Manchester City have established themselves as one of the top clubs in world football. They have won the Premier League this season in remarkable fashion, especially considering they have played without a recognised striker for the majority of the campaign, and were eighth at Christmas. They have also won their fourth consecutive League Cup, with a 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in the final.
The most important thing for City and their owners, however, is the fact that they have reached their first ever Champions League final. There is no denying that this has largely been a result of the money put into the club by Sheik Mansour and the Abu Dhabi United Group, but money cannot guarantee instant success. The pathway to this point, at the summit of world football, has included its fair share of misguided investments but, for the most part, City’s owners have looked to invest sensibly and have learnt from their mistakes over time. This is by far the most successful period in City’s history and the owners’ part in that cannot be overstated. This post looks at the first four transfer windows following Sheik Mansour’s takeover in August 2008, and how they set the foundations for the success that followed, culminating in City’s first ever Champions League final this season.
First team signings (all fees from Transfermarkt):
- Jô – £21.6 million
- Robinho – £38.7 million
- Pablo Zabaleta – £7.8 million
- Vincent Kompany – £7.65 million
- Tal Ben Haim – £5.76 million
- Shaun Wright-Phillips – £10.13 million
- Gláuber – free transfer
When Sheik Mansour arrived in August 2008 there was a real buzz about the club and a wider feeling that they were about to disrupt the traditional top four and, perhaps more importantly, their city rivals Manchester United. However, this couldn’t happen overnight. The club had finished 9th in the Premier League and ended the season with a dismal 8-1 defeat away to Middlesbrough. Former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson had been in charge and was sacked by the previous ownership and replaced with Blackburn Rovers manager Mark Hughes.
City had started their recruitment for that summer before the Abu Dhabi United Group takeover, and had already invested reasonably heavily on new players. In fact, all but one of the players on the above list were signed prior to Sheik Mansour taking charge of the club. In the beginning, City had the money but not the guarantee of success of clubs that would pay similar fees and wages, and were understandably seen as a gamble by many players they pursued due to becoming one of the world’s richest clubs overnight. The club was suddenly linked with anyone and everyone in world football in a whirlwind end to the summer transfer window. Although, with time running out in the transfer window, for the most part they would have to rely on the signings that had already been made that summer.
The owners still wanted their marquee signing, however. Cue Robinho. The enigmatic Brazilian signed on transfer deadline day for £38.7 million from Real Madrid. This signing was met with huge excitement by City fans and Premier League fans alike, despite the fact it has widely been reported that Robinho was under the impression he was signing for rivals Manchester United.
The signing of Robinho was to prove disappointing. After a positive start he appeared to become more and more disillusioned with life in England. He would perform wonders in home matches when things were going well, but in tough away matches it was obvious he didn’t fancy it. This was a lesson to the owners moving forward and they sought players to improve the team in future, rather than perhaps to boost their egos and shirt sales.
Fellow Brazilian Jô also joined City’s ranks in the summer of 2008 for a £21.6 million fee and, like his compatriot, struggled to perform with any consistency. Tal Ben Haim would join from Chelsea but only go on to manage nine league appearances in his solitary season at the club. Shaun Wright-Phillips would return to the club where it all started for him after a three year spell at Chelsea and had a positive impact initially, before gradually being edged out of the side, and eventually sold to Queens Park Rangers in 2011.
However, there were some key signings in City’s summer 2008 forays into the transfer market, which helped set the foundations for a culture of success at the club. This happened to be two signings that went somewhat under the radar at the time: Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany. Both joined for a fee of around £8 million each, and both would go on to play a key part in City’s recent history. Zabaleta is adored by City fans and Kompany’s leadership and determination in guiding his club to success has led to calls for a statue outside the Etihad Stadium. When Liverpool were pushing City to the wire in the 2018/19 season, it was Kompany who took it upon himself to carry the ball forward and strike home from 30 yards against Leicester City. The club legend had secured the title in the most unexpected manner, and further cemented his place in Premier League folklore.
First team signings:
- Nigel de Jong – £16.2 million
- Wayne Bridge – £11.7 million
- Craig Bellamy – £13.95 million
- Shay Given – £8.1 million
- Gunnar Nielsen – free transfer
The second window following the takeover showed a more defined strategy. Nigel de Jong was brought in from Hamburger SV to bolster the midfield and would prove a very reliable player for his three years at the club. However, aside from the Dutch destroyer, City looked to sign seasoned Premier League players who could instantly improve the squad.
Shay Given had been one of the best performing goalkeepers in the league for a number of seasons at Newcastle United. He had been remarkably loyal to the Magpies and, after 12 years, it was time to start a new challenge at City. A safe pair of hands, Given would make 50 league appearances in two years at City, before being phased out by future England and long-term City number one, Joe Hart.
