Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Ever since Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan took control of Manchester City in 2008, they have never hidden the fact they aimed to become one of the greatest clubs in the world. Ambition needs a blueprint, however, and after a few seasons of throwing around huge sums of money — with some success but not enough satisfaction — they aimed directly for what was the Gold Standard at the time: Barcelona.
Not in a creepy, “Single White Female” way, but in a genuine belief that Barcelona’s philosophy could be tweaked and adapted to the Premier League and turn City into the greatest club in the world.
Between 2008 and 2012, Barcelona won three Spanish Liga titles, two Spanish Cups and two Champions League crowns. Perhaps just as importantly, they had captured the hearts and minds of neutrals while becoming a juggernaut of a global brand, producing a steady stream of stars via their La Masia academy and living up to the club motto, “Mes Que Un Club” — more than a club.
This was where City wanted to be — a century-plus-old club with a passionate but regional fan base, too often overshadowed by Manchester United, the global juggernaut across town.
And so they set to work. The youth system was overhauled, with a view toward La Masia. Sheikh Mansour spent tens of millions on the club and real estate projects around the Etihad Stadium, aimed at regenerating whole swathes of Manchester. The club won awards for community service and engagement.
In came Ferran Soriano, the former Barcelona vice president in charge of finances who had doubled the club’s revenue between 2003 and 2008. He was the new chief executive officer.
In came Txiki Begiristain, who had served as Barcelona’s de-facto transfer guru for seven seasons. He was the new director of football.
That was in 2012. Man City missed out on the third — and probably most important — part of their Camp Nou trifecta when Pep Guardiola, the architect of that Barca side, opted first for a sabbatical and then for a stint in Germany at Bayern Munich.
Two years later, they picked up Rodolfo Borrell, a legendary youth coach and La Masia veteran who helped develop a certain Lionel Messi during his time at the club.
This past summer, City landed what they hope will be the final piece of the puzzle: Pep. And, on Wednesday, they’ll get the equivalent of a performance review when they travel to the Camp Nou and measure themselves against the club they are trying to emulate and surpass.
It’s not a perfect symmetry, because Barcelona have evolved and so has Pep. But the hallmarks of possession, pressing and humility remain strong at both clubs. The man now in charge at the Camp Nou, Luis Enrique, also won a Treble, successfully pairing Messi with Luis Suarez and Neymar. Some suggest Enrique achieved the improbable by turning the three-headed monster into a cohesive unit.
As for Guardiola, he has metabolised concepts and notions during his three seasons in the Bundesliga — and he has thrown in plenty of his own tactical hocus pocus. It’s fair to say there isn’t an elite coach in the game today who has been more willing to experiment with formations.
While his original Camp Nou tiki-taka was all about going horizontal until an opening was spotted or the genius took over, now it’s still possession, albeit vertical: you go North-South and you do it at breakneck speed, but always with that characteristic Pep control.
City have played Barcelona in four competitive games. Manchester have lost four times.
Wednesday may be no different. For all the hype and the spending, Guardiola is still a new coach tasked with overhauling a squad and a philosophy. That will take time. Thus far, it has also meant square pegs in round holes.
Take the right-back position, which in Pep teams is one of the more attacking, creative roles. On Wednesday, his right-back will be Pablo Zabaleta (in City’s last match, Pep eschewed the position entirely). Zabaleta is a fine professional, but he’s several standard deviations away from Dani Alves, whom Pep could call upon at the Camp Nou.
Guardiola is the final piece of the puzzle to help City reach the heights of Barcelona. And the path to emulating — and, ideally, surpassing — their role models passes through the Camp Nou on Wednesday.