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Sunday, May 19, 2024

What Omar Berrada’s exit to Manchester United means for Manchester City

A comparison between club officials and footballers does not really work here because it is manager Pep Guardiola and the Manchester City players who are the biggest difference-makers and, to be frank, putting so much focus on off-pitch transfers is another step beyond the looking glass.

But let’s imagine, for the purposes of this article, that Manchester United hiring City executive Omar Berrada is a little like Ruben Dias moving to Old Trafford.

As with Berrada, centre-back Dias is very good at what he does and would be a loss to City, while having the potential to make a big impact at United in an area that needs strengthening.

But if Dias were to actually cross the divide in Manchester, would you expect the City team to stop functioning on the pitch without him? Of course not. They would just move some pieces around and carry on, no matter how bothersome it would be to see an undoubtedly quality operator leave.

City fans have had enough of thinking about some of their top men joining United for this decade and there is little chance of Dias opting for such a vastly different footballing challenge, so with the point being made, let us leave the Portuguese defender out of this as much as possible.

Berrada’s appointment is an impressive one from United’s point of view. It is difficult to deny that. He brings a wealth of experience in several different areas of running a football club that makes him, essentially, a cross between a sporting director and a chief executive.

The news of his move also came as a genuine surprise, with very, very few City employees (nor United ones for that matter) having any idea this was in the offing.

That all makes for a very good story which is of interest to a lot of people and, again, it is not ideal for City by any means. But if it is a huge coup for United (those in the game believe this is the first top-level signing they have made off the pitch in years), the size of the blow is not equal on the other side of town.

City can simply move on.

You may have heard noises on Saturday evening, after The Athletic broke the story, that City are both calm and relaxed about the situation, which sounds like what people say when a potential big-money signing changes his mind at the last minute, leaving plans in tatters.

It is true, though. Berrada was both incredibly popular and influential at City but, like Dias, he was not the only guy pulling things together and, just as when City lose a player to injury or to another club, there are structures in place for them to move on as quickly as possible.

On the pitch, Guardiola is capable of making a seemingly endless number of tweaks to cover for almost any absence or combination of absences. Off the pitch at City, it is a similar story.

The reason United have gone for Berrada is not just because of who he is and what he brings but also because of where he is going to be coming from. It is commonly accepted that United’s structure as a club has been holding them back for years, with a lack of clarity over people’s roles and few specialists in key positions.

This is exactly what City have, not just in individuals like Txiki Begiristain as their director of football and Ferran Soriano as CEO (and indeed Berrada as a bit of both as the chief football operations officer), but in the way they have less visible expertise in place which can try to ensure any departures are quickly covered for.

In the same way workplaces will test their fire evacuation plans regularly to help them act quickly and correctly if a real emergency happens, City try to have plans in place in the event any key member of their operation leaves. In this case, the strengths of Berrada’s colleagues have long since been assessed and so, in his absence, others (the few who knew this was happening) were quickly drafted in to share his responsibilities until a replacement can be found.

Of course, there is still some degree of importance attached to that replacement because Berrada had pretty much risen to the level of Begiristain and could easily have been the choice to succeed him whenever he leaves. Due to his commercial background, he could feasibly have followed Soriano as chief executive, too.

And that throws the spotlight on what happens when those big hitters do leave, which is made infinitely more important because those conversations always go hand in hand with the real big question around the club (OK, the other one): what happens when Guardiola leaves?

In the same way City literally and figuratively test their fire alarms, there are those at the club who are open-minded regarding the idea of Guardiola leaving at the end of this season. That is not because there is any genuine expectation of it happening. It is because, quite simply, nobody at the club knows what will happen. Not even Guardiola.

Replacing Guardiola will not be as simple as moving a couple of people around, not least because scores of staff will leave with him, but those conversations have to happen to at least ensure that the non-playing side of the business can continue as normal, just in case the news comes at short notice.

But while those discussions have to take place, there is also a feeling that if City were to be found guilty of the most serious of the alleged Premier League rule breaches and relegated to a lower division, the Catalan would sign a new deal purely out of defiance. He has said as much publicly, but key people at City believe it was more than public bluster in the aftermath of the charges being brought almost one year ago.

The club have worked hard to ensure that, for example, Begiristain will not leave at the same time as Guardiola, which would represent a real brain drain. Berrada would have been one to step into the breach immediately, if not full-time, and while roles could again be juggled, City would not want that going on while they were trying to bed in their new manager, with the almost inevitable challenges that would bring on the pitch.

The good news for City is that, right now at least, there is no sense whatsoever that Begiristain is about to leave as well. City may well be his final job in football. He might not stay too long after Guardiola eventually departs, but he is thought to be comfortable in his role and the club have been wide-eyed to the potential pitfalls of multiple departures at once and have worked hard to avoid that scenario.

That is why those comparisons between footballers and board members are not quite right for City: no matter how good their off-pitch structure is, it is Guardiola and his players who have put the club at the very top of world football.

It is possible to have a brilliant off-field setup and not see those rewards on the pitch — City had Begiristain, Soriano et al when Manuel Pellegrini was the manager and the squad still needed a huge overhaul when Guardiola arrived.

United need to put that kind of structure in place for starters and they have taken a step in the right direction with Berrada, but football being football, a club are only considered truly strong according to performances out on the grass and City have the closest thing to a guarantee of that as possible in Guardiola.

As long as he is there, they can withstand pretty much anything that happens off the pitch — even a potential relegation.

It would only be when Guardiola leaves that all the other stuff matters quite so much and while United can be pleased with their business, City can carry on as normal.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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