Wayne Bridge joined to provide a seemingly very good option at left back after personal matters, involving club captain John Terry, made his exit from Chelsea inevitable. Chelsea had arguably England’s two best left backs at the time, and Bridge largely played second fiddle to Ashley Cole for club, as well as country, so a move may have been on the agenda regardless. Bridge would be a regular at his new club until a fallout with manager Roberto Mancini and the Italian’s signings of Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichy in his position effectively ended his City career in 2010. It has since been said that the relationship between Bridge and Mancini became so strained that Bridge was no longer allowed to participate in training and was forced to train with the youth teams.
Craig Bellamy joined from West Ham United and the fiery Welshman would prove a constant threat on the left side of City’s attack, playing on the same side as fellow signing Bridge. However, he was always a character that polarised opinion and only spent two seasons at City, the second out on loan at Cardiff City. 12 league goals in 40 appearances was a decent return and his most notable goal was a curling effort from 25 yards in a thrilling Manchester Derby at Old Trafford. Unfortunately, for Bellamy and City, the game would not be remembered for his fine strike but for a last-gasp Michael Owen winner in a 4-3 win for the red side of Manchester.
First team signings:
- Emmanuel Adebayor – £26.1 million
- Carlos Tevez – £26.1 million
- Roque Santa Cruz – £19.08 million
- Sylvinho – free transfer
- Joleon Lescott – £24.75 million
- Kolo Toure – £16.83 million
- Gareth Barry – £12.51 million
- Stuart Taylor – free transfer
Despite the injection of finances into the club, City’s first season following the takeover ended in disappointment. The club finished tenth in the league, a place below the previous season. The investment had started but it was far from finished. In fact, the owners were ready to signal their intent further, and signed eight first team players in what was a very busy 2009 summer transfer window.
Players with Premier League experience were again the focus of their investment, in a seemingly identified strategy. Seven of the eight players signed came from clubs playing in the Premier League, with the only exception being veteran 35 year old defender Sylvinho from Barcelona. Signed more for his experienced head than for his impact on the pitch, although he did still manage 11 league appearances before retiring at the end of the season.
A number of positions were covered in the recruitment. However, the central areas of the pitch were the focus, perhaps with the aim of establishing a core to the side. Three strikers came in: Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez, and Roque Santa Cruz. The signing of Tevez was perhaps the most eye-catching, as he had spent the previous two seasons on loan at rivals Manchester United and rejected a contract from the Red Devils. The first signs of a power shift in Manchester were beginning to filter through.
Gareth Barry joined at the base of the midfield, providing a strong defensive screen alongside de Jong. At the back, Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott were brought in to tighten up the defence. Goalkeeper Stuart Taylor also joined for free, in the knowledge that he was always likely to be a back-up up option to Given.
First team signings:
- Adam Johnson – £7.2 million
- Patrick Vieira – free transfer
A poor start to the season saw Sheik Mansour lose patience with Mark Hughes, following little return on City’s investment at the time. Hughes was sacked in December 2019 and subsequently replaced by Roberto Mancini, who had been out of a job since leaving Inter Milan at the end of the previous season. The lure of money to spend and ambition to match proved enough to secure the in-demand Italian’s services.
However, in his first transfer window at the club, City’s investment was limited. They spent £7.2 million on winger Adam Johnson from Middlesbrough, who has since played for Sunderland before his arrest in 2015.
Experienced campaigner Patrick Vieira joined the club, having previously worked under Mancini at Inter Milan. At 33, although his influence on the pitch had diminished from his dominant midfield performances at Arsenal in the early 2000s, his impact on the dressing room and culture at the club shouldn’t be understated. City were improving all the time and getting a taste for winning. They ended the 2009/10 season fifth in the Premier League and League Cup semi-finalists.
This improvement was a sign of things to come. In 2011, three years after the Abu Dhabi United Group takeover, City would win their first ever Premier League title; made even sweeter by the fact a last minute Sergio Aguero goal snatched the title from under the noses of their biggest rivals, Manchester United. Fast forward to 2021 and City have just wrapped up their fifth Premier League title and are eyeing their maiden Champions League trophy, heading into the final against Chelsea as favourites, despite their recent struggles against Thomas Tuchel’s side.
There is no doubt that money has been a huge factor in City’s rise, however there has been a lot of thought and strategy behind the spending. The early transfer windows under the Mansour regime allowed City to enjoy the success they do today with players who were key to the development of City; from a club with money to serial winners. The likes of Zabaleta, Kompany, Barry, and de Jong were all signed in those first four transfer windows and have all played a huge part in implementing a culture of success at a previously relatively mediocre club. In the windows that followed the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva, and Yaya Toure all joined and took City to dizzy new heights, each leaving a huge mark on the club. However, without the early work of the players mentioned in this article they may well have never enjoyed the success they did at City.