Derby skewed by decade of Abu Dhabi deca­dence:

City were light years be­hind United when their Emi­rati own­ers con­tested their first derby back in 2008 but their huge – and pos­si­bly du­bi­ous – in­vest­ment has turned the ta­bles

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Bar­ney Ronay

Oh, what hap­pened to me, what­ever hap­pened to you? What be­came of Robinho – and Ben­jani? If the rise of Manch­ester City is any­thing to go by, all it takes to cre­ate an era of gen­er­a­tional club foot­ball dom­i­nance is ¤2.3bn, the great­est man­ager of the mod­ern age and the fevered dreams of an oil-rich Gulf state. It is a 10-year plan that has come into sharper fo­cus this week, in a way that draws the eye back as well as for­wards.

Sun­say’s Manch­ester derby at the Eti­had Sta­dium will mark 10 years to the month since the first of these mod­ern Manc clási­cos in Novem­ber 2008, 10 years on from the birth of City 3.0 un­der the club’s Emi­rati own­ers.

It feels like an even more poignant an­niver­sary given the sud­den fo­cus on those first five years, when a huge stand­ing-start in­vest­ment was re­quired to ratchet up the play­ing squad to in­stant-con­tender sta­tus.

How do you get from there to here? From a team of mis­matched likely lads to the cur­rent sleekly en­gi­neered ma­chine? It re­mains a good ques­tion, and a poignant one at the end of a week when phrases such as Oper­a­tion Long­bow and “closed pay­ment loop” have en­tered the foot­ball ver­nac­u­lar via the on­go­ing leak-based in­ves­ti­ga­tions into City’s fi­nances.

Ac­cord­ing to Der Spiegel’s re­ports the true spend on the team in those first four years was around ¤1.26bn, a fig­ure that will ei­ther draw cheers and high fives or a clutch­ing of the pearls to the throat de­pend­ing on your view of fi­nan­cial fair play rules and, more likely, your club colours.

At which point the screen dis­solves, wind chimes tin­kle and we head back al­most ex­actly 10 years to the first of those new-age der­bies. By Novem­ber 2008 City had taken their first baby steps un­der the own­er­ship of Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra, who helped fund a pe­riod of en­er­get­i­cally mis­matched re­cruit­ment dur­ing his year in charge.

The Abu Dhabi takeover was com­pleted on Septem­ber 1st 2008, award­ing Thaksin, who is cur­rently a fugi­tive from the Thai au­thor­i­ties, a ¤137m profit in the process.

Giddy

The first few days of Abu Dhabi own­er­ship were giddy. There was a failed last-ditch bid to gazump United’s move for Dim­i­tar Ber­ba­tov. Ea­ger to rid them­selves of the ter­ri­ble bur­den of dis­pos­able in­come ,City barfed up ¤36m for Robinho, just as Chelsea were pre­par­ing to start sell­ing shirts with his name on the back.

Robinho would ul­ti­mately score 14 goals in English foot­ball, moan about the cold and leave a year later for half that fee. But back in Novem­ber 2008, at the sta­dium still known as East­lands, he was the fo­cal point of an as­pi­ra­tional and frankly quite weird front three along­side Ben­jani and Dar­ius Vas­sell.

Be­hind him were Stephen Ire­land, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Di­et­mar Ha­mann. Vin­cent Kom­pany started in cen­tral de­fence and re­mains the only player in ei­ther squad likely to fea­ture to­mor­row af­ter­noon.

Me­mento

City’s bench from that day is a fas­ci­nat­ing lit­tle me­mento, awash with fondly re­called Premier League odd­i­ties from promis­ing tyro Kasper Sch­me­ichel, to the won­der­ful Brazil­ian Elano and the slightly less won­der­ful Brazil­ian Jô.

United were the reign­ing champs of Europe. They could field Ber­ba­tov, Cris­tiano Ron­aldo and Wayne Rooney as a front three and still keep Car­los Tevez in re­serve. At East­lands Rooney would score the only goal of the game, tap­ping in just be­fore half-time af­ter Joe Hart could only parry Michael Carrick’s drive.

