For Manchester City, any change at the top this summer will boil down to a simple question: do they want to be Real Madrid or Barcelona? After coming so close, which is the way forward? Is it to bring in a clincher, like Jose Mourinho, a manager with a genius for the final step, turning also-rans into title winners, title winners into champions of Europe?
Or should City’s target be a coach capable of shaping the direction of the club long term, like Pep Guardiola, tasked with introducing a playing philosophy to be emulated by generation after generation, a man who will work with the fruits of the academy springing up in the shadow of the Etihad Stadium?
So ambitious is the Manchester City project that there really is little alternative. If Roberto Mancini is in his last season at the club — and there has been no formal discussion of his position yet, let alone a decision made — it cannot be a gratuitous act.
Was Andre Villas-Boas really an upgrade from Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea; and who in their right mind would replace Mourinho with Avram Grant? City must consider not just individuals but policy. Guarantee the title at whatever cost or lay the foundations for success and grow organically?
Everything seems to come down to Real Madrid versus Barcelona these days, even machinations within our own Premier League.
Mancini’s position will be item one on the agenda at a May meeting primarily involving Sheik Mansour, chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and director of football Brian Marwood. There is no point having this now. Mourinho and Guardiola are locked in a battle for supremacy in Spain and, quite probably, Europe, too. They have representatives capable of making encouraging noises, but too much is uncertain.
If he becomes the first manager to retain the European title in its Champions League format, will Guardiola consider his race run at Barcelona? If he falls to Madrid in one, or both, competitions, will he be willing to depart such a glorious era as a loser?
Equally, is the domestic title enough to satisfy Mourinho’s ego or will he want more? If he fails to usurp Barcelona this season, is he prepared to move on with the job unfinished for the first time in his coaching career? City cannot know any of this for sure; the most they can discover through third parties is whether, in principle, Mourinho or Guardiola could be approached.
Would they be prepared to close a door at Manchester United by opening one to City, for instance? The prospect of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement is another complication because Mourinho is known to covet the successor’s role at Old Trafford and it would surely appeal to Guardiola also. Yet if either man works for City first, he is unemployable at United. So City wait. The title is as good as gone, but how it plays out under Mancini remains significant.
These are complex times. City are improving: fifth to third to second under Mancini. That last step was always going to be the toughest.
When City sacked Mark Hughes it was felt he was resistant to change. His employers wanted an additional coach, with European experience, acting as a bridge between management and high-profile new arrivals such as Robinho. Hughes thought he could get by with his existing backroom team, Mark Bowen and Eddie Niedzwiecki. The club insisted they could not move forward with that arrangement; Hughes refused to budge. There was only going to be one winner.
With Mancini, it is different. There has been a willingness to admit mistakes, not least over Mario Balotelli, who will be moved on, having shown no readiness to conform.
‘If we do not win the league, Roberto will know why and he will be willing to address it,’ one senior City executive said earlier this year. He also insisted Mancini was safe, no matter the outcome. So maybe he still is.
Maybe, though, if Guardiola or Mourinho became available that would be a game-changer. Mancini has certainly not messed up so badly that he could be replaced by the flavour of the month. It would take one of Europe’s two great coaches to inspire change and, right now, the odds seem to favour Guardiola.
Manchester City is run from Abu Dhabi, not Dubai. This is not a culture of boom and bust. Abu Dhabi likes structure, Abu Dhabi likes a plan. City have spent big, City have spent quickly, City were itching to get in the game by recruiting Kaka, but there is caution, too. Lately the focus has been on development. City would want Guardiola as much for his work at La Masia academy as his triumphs with Barcelona’s first team. He offers the whole package.
Mourinho, by contrast, comes at a price. Not just in terms of the transfer market, but in his philosophy, too. There isn’t one, bar victory. He is not an investor. He comes in, does a job — invariably a quite brilliant job — and leaves. Is this what City want? Perhaps it is. Perhaps the need to wrench the title from Manchester United is so great that the club would compromise a 10-year plan for a two-year whirlwind, and then start again if the manager departs.
Mourinho delivers, no doubt about that. Roman Abramovich craved a title at Chelsea, Inter Milan longed for European dominance, Real Madrid wanted to overtake Barcelona. Mourinho is like a contract killer, making the hit and moving on. The majority of City supporters would pay the bounty right now and to hell with the consequences.
Yet what of the third option? What if Guardiola and Mourinho cannot be tempted? Indeed, what if they can? Has Mancini really done such a terrible job? Saturday night in Augusta and around the dinner table the conversation turned to City’s sharp decline.
The consensus was that Mancini was losing the title to an inferior Manchester United team. How many City players would make United’s starting line-up, it was asked. Most had a City majority. I had five. Broadening it to create an 18-man squad, I ended up with a 12-6 split in United’s favour. How so?
Here goes: Goalkeeper, Joe Hart, obviously. Central defenders, Vincent Kompany and Rio Ferdinand. A midfield four, right to left, of Luis Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Yaya Toure and David Silva. Forward line: Sergio Aguero and Wayne Rooney. No full backs, I know.