A little over ten years ago, a new template for running a football club was established when Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich assumed control of Chelsea. Abramovich’s plan was simple — even if possibly nefarious: dump mountains of cash into the club to acquire top level talent on the field and off, and as such, win trophies with that top talent.
Dividends for this strategy were paid nearly immediately. In the first season with Abramovich writing the checks, Chelsea finished second in the Premier League and advanced all the way to the Champions League semifinals. The next season, after recruiting one José Mourinho to steer the ship, they won the Premier League. And they repeated the feat the year after.
Sure, there were many that claimed that Abramovich’s wealth was skewing the landscape of professional football. They (rightly) claimed his wealth made it possible to outbid for the services of any player and any manager of his choosing, thus inflating the transfer fees and wages of players.
But he proved the system of pouring cash into a club could yield results, and could level the playing field for a club to compete against the long-established forces of European football.
Now, it’s a little naive to say that Roman came up with this system all on his own. Leeds United had attempted a similar scheme several years prior, but did so on the back of loans instead of out of the pocket of an independently wealthy benefactor. And too, Leeds chieved far less and failed to consistently achieve the level of success needed to service their loans. The burning rubble left from that overzealous investment still smolders today, serving as a warning to clubs considering a similar path.
But nevertheless, Abramovich’s model predictably encouraged a myriad of copycat efforts around European football. For some like Chelsea, it’s worked out. But for most — for example Portsmouth, who chose the wrong “wealthy” owners — it did not, sometimes spectacularly. Anzhi Makhachkala, Málaga, AS Monaco… the list goes on.
Then there’s the case of a club like Manchester City.
City’s long history of underachievement is well documented. They were always the underachieving sibling in town. So the arrival of the stupendously rich Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan from the United Arab Emirates — accompanied by a record signing in Robinho — was much heralded in the blue half of Manchester. Citizen supporters in the stands and the streets sported ghutrahs and fake beards to show off their elation at having their own Abramovich-style savior.
It didn’t click as quickly at City as it did for the West London outfit. Robinho didn’t want to be there and Mark Hughes was deemed the wrong man to lead the effort. But piece by piece, million by million, City steadily turned into an English juggernaut. They hauled in their first major trophy in 35 years with a 2010/11 FA Cup, and perhaps more importantly, their first league title since 1968 the following season. A League Cup title was added last year, as was a second Premier League trophy.
And while all those trophies are amazing triumphs for a club that was not long ago a laughing stock, it seemed the most coveted prize for Sheikh Mansour and the Abu Dhabi group was the Champions League trophy.
Yet despite over a half billion pounds in net spending since his takeover, City’s results in the Champions League have been, well, appalling.
Okay, maybe “appalling” is a bit harsh. Plenty of teams — my Spurs in particular — would give their left winger to regularly qualify for the Champions League. But for a team with City’s resources, they’ve routinely fallen far short of expectations.
City have qualified for Europe’s top club competition four times since the takeover, and have only once managed to qualify for the knockout stages. In 2011/12 they finished third in a group featuring Bayern, Napoli and Villareal. In 2012/13 they finished bottom of their group behind Dortmund, Madrid and Ajax. And last season, while they did advance by finishing second in a group featuring Bayern, Viktoria Plzeň and CSKA Moscow, they were thoroughly dispatched by Barcelona in the next round.
And though the campaign is still young his season, things aren’t going much better for City this go around either. A third of the way through the group stage, City sit third in their group — which includes Bayern Munich, Roma and CSKA Moscow — with just 2 points from 9.
This is a team that is stocked with some of the finest players on the planet. Guys like Silva, Agüero, Yaya Touré and Kompany should little trouble hoisting a team full of elite role players into deeper stages of the Champions League. Throwing away leads on the road to teams like CSKA, as happened last time out, shouldn’t happen for a team with their kind of experience. They also shouldn’t be thoroughly outclassed by teams like Barcelona or Bayern any longer either, given the similar levels of investment they have to clubs of that pedigree.
So what gives?
Some have pointed to the rough draws that City have been handed in the continental competition. And to be fair, that argument holds some water. They’ve twice been drawn against Bayern during their period of brilliance. They’ve been done in by Dortmund when they were still at their peak, and they’ve had to face Real Madrid while they’ve found their form again too. And they’ve also had to face plucky sides that punch above their weight like Napoli, Ajax and this year Roma.
But as noted earlier, the Mancunians should have deep enough pockets to deal with those types of challenges. Or at least deal with them better than they have.
Could it be that this Manchester City side lacks the belief? That seems hard to believe given their domestic achievements. Though Goalkeeper Joe Hart hasn’t exactly been brimming with confidence of late. Yaya hasn’t been his usually dominant self — perhaps still angry over birthday cakes? Agüero, Silva and Kompany haven’t exactly been injury proof either, but they still have the firepower to overcome their absences. Perhaps it’s the opposite: they’ve got too much confidenc and feel they’re so good they can breeze through the group.
Maybe it’s a lack of experience in the competition? Again, that seems a bit far fetched given the players at their disposal, many of whom have played in the Champions League before with previous clubs. And manager Manuel Pelligrini has taken lesser sides on far deeper runs, while previous manager Roberto Mancini did the same with a team of similar quality.
Or could it be the pressure of expectation?
City have won everything there is to win in England recently, and the Champions League is what their owners and fans now thirst for. It’s quite possible the players feel the same way now, too. It wouldn’t be the first time that players have psyched themselves out over checking the last big box there’s left to be checked.
It could very well be a combination of all those factors. But if I had to pick one, I’d put my money on the pressure.
But regardless of the reasons, that pressure won’t be going away. The Blue’s European blues won’t be clearing until they manage to get the monkey off their back. And if they can’t, make no mistake that their owner will drop another half billion to find a group who can.