Ask 100 people to describe some “typical” Manchester City traits and most of the answers will coalesce around a small number of core ideas.
Everyone knows that City must always have a grey-haired manager, for instance. Kevin Keegan, Mark Hughes, Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini all fit the mould and although you might still get the odd Stuart Pearce along the way, the lasting impression is left only by the greyness.
Somehow or other, despite the varied interventions of financial mechanisms, differing personnel and shifting contexts, certain football clubs end up with both certain perceived personalities and certain recurring functions within the footballing multiverse, and City is no exception. The major downside to this footballing fact in City’s case is the type of performance it has come to be associated with in terms of playing in Europe.
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Since being bought-out and ballooning-up to super-club size in 2008, City has been seen to repeat the same pattern in every Champions League competition for which it’s qualified, albeit with a few minor differences in interpretation along the way.
First, it begins with chillingly-high expectations, having either just crushed the domestic competition in England or invested hugely to correct a failure to crush said competition. Second, it gets a worst-case-scenario draw in the group stages, exclusively involving league winners and in-form “best of the rest” clubs in Spain, Germany or Italy. Third, it trundles out of the competition disappointingly, either in that group stage or in the last 16, losing to any club that is supposed to be anywhere near its level and casting “doubt” over the future of its grey-haired, by-now forlorn-looking manager.
The very same set of circumstances already looks to have partially aligned around City in advance of this year’s Champions League. The usual expectations are in place after a stylish steamrollering of five different opponents to open the Premier League season. The same manager, the same ideas and the same players are also there. So too the worst-case-scenario draw, with last year’s finalists and Italian champions Juventus coming out alongside another excellent Sevilla team as well as Germany’s Borussia Mönchengladbach.
So we’re left asking if there’s any room for an escape? Is there any chance that City—still demonstrably having City’s personality—can stop functioning like City in this one, specific sense?
I’m going to say yes, it can escape, because I think what City had to do is not change what it is, but become the best version of itself that it could possibly be. And I also happen to think that’s what it’s done this season.
Three seasons into Pellegrini’s reign as manager and as I wrote last month the most notable “new” development in 2015-16 is that his squad seems more at ease with his attacking ideas than it ever has been before. Each lurch forward is more multi-faceted, each thrust down the wing from a fullback feels more calculated and every player involved looks a neater fit for their position.
At the same time, Pellegrini’s defence looks back to the force it was before Vincent Kompany’s gap year last season. It hasn’t conceded a goal in the league yet—the perks, perhaps, of giving £40million Eliaquim Mangala a second season and, on top of that, spending a similar amount of money on Nicolas Otamendi, just to make sure.
More generally, his team has acquired more confidence, more depth and kept hold of Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Kompany and Yaya Toure—a run of world-class talents—surrounded by a host of players who are almost there in Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Joe Hart.
What links each of these improvements? The fact that there is nothing radical whatsoever about any of them. Each improvement here is either an absolute continuation of an idea, a reversion to something that came before or a slightly more intense version of what was already being done. And yet tangible improvements they absolutely are.
Nothing dramatic or “un-City-like” has happened at City, and yet suddenly it looks absolutely brilliant, producing certainly the best start to a season it’s ever managed.
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It’s the same manager, with the same approach, the same core of players and the same investment at the same club that dropped out of the Champions League in the same way several seasons in a row. What’s changed is simply that everything is being done slightly better than it was before at the club. The “change” has, conversely, been initiated by doing more of the same, just better.
Like Stuart Pearce in my imaginary poll of 100 people, this kind of change might not initially show up in the public perception of City’s personality because, unlike Pearce, it’s a bit subtle. But it’s still there and, despite the Champions League group it’s found itself in yet again, and despite having yet another grey-haired manager, and despite still being City, there is room to suggest that the usual, inevitable inglorious exit is not all that inevitable this time because the club is simply doing all of the things it was doing last season and the season before just that bit better than it was doing them before.
If this analysis holds up then it leads to the slightly counter-intuitive conclusion that maybe, just maybe, being “more” City than ever will turn out to be good enough and the third part of City’s function in Europe—the trundling out disappointingly—will quietly start to be forgotten?
Of course it might not work out like that. City could still lose and more of the same approach might still create more of the same results. But in many ways that would be the odder outcome. Because there’s never seemed anything so fundamentally wrong with City that becoming a better version of whatever it is already wouldn’t be good enough to get better results. What’s so wrong with having grey-haired managers? Or teams involving Toure, Silva and Aguero?
My feeling is that City will stay as “typical” City, but may well get “a-typical” results in this Champions League competition.
Against Juventus this week, we will start to see.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter