By Ahsan Naeem
The changes at Manchester City over the last five years have been about as dramatic as you can get in world football. Today they stand as current champions of England, title winners in two of the last three seasons, FA Cup and Carling Cup winners in the last four years, and consistent Champions League participants. The elusive European trophy may still be a while away, but what is apparent is that the scale and scope of the ambition of City’s owners means that they won’t stop until they achieve their ultimate goal – being a footballing behemoth akin to Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Bayern Munich.
Most of what they need to do to achieve those things has actually already been done. The stadium has always been there, only now it’s being expanded to up its capacity, the new CFA training facility is being lauded as literally the most advanced and most impressive football training facility in the world, and the first team squad is full of world class talent.
However there remains an elephant in the room which no doubt has been discussed behind the scenes at City, and has certainly been discussed widely in the media in the last few years – that of City’s lack of homegrown players. For the sake of clarity I’m talking about English players specifically.
It’s important to recognize that City’s first title came with five English players in the core of the team – Hart, Lescott, Barry, Richards, Milner – so the Etihad isn’t the waste ground for English talent it’s often portrayed as. The reality is the same as at any football club, if you’re good enough you’ll play. However it’s true to say that whilst Lescott, Barry, and Richards have moved on, and Milner is coming into the final contract of his career, City have struggled to replace their English presence in the dressing room. Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell at least show that the club has consistently tried to bring English players into the club, but both players also highlight the flipside of the adage ‘if you’re good enough you’ll play’ – which is ‘if you’re not good enough you’ll become intimately acquainted with the heated seats on the bench at the Etihad’.
In the last two years since City brought in Rodwell and Sinclair, something very rare has happened in the Premier League, and that is that two young players have burst onto the scene who are not only good enough to play for Manchester City, but are probably good enough to play for any club in the world. Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley are this generation’s Wayne Rooney. Even to the untrained eye it’s apparent that their cases are not about potential, but about a pure talent that is difficult to deny. They are England’s future.
What does this mean for City? It means that this summer City will have the opportunity to show that they are a viable destination for the top English talents around. This is exactly the kind of cherry picking which Barcelona and Real Madrid do in Spain, that Bayern Munich do in Germany, and that historically Arsenal and United, and to a lesser extent Chelsea, have done in the Premier League.
There’s a lot to suggest that both deals are entirely possible (even putting aside City’s financial power). From a footballing perspective both players play in positions in which City need to bring players in.
It’s no secret that Yaya Toure has been unsettled and in any case will be 32 years old going into next season. Ross Barkley is the perfect addition to a squad that could potentially lose a player of Yaya’s caliber. It’s not about replacing like for like, it’s about evolving the team. In any case the links between City and Barkley go back to the beginning of last summer and have continued into this season. Back in September there was that all-too-transparent moment where every major newspaper ran the same story almost verbatim, that Barkley was City’s main target for next summer and that Manuel Pellegrini was personally pushing to bring the player in as he felt he was good enough to fit into City’s world class team.
Signing Barkley would be a watershed moment in modern football in Manchester. Historically it would be a no brainer that he would end up at Manchester United. He has all the attributes of to be a world-class footballer, and the reality is that in the last 20 years United have had somewhat of a monopoly on signing players of that ilk. From Rooney to Carrick to Ferdinand it’s always been the United way to buy someone else’s British talent and then make believe it’s their own. However this will be the first time that City are in a position to offer a far more attractive footballing destination for a British player. It’s not hard from the outside to see why the courtship between Barkley and City has been a very long and very calculated one. We’ve learned something from our noisy neighbors in that respect.
For Barkley there will be little attraction in going to a United in transition where he will be Rooney’s underling for the foreseeable future – the second most important English player at the club. At City it would be very different. There is not only room in the team’s best XI for Barkley, but off the pitch for commercial reasons, he would be City’s star English player. It cannot be underestimated just how important that is for both City’s brand, and also for Barkley’s brand. Since the take over City haven’t had a Wayne Rooney, a Bastian Schweinsteiger, a Sergio Ramos. Barkley would represent that and be the kind of precedent City need to set if they really want to become an English and European footballing super power.
Much of what I’ve written about Barkley rings true for Raheem Sterling too, another player good enough to play for anyone in the world. A player who’s English, young, and would walk into City’s best XI. There’s been less noise and less links publicly between Sterling and City, although I would expect that to change if Liverpool’s travails in the Premier League get any worse.
City actually coveted Sterling prior to his move to Liverpool and Brian Marwood made several attempts to sign him but to no avail. I would suggest that now that he has developed into the world class talent he had the potential to be back when he was 14/15 years old, City will covet him even more. The good thing will be that due to the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United, he won’t be moving there. He is however a native of London and it’s not inconceivable that Chelsea could move for him, in which case City would find themselves with Manchester United sized competition for him.
The challenge City face in trying to lure both players to the club is probably the biggest transfer challenge they’ve faced since they tried to sign Kaka so quickly after the takeover. This time however I don’t think anyone will be bottling anything and if I were a betting man I’d be betting on both players ending up in the sky Blue of MCFC if not next summer then the following summer at the latest.
*I realize that none of this takes into account the will of Liverpool and Everton respectively to keep hold of both players and I don’t wish to disrespect those club’s supporters by suggesting that either transfer is a foregone conclusion. It may at times sound like I am but that’s a little bit of wishful thinking on my part. It’s totally conceivable that neither player leaves their current club for at least the length of their current contracts.