Competing for four trophies starts to take its toll on City. As they play against lower division clubs in the FA and Carabao Cups, aggressive tackling proves particularly painful. Alongside a growing list of injuries, they pursue a big, last-minute signing and renew contracts with stars De Bruyne, Otamendi and Fernandinho. — Amazon Prime
Looking down on the Etihad Campus, the fourth episode of Amazon Prime’s ‘All or Nothing: Manchester City’ begins as it intends to go on — offering perspective. As it’s title implies, ‘War of Attrition’ focuses on City as they attempt to get down to business, grinding out games and navigating crunch fixtures in their pursuit of success. Yet similarly, it is likewise implicit that the following hour will see City themselves suffer from the mounting pressures that accompany the ever-increasing demands of playing at football’s highest level.
‘War of Attrition’ is an episode that thoroughly relishes in documenting the turbulence and tensions that follow a war on all possible fronts for trophies. Whatever the final result may have been, the episode immediately capitalises on what many other sports documentaries are otherwise unable to — having it take place within the English football league. When compared to Amazon’s other ‘All or Nothing’ series, the brutality of England’s competitive top-flight and punishing fixture list are a place themselves a cut above the both linear and comparatively insular campaigns seen prior from the likes of American football, baseball, or international rugby union. Even when regarded against other footballing documentaries such as Netflix’s ‘First Team: Juventus’, the universal competitiveness and consequent madness of the English game naturally elevates itself above other leagues that comparatively find themselves lacking in drama.
As such, the televisual rewards were always bound to be outweigh any sporting failures that may have manifested. It just so happens that when capturing a season so dominant domestically, that same capacity for failure adds an essential sacrifice to potentially further emphasise City’s ultimate success. Consequently, the miniature premise of ‘War of Attrition’ entails that something will have to give sooner or later; a group of players can only go so long before the persisting pressures of heavyweight competition become visceral tensions that threaten to destabilise even the greatest of teams.
Regardless of our emotions as City fans, it ultimately makes for cracking television. Credit then to Amazon, who of course were aware of these factors when agreeing to the £10 million deal with City in 2017. Though it may have seemed a gamble at the time, it is by these dividends that we are able to see the impacts that City’s efforts might have upon psychology and personnel, as the cogs of Manchester’s big blue football machine turn on for the world to see.
Now as ‘All or Nothing’ nears it’s mid-way point, viewers could not be blamed for wondering just where the highs and lows of City’s 2017/18 season would fall in Amazon’s docuseries. For if the preceding episodes have taught us anything, it is that thought the football may have been scintillating, the true drama lies away from the field of play. Unless coming into the series completely unaware, it is likely that many viewers will have boasted a general knowledge of City’s exploits, perhaps even a cursory awareness of their downfalls, such was the general dominance of their season otherwise. To that end, it is striking how even the most seminal moments of the season can nonetheless become amplified with as much as a single camera in the most unlikely place.
Take, for instance, the announcement of the UEFA Champions League draw that kicks off the episode. Most notable is not the anticipation of Europe’s most powerful sides, or a desire to preempt any tactically challenging opponents, it is a bet amongst players and staff as to who City will face in the round of 16. Out come Basel. The winner is not rewarded with any congratulation of astute tactical foresight, but an early Christmas present. Cheers erupt. Who else could it be but club kitman and unlikely series star Brandon Ashton?
In that moment, shouts and laughs echoing around the lecture theatre, you could think City had won the entire Champions League tournament. Instead, they relish the smaller victories; the results on the pitch may be hard-fought but the onus remains upon enjoyment. City’s celebrations might have provided Basel with further fuel had they been privy to the frivolity at the Etihad at the time, but viewers are left to savour the emotion that lingers in the Blues’s camp.
A small slice of positivity amongst the slog of fixtures flooding City’s start to 2018, yet it hints toward a larger truth. The football has been exceptional. The results have been record breaking. Nevertheless, Pep Guardiola’s men will need to take every bit of help they are awarded if they wish to remain on top. Even the highest achievements need their fair share of fortune.
