Manchester City's performance revolution - and a summer of change
Written by Simon Austin — June 26, 2023
AFTER Manchester City had beaten Inter Milan to clinch the Treble a fortnight ago, their jubilant players and staff gathered together to celebrate on the pitch at the Atatürk Stadium.
Almost 70 people huddled together around the Champions League trophy, revealing the scale of City's backroom operation. This took some by surprise, but Manchester City Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak was unabashed when he gave his annual review last week.
"People appreciate that we are producing not just the best talent on the pitch, not just the best talent in the Academy, not just the best talent in the group, but we’re producing some of the best executives in the world, some of the best scouts in the world, some of the best sporting staff in the world," he said.
“And that’s a testament to the great work that this group is doing. We’re the number one football brand in the world.”
Over the course of the last few seasons City have created a behind-the-scenes empire, spanning the Academy, performance, medical, analysis, coaching and data science. This article covers those different areas - as well as the reboot that's required this summer following a number of key departures.
1. Performance and medical
This unified department is about getting the players as fit and strong as possible, while also protecting them against injury.
It covers talent science, strength and conditioning, sport science, nutrition, psychology, physiotherapy, osteopathy and more.
Simon Timson is in overall charge, having joined from the Lawn Tennis Association as Performance Director in July 2020. Timson hadn’t worked in football previously, but has a reputation as one of the most experienced and innovative performance leaders in Britain.
He started his career with British Skeleton and went on to hold senior positions with England Cricket, UK Sport and the LTA. Heading up individual sections are Catherine Hesford (Head of Talent ID and Pathways), Harry Dunn (Head of Performance Analysis and Insight), Simon Bitcon (Head of Strength and Conditioning), Donough Holohan (Head of Physical Performance), Tom Parry (Nutrition), David Young (Psychology), Dr Max Sala (Head of Sports Medicine) and James Baldwin (Head Physio).
Arrivals last season included Dan Lewindon, who came in from the LTA (as Timson had) as Head of Health and Performance, and Matt Taberner, formerly the Head of Sport Science at Everton, who joined as Head of Academy Performance.
Talent Science has been a particular area of investment, with Hesford, previously Player Insights National Lead for the Football Association, joining in January 2022. Gavin Fleig, who has been with City since June 2008, is the overall Director of Talent Management and Development Pathways for City Football Group.
As the job titles suggest, talent science is about looking at the individual development pathways of Academy and senior players. This involves setting performance and process goals and maximising the way the whole multi-disciplinary team works together to develop players.
In terms of the physical output of the first team last season, Guardiola acknowledged that his side had evolved last season and could hurt teams in different ways, both on the transition and by dominating possession.
“I love it - a team who can run 30, 40 metres in a few seconds and damage the opponent," he said. "Of course we are going to use it.”
“I have always said that the most important department in the backroom staff is the physios" Pep Guardiola
Oliver Bartlett, formerly Jurgen Klopp’s fitness coach at Dortmund, told TGG that City’s players had become experts at explosive bursts of speed over short distances, enabling them to get away from opponents in possession and seize the ball back quickly when out of possession.
“Guardiola found that short high-intensity bursts are very relevant for ball recovery and possession,” Bartlett said. “The smarter and better you can do that, the more successful you are going to be.”
Training this explosive athleticism takes a lot of work in the gym as well as out on the training pitch.
Inevitably, injury prevention has also been key.
Early on in the season, Guardiola said: “I have always said to the club that the most important department in the backroom staff is the physios. They take care of the legs.”
Physio and masseur Mario Pafundi - who previously worked in cycling with Team Sky - has worked closely with talisman Erling Haaland, even accompanying him when on international duty.
Significantly, Haaland played 61 games for City last season - 26 more than he had managed in an injury-hit campaign at Dortmund the season before.
There were significant departures during the season. Mark Sertori, the hugely popular Sports Therapist, left in December and is now Head of Performance at Burnley, while Head of Human Performance Sam Erith departed after 11 years in October to join Madison Square Garden Sports Corp in New York.
When Juanma Lillo announced he was leaving last summer to become Head Coach of Al-Sadd in Qatar, many predicted problems for Guardiola. After all, the Spaniard had been a tactical mastermind for the first team.
If anything, Guardiola got an upgrade in Enzo Maresca as assistant though.
The Italian brought vigour and new ideas. He had played at the highest level, with the likes of Juventus and Fiorentina, and was a strong advocate of multi-functional players capable of filling different positions.
This was a key feature again last season, with Stones filling a hybrid centre-back/ central midfield role. Maresca also knew Academy graduates Phil Foden, Rico Lewis and Cole Palmer inside out, following his time in charge of City's Under-23s.
Maresca is another key departure this summer though, having been appointed Head Coach of Leicester City (he had also attracted interest from Southampton and Celtic), meaning Guardiola is looking for a third assistant in three seasons.
