Manchester City have dominated the Premier League this season, but their influence extends globally, all the way to Melbourne.
The Sheikh Mansour takeover in September 2008 heralded a new era for the English club, resulting in Premier League titles in 2012 and 2014.
During this time, the City Football Group began plotting a series of moves that have been described as the ‘Disneyfication of football’ – a cooperation of teams under the same banner that identifies and develops talent, buys and sells players and creates marketing opportunities across the world. The City Football Group, with its roots in Manchester, now extends to America, Uruguay, Japan, and of course Australia.
The Melbourne Heart takeover was a groundbreaking moment for Australian football. The club was renamed and recoloured in the City image and has benefitted from a string of investments, including a new training base, backroom staff and cutting-edge recruitment methods.
This was to bring best practice to a club that could then feed the ‘first team’ in Manchester or at the least generate funds to support the overall mission of the City Group.
The signing of Aaron Mooy and his subsequent sale to Manchester, from where he was loaned and eventually sold to Huddersfield town for £10 million ($A17 million), sums up Melbourne’s role in the City empire.
From an Australian perspective what has been interesting about the success of Manchester City under Pep Guardiola in the Premier League this season (they currently have a 12 point lead) is the style of football they have been playing.
True to Guardiola’s vision, they dominate games. They currently have a 12-point lead on the table and the highest possession count in the league at 66 per cent. They have reached the final third more often than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues this season, and City has one of the highest shots taken-lowest shots faced totals ever at 17-5.
It is beautiful to watch and devastatingly effective.
It is the vision of the City Football Group that all teams in their network, from the seniors of Manchester to the under-14s of Melbourne City, play a similar style of football. This has the dual effect of creating a network where players can switch teams effortlessly and also helping City develop that global brand that will appeal to marketers and fans alike. Given Guardiola’s previous coaching resume and philosophy it is no wonder the group was so keen for him to become the figurehead of their flagship club.
If the playing style is to become ubiquitous, however, then the City Group needs like-minded coaches at their sister clubs. That makes the recent appointment of Ange Postecoglou as Yokohama F. Marinos coach entirely logical given his blatant preference for a style of play similar to Guardiola’s.
While they have differences, the broad brushstrokes of Guardiola and Postecoglou are similar. They like to dominate games through possession, emphasise constant attacking and promote aggressive, proactive defending. Another obvious similarity is their default system – a 4-3-3 – as well as a penchant for changing formations on the fly, even if it is a little obscure. Guardiola has used systems far more extreme than Postecoglou’s 3-2-4-1.
Where the two coaches are most similar, however, might be in their stubbornness, persistence and unwavering belief in their style of play. Both coaches refuse to compromise their principles regardless of results or context.
Therefore, given the scale of their scouting network and the trajectory of Postecoglou’s Socceroos, it is no surprise the City Group saw him as someone who can bring their global playing style to life in Japan. In fact Postecoglou has already spent time in Manchester observing Guardiola. Knowing the opportunities and potential stepping stones ahead of him as a head coach in the City Football Group, Postecoglou’s departure from the national team is not surprising.
In this context the current situation in Melbourne seems out of character for the City Football Group. While Warren Joyce has done an interesting job changing the internal culture, the style of play is at odds with the philosophy being espoused by Guardiola and the group.
Joyce has used a 4-4-2 for most of the season, preferring the likes of Nick Fitzgerald, Stefan Mauk and Bruce Kamau because of their willingness to track back and make the side compact over bigger names like Tim Cahill and marquee Marcin Budziński.
Melbourne City play defensively – they sit back in a solid, organised block and are happy to play longer balls from the back in attack to avoid turnovers in deep positions. Furthermore, the constant selections of defensive-minded players, like Michael Jakobsen and Osama Malik, as central midfielders demonstrates Joyce’s safety-first approach.
A defensive setup is entirely justifiable, but in the context of Melbourne City as a fish in the City Football Group pond, it surely is not part of the club’s long-term plan.
It’s possible Joyce wants to get the culture right and is therefore focusing instead on creating an environment that rewards defensive discipline and hard work, but Guardiola and Postecoglou’s teams work hard and are disciplined in a different way and still play the kind of football the City Football Group wants their teams to be known for.
Without being privy to internal machinations it is not possible to pass proper judgement on the direction of Melbourne City and Warren Joyce. At face value, however, given the success of Manchester City and the appointment of Postecoglou, it is hard to see how City can continue on their current path.