However, what ‘War of Attrition’ makes clear is that City were afforded no such luck, the episode landing it’s punches from the get-go. Particularly watching the documentary at a time when City’s hopes for the new season remain in their infancy, it is sobering to hear both Pep Guardiola and Lorenzo Buenaventura bemoan just how cruel the season can become in the inevitable throes of winter. Even after winning runs and decimating displays, the sheer enormity of a quadruple campaign can see 11 or 12 games played in 30 days, an effort bound to see results threaten to slip between the cracks.
Indeed, if these echoes of the past were not enough, present injury concerns only further accentuate the importance thus placed on City’s medical department. The superhuman feats performed by those such as Kevin De Bruyne unfortunately remain confined to very human physiology and as such, it is vital that modern medicine prevails where the modern footballer cannot. It is a marked subtlety that Amazon neither entertain rhetoric or subscribe to conspiracy surrounding the wonders that Doctor Ramon Cugat is able to perform from his clinic in Barcelona, for in a in a sporting era where fine margins can make the difference in that extra strike or further week on the sidelines, there is no engagement with perhaps an expected self-celebration from a series that remain a City media product.
Indeed, it is not uncommon for sport documentaries or films to demean themselves in appearing slave to PR departments, something ‘All or Nothing’ has been acquainted with in itself at times. Despite the repeating cameos of Cugat’s clinic though, there is no such fanfare surrounding his regular appearances. For as opposed to simply highlighting the elite services at their disposal, all those involved with recovery and rehabilitation at City are shown themselves to be victims to the punishing circumstances of the game.
A potentially season-ending challenge lands upon Leroy Sané’s shin. He escapes after instinctively preventing his foot from planting on the turf.
Kevin De Bruyne has already been lucky to avoid serious injury having been scythed down on New Year’s Eve. In a bizarre twist of fate though, his aggressor Jason Puncheon ultimately came off the worse.
Yet when Cugat stands above Gabriel Jesus, injured on the same day as De Bruyne, he can only ask: “Did you hear a crack?” After a dismayed response, the answers become crystal clear. Sometimes you will just land awkwardly. Sometimes the referees cannot protect the players. Sometimes fate has the final say.
It is in such a manner that the inherent drama of the January transfer window is allowed to escalate to new heights under this new context of City versus the inevitable. It’s a credit to how documenting the constantly changing landscape of modern football allows for details once lost behind a stream of notifications and headlines to come to the fore once more. Even within its own diegesis, ‘All or Nothing’ follows a chronological approach that must still progress episode to episode. To that effect, placing a somber procession of shots detailing the extent of City’s injury list in the immediate prelude to the transfer window opening lends a greater gravity to City’s situation than fans would previously been unable to appreciate at any one time. With Jesus, Sané, Foden, Delph, Kompany and Mendy all on the sidelines, desperate times call for desperate measures if City are to stay in the hunt for trophies.
One aspect of football’s innately captivating formula that Amazon had so far failed to include had been the volatile politics of the transfer market. Whether due to a later production schedule or simple editorial preference, City’s significant influx of players from the 2017 summer window was not dwelled upon, somewhat negating the impact that the arrivals of transformative players such as Mendy, Walker and Ederson had on the DNA of Guardiola’s side.
With such as swathe of talent left unable to feature in January however, attentions are finally able to turn to the accompany transfer window, and all the negations that it may bring.
The more generalised coverage is left to cover the sore subject of Alexis Sanchez, who eventually opted for the red side of Manchester over blue. It is interesting to note, as before with Van Dijk, ‘missed’ transfer opportunities do not provide any insight into City’s ambitions or more specific plans as to why that player may have been on interest. Indeed, nor are they able to, with the ominous figure of Khaldoon Al Mubarak returning once more to preemptively preserve the club’s integrity. One might wonder if Amazon’s ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach that some viewers might have anticipated is precisely what may have stifled more investigative or enlightening filmmaking in this case, the present focus unwilling to reveal the secrets of the past, or more pertinently, possible revelations of the future.
