City enter a defining week: a chance to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League and wrap up the Premier League – in record time – by winning against their Manchester rivals. However, Anfield proves difficult; Guardiola sees red mist. And the derby takes a shocking turn. Guardiola’s tactics are brought into question. Can his style of football succeed in England? — Amazon Prime
In this ongoing review series covering Amazon Prime’s ‘All or Nothing: Manchester City’, it has seemed impossible to go long without mentioning the incredible blend of fantasy and reality that is to be found within the work of the Barcelona-based production company MediaPro. Consistently, their production has walked the line between advertising delusions of Manchester City’s grandeur, to documenting a football club that truly seems to stand on the cusp of sporting greatness. A possible side-effect of covering a season that itself went almost beyond belief.
Nevertheless, the results so far have been an undoubtedly captivating portrayal of Manchester City Football Club. Narrated by the venerable Sir Ben Kingsley and captured with stunning cinematography, the cinematic professionalism of Amazon’s series has elevated the machinations of manager Pep Guardiola to be as enigmatic in principle as they are in practice, the secrets of his success laid bare as if capturing some sort of Catalonian genie in a bottle.
So far, this combination of secrecy and success has given ‘All or Nothing’ an odd aura of surrealism. Like we said, City’s season accelerated so swiftly and never really slowed down, leaving the production team with a hard task of managing expectations behind Guardiola’s men.
Indeed, besides a blip loss to Wigan, the season and the series have only become more and more dreamlike. When nothing seems to bother the champions-elect, their feats give them the appearance of an unstoppable force, able to take setbacks in their stride and continually find a way to rise to the challenge.
It’s for good measure then that the seventh episode, in which City must brave a gruelling Champions League quarter-final against Liverpool either side of a title-defining clash with arch rivals Manchester United, brings a sharp dose of honesty.
For all of Pep’s artistry and Amazon’s allure, football is not always a beautiful affair.
Try as it might to be objective in it’s filmmaking, it’s arguable that ‘All or Nothing’ has not yet struck Manchester City’s core. True, Amazon’s lucrative deal with the club has necessitated a certain degree of complimentary focus on the Citizens, but despite the poetic play and commanding scorelines, City’s ascendancy will forever remain fixed to the calibre of their opposition.
It’s a credit to Amazon to say that they recognise this. The fixture list may have demanded it, but this looming test of City’s mettle presents a very tangible opportunity to bring our expectations down to earth, and if it proves successful, appreciate the incredible standards of the Centurion’s season all the more.
As we and Amazon know however, success was not to be the outcome of those painful seven days. Instead, City’s sheen of superiority was cast aside, exposing the vulnerabilities that lay beneath. And true to that, the seventh episode of ‘All or Nothing’ follows in much a similar vein.
Glamorisation is left to the wayside — there’s no fancy camerawork or exultant script to open this one.
Instead, there is simply handheld phone footage. Screams. Smoke. Fire.
Just like that, City are not just brought back down to earth, they are dragged beneath the very turf upon which they play. It was a week where Guardiola’s men could have reached new heights, but ended up sinking further than thought possible.
By the angelic standards the team had set, the episode’s title could not be more accurate.
‘Welcome to Hell’.
Maybe we should have seen it coming. Manchester City, for all their silky play and lofty ambitions, had only lost one league game in the prelude to that week of early April 2018. As mentioned in our last review, when City were drawn against the victors of that fixture, Liverpool F.C, in the draw of the UEFA Champions League quarter finals, the reaction of club director of football Txiki Begiristain told us all we needed to know. The Spaniard’s jaded expression betrayed the scars of a team who have had their sights on Europe’s highest honour for some time now, yet had been cruelly drawn against the only team who had managed to sniff out their achilles heel.
Casting our minds back to that 4-3 loss at Anfield in January, a number of factors had played a part in City capitulating what was at that point a remarkable and record-breaking unbeaten league run. Injuries, crossbars and concentration were supplied as reasons to why the team lost that day, with justifications appearing to suggest City had become victim to those who knew best how to beat them. Themselves.
That is not to say that Liverpool do not possess the tools to punish City, which they most certainly do with the prolific front line of Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firminio. Nevertheless, ‘All or Nothing’ immediately raises what has since become a significant question — do the Blues have what it takes to keep their cool in the face of adversity?
