rotation options. Kompany anyways has serious fitness issues.
Sanchez or Mbappe (both could not have joined being similar players) would have been rotated amongst Aguero, Sterling, Jesus and Sane for three places in the starting lineup. Considering there is the probability that one of them could be injured at any given point, it still meant four players fighting for three slots. Which would be very normal for a player joining a club with big ambitions.
So Van Dijk, Alexis, Mbappe or Alves could or should not have rejected for lack of playing time.
6. Manchester as a City
It’s a well-known fact that Manchester isn’t half happening a city compared to Milan, Madrid or Paris. At the celebrity level, Manchester is an extremely boring place and I have no doubts that Dani Alves’ Spanish model wife would have been a huge influencer in deciding Paris as the final destination. Paris is where the fashion world is rooted and venue to some of the most happening global events. When a footballer asks his WAG where to go next – the answers will mostly be Paris, Madrid or Milan. Detailed in the book Soccernomics, there are enough players who have chosen either of these three destinations on insistence from their female half. No matter how many goals you score or players you tackle, at end of the day, you are only listening to your wife!
That’s Life! But things change … and improve.
The flash news is Athletic Bilbao defender Aymeric Laporte, after rejecting Pep Guardiola in 2016, is on the verge of joining Manchester City. If the deal sails through, Laporte can be considered a better buy than Virgil Van Dijk – three years younger and coming from a better club (Just compare Bilbao’s domestic league ranking or Europa League credentials with that of Southampton.)
So things will change … and improve.