Present and future do collide though when City pursue a top standard centre back who can ease both current injury concerns and the solidity of future defensive partnerships. As opposed to the surface level coverage of Sanchez, the pursuit of defensive options is laden with time stamps, international phone calls and suited negotiations in scenes more reminiscent of Mission Impossible than a corporate promotional video.
Indeed, following City’s Chief Operating Officer Omar Berrada’s journey to Madrid delivers on the high-level access fans were promised leading into the documentary. Discussions over banking politics together with champagne runway greetings, a new dimension is granted to the footballing transfers usually observed from the margins of the gossip column.
For in landing Aymeric Laporte from Athletic Bilbao, City emerge successful. Another centre back will call the Etihad his home, and any disgruntlement over a lack of acquisitions can be laid to rest. Or at least, eventually. Though a regular feature for City through her camerawork, club photographer Victoria Haydn makes her debut to remind us that the transfer drama in fact extends beyond contracts and finances as she herself documents Laporte’s arrival from behind her lens. The ironies aside of documenting those who themselves typically document the club, brief interactions with Haydn bring the same sense of honesty as with Brandon Ashton before her. Following Haydn, we see just what groundwork precedes the big money announcements that have come to both typify City’s transfers and the modern football market, with contract shots and fashion shoots all being accounted for the ensure that players can be marketed as well as possible. Whether photographers, kit men or laundry ladies, the accounts of those who knit Manchester City together area subtlety that ensure Amazon never trail off into boardroom perspectives for long.
There is sincerity here concerning the subject of image; with a football series so concerned with projecting a positive representation of the club, it is humbling to see how much effort is already directed at imbuing Manchester City with every ounce of class that fans were promised those fateful ten years ago. It almost precedes the question to know that other clubs and fans will be more critical of City and their nefarious schemes to beguile fans into thinking they are a ‘top club’. Yet surely having a decade of dining at the high table of football, the professionalism and poise we continue to see is no longer some facade, but rather part and parcel of a club executing its once lofty ambitions. They should be able to document it with pride.
It is principally for this reason that ‘All or Nothing’ finds its footing once more in the figure of Pep Guardiola. I’m sure Blues will have been pinching themselves a number of times throughout the documentary, just to check that former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager had not found himself in City blue by mistake. In the tenth season since the Abu Dhabi United group takeover, it is poetic that the ascension through the ranks of club football be crystallised in film with the most glorious season in Manchester City history, led by one of the world’s best managers.
To observe the wealth of marketing for ‘All or Nothing’ in the weeks surrounding its release, Guardiola is positioned much akin to how he is perceived by the majority of the footballing world — a serial winner burned with immense genius. It’s not like the Catalan doesn’t live up to the hype either, his passioned speeches and team talks within the documentary being so motivational they’ve earned prestigious comparisons to David Brent.
What ‘War of Attrition’ serves to highlight though, is that Guardiola’s importance to City is not encapsulated in the thumping scorelines or the trophies won. It is the honesty and the commitment he gives consistently, in hopes his passion will be reciprocated on the field. There is no better proof of this than there is to be found within ‘All or Nothing’. When following a uncharacteristic draw away at Burnley, Amazon showcase what could be regarded as their crown jewel thus far, as Guardiola shares a private conversation with assistant coach Mikel Arteta about Raheem Sterling. You know the one we’re talking about.
On that day just to the north of Manchester, Sterling had seemed to uncharacteristically conform to public stereotype about his scoring ability, despite having netted 14 Premier League goals up to that point. Guardiola, speaking a few days after the fact, regales Arteta with how he interacted with Sterling following the miss. Crucially, they are both honest with one other; Guardiola admits he substituted Sterling as a result of his miss, whilst Sterling claims total responsibility, and vows to do better.
