Dimitri Seluk is right about one thing, and perhaps only one thing. Pep Guardiola is the king of Manchester at the moment, operating from a position of strength.
So if Yaya Touré’s agent sees the treatment of his client as a declaration of war, and prefers to fight back rather than make the necessary conciliatory gestures that might see the sidelined Ivorian pull on a Manchester City shirt again, he must accept that his situation is strategically weak, bordering on hopeless. Guardiola is occupying the high ground.
The manager was the one who commenced hostilities, for a start, replying to an innocent question about Touré’s availability for an EFL Cup match with a devastating critique of Seluk and his impertinence. City have been troubled by Seluk’s attitude for years, but one reason why the agent appears so fond of Manuel Pellegrini is that the previous manager could never quite gather enough support or control to do anything about it.
Seluk portrays Pellegrini as a victim, when in fact City were treading water under his management in the final couple of seasons and everyone knew it. Rather than ruthlessly casting him on to the scrapheap and talking to Guardiola behind his back, which appears to be the impression in Seluk’s parallel universe, City were actually quite generous to the Chilean. A truly ruthless club would have parted with Pellegrini after his trophyless second season; instead they ended talk of a dead man walking by awarding him a contract extension. No one was in any doubt that Guardiola would walk in as soon as he was free of his Bayern Munich obligations – that had always been the long-term plan.
Pellegrini was occasionally placed in awkward situations because everyone knew he was only keeping the seat warm, but he was hardly stabbed in the back and it is specious of Seluk to suggest otherwise. In the end Pellegrini was given a generous three years to make a case for his retention at the club – admittedly he would have had to achieve something astounding to deflect City from their pursuit of Guardiola – and most people apart from a Ukrainian agent with an axe to grind recognise he fell somewhat short of the mark.
Touré, on the other hand, can be seen as a victim. He has been frozen out, has played only one game this season and has now arrived at a diplomatic impasse. It is easy to say his limbo will be a fairly comfortable one on around £225,000 per week, though at 33 he will want to play and as his contract is up at the end of the season his agent probably needs him to play. So instead of escalating the argument – Seluk has just claimed Guardiola needs to try managing a club such as Sunderland before he can consider himself a top manager – it might be an idea for the Touré camp to calm down and confront the reality that this particular ace has been trumped.
Had Guardiola simply regarded Touré as a bolshy dressing-room character that he would be better off without, as Seluk suggests, he would most likely have been bundled out the door with Joe Hart. It was always going to be interesting to discover how Guardiola would renew his relationship with a player he first dealt with at Barcelona, but initially at least the club seemed prepared to keep the door open. Touré was assured he would have a role to play, though possibly not one that involved a game every week.
Does that count as humiliation? It depends on how entitled you feel. Even towards the end of Pellegrini’s reign there were clear signs that Touré no longer held the influence he once did, and given his age and contractual situation he has to be realistic about his first-team chances at a major club, which is what City have just become. City the wannabe club might have worn the Ivorian for a little longer, but City with Guardiola at the helm are a different proposition, as their eight wins from the first eight games of the season have shown. City this season no longer miss Sergio Agüero when he is unavailable, never mind Touré.
Guardiola has brought in Ilkay Gündogan to notable effect, stiffening and adding creativity to a midfield that already includes Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and a rejuvenated Raheem Sterling, and the upshot has been that Touré’s absence has gone unnoticed. The team has moved on. No one has been wondering when Touré will be back, much less clamouring for his return. This happens in top-level football, even to players originally brought in for their stature and experience. Rather than fretting about Touré’s place in the scheme of things this season, most City supporters have been trying to work out where on earth Leroy Sané and, ultimately, Gabriel Jesus, are going to fit in
Even in the unlikely event of Seluk and his player making a public apology to Guardiola on the steps of Manchester Town Hall it seems doubtful that Touré would get more than a handful of minor games in his final campaign, so the possibility exists that these noises off will continue for the rest of the season. Undignified, of course, but Guardiola has made his position clear and, though Seluk might not notice it from his continental base, the Spaniard’s demand for more respect has attracted widespread support. Partly because Seluk is perceived to have overstepped the mark on previous occasions, partly because Guardiola has so clearly moved City forward.
A mere five games into the Premier League season and the eagerly anticipated power struggle between the two Manchester clubs is already looking like a mismatch. Guardiola can do no wrong, whereas José Mourinho appears to be wilfully making every mistake in the book, blaming his players, criticising individuals and making promises to Wayne Rooney that he subsequently finds difficult to keep. Those of us who suggested Manchester United might win the title did so because Mourinho is a proven winner in England, whereas Guardiola might struggle with the enormity of the task at City in his first season in a new country. So far, it has not worked out that way. Mourinho is already looking as short of ideas and inspiration as he did at Chelsea last year, while Guardiola sails serenely on, the notion of City turning themselves into a new version of Barcelona no longer an idle fantasy.
Guardiola is even winning the public relations war. Before picking a fight with Touré’s agent he cheekily dismissed United as a long-ball team with the choice observation that Bournemouth were the best side City had played all season. That might soon change – Barcelona crop up next month – but whereas last season that prospect would have terrified City, now they appear to be up for any challenge. Not even Touré and Seluk could disagree, though don’t bank on it.
The Guardian Service