Manchester City’s loss to much-improved Liverpool at the start of March left them five points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea, having played an extra game. Their form since the turn of the year has virtually ended hopes of retaining their title. They also face elimination from the Champions League, having lost the first leg of their second round tie at home to Barcelona. Manuel Pellegrini, the Chilean manager at the helm for only his second season, is likely to be axed at the end of the campaign.
It is clear that the club hierarchy expect a much better showing from City in the Champions League but Pellegrini’s side have also been unable to rise up to the challenge of defending their league title for the second time, just as during Roberto Mancini’s last season in charge. One argument, albeit a thus far muted one, in defence of Pellegrini is that the club’s sporting director, Txiki Begiristain, has failed to set the world alight with his transfers since coming into the role at the end of 2012.
Begiristain’s arrival signalled the end of Mancini’s reign. The Basque was given the task of building a squad capable of creating a legacy domestically and taking City to the next level on the continent, after a few disappointing Champions League seasons under Mancini. During his reign, the Italian was not helped by City being un-seeded and grouped with some of Europe’s most impressive sides.
Begiristain had built his reputation at Barcelona between 2003 and 2010, during which time he oversaw approximately Dh2.25 billion (£400m) in transfer outlay. It included successful moves for Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Deco, Rafael Marquez, Thierry Henry, Dani Alves and Gerard Pique but also included extravagant failures in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was sold at a huge loss within one season (due to a fall-out with Pep Guardiola), Alex Hleb, Maxi Lopez, Keirrison, Henrique, Dimitry Chyrginskiy and Ricardo Quaresma – among others. Most of the money was spent on defenders and forwards with very little exposure in midfield due to the abundance of talent already present at Barcelona. However, Begiristain certainly had far more successful transfers than failed ones in Spain.
According to the Transfermarkt.com, Begiristain has ratified transfer expenditure to the tune of almost Dh880 million (£156m) since taking up his role at Manchester City. In terms of departures, including the Mario Balotelli sale which took place in January 2013, the club has made approximately Dh286 million (£50.95m) under him. Overall, the club signed five players last season and followed that up with six more this season (exclusive of Frank Lampard’s ‘loan’).
In the summer of 2013, Manchester City spent Dh474 million (£84m) on signing Brazilian midfielder Fernandinho (Dh170m/£30m), Montenegrin captain Stevan Jovetic (Dh108m/£19m), Spaniards Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas (for a combined total of close to Dh186m/£33m from Sevilla), as well as Martin Demichelis for a cut-price (Dh20m/£3m). Other than Jovetic, all the signings were at least 27 years old, suggesting the club was banking on immediate success. Other than Fernandinho, none of them are currently established regulars in the City starting line-up. In fact, Negredo has departed the club on loan, while Jovetic has recently been left out of the side’s Champions League squad, hinting at an imminent departure.
Last summer, Begiristain added Eliaquim Mangala for Dh169 million (£30m), seemingly as the answer to City’s central defensive problems, another Brazilian in Fernando for Dh62 million (£11m), former Malaga goalkeeper Willy Cabellero as competition for the shaky Joe Hart, and Bacary Sagna as reserve right-back. Lampard also joined the club. In early 2015, Swansea’s Wilfried signed for more than Dh124 million (£22m). None of the signings have yet to establish themselves as undisputed first choices.
Looking at Mancini’s strongest starting line-up and comparing it to Pellegrini’s current side, it becomes clear that at least nine players are similar. This includes the spine of the side such as Hart, Vincent Kompany, who has endured questionable form over the past 18 months, Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy, a seemingly disillusioned Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri, David Silva and Edin Dzeko, who still remains the most convincing foil for star-man Sergio Aguero.
Let’s not forget that most of the aforementioned players are either 30 or close to hitting that mark. So what has Begiristain’s Dh880 million (£156m) worth of transfers brought to City? Other than Fernandinho cementing his spot in the first team, it is debatable if any other player has improved the side. Younger players such as Matija Nastasic had done enough to warrant being given a longer opportunity to cement a spot in the side instead of being shipped out for a loss and replaced with another unproven expensive purchase such as Mangala. The same arguably applies to Jovetic among others. The club seem to have too little patience with players in their early-twenties.
Critics argue that City’s sporting director should have signed better players for the side’s first-team instead of signing an abundance of squad players. It is true that, as a squad, Manchester City is perhaps better placed today than two years ago. But it’s also true that Pellegrini’s starting line-up is not any better than Mancini’s. The Chilean won two titles in his first season in charge and has had to make do with some questionable signings that have failed to address a number of areas which needed strengthening. Supporters of Begiristain defend him by suggesting that City have been trying to operate within the frameworks of Financial Fair Play and that there were probably not that many better players available in the market.
One could argue that any player that moved to a club other than Barcelona, Real Madrid and probably Bayern Munich would have had been fair game for Manchester City. In fact, that’s probably being kind to a club of City’s financial stature and aspirations. The list of players who could have strengthened their starting line-up, some at an outlay less than what City had spent on their choices, is vast.
