By Liam Twomey
Manchester City will almost certainly not retain the Premier League title this season, and have once again disappointed in the Champions League. Not even an FA Cup win can salvage their campaign.
But striding quietly and confidently through the corridors of power at the Etihad Stadium are two men determined to ensure that many more happy days lie ahead.
Former Barcelona duo Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano have made few public waves since arriving in Manchester last autumn, but both have been working tirelessly behind the scenes in a concerted effort to turn one of the newest additions to Europe’s elite into a global superpower.
Soriano, in the capacity of chief executive, is tasked with increasing City’s sporting and commercial revenues. Begiristain, as director of football, concentrates on forging new footballing partnerships, expanding the club’s scouting network and establishing a distinctive identity on the pitch.
Together, the pair were lured to England by the challenge of replicating the hugely successful – and hugely fashionable – Barcelona model in a completely different yet infinitely malleable environment.
Admittedly, they are not building from scratch. City have already won the Premier League and FA Cup. Construction work on the Etihad Campus is well underway, and the financial results for 2011-12 saw the club move up to seventh in the Deloitte Money League, only narrowly behind Arsenal.
Even so, their ambition is already evident. Begiristain has begun selling the club to the world, showing contacts around the developing Etihad Campus and giving a glimpse of the club’s future. Representatives from Mexican giants Club America visited last month, and left suitably impressed.
Not content with this, Begiristain has been travelling the world in his new role, renewing old friendships and establishing fresh connections, with a particular focus on South America – a market he views as central to the future of the club’s scouting, transfer and partnership strategy.
Soriano, meanwhile, is planning a radical overhaul of City’s wage system, with the eye-watering basic rates of the Sheikh Mansour era to date replaced with more Barcelona-like, heavily incentivised deals which handsomely reward only those driven to be the best in the world.
It is a change which, if successful, will have profound consequences for many of City’s underachieving squad – not least Yaya Toure, whose agent Dimitri Seluk is playing an aggressive game in a bid to get his client’s current £150,000-a-week deal extended beyond 2015.
On the pitch, the plan is to get City playing an expansive, attacking 4-3-3 formation from the youth sides to the first team, with a view to facilitating the kind of frequent and seamless progression through the ranks witnessed at Barcelona and their legendary cantera, La Masia, in recent years.
This may well lead to tension with boss Roberto Mancini, who has been accused of employing negative tactics during his time in England and often favours experience over potential.
But then, Mancini’s own future at City is far from certain. Soriano recently went public to declare him a “champion” in the Italian press, but it is questionable whether the uncompromising Italian will tolerate Begiristain’s overriding judgement on player acquisitions, as well as his remit to impose a tactical philosophy on the club.
These doubts are shared by City, who are also slightly troubled by Mancini’s continuing inability to make an impact in European competition. Pep Guardiola is no longer in the market, but Malaga’s Manuel Pellegrini could be available and may well be seen as a better fit.
In the meantime, the biggest difference Begiristain and Soriano have made is in terms of credibility. Once viewed as the tactless nouveau riche bully-boys of European football, City are now making use of their connected new executives to present a more acceptable face to the continent’s elite.
Both had a significant hand in enabling the sale of the troublesome Mario Balotelli to Milan in January, utilising a cordial working relationship with Rossoneri CEO Adriano Galliani. The good feeling endures, too: at an engagement to publicise his book ‘The Ball Doesn’t Go In By Chance’ in Milan last week, Soriano sat at the same table as Galliani.
Next year it will be Begiristain and Soriano who attend the Champions League draws on behalf of City, pressing flesh with other top men at Europe’s biggest clubs. Prior to England’s friendly victory over Brazil last month, the pair were at a London hotel as part of a distinguished group which included ‘super-agents’ Jorge Mendes and Pini Zahavi.
City are now moving freely in the circles befitting a club with grand plans. A new six-year kit sponsorship deal with Nike, worth around £12 million per year, will start from next season. Before then, a summer of renewed spending looks in prospect, with Radamel Falcao, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez, Stevan Jovetic and Isco all on the list of potential recruits.
Insiders say Begiristain and Soriano favour actions over words. But while they work quietly, the club Sir Alex Ferguson once witheringly dismissed as “noisy neighbours” are getting louder all the time.