Waxing On: The Great Failure of Manchester City

True story: Ever since I was little, I’ve rooted against Daniel LaRusso in the All-Valley Karate Championship.

There is no mercy in Roberto Mancini's dojo.

I didn’t understand this when I was nine and watching The Karate Kid on TV. Something just felt off to me about the whole thing. It didn’t seem right that Daniel-san would win.

I certainly wasn’t rooting for the Cobra Kai, one of the all-time great villainous movie groups, right up there with SPECTRE and the Nazis. And it wasn’t a problem with the filmmaking or the execution. “You’re the Best” is a top-five 80’s movie montage, no question.

Only recently have I figured out the problem. For all these years, I’ve been rooting for the other guy. Not Billy Zabka or Ralph Macchio. Certainly not Bobby Brown, whose cheap shot jump kick to Daniel-san’s knee gets him disqualified in the semifinals. The other guy, Darryl Vidal, who Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence defeats in the semifinals before facing LaRusso.

From his brief appearances in the montage and his final fight with Lawrence, it’s quite clear that Vidal, played by an actor of the same name, is the most experienced fighter in the picture. His moves are more fluid, his transitions smoother between attack and defense, his repertoire broader. Of the four semifinalists, he’s the most aggressive. He looks like he would have destroyed Daniel-san.

Remember him? Probably not.

Instead, he loses to Lawrence, foiled by the other’s more conservative strategy, which dictated that the defending champion wait for Vidal to come to him and attack when he saw an opening. Lawrence, in turn, lost to the even more conservative LaRusso, whose whole tournament seems to hinge on parrying blows until his opponent makes a move that he can sidestep and follow with a jab or side kick to the kidneys.

LaRusso and Miyagi’s strategy makes perfect sense. They were exercising what in the soccer world the Italian journalist Gianni Brera called “the right of the weak,” something they had to do with someone as new to karate as Daniel-san. They played defensively, concentrating on blocks and dodges, trying to thwart their opponent’s game before they tried to play their own. And it worked. As the lesson is ingrained in us by our youth coaches and driven home by all the insufferable teams in sports, from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Duke basketball, defense wins championships.

But offense, as Darryl Vidal demonstrates, wins fans, and that’s where Manchester City has gone all wrong.

For most fans, the knee-jerk reaction is to root against teams that attempt to buy championships. We have the usual suspects here: the Yankees, the Red Sox — once it became apparent they were becoming the Yankees — the Miami Heat to an extent, Chelsea, Real Madrid. It seems embedded in our sports fan DNA that these are the bad guys, that anyone else is the underdog, that the world would be purer and that somewhere men would still be laughing and somewhere children still shouting if only they would fail spectacularly each and every year.

For many, City added their name to that list in 2008 with their takeover by the ADUG. They certainly did shortly after that, when they started throwing money around like parents who have just had twins graduate from NYU at any player with a left foot and a pulse. They were the new evil; suddenly even Chelsea seemed like old money. In fact only Chelsea has spent more than City in the period between 2003 and 2011, but the numbers are quite close considering Chelsea have had several more years of high priced buying than their lighter-blue counterparts.

Tonight the part of the Abu Dhabi United Group will be played by...

But there’s a problem with this conception: There simply is no other way to compete in global or even English soccer. All the best teams spend obscene amounts of money, from Barcelona to Bayern Munich. Those who can’t hit ceilings. There’s no difference between the nouveau rich and the traditionally wealthy. City spends the same cash as United, theirs is just crisper and still has that new money smell.

City’s great failure was compounding that error by turning themselves into the Daniel LaRusso of the Premier League. This is, I admit, not a timely critique of a team that has scored 15 goals in just four games this season so far. But it’s still applicable, because their identity is already set. The shower of sparks Sergio Aguero is providing is too little, too late.

Last year City painted fence and house well enough to allow just 33 goals, joint best in the league. They scored 60, which on the one hand is the fourth-best in the EPL, and on the other is just five more than relegated Blackpool netted. The year before, they put in 73, but winners Chelsea scored 103.

They won six games last year 1-0 and lost two more by the same scoreline. They also lost four games 2-1, and played through the same number of scoreless draws. And more frustrating than the results were the tactics. A three-man midfield of Barry, Toure and De Jong packs as much offensive punch as an episode of Sesame Street. They could have done anything, and instead played a formation best used by the Italian national team, only with the deep-lying playmaker replaced with Gareth Barry.

'I'm all alone/There's no one here, beside me.'

And that’s the problem: They really could have done anything! They were a fantasy team; they were playing with Monopoly money, but their offensive gameplan for more than a year consisted of choosing three offensively gifted players and throwing them somewhere near the opponent’s goal, or as it’s also known, giving Carlos Tevez the ball and waiting for something to happen.

When I want to mess around in Football Manager, I start a game as Manchester City. I’ve modernized the Danubian Whirl with Tevez, Silva, Luis Suarez and Alexis Sanchez changing positions across the front lines. I’ve reinvented the WM as a 3-7-0, with two defensive two box to box and three attacking midfielders. I’ve tried my damnedest to get Lionel Messi to sign a contract with me, paying the Barcelona board as much as $400 million for the transfer, as if he were the Pearl of Great Price.

Roberto Mancini is clearly a “defense wins championships” kind of guy. That’s what he stressed as the team was becoming competitive: a solid foundation, like Mr. Miyagi did with Daniel LaRusso. But unlike Ralph Macchio, Manchester City has no right of the weak. They’re the opposite of that, and by invoking that commitment to defense first, they provided another reason to hate them. More than Ralph Macchio, they’re Johnny Lawrence.

Imagine if City had set out from the get-go to create a dominant offense, a team whose first objective is to keep moving forward. Imagine if they had bought players to fit into an offensive system rather than just to garnish their seven-man backline. The resentment of their spending would still be there, but they would have been able to win over a lot of new, neutral fans, presenting themselves as an alternative to Barcelona, perhaps not in style but in results. They could have strove from the beginning to be the best around, instead they chose to be the strongest of the weak.

For Manchester City, winning championships will eventually be easy. The only people who can possibly stop them are Sir Alex Ferguson and his young buck United side and Michael Platini and his Fair Play rules, and even they can’t hold out forever.

Winning over fans, however, may prove impossible.

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