From that point United were com­fort­able enough, al­though Ron­aldo was sent off in the sec­ond half for a bizarre hand­ball at a cor­ner, a last sig­nif­i­cant act be­fore he won his first Bal­lon d’Or three days later.

The re­sult, Rooney said af­ter­wards, re­minded ev­ery­one “who the real kings of Manch­ester are”. The BBC agreed, not­ing that United’s dom­i­nance “per­fectly il­lus­trated the gulf in class be­tween the two sides that City’s wealthy new own­ers Abu Dhabi United are hop­ing to nar­row”.

Sky Sports was a lit­tle more pre­scient, the web re­port sug­gest­ing “City’s vast wealth makes this a fix­ture which is sure to be even more keenly fought in the fu­ture”. You don’t say. Fast for­ward 10 years and that coltish, mis­matched City team seems en­tirely un­re­lated to the cur­rent high-spec model. Sven-Göran Eriks­son would later ob­serve that Shi­nawa­tra “knew ab­so­lutely noth­ing about foot­ball”, and even in those early months the con­trast with the ir­re­sistible will of the new regime was striking; from the state­ment-sign­ing of Tevez for ¤53m seven months later, to the ar­rival of David Silva and Yaya Touré the year af­ter that.

Co­her­ent

There has been a clar­ity to City’s project since then, and a con­trast with United’s own wildly os­cil­lat­ing progress post-Fer­gu­son. From the early signs of a co­her­ent play­ing sys­tem be­ing winched into place, to the care­fully staged hir­ing of Pep Guardi­ola – con­tract signed a year ahead of time Der Spiegel now tells us – this is a team that al­ways seemed to be head­ing one way, gear­ing it­self at each stage to­wards the cur­rent ver­sion.

Given City’s strength now, even a two-point lead at the top of the Premier League looks like an omi­nous lit­tle kick away from the pack.

Chelsea and Liver­pool have kept pace so far. But City are still ahead on ev­ery met­ric: most points, most goals, most shots, most drib­bles, most pos­ses­sion, best pass ac­cu­racy.

No one has more as­sists than Raheem Ster­ling and Ben­jamin Mendy. No one has more goals than Ser­gio Agüero. No one has a higher pass com­ple­tion rate than John Stones, a stat that feels less mean­ing­less than usual given the tac­ti­cally vi­tal na­ture of City’s play from the back.

United have shown a great re­silience in the last few weeks, not least on Wed­nes­day night in Turin. But 10 years on from Gulf state D-day it is the vis­i­tors whose play­ing squad still looks a lit­tle piece­meal, hurled to­gether by a suc­ces­sion of dis­con­nected regimes.

Go­ing into to­mor­row’s trip to the The­atre of Dirhams, United have still won only once away to last sea­son’s top four in the José Mour­inho years. That win was at the Eti­had last April when Paul Pogba scored twice, and when Kevin De Bruyne was also ab­sent, coming on only when City were los­ing.

Still, though, the shift in play­ing strength be­tween these two clubs is still clear­est in those cen­tral ar­eas, where a United squad packed with tall, an­gu­lar foot­ballers will en­gage with City’s fluid, mo­bile mid­field like a pla­toon of Cy­ber­men chas­ing a lit­ter of kit­tens.

United will look to dis­rupt and sit deep, as they did suc­cess­fully against Ju­ven­tus, and to use their own power on the break and from set pieces.

But 10 years on it is a mark of chang­ing times, and of the ab­sur­dity of big foot­ball fi­nances, that a vic­tory for the most prof­itable foot­ball team in the world could al­most feel now like a blow struck for the lit­tle man.

– Guardian

Ten years on from Gulf state D-day it is the vis­i­tors whose play­ing squad still looks a lit­tle piece­meal, hurled to­gether by a suc­ces­sion of dis­con­nected regimes

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: GETTY IMAGES AND PA

The Eti­had Sta­dium and (in­set) man­ager Pep Guardi­ola. There has been a clar­ity to City’s project, aided by his ar­rival, in con­trast with United’s own wildly os­cil­lat­ing progress post-Fer­gu­son.

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