The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Manchester Clubs

Football never fails to present us with interesting narratives. Recently, we witnessed the awe-inspiring, dramatic story of Leicester City and their unprecedented ascent to a league title; not long after, Real Madrid would go back-to-back in the most prestigious European competition, spearheaded by the very Galactico that scored that iconic volley to seal them the same title in 2002—Zinedine Zidane. However, none could be as dramatic or fierce as the feud between the Manchester clubs, beginning initially as a local rivalry, but, over time, growing into a quintessential inter-city dispute as a consequence of the now-global brand of the clubs.

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The progression from local club to international beater for Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United was remarkable. Over the course of his twenty-two-year tenure, he managed to pull off a superhuman feat, while breaking countless records along the way. Singlehandedly taking United from domestic obscurity to international force with the help of a strong philosophy and a little-known, underappreciated tactical flexibility, his reign at Old Trafford ensured that he would go down as one of the best coaches in the history of the game.

His philosophy was well-thought out and strict in both its implementation and adherence. Believing that the first steps to success in a football team lied in the coach possessing total control, he was quick to release players who were affecting the atmosphere of the dressing room, the performance of the team, or the relationship with the playing staff. This was the reason behind the sudden departures of Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Beckham and Roy Keane.

Of course, Sir Alex wasn’t concerned if his decisions were ruthless, or even impulsive. He was a gambler at heart, something which was also brought out by the way his team played in later stages of games, and indeed, in “Fergie Time.”

Over the course of a long-term reign like his, for the sake of the progression of the club, it was important to closely monitor the performance of players and replace them when the time was right in keeping the future of the team in mind. Performing this task effectively required an innate understanding of the talents and potential of incoming players, and if they could match or better the services of the players that were on the chopping block.

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It goes without saying that he was exemplary at this—the evidence manifests itself through the impressive list of players that graced the pitch of Old Trafford. The Class of ’92 and his other influential sides consisted of a patriotic blend of home-grown English talent and the beautiful skill of the Europeans, all gathered with shrewd deals, most of which eventually became bargains (case in point, Cristiano Ronaldo—acquired for £16million and sold for a world record fee at that time).

He was also an astute man-manager—he knew when to confront and console in order to get the best out of his players. He demanded quite a lot from them in both training sessions and matches. His infamous “hairdryer” treatment was the consequence of not performing up to his high expectations, but, at the end of the day, he was only interested in helping his players progress in their careers, and the fact that he was a father figure to so many during their time there does hint at a softer side that provided a counterweight to his intensity.

Tactically speaking, he was very underrated and fluent. This is best emphasized by his 4-3-1-2 diamond from 2012/13, and his dynamic side in 2007/08, which were technically flawless and astutely put together.

His zestful side in 2007/08 struck a perfect balance between defence and attack. In Ferdinand, he had a composed and intelligent defender who could read the game brilliantly. In Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez, he had athletic, ambidextrous and versatile players who could play and excel in multiple positions on the pitch, whether it be from out wide, in the middle, or from deep. Park was a tireless workhorse, Giggs an artistic dribbler, and Scholes a midfield powerhouse, all of whom were complimented perfectly by the amiable simplicity of Carrick’s game. The back four created an impenetrable fortress that allowed the midfield and attack to bomb forward on the counterattack or befuddle their opponents with their fluid movements. By winning the Premier League and the Champions League, Sir Alex proved that he was a complete manager, and not just the deal-maker and man-manager that he was previously lauded to be.

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The beauty of the diamond lies in how it defied the tactical norm and how it introduced a fluent, yet fluid and adaptable style of play to United’s exploits. It looked to profit from creative individuality and a lack of structure—creating from instinct, rather from the playbook. Furthermore, the formation was perfect for tactical fluidity, allowing for the overall shape to be changed by the deployment of certain personnel; Ashley Young would have the tendency to move out wide, for example, while a player like Tom Cleverly would remain in a central position.

During his 26 years at United, Ferguson won a grand total of 38 trophies—13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two Champions League titles. He will always be remembered for his dedication and dexterity as a manager, certainly going down as one of the greats of the game. However, it was his dramatic title loss against City on the last day, and indeed, last minute of the 2011/12 season that is important in this context.

“Aguerooo…” screamed Martin Tyler in what became one of the most famous moments of football history, as the Argentine made it 3-2 with virtually the last kick of the game: “I swear you’ll never see anything like this ever again. So, watch it, drink it in… two goals in added time from Manchester City to snatch the title away from Manchester United.”

The oyster had opened, and Pellegrini grabbed the pearl with no hesitation. Manchester City’s last-minute title decider was the culmination of the transfer of power from the red to blue side of Manchester. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side looked on in disdain, while the City players celebrated with jubilation, celebrating the club’s first title in forty-four years. It seemed like the proclamation of the beginning of a new era in the vibrant, multi-cultural city of Manchester, and the reignition of a fierce rivalry. After years of turmoil, relegation, promotion, and coincidences, they were finally at the top, at the apex of English football. And what a journey it was.