Perhaps more than any, this is an episode that is designed to make you think. As has become trend in Amazon’s documentary series, there is little dwelling upon the actual footballing action (a fact City fans may take kindly in this circumstance given the manner of the Blues’ defeat). Instead, after that series of warm and peaceful greetings outside Anfield, the match is scanned over with context provided by an anonymous commentator, his words raising concerns of City’s strength as they do their best before that infamous Anfield atmosphere, where pre-match renditions of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ are said to strike fear into the hearts of men and make the most sturdy of opposition tremble before the Kop.
“It will be interesting to see that which of the City players not just survives, but thrives, in that atmosphere”, poses the unseen observer.
From that point on, those words sit with us as events play out on screen. As testament to Liverpool’s authority, they are unable to be dismissed; the ease by which Jurgen Klopp’s men dismantle the Citizens provides the perfect accompaniment to the newfound concerns that had threatened to be inconceivable, emphasised further still by the shellshocked expressions of City’s players as they leave the field.
Despite the minimal time given to the match itself, there is no danger of events being glossed over. Amazon simply know that their work is done for them, for in accordance with Guardiola’s obsessive personality, every single detail will be highlighted and dissected for our viewing pleasure before their all-access cameras.
These moments when we find ourselves within the bowels of the City Football Academy prove to be the crown jewel of most episodes. It’s then that we’re not just part of the audience for the series, but for the Catalan’s candour too.
With the level of humbling that the team suffered on Merseyside, you might expect another dose of crippling ‘honesty’ that followed the draw at Crystal Palace, or even worse, the rage that filled the half time dressing room at Wigan.
Ever the analyst though, Guardiola has already identified the issue, though it may sound to be sugared with compassion.
“I don’t want to see bad faces, guys. That’s all, okay?” Guardiola implores. “We’ve worked a lot during these 10 or 11 months to see bad faces in that moment.”
These ‘bad faces’ are precisely what the atmosphere at Anfield wrought upon City. Sure enough, the more familiar excuses are rolled out also, with Amazon’s interviews splicing in footage of and opinions on a number of incorrect refereeing decisions from that night, wherein any comments of City bias can be dismissed with the visibility of the errors. Nonetheless, all sentiments come accompanied with universal acknowledgment that it is the “small details” on part of both players and refereeing team that can be the difference on the biggest stage.
As true of all our commentary on ‘All or Nothing’ though, the genuine behind-the-scenes action often reveals to most authentic perspectives. For safe within the confines of his lecture theatre, Pep’s honesty is telling. The Catalan does not address the players as errant pupils or deceived students, but as fellow footballers.
“I was [a] football player. When that happens, you… knockout, and being stable is sometimes so complicated. I completely understand, but we have to try.”
No excuses are granted. No wrong decisions are blamed, nor is there intimidation either. Simply put, the atmosphere of Anfield was not to blame for City’s daze and confusion. Instead, it was the unfamiliar atmosphere of defeat. The episode has suitably included us in that enquiry though, which crucially allows us to come to the same conclusions we hope the players has landed upon also. For a team so used to being in control and on the front foot, being arrested of that authority was enough to leave the Blues all at sea, and without the experience to wrench back the wheel, they were left adrift in an ocean of red.
It is a prospect that those involved with Manchester City will certainly be familiar with. After all, despite recent years indicating a turning of the tides, red has historically been the prevailing colour when it comes to football in Manchester. Indeed, seeing red was just as commonly associated with the top of the table as it was being infuriated with another Richard Dunne defensive mishap.
This is where honesty might prove the most unpleasant, as next up comes the Manchester derby. An age-old battle of Manchester City versus Manchester United, two local rivals whose animosity is ingrained into the foundations of both clubs. Similarly ingrained however, is a relationship. One of dominance and submission. For more years than most City fans can remember, ‘honesty’ has been equivalent to a depressing truth — United have been the more dominant force, and there has been nothing we can do about it.
It’s principally for that reason that this year was to be special. All it took was a twist of fate and there it was. The biggest stage for City to get themselves back to winning ways, not simply by crowning themselves champions in front of their local rivals, but turning the tables on their greatest enemies.
Such have been the constraints of its production, ‘All or Nothing’ has rarely become involved in the rivalries that Manchester City shares in. As mentioned in prior pieces, budgetary and editorial guidelines have not allowed many matches to deviate from solely focusing on the club itself, much less indulge with rivals an in-depth coverage, whereby very few of the fixtures have given airtime to those not already involved at the Etihad Campus.
One of the only exceptions to this has been the Manchester derby. The reverse-fixture was a tense affair and showed Amazon really hint toward the club’s history as former “noisy neighbours” in the eyes of both local blues and reds, yet it was unfortunately also one of the only matches where the cameras were barred access.
