Different approaches to success
People often draw comparisons between Manchester City and Chelsea; they are the two modern day super-clubs of English football. Rather than institutionalising themselves, building, growing and developing over decades and enjoying success for years on end, like Liverpool, Manchester United and, to a degree, Arsenal, they have used huge financial backing from very rich owners to propel themselves to an elite level.
Their projects may seem very similar, but actually they are worlds apart. Chelsea were bought by Roman Abramovic in 2003, five years before Sheikh Mansour acquired the blue half of Manchester. One peaked much earlier than the other; almost instantly, the Blues were seen as a genuine threat. Claudio Ranieri spent a lot of money on a good squad in that first summer, just a few weeks after the club was on the brink of financial meltdown. Despite everything, they qualified for the Champions League the previous season, giving Abramovich a good base to start from. Less than two years later, under Jose Mourinho, they won their first league title in 50 years and one of five in the Premier League.
City, bought by the Sheikh in 2008, had just finished tenth under Sven-Goran Eriksson the previous season and were a world away from being a team capable of any major achievements. Their first signing, Robinho, was a statement of intent, but the takeover wasn’t completed until the day he switched from Real Madrid. It took a lot longer for that project to come to fruition than Chelsea’s; they won their first trophy in 2011, qualifying for the Champions League that same year and winning the Premier League the following campaign.
There still feels like there is room to grow and much more to do for Manchester City; a solitary semi final appearance in 2016 is the best they have mustered in Europe, but the backing and the potential of the club remain great. There hasn’t been that level of continuity at Chelsea, with Abramovich going through no fewer than 12 managers in his 14-year reign, not including Mourinho twice. Antonio Conte won the Premier League last season, but Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti did the year before the Russian tycoon ruthlessly cut them both off.
Trophies have never been an issue on the King’s Road, but they have always been missing something; Abramovich has been a long-term admirer of Pep Guardiola, whom he wanted to create a ‘Barcelona in Blue’ after he departed the Camp Nou in 2012; Chelsea won the Champions League that year with the spine of team Mourinho assembled seven years earlier. Ageing but powerful, perhaps overly so, the likes of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Petr Cech dragged them toward Abramovich’s ‘holy grail’, but the manner in which they rode their luck in the semi finals against Guardiola’s Blaugrana, and again in the final against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena, and the fact it was done under the ‘interim’ charge of Roberto Di Matteo, will not have sat quite right with the owner.
Manchester City have made mistakes; they have not been nearly as consistent as Chelsea overall when it comes to titles. Spending money on sub-par players has always been an issue, while crucial players from their past, such as Carlos Tevez, Joe Hart and Edin Dzeko have arguably been disposed of too quickly and easily. But they have always been attractive on the eye, and their project has had the aim of becoming self-sufficient; a state of the art training complex has been built in order to help the next generation grow from within. Chelsea’s development sides have won the FA Youth Cup and UEFA Youth League in recent seasons, but they have countless players out on loan, very few of whom look like making an impression on the first team.
Right now, City are in danger of heading down the same path. They became the first English team to spend over £200million in the summer and although Guardiola looks like he is finally creating a team capable of taking them onto the next level, the best way for them to do that is to produce players from their own academy. Youngster Phil Foden really impressed during pre-season and may have a bright future, but he must be allowed to flourish.
The blueprints for the future are in place
It is hard to know how City’s future will go because Guardiola has never stayed in a job for more than four years. Chelsea usually sack their manager after they fail to win the Premier League, no matter what their standing is before. Sheikh Mansour’s approach has allowed more of an identity to develop, whereas not many managers have been able to put their stamp on a Chelsea team; Mourinho, Ancelotti and Conte are the three who have and it is no surprise that they have all won the title.
Both teams are facing up to a crossroads soon; if Chelsea are to follow their own pattern, they will part with Conte if he fails to repeat his success, or he may even walk. The Italian was far from happy with his squad depth in the summer, and injuries to key men Alvaro Morata and N’Golo Kante have seen them lose three league games in their first eight. Given how imperious Guardiola’s side are looking, having scored 29 goals already, their title defence is looking weak. But the answer is clear, Chelsea have hit a ceiling because of their endless cycle of managers and they must break that. Backing Conte is crucial to their long-term vision.
Once Guardiola wins, he leaves, but unlike Mourinho, someone who has shared that approach throughout his career, he leaves room for a contingency plan. City are where they’ve always wanted to be and probably where Chelsea want to be as well, and they must use Guardiola’s reign as the start, not the end, of a brave new era.
Antonio Conte has finally created a new way of thinking, post-Mourinho, at Chelsea and Pep Guardiola has got Manchester City thinking like a big club for the first time ever. After years of searching, both clubs have their blueprints; they’re very different, but hold the key to success and must be stuck to even after their pioneers depart.