It’s this drive and understanding that builds success, and illustrates the fundamentals of Guardiola’s football. In spite of human fallibility and the pressures that come with the game, there is always a chance to do better, driven by the constant commitment to do so. Current murmurings about Leroy Sané seem like they find validity in these interactions, for Sterling has surely improved drastically from this commitment to his manager’s philosophy. Just as with the injured players too, there is a fundamental drive to win and to thrive and to improve in any way possible. Time will surely tell if Sané can say the same.
Sooner or later however, the time will come for that drive to emerge, for the players to be able to call upon their energy and experience to get results over the line. Of course, there is no stage more vital than in cup competitions, the cut-throat process of elimination leaving no excuses for a lack of desire. Despite their earlier relief begetting an apparent lack of importance, City’s first Round of 16 tie against Basel in the Champions League fulfils all the quotas of a side looking to assert their drive to beat everything before them, trouncing the Swiss side 4-0 as they dominated from the first minute to the last
However, the mentality of champions requires a preparation for any test, and an ability to exercise a superior quality from one fixture to the next. Perhaps of all sides, Manchester City are the most familiar with the unexpected and the inconsistent, though maybe it’s not as typical as it once was. Nevertheless, if ever there was an opportunity to lay down a marker and banish old ghosts, then the words “FA Cup” and “Wigan” might have indicated that a test was on the cards. Amazon make sure to remind us of that painful 2013 final, where Ben Watson snatched the cup from the Blues in the 91st minute. Though only Vincent Kompany and Sergio Agüero remain from the losing side that day, the incentive remained nonetheless — beat the side two leagues below you, take one step closer to winning another title.
Fabian Delph, back to full fitness, delivers the rousing cry. “C’mon boys! Fucking aggressive, eh?”
Dear, oh dear.
Surely, the appropriate intensity is there. There’s no thought but to get the ball and go again. Maybe that was the mistake, as it was Delph came to see red just on the eve of half time.
The chaos that follows in the tunnel and into the dressing room is a situation that was perhaps unfamiliar to the squad on the performances of last season. Yes, they had struggled before, but the controversy of Delph’s dismissal brought a disorder and disharmony completely unlike anything before. Passion always holds the potential to go awry if not tempered, and fittingly, it takes Guardiola’s energy, masked in a fit of brief rage, to command the dressing room.
“Sit down! Nobody talk! Sit down! Wait, drink water, relax!” With those words, silence. The players that had come to look like juggernauts were reduced to schoolboys in that moment, scolded by their teacher for a lack of maturity.
Try as they might to fight back with ten men, a lapse in concentration from Kyle Walker leaves City out of the FA Cup. Sitting in disarray, the team look a far sight from those who had been incapable of doing anything but winning merely two months prior. Unlike against Liverpool, this was no question of self-doubt or lack of self-belief. Instead, it becomes self-evaluation. The inexperience of Guardiola’s team has been exposed, and there is no other action to take but to consider what can be done to improve. For all their exciting goals and expansive football, their solidity and unity as a team has been thoroughly put into question.
Again, what Guardiola has brought to Manchester City has not been the promise of trophies, but the desire to improve. It’s easy to lose sight of it in the shine of all his silverware, but no man in the City dressing room has more experience than the Catalan in digging deep and grinding out results to ensure victory.
His words breathe experience. “There are moments. Okay, it’s 12 minutes left, 11 minutes left, 10 minutes left… to finish the game. Okay, we do not score a goal, but we don’t concede a goal guys. […] That’s why we’re out.”
Equally, he reminds us how close City were. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the path was clear to tasting a still-unachieved English domestic treble.
“Now it’s time to cry a little bit”.
The Manchester City flag comes down from the dressing room wall. With it, the aura of being untouchable truly subsides. These are the experiences that will ultimately inform the team as they mature together, just as they have informed us over the past episode. We’ve seen what happens when you peak to see what lies behind the curtain at Manchester City. Now we’ll have to wait and see what happens after someone has truly made them bleed.