However, with every luxury on home turf, the production is free to amp up the stakes from the off, as Guardiola utilises his Liverpool post-match analysis to stoke the fires within his City players.
The Catalan sets the stakes high: “The best way to try next Tuesday [in the Champions League] is to win the Premier League on Saturday. Invite your families please. Daughters, sons, grandfathers, grandmothers, to come to the stadium to [see us] win the Premier League.”
If this title is to be won, it is to be for the sake of those who have supported the team. Crucially though, Guardiola recognises it is not just for the player’s families, but the totality of those who stand behind the club, asking that the team go out there for “our people; our fans, our families at home, here.”
As the bluer citizens of Manchester recount their past woes and their expectant futures, what stands head and shoulders above the rest is a balance. A balance of new stories versus old history. Whether a heavy focus on Guardiola was in Amazon’s remit when they secured production rights from Manchester City is anybody’s guess, but it has been glaringly apparent within the duration of ‘All or Nothing’ that the aim was to portray City as an innovative, modern team that sits at the top table of club football.
To do this however has involved a certain separation from the underdog spirit that has typified the club for so many years, consequently raising questions of a divorce from the club culture that has been ingrained from before Pep Guardiola was even born. From a corporate perspective, you can understand the logic. In order to establish themselves amongst the footballing elite, City can no longer be seen with their ‘Typical’ aura. There is no room for near misses or nearly-men when the desire remains to literally become the best team in all the land and all the world. Yet it is evident that there must be some bridge, some catharsis, if that leap is to be made (just ask Pep about his ambitions to win the Champions League).
In fact, these ambitions are made clinically apparent when providing insight into boardroom discussions before the derby, with key members such as CEO Ferran Soriano and Head of Safety and Security, Steve McGrath, shown to be in calculated discussions as to how to best preserve the integrity of the pitch for City’s second leg UCL tie against Liverpool in the event of a title-winning pitch invasion.
It is a lucky position to be in when you can worry about whether to allow a celebratory pitch invasion at the expense of a possibly monumental European comeback. In that privileged narrative though, one thing is made clear. For all their wealth and recent success, City are still the underdogs. For all the wonder of a record-breaking Premier League season, the club are yet to enforce and adjust to making winning a near-certainty.
McGrath is the first to point out that pitch invasions are not so much of an issue over the way at Old Trafford. Of course, that is not because they don’t happen much any more, but the fact that as a club, Manchester United enjoyed a period of dominance where victory was made procedure. Yes, there is certainly enjoyment in triumph, but back at the Etihad, success is still relatively new. Victory must still become a practised routine, as players and fans alike are yet to transform hunger into habit. Hence, this is precisely why a title win over record title-holders Manchester United carried so much weight: until City can definitively stamp their authority, there is a sense they shall always be slave to history.
Fresh with this insight, ‘All or Nothing’ has successfully lured us in with that inspiring context of changing history. It might not be as dynamic as breaking records or lifting trophies, but the opportunity to solidify City’s status as the dominant force in Manchester leaves us more invested than ever before. It’s becoming an exhausted pun, so we won’t make it, but needless to say the series title once again feels pertinent. The derby looms large with everything on the line.
To hark back to our introduction though, there is a painful amount of familiarity with these proceedings. You can only give praise to Amazon for reeling us into the build-up once again, tender though we still may be. I would be surprised now though if a few non-City supporters didn’t empathise a bit too though, as the heartbreak does not emanate from the boardrooms or the management, but from seeing “our people”, the match-going fans, surge behind the players, only for an all-too-familiar tide to wash in as normal.
As was the fairytale dimension of City’s season, of course it had to start with Vincent Kompany, the team’s own adopted Mancunian, rising like the metaphorical will of the people to head home the opening goal. The rest of the half brings a sumptuous second goal, yet also a bucket load of missed chances. The prevailing impression is tantalising, with City now toying with their long-time tormentors.
When the whistle goes for half time and the players congregate before Guardiola in the dressing room, the Catalan says what everyone else is thinking — “It’s 45 minutes to be champions of the Premier League.”
Every fan in the stadium that day, every fan watching live on the television at home, and now every viewer watching this documentary, knew of the rewards. What those former two share in common however is a certain man by the name of Rick Sowers. The undisputed star of the episode, Sowers stands before the cameras at half time with misty eyes and a heart that bleeds blue. If public interviews are often known as vox pop or ‘voice of the people’, then Sowers is vox Manc, his words screaming blue as they long to burst free of the suppression all City fans have shared in under the thumb of their red rivals.