PLAYERS MAN CITY COULD HAVE SIGNED UNDER BEGIRISTAIN
|Player||From||To||Cost (Dh)||Cost (£)|
|Gonzalo Higuain||Real Madrid||Napoli||170m||30m|
|Jose Callejon||Real Madrid||Napoli||40m||7m|
|Keisuke Honda||CSKA Moscow||AC Milan||Free||Free|
|Xherdan Shaqiri||Bayern Munich||Inter Milan||73m||13m|
|Antoine Griezemann||Real Sociedad||Atletico Madrid||124m||22m|
|Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang||St Etienne||Borussia Dortmund||62m||11m|
|Mario Mandzukic||Bayern Munich||Atletico Madrid||90m||16m|
|Daley Blind||Ajax||Manchester United||68m||12m|
|Ander Herrera||Athletic Bilbao||Manchestr United||147m||26m|
Similarly, a number of players whose transfers have not been successful to date, but on paper could have improved the City line-up, include Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria – who may yet prove to be excellent signings for their respective clubs. Question marks also exist over whether City could have competed better with sides such as Bayern, Real Madrid or Chelsea in the pursuit of the likes of Mario Gotze, Robert Lewandowski, Mehdi Benatia, Toni Kroos, Diego Costa or Cesc Fabregas among others. This is only taking into consideration the players who have been transferred in order to minimize the speculation around feasibility.
Going forward, it’s clear that the club need to do a better job at the transfer game, whoever the manager in charge is next season. Not only does the side need strengthening but the likes of Yaya Toure will soon need to be replaced, making Begiristain’s task doubly difficult. It’s far more likely that the Spaniard will get a third shot at getting things right ahead of Pellegrini, who may pay the price for his colleague’s debatable choices in the transfer market.
Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini insists his side can still win the Premier League title this season, despite still trailing Chelsea by five points following Sunday's defeat to Liverpool.
Jose Mourinho's Blues also hold a game in hand over their Manchester rivals.
Spectacular long-range strikes by midfielders Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho earned Liverpool a 2-1 victory over Manchester City that seriously compromised the Premier League champions' title defence.
After Henderson's fine 11th-minute opener had been cancelled out by Edin Dzeko at Anfield, Coutinho curled home in sumptuous fashion from 25 yards to enhance Liverpool's hopes of Champions League qualification.
City now lie five points behind leaders Chelsea, who have a game in hand due to their involvement in the League Cup final, and manager Manuel Pellegrini admitted that the odds were against his side retaining their title.
"It was a close game, but Liverpool won because they scored two beautiful goals," he said.
"It is three points less with one game less. Of course it is difficult to reach the top of the table if you lose three points.
"But we must keep going and try to return to our normal performance and see where it takes us."
Both teams had gone into the game on the back of European disappointments, but whereas City's display suggested their 2-1 Champions League loss to Barcelona had not been fully digested, Liverpool showed no ill-effects from their penalty shootout defeat at Besiktas in the Europa League.
Liverpool only returned from Istanbul in the early hours of Friday morning and manager Brendan Rodgers said their performance against City was testament to the dedication of his players.
"I have to take my hat off to the players," said the Northern Irishman, whose side are on an 11-game unbeaten streak in the league.
"To get back at half four in the early hours of Friday morning — by the time they got to bed it was six, and they had to sleep all of Friday.
"We then did some light work yesterday (Saturday), but to come out and play like they did, they were relentless."
Arsenal claim third
Rodgers added: "They restricted a top team to just one shot on target and deserve all the praise they will get."
Rodgers made four changes to the team that had come unstuck in Istanbul, with Daniel Sturridge among those who dropped to the bench, and saw his side take the lead in the 11th minute.
Henderson gathered a pass from Raheem Sterling, shifted the ball inside City captain Vincent Kompany and then curled an exquisite shot into Joe Hart's top-left corner from outside the box.
But City reacted quickly and after Sergio Aguero had hit the post, they drew level in the 25th minute when Aguero set up strike partner Edin Dzeko to beat Simon Mignolet from 10 yards.
A frenetic first half gave way to a more circumspect second period, but Coutinho gave the hosts victory with 15 minutes to play when he wriggled inside from the left flank and arced a shot past Hart from 25 yards.
It was his second stunning goal in a week, following his early strike in last weekend's 2-0 win at Southampton, and echoed his winning goal from Liverpool's 3-2 win over City in last season's corresponding fixture.
Victory took Liverpool up to fifth place, two points behind Manchester United, who occupy the fourth and final Champions League berth, and three points below Arsenal, who climbed to third by beating Everton 2-0.
Olivier Giroud had been one of the villains of Arsenal's shock 3-1 loss at home to Monaco in the Champions League in mid-week, missing a succession of chances, but he atoned with the opening goal at the Emirates Stadium.
The France striker struck six minutes before half-time, steering Mesut Ozil's right-wing corner home with an adroit right-foot volley, and Tomas Rosicky sealed victory late on with a deflected shot.
"We were focused. It was a mentally determined performance," said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, whose side now trail City by four points.
"You could see we suffered on Wednesday night against Monaco and that was still in our mind, but we were patient. That got us a good chance and we got a good win today."