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Over the course of twenty-six years, Sir Alex Ferguson oversaw United’s rise to domestic and international dominance. In terms of relevance, well, Manchester might as well have been painted red. City was cast out, and only supported by a few faithful.

While the Busby Babes, Class of ’92, and Alex Ferguson’s expertly created and cultivated teams left us captivated with names such as George Best, Eric Cantona, Van de Sar often blessing Old Trafford with their weekly presence, United had become a domestic and European superpower, and all City could do was, well, eat their dust.

Indeed, while they were conquering Europe, City were haphazardly moving between divisions, in a vicious cycle that involved promotion from the then-league two to immediate relegation in the Premier League. This was best emphasized in the year 2001, when United went on to win Sir Alex’s seventh league title while City were relegated, finishing in 18th place. The gulf in class between the two teams was clearly visible.

However, all of this changed in 2007, when Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra acquired a 75% stake in the club. Out went the drowsy football of Stuart Pearce, and in came the brilliant, yet reckless football of Sven-Goran Eriksson. Despite a promising start to their endeavours (they were in the top four at the beginning of 2008), their season culminated in an 8-1 loss against Middlesbrough and a 9th-placed finish. An improvement? Yes, but the extent of it was marginal. A promising start, yet there was still clearly a long way to go.

An interesting coincidence paved the way for the exponential rise of Manchester City from local club to international phenomenon. When Shinawatra’s assets had been frozen due to his wrongdoings in the government, City were looking for a new owner. Garry Cook, then-chief executive, traversed the world in search of willing investors, and delivered in the most unprecedented manner possible.

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The Abu Dhabi United Group, spearheaded by Sheikh Mansour, took control of the club. Overnight, City became one of the richest clubs in the world. Sound familiar? The first season of Mansour’s reign was similar to that of the previous owner. A new manager, backed with incomprehensible, almost infinite other-worldly financial clout, spent a staggering £270million on revamping the squad, which culminated in a disappointing mid-table finish. Mark Hughes, who previously enjoyed respectable spells at Wales and Blackburn, was quickly shown the door, and Roberto Mancini, Eriksson’s sidekick at Lazio, took the helm, heralding one of the most successful and promising periods that the club would encounter.

Italian roots? Or just skilled managing and understanding of the game? Or both? Either way, Mancini set to work and weaved together a solid defensive line that had previously been ragged and tattered as a result of the nonchalance of Hughes. They finished 5th in his first season as a result of his authoritative style of management and an impressive playing style which, finally, was an apt reflection of their ambitions. After all, results are one of the few things that a manager cannot control.

However, four years after his arrival in the team and one year after winning the title, Mancini was sacked before the last two games of the season. City were miles behind league leaders United, encountered a shock exit in the group stages of the Champions League and lost the FA Cup Final to Wigan.

In came Pellegrini, and along with him, a possessive style of play that looked to use quick ball circulation, especially in the final third, to displace opponents and create goalscoring opportunities. As much as this system materialized high-tempo football from out of nowhere, there was also a certain degree of underlying inconsistency that was created by the dependence of Pellegrini on his keystone players.

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They lined up in a 4-4-2, with Samir Nasri or Jesus Navas out wide, Silva in the middle, and with Aguero and Negredo creating a deadly strike partnership, the perfect combination of goalscoring and understanding of space. However, once Negredo was struck with a metatarsal injury, the formation became a bit too narrow, as there was no direct replacement for his positional awareness. The highly controversial move of Raheem Sterling, served to quell this gap.

While he did make a promising start at his time at the Etihad, Pellegrini’s reign ended in a bittersweet era that will primarily remind fans of what could’ve been. Eleven players over the age of thirty, and turmoil in his final season, he will be remembered fondly for his achievements in his first season, yet will leave with a certain failure—the failure to take City to the next level.

On the other hand, United were struggling to replace Sir Alex. They tried with David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal, accomplished managers in their own right, but none could effectively capture Sir Alex’s aura or replicate his results. Broken and defeated, United found themselves out of the competition, both domestically and in Europe. They turned to Jose Mourinho for help, and two years later, after heavy tinkering (and expenditure), they are now where they belong: challenging for trophies with a vastly improved squad.

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City, in the hopes of enamouring Pep Guardiola, invested heavily in hiring skilled backroom staff for their long-term sustainability as a club. And once Pep arrived at the Etihad, rebuilding began at an alarming rate; financial power was used to acquire the services of young talents like Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus, Ederson, Benjamin Mendy, and many more, while the majority of the deadweight was disposed of. City’s squad is now young and energetic, a far cry from the lethargy that troubled Pellegrini during his last year. After one season under Pep, the squad is equipped for success, with him introducing new tactical concepts every week and demolishing his opponents by larger and larger margins every passing fixture. It only remains to be seen whether they can carry their momentum all the way to the end of the season and prevent the capitulation that had previously destroyed their league campaign.

The rivalry between the Manchester Clubs is again reignited. The managers have had personal feuds and the rivalry between the fans has always been passionate and fiery. The clubs can thank coincidences for the high level of competitiveness between them, which had previously died down, but is ready to be rekindled. And we can’t wait.