In that capacity, we might ponder upon what Sowers concludes. “If we beat United today, this…” he stutters, briefly unable to quantify his emotions. “… It tops it all,” he states. Perhaps with the exception of City’s more recent fans, the rosy-faced Mancunian emblematises a shared ideology that might explain some of the problems that have appeared in transferring league passion to European ambition.
Like a recurring nightmare however, the question returns, it’s shape changed and it’s sound from a different tongue. The pitch lays all answers bare; by the time United have pulled back three second half goals and brought the rain to City’s prospective parade, minds roll back to a certain sentence Guardiola had said at half time.
“How are we going to react when they score a goal like Liverpool against us.”
It’s an answer that screams through the silence when the Catalan stands before his players at full time, a justifiably more crestfallen figure than he was at the interval. The more and more we see City beset with setbacks, the more their soaring achievements appear to have been made on waxen wings.
Now in free fall, City players are flapping, beside themselves with how best to get back to the dizzying heights that had seemed to be within their grasp. In frustration, their debate turns to dispute, something Guardiola is quick to quell, but the emotions on display evidence that a truth has been unearthed.
As the team discern, heads that have dropped in defeat had in fact long preceded the walk back to the dressing room. The passionate responses are encouraging toward the spirit of the team, but to echo the Yorkshire eloquence of Fabian Delph, it sits in “the fucking basics of football” that in order to emerge victorious, City cannot freeze when all seems to go against them.
Unfortunately for Guardiola and co., events that follow make for an unavoidably flat affair, despite Amazon’s best efforts to raise our spirits. There can’t be any doubts that once we’ve been assured that “the best way to try [in the Champions League] is to win the Premier League on Saturday”, the failure to satisfy those demands leaves City’s assault on European quarter final qualification feel like a bit of a popped balloon.
Consequently, neither the revisiting of derby day decisions, insertion of feel-good interviews with players or the indulgence of Sky Sports promotion can make Liverpool’s arrival at the Etihad resemble anything but a foregone conclusion. It certainly doesn’t help that going into the match, Guardiola warns of an almost “perfect game” in order to progress to the latter stages of European competition.
You might level further missed refereeing decisions or Guardiola’s dismissal as adequate reasons to suggest City were a team wronged by attention-seeking officials or manipulative governing bodies, but at this point, Amazon’s attempts to foreground missed opportunities actually endanger the balance of honesty that has been pivotal to this episode. What with their editorial constraints and decisions to trim actual match coverage, ‘All or Nothing’ treads the line of verisimilitude precariously with every repeated viewing of a penalty claim or an offside decision. Perhaps that’s coming from a disheartened City fan who has seen those chances more times than he’d like, but the scales feel unbalanced when the documentary’s viewers are unable to assess what other conclusions to draw from outside of about four minutes of footage.
For honesty does not equal scrutiny. In truth, we did not come to watch ‘All or Nothing’ as a means to critique Guardiola’s tactics, but to gain new perspective on how those at Manchester City handled the unbelievable rollercoaster of their 2017-18 season. Panning over the Manchester skyline at least grants a valuable respite from reliving the traumatic matches of early April, as we have to wonder if the questions of commentators and critics will have landed on deaf ears or heavy hearts.
It’s fitting to return to the mind of Fabian Delph then. He was the first to level criticism inside the changing room, and sitting in the isolation of his car, you feel he is the first to criticise himself too. His honesty though, restores the balance of faith in City. Despite punishing results and unexpected losses, the Yorkshireman is able to reconcile his sorrow with the incredible fortune he has found in Manchester.
“The togetherness and bond in the team is better than I’ve ever witnessed in my whole football career.” Delph has confidence that City have the strength to become even closer, even better, through their hardships. “One big family. That’s how I see it.”
More than that though, City’s blunt converted left-back is up front about their beliefs. “The feeling that we had in the changing room was: ‘We’re gonna win the Champions League’.”
In those moments, that is what matters. Over the course of an episode, we have seen City brought back down to earth, dragged through the mud, and rendered helpless in defeat. But on the other side, belief still remains. To hear the players carry their convictions through hardship speaks louder than any scoreline, as it’s only through braving adversity that Guardiola’s men might learn what it takes to truly conquer all before them. Now we just have to hope they can see it through to the very end.