LONDON – To death and taxes as the only certainties in life can, for managers on Planet Football, be added a blunder in the transfer market that comes back to haunt them.
Jose Mourinho can claim enough shrewd business to be in credit: Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole and Diego Costa for Chelsea, Luka Modric and Raphael Varane for Real Madrid look good on his CV.
But the sale of Kevin De Bruyne to VfL Wolfsburg for £18 million in 2014, albeit at a £7 million profit from his arrival at Chelsea from Genk in January 2012, turned out to be a belated blessing for Manchester City. The Belgium international made just three appearances for Chelsea under Mourinho before he decided the player did not meet his requirements and off-loaded him to Werder Bremen on loan.
De Bruyne was 21 when he signed for Chelsea, having helped Genk win the Belgian Pro League and Cup, so hardly a rookie. “He was not ready to compete,” said Mourinho about selling the midfielder. “He was an upset kid training very bad. He needs motivation to train well by playing every game. If you have a player knocking on your door and crying every day and he wants to leave, you have to make a decision.”
The self-styled Special One made his decision and in one season with Werder De Bruyne scored a respectable 10 goals in 33 matches. After helping Wolfsburg win the German Cup, in August 2015 City paid £55 million for De Bruyne, offering him “an astonishing wage,” according to Klaus Allofs, the German club’s sporting director. It has proved to be a bargain.
Two years later de Bruyne, under the coaching and management of Pep Guardiola, Mourinho’s nemesis in La Liga, is by general consent, the most talented player in the Premier League, a million miles from the earlier enfant terrible accusations by the Portuguese. His range of passing and ability to read his teammates’ movements make radar seen obsolete. At times he not only seems on a different level and wavelength to everyone else, but playing a different game. De Bruyne scores goals (usually great goals), makes them, has the stamina of a marathon runner, does his share of defensive duties and it is no wonder Guardiola calls him “the complete player.” And Guardiola knows a complete player when he sees one.
It is difficult to think of a more creative and effective midfield pairing that de Bruyne and David Silva, the heartbeat of Guardiola’s team that threatens not so much to break, but obliterate Premier League records. City has scored 29 goals in eight games, conceding just four. Only Everton has stopped City from winning in all competitions this season.
Today it is the turn of Burnley, punching above its weight in seventh place, to try to stop the seemingly unstoppables. City started last season like a runaway train, which lost its way a little. This time around the defense is stronger, while in his second season the Guardiola effect is more visible in attack where the Catalan has an enviable array of goal-scoring talent to choose from, to the extent that anything less than a three-goal victory is almost considered a disappointment.
F.A. playing it for laughs
It is rare that the football family is united, where everyone regardless of club allegiances speaks with one voice. The Football Association has managed to rally everyone together with its breathtakingly inept handling of Sampsongate.
Mark Sampson, former manager of the England women’s team, was accused by Eniola Aluko and Drew Spence of making racist remarks. An initial F.A. inquiry found Sampson innocent. A second inquiry, headed by the same black barrister — like the same jury deciding the outcome of a re-trial — came to the same conclusion. Sampson was then sacked, not for racism, but for inappropriate behavior with female players during his time at Bristol Academy before he joined the F.A. in 2013.
A third inquiry, also inexplicably headed by Newton, concluded Sampson was not racist, but did make “ill attempts at humor” on two occasions to Aluko and Spence. Inevitably, and correctly, football is unanimous in wanting F.A. chief executive Martin Glenn,chairman Greg Clarke, technical director Dan Ashworth and HR director Rachel Bracey to resign or be sacked.
When the quartet appeared before a parliamentary hearing this week it was an embarrassing and shameful exercise in buck-passing and, worst of all, a refusal to accept they had done anything wrong. While there were apologies for Sampson’s behavior, the F.A. four did not believe they were culpable, which meant those responsible for ensuring something like this never happens again would not acknowledge they had failed in any way.
Glenn, Clarke, Ashworth and Bracey must be considering their positions, but as Clarke told parliament that “I believe we have handled this with decency and openness”and dismissed accusations of institutional racism as “fluff” they seem unlikely to leave willingly.
They are the tip of an ignominious iceberg. The systemic cultural problem within the (dis)organization is deep-rooted in — don’t laugh — the guardians of English football. The F.A.’s DNA is basically of elderly white men, a gentlemen’s club, whose self-interest — free tickets and travel for England games — means change from within is unlikely. The government has no real control over the F.A.; the most it could do would be to stop the allowance it receives, but that is almost loose change compared to the income from television contracts so it would not be a financial factor.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.