Elsewhere, set pieces were again an area of strength for City last season, with first-team coach Carlos Vicens - another coach who had been promoted from the Academy - leading following the exit of Nicolas Jover to Arsenal the previous summer.
City were fifth in the Premier League for set piece goals scored and second (behind only Liverpool) for set piece goals conceded.
As with the first team, City’s Academy sides were all-conquering last season. Both the Under-18s and U21s completed an unprecedented hat-trick of Premier League titles.
City were up to 12th in the Premier League for homegrown minutes (8.3%) having previously been in the bottom four (stats from the CIES). Phil Foden remained the flagbearer for the Academy, despite a relatively disappointing season by his standards, while 18-year-old Rico Lewis (24 appearances) and 21-year-old Cole Palmer (25 appearances) emerged as first-team players.
The club have also risen impressively in our Academy Productivity Rankings over the last few season. When we launched the rankings, in 2016/17, City had the 14th most productive Academy, in terms of England-qualified professional players.
By 2017/18 they had risen to 11th, by 2020/21 to seventh and in the most recent edition of the rankings, 2021/22, they were fourth.
There has also been a transfer of ideas between Academy and first team - in both directions. Ilkay Gundogan worked with Darren Hughes' Under-16s early last year as he undertook his coaching badges.
One tactical ploy the 16s were using was playing a centre-back in central midfield when in possession, which wasn't part of the wider club methodology at that time. Gundogan fed this back to Guardiola and this season Stones has emerged as a pivotal player in the first team by doing exactly the same thing. Coincidence? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
In the last few months there have been a swathe of exits from the Academy though. Most notably, Academy Director Jason Wilcox has left after a decade's service to become Director of Football at Southampton, Northern UK Scouting Manager Paul Midgley has been appointed Head of Youth Recruitment at Newcastle United and Head Regional Scout Paul McLaren has become Head of UK Scouting (13s to 18s) for the Magpies.
This is on top of Head of Academy Recruitment Joe Shields leaving for Southampton (he is now at Chelsea) last summer. City's Head of UK Academy Recruitment Stewart Thompson is set to join him at Stamford Bridge.
In terms of coaching, Adam Temple and Callum Tongue have departed, to Barrow and Ipswich Town respectively.
4. Data and analysis
City now have the biggest dedicated data department in the Premier League. It is headed up by Director of Football Intelligence Brian Prestidge, who has split the department in two: data science and visualisation.
Heading up these halves are Laurie Shaw, the Head of Data Science, and Ravi Mistry, the Head of Football Insights.
Leicester City Lead Data Scientist Edd Webster told TGG: “I don’t think there’s another club that has the resources and infrastructure that City do and it's so well managed.
“Brian worked with Bolton (as Head of Performance Analysis) and left to work in Tableau with the Information Lab. Now he has those two skillsets, with a good understanding of what it’s like to bring a data culture to an organisation.
“They have the visualisation team with Ravi (Mistry) and I don’t think any team had done that before. Loads of clubs use Tableau, so it makes so much sense to have done that.
“What Ravi, a data visualisation expert, is building tools that people who aren’t data users can understand. That was a really smart move by City and I think other clubs will follow that.
"At the moment you’ve got Heads of Recruitment making Tableau dashboards, which is good, but you have people with that skillset who can make really good use of it.”
Shaw joined City in February 2021, having previously worked for Harvard University, a £30bn hedge fund and the British government.
Performance Analysis has also been beefed up by City. Harry Dunn was promoted to Head of Performance Analysis last season and two specialist analysts - Training Analyst Ryan DeFreitas, from Leicester City, and Set Piece Analyst Jack Wilson, from Brentford - added to his team.
As we’ve outlined, there has been lots of change behind the scenes at City since the end of last season. Yet one of their biggest strengths remains stability.
This starts with Guardiola himself, who has been with the club since the beginning of 2016/17. His trusted and long-standing lieutenants are assistant Rodolfo Borrell, Goalkeeper Coach Xabier Mancisidor, analyst Carles Planchart and fitness coach Lorenzo Buenaventura.
Planchart and Buenaventura have been with the 52-year-old throughout his managerial career, as has Manel Estiarte. The Catalan has the unusual title of Head of Player Support and Protocol and no background in football before working with Guardiola (his sport was water polo and he won gold with Spain at the 1996 Olympics).
He is effectively the manager’s 'truth teller' - a trusted ally who knows him inside out and is able to offer advice and constructive criticism at the right moments.
Guardiola himself has said: “Managers are very, very alone. It is good for me to have him here.”
The man who oversees City's overall football operation is Director of Football Txiki Begiristain, who has been with the club since 2012. He is a close ally of Guardiola's, having worked with him previously at Barcelona, as did Chief Executive Officer Ferran Soriano.
The exits we have outlined above will inevitably pose some problems for the leadership, but one of the benefits of the City Football Group is that talent can be nurtured across the portfolio, both on and off the pitch, as Al Mubarak highlighted. So don't be surprised to see some internal promotions within CFG this summer.