Franchise City eye global domination
Ten thousand miles from the Etihad Stadium, Warren Joyce, Melbourne City's manager, is trying to win matches in style, playing the beautiful football that is a mantra of City Football Group, the umbrella company that owns Manchester City and Melbourne City. "We are striving to be perfect," he says.
Every week, Joyce, the former Manchester United reserve team manager and Wigan boss, has a conference call with some of Manchester City's leading figures, including Brian Marwood, CFG's managing director of global football, Pedro Marques, the group's global lead of football performance, and Gavin Fleig, their global lead for talent management. They discuss "everything, from day-to-day stuff to the kids, the current team, whatever problems might crop up, and incoming transfers", Joyce explains.
The day after Manchester City were confirmed as the Premier League champions, Marwood and Fleig landed in Melbourne to watch the club in an A-League play-off.
Manchester City's ambitions stretch further than merely to dominate in England and in the Champions League. They intend to build a unique sporting dynasty which marries clubs throughout the world. So far CFG have stakes in, or outright control of, New York City, Yokohama F Marinos in Japan, Girona in Spain, Club Atlético Torque in Uruguay and Melbourne City. Clubs in China and India could be next.
It is a project unprecedented in its scale. European giants targeting foreign markets is nothing new; having a network of interconnected clubs in different continents is.
"Man City is not in a position to play in China, the US or Australia every week, so establishing and maintaining a franchise in such countries enables a constant market presence," explains Simon Chadwick from Salford Business School. He likens CFG's franchising to McDonald's: the bigger the group, the more the individual parts can help each other with co-branding opportunities and intelligence sharing. Like McDonald's stores around the world, each CFG team subtly promotes the others. Most importantly, CFG believes each club can also help each other on the pitch, and that the cross-continental scale of their operation will give them advantages.
Since being acquired by CFG in 2014, Melbourne City have been transformed. Previously Melbourne Heart, CFG rebranded their name and colours in accordance with Manchester City.
In the training ground's reception, on the wall is Sheikh Mansour's quote from his 2008 letter to Manchester City fans: "We are building a structure for the future, not just a team of all-stars." It also features at both Manchester City's and New York City's training ground too. CFG want anyone arriving to have a similar experience in all three centres. Here, as in Manchester and New York, there are also logos of the other CFG teams to show they are a family of clubs.
The facilities were gutted and refurbished in 2015. The changing room is a replica of the circular shape used at the Etihad Campus, originally suggested by Vincent Kompany, egalitarian and leaving nowhere for players to hide.
Yet the most significant part of CFG's involvement is the shared brains. Staff from CFG clubs are constantly visiting each other to observe, advise and learn.
Each training session is recorded, using the same smart camera system as in Manchester, and coded and uploaded to CFG's central database. From anywhere in the world, CFG's global football department can watch, analyse and provide feedback. The terminology used, both in training sessions and the coding of them, is identical between Melbourne and Manchester.
As with the style of football, the intention is to create continuity between clubs, allowing not only players - especially youngsters who find it so hard to get first-team minutes in Manchester - but also coaches, support staff and data analysts to move seamlessly between the different teams. "It feels very similar - the facilities, the medical staff, the coaching staff, the way everything's set up, the football style," observes Luke Brattan, a Manchester City player on loan at Melbourne City. "Obviously, it's at a smaller scale, but we want to try and replicate what Man City do."
Ferran Soriano, Manchester City's chief executive, makes several trips a year to the club. "These people, from our chairman down, are hands-on," says Scott Munn, Melbourne City's chief executive. He speaks to Simon Pearce, the club's vice-chairman who is based in Australia and is also on the executive committee of the CFG board, "every day", and chats to Khaldoon Al Mubarak, Manchester City's chairman, "ten times a year".
Twice a year, Munn and senior staff at all CFG clubs descend on Manchester. They discuss best practice, develop longer-term strategies - like how to engage millennials with shorter attention spans - and how to strengthen collaboration. Melbourne City and New York City work closely on how to grow in countries where football is far from being the dominant sport.
As part of CFG, Melbourne City have access to the group's player database, benchmarking the performance and potential of players against players going back decades. While Melbourne City decide who they sign, this tool enables the club to tap in to CFG's expertise. In 2015, CFG identified Bruno Fornaroli, scouted by the group in Uruguay, as a player who could thrive in Australia, despite struggling in Europe. Fornaroli scored 48 goals in his first two seasons.
The relationship also brings challenges. Melbourne City are at a far lower level than Manchester City, rated equivalent to a good League One team, and, in a league with a strict salary cap, are unable to spend exorbitant amounts. Players can aspire to the Pep Guardiola way of playing, but most are incapable of doing so.
The ideal of attractive football may not always align with what maximises Melbourne's chances in a particular game, though Joyce denies there is any conflict. "I'd never line up to play a negative game anyway." More broadly, Chadwick believes there is a risk of CFG spreading their expertise too thinly, and one underperforming club undermining the image of the others.
"We're our own club, we're not mini-Manchester," Munn says. "We are part of a global organisation that brings incredible benefit, but we operate locally. City Football Group have never said to us 'this is what you must do in Australia to be successful'. They've always said 'this is what we do in Manchester. This is what we do in New York - if you think it will work in Australia, please try it. And if it doesn't work, try something else'."
Melbourne don't sell Manchester City merchandise in their stadium, to avoid alienating fans of other English teams. But the cross-promotion of teams is driving increased support for other CFG teams. When Melbourne Heart were bought, virtually none of their fans followed a Major League Soccer team. Now, Melbourne City say 17 per cent of their fans support New York City in the MLS.
As well as win trophies - the men's team won Australia's domestic cup last year, and finished third in this season's A-League, their highest in a regular season; the women's team, formed in 2015, have been W-League champions four years in a row - Melbourne City also aim to be self-sustaining within five years.
For CFG, the Melbourne project may have almost paid for itself already. In 2014, Melbourne City signed Australian midfielder Aaron Mooy on a free transfer. Marwood subsequently identified him as a player who could excel in England. Mooy was signed by Manchester City, and loaned to Huddersfield, who eventually bought Mooy for £10 m - more than the £6m CFG reportedly paid to acquire Melbourne. Since CFG acquired Melbourne City, the club's annual turnover has trebled.
Yet for Sheikh Mansour, whose estimated personal wealth is $20bn, the real prize is using each club to promote each other and helping all of them win.
After FIFA approved the use of wearable player tracking systems in 2015, a Melbourne City delegation went to Manchester to show how the technology, long a staple of Australian sports, could be best used. "It was quite humbling," Munn says. Joyce has been scouring Aussie rules for insights that might then be incorporated into the club - and, if they work, then taken to the rest of CFG.
Football writer Simon Kuper suggests Western Europe's football domination is because the region is so well connected, enabling ideas to travel. CFG's idea is of a global football network, allowing for experimentation and the incorporation of the best ideas from football and beyond, to the benefit of all clubs in the group.
And so Melbourne City are not just at the heart of a pioneering concept. They are also a harbinger of football's future, ever-more dominated by institutions unconfined by countries or continents.