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Colin Savage explores the sometimes puzzling management of Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini that has divided a fanbase.
Now that City fans have finally given up any faint hopes of a miraculous turn-round this season (although United could possibly go into administration and be docked ten points) their thoughts are now focusing on the future of Roberto Mancini. To be honest, those thoughts have been around for a while, with the web forums – those modern day equivalents of ‘the pubs and clubs’ – split between “inners” and “outers”. These aren’t some secret Masonic terms or used to describe whether you tuck your shirt in or not but posters’ views on the manager’s job tenure.
It may seem incredible to fans outside the club (and to many in it) that there is even the slightest talk of dispensing with the services of the man who has brought CL football, the title and one, maybe two, FA cup triumphs since taking over in December 2009 but expectations have changed in East Manchester since that amazing day in September 2008 and the debate about the manager is a measure of just how much they’ve changed. To re-iterate his history briefly, Mancini took over from Mark Hughes after the latter was sacked for under-achievement (or to use Garry Cook’s memorable phrase “The trajectory of recent results failed to meet the requirement…”). In that first season he dragged City up to 5th place but they missed out on CL qualification after losing 1-0 to Spurs in their penultimate game of the season as well as losing to United in a League Cup semi-final.
He rectified this with a 3rd place finish the following season as well as delivering the FA Cup, the first major trophy for 36 years. The following season saw a decent showing in their CL group, with their 10-point haul not enough to get them into the knock-out stages. We also lost out to eventual winners Liverpool in the League Cup semi-final. The season’s real drama however was reserved for the last few minutes of the last league game and those incredible two injury time goals that snatched the title out of United’s grasp, having clawed back 8 points on United in their last 6 games. But even this brought out the two sides of the argument. The “inners” claimed it showed Mancini’s tactical genius and superiority at the old ‘mind games’. The “outers” said we’d got lucky that United dropped those crucial points and we should have never have let them get so far ahead anyway, having surrendered a 5 point lead of our own earlier in the season. So you can start to get an idea of how the two sides “spin” the same outcome somewhat differently.
Naturally the arguments have intensified during this campaign, with the tame defence of the title plus finishing bottom of the CL group, with only 3 points gained. The saving grace has been the FA Cup, in which we should start as firm favourites to beat Wigan, although the recent league game in which they were the better team despite losing 1-0 should have shattered any complacency. Naturally, the “inners” and “outers” see things differently of course. The “inners” reckon that coming second and winning the FA Cup (neither of which we’ve actually done as yet) is a good season, considering where we were a few seasons ago, staring administration in the face. The “outers” reckon that making the most of a relatively benign cup draw shouldn’t detract from the large gap between us and United in the league as well as the abject failure in Europe.
I should really say that there is actually a fair bit of common ground between the two factions. Many of the “inners” recognise that failure to do well in the crucial CL is not really an option if he wants to be there long term. And all of the “outers” agree that he certainly isn’t a terrible manager, has brought us trophies and his team have played some scintillating stuff. So just what is it about Mancini that makes some City fans argue for a replacement when he’s brought us a trophy in each of his full seasons so far (and could do for a third consecutive one)? If he was to be charged with Managing Without Due Care & Attention, what would the prosecution case be?
The first charge would be his record in Europe. He has shown himself to be a very good manager in the domestic arena in both Italy & England but the real test these days comes in the Champions League. Partly that’s because it’s more a contest of equals, with the best teams of the best European leagues fighting it out, and partly because of the huge financial rewards, it’s the ultimate contest for clubs and players. Whatever Luis Suarez says about loyalty to Liverpool, he would love to have a bite at playing in the CL (arf, arf).
No one in their right minds expected to win it or even come close to doing that first time out but it’s clear that doing well in the competition is a priority for City’s owners in the medium to long term. So much depends on it – revenue, prestige, the ability to sell the club to the best and most ambitious players and commercial partners. Winning the League Cup or even the FA Cup, doesn’t come remotely close to getting to something like the semi-final of the CL in my view. Don’t get me wrong; as a fan I want to see the club win things regularly and I’ve waited a long time to see that. If you’d asked me a few years ago if I’d swap a League Cup win for a losing CL semi-final I’d have laughed and taken the silverware every time. But now we’re in a position where we don’t have to swap – we can potentially have both – but the “outers” don’t see that Mancini is the man to deliver the bigger prize. That may sound greedy and arrogant but I’m pretty sure that Sheikh Mansour didn’t buy us with the thought of winning the FA Cup every couple of years as the height of his ambition.
