Most likely, fans around the world who don’t have any connection with Manchester either football wise or any other wise, are sick and tired of all the talk and banter surrounding the surprising exits of both Man Utd and Man City from the knockout stages of this year’s UEFA Champions League tournament. Both clubs currently sit on top of the English Premier League and were tipped for success in Europe this year, and particularly Man Utd, who have been a finalist in the tournament for three out of the last four seasons. Not only did Manchester take a blow to the head on this one but also English football took a shot too, as the Premier League is in a constant struggle with other Leagues around Europe in the unofficial “Who has the Best Football League” stakes. So what are the ramifications here ?
First of all, no-one died or got hurt here, despite claims that the ground underneath Northwest England shook on Wednesday night. This is football or soccer, depending on if you live in the US (don’t think I’ll ever get used to that), and despite Bill Shankly’s legendary comment, it’s just a game. I guess we should start over at Old Trafford where most of the negative reaction was directed. Perennial latter stage competitors, this has been a hammer blow to United on several levels. It’s been seen as just another step downhill for a team that has been seen to be in reverse gear since the infamous derby 6-1 demolition by City at Old Trafford earlier this season. They have struggled defensively and up front where a series of 1-0 wins against average opposition recently has led to questions about the squad’s ability to retain the Premier League title this year. Financially, the hit will be around $35-40m which isn’t pocket change for anyone and particularly United. They have debt constraints incurred from when The Glazer family bought the club and even with their massive income from football, they need to generate as much cash flow as possible. The Europa League only generates about 20% of the revenue that the Champions League does, so in a Glazer-owned world, that shortfall has to come from somewhere, and most likely it will reduce the amount of cash available to not only sign new players, but more appropriately, cash available to maintain player salaries.. Cries for the addition of a midfielder have fallen on deaf ears and Sir Alex Ferguson has resisted the temptation to splash out money to strengthen a squad that has now been depleted with injuries. He began the season with a new youthful line-up following some injuries to established veteran players and they swept all before them in wins over Man City, Arsenal and Chelsea that suggested that they would continue to dominate domestically. Players such as Smalling, Jones, De Gea, Cleverley, and Welbeck joined Rooney, Vidic, Evra, Nani, Giggs and Carrick to give the line-up a new feel about it. However, once veteran players became fit again, they were introduced back into the line-up and it seemed that’s where the trouble started. United lost their competitive edge in midfield and rather than pressing the opposition, they lapsed into a containment style, with devastating consequences. Passing accuracy deteriorated also which disrupted their pace and fast transitional play. Further injuries led to line-up shuffling that always unsettles younger players, and with a jittery rookie goalie in David De Gea, the defence started shipping goals. Uncertainty spread throughout the team and one of Ferguson’s main challenges now is to re-establish the team’s confidence in itself.With injuries to key players such as Vidic, Hernandez, Cleverley, Owen and Berbatov, their resources will be stretched to the limit.
My guess is that Ferguson will continue to blend his younger players into the line-up, and possibly buy a midfielder in the January transfer window but don’t expect a big name signing. He’ll also play a youthful side in the Europa League that they are now involved in and treat those matches as experience for his younger talent. I doubt they will win that tournament but I would expect them to be in the semi-finals. Ferguson’s main objective now is at a minimum, Champions League qualification which they should achieve, although maybe only a 3rd or 4th place League finish, but I feel the Premier League title is beyond them this season with this squad. This will be a year of consolidation but I fully expect Ferguson to have these guys back next year with their hair on fire again playing for all four trophies. For the United haters out there, here’s something to get your teeth into. Potentially, if things go from bad to worse, United could be out of all competitions by the end of February, as they have drawn Man City in the 3rd Rd of the FA Cup. Interesting nightmare scenario. I struggle to remember when last happened in Ferguson’s reign.
Over at The Etihad Stadium, Man City have had much less to deal with through exiting on Wednesday night. With a squad full of international superstars, the club has been transformed into a rival to any big club anywhere in the world, and with the massive financial backing from it’s Abu Dhabi ownership who have pledged to pipe millions of dollars into making City the biggest club in the world, they have an extremely bright future. Their money has this year paid dividends on the field as they currently sit five points clear at the top of the Premier League and to many observers, including myself, look to be a shoe in for the League title. Having qualified for the Champions League with a third place finish in the League last year, expectations were high in Europe despite the fact they had a much tougher set of Group games to navigate than United did. Matches against Bayern Munich, Napoli, and Villareal were not seen as easy and so it proved to be as defeats against Bayern and Napoli saw them crash out with albeit a 10pt haul which normally is enough to move on to the knockout stages. However, Champions League success is not simply about having the best players and the best team. It’s about how you meld together domestic matches with those in Europe as obviously teams cannot put the same players out on the field every game. It’s more about developing a rotation system which enables you to use up a minimum of resources to achieve maximum reward. Teams like United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan etc have learned this over many years of competition. I think this year, manager Roberto Mancini learned a whole lot about how to manage his squad and despite failure this year, they will be back next year with a much better approach. I fully expect City to push on and win the Premier League title this year going away. There are few teams in England that are capable of beating this team on their day. They have speed, power, and limitless talent. Mancini’s biggest challenge will not come from opposing teams but from his own players. He has to keep all of these huge ego’s happy whilst still maintaining quality on the field. I would also expect them to cruise through the Europa League and the League Cup and win those trophies too. Maybe the FA Cup will be their weakness as that tournament carries the most unpredictability but a three trophy season is not beyond them at all. One of the major concerns for Man City is the new Financial Fair Play Rules instigated by UEFA. The Rules mandate that teams cannot spend more money than they generate from the football side of the business or risk exclusion from European competition. Realistically for City, they need to reap the financial rewards that the Champions League offers in order to effectively “balance” their FFP books and they need to do that every year.
In the current economy as local governments try to squeeze every ounce of revenue from their operating budgets, do not minimise the effect on the City of Manchester with both these clubs no longer competing in the Champions League. Tourism generated from football represents a massive cash injection for the City in terms of hotel rooms, bar receipts and restaurant takings. Research shows that on average, each tourist that comes to Manchester spends about $1100 each, and for example, 80% of the City’s hotel rooms were filled when Paul Scholes had his testimonial earlier this summer against the New York Cosmos. Even with Europa League competition, gate receipts will drop for both clubs and consequently, tax revenues for the City.
Both of these clubs will survive this so-called catastrophe and both as a result will come back stronger and wiser. I expect Man City to recover quicker and still be very successful this season whilst United will continue to concentrate on development of their younger players and consolidate ready for next season.
Never a dull moment in Manchester that;s for sure.