Last season we narrowly missed out on qualifying for the last 16 after getting 10 points in our group. It was a creditable performance on the surface but 6 of those points came against a Villareal team that were relegated from La Liga and 3 of the other 4 against Bayern’s B-team in (what was for the Germans) the dead-rubber final game. This season’s group was always going to be a tough test and that was proven as the two qualifying teams from that group have just faced each other in the semi-finals. But there was little excuse for only getting a single point from two games against Ajax, when most expected all six. Things might have turned out differently if we’d hung onto a 2-1 lead in Madrid with just a few minutes left but we didn’t. In Europe we’ve rarely looked like the team we can be domestically. A player like Gareth Barry, so comfortable and commanding in the PL, has looked horribly out of his depth in the CL. Our lack of width and pace has left us unable to exploit those more organised midfields & defences. We may well have players who have played or won honours at the highest levels but, as a team, we’ve looked second best against nominally weaker but tactically more sophisticated foreign opposition. You might be able to excuse that if Mancini was a novice in Europe but he isn’t, with six CL campaigns under his belt. Even many of the “inners” reckon that another failure to do better next season means it’s probably time to call it quits.
Domestically, the “outers” arguments can be divided into on-field and off-field. Taking the former, there is no doubt that Mancini made us far better defensively, albeit initially at the expense of attacking prowess. That all changed at the start of last season, when we were destroying even the very best teams on their own grounds. 5-1 at White Hart Lane, the memorable 6-1 at Old Trafford and other 3 and 4 goal romps was the rule for the first third of the season. Then, after a narrow win at QPR and a controversial defeat at Chelsea, our away form took a dive. Many believe Mancini adopted a more cautious approach on the road. Having got 17 points from the first 7 away games, we picked up only 8 points from the next 9. The team then got its mojo back just in time and rediscovered the ruthless attacking flair it had lost earlier in the season and the breathless, incredible end to the season confined that barren spell to the dustbin of history.
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This season, we’ve all too rarely discovered that flair and the relatively few times we have just serve to remind us what we could and should have been. The best games have been on the road, at the Emirates & Old Trafford notably, with good performances at Fulham, West Brom and Newcastle. The “inners” blame our close season transfer business, injuries and lack of desire from the players whereas the “outers” blame the lack of an alternative approach when teams park the proverbial bus and various tactical failings by the manager. The match at Everton was a perfect illustration of the “outers” case. Everton have always proved difficult opponents for us, with a solid, hard-working 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1 who pressure in all areas of the pitch. Yet Mancini made the fatal mistake of going with a 3-5-2 formation, utilising the distinctly unimpressive Kolarov to counter the threat of Coleman and Osman/Gibson down the (City) left. City fans’ heads were shaking even before kick-off when they heard the team and it went downhill from there.
The match was still potentially winnable even when we were 1-0 down with Everton reduced to 10 men with 30 minutes left. Days beforehand, we’d seen Mourinho react with alacrity to Nani’s sending off to immediately put the 10-man United under pressure and win the tie. Mancini did nothing however, leaving two defensive midfield players, Barry and Garcia, on the pitch, while the more attack minded Nasri and Sinclair stayed on the bench. Eventually the former came on 10 minutes later and the latter with a few minutes left but that was too late. We could have had a real go at them for 30 minutes but the chance to do that was lost, along with any lingering hopes of retaining the title. To give credit where it’s due, he often gets it right as well but the recent game at Spurs, where he completely failed to respond to AVB’s tactical switch by withdrawing the completely disinterested Dzeko and putting on Garcia to shore up the midfield, was yet another example of poor tactical thinking.
City have underperformed this season, although they could yet end up with 83 points, 6 less than they won the title with. United have responded to the challenge thrown down last season and should comfortably exceed the same 89 points they amassed last season. They have been, if not spectacular, remarkably consistent whereas City have been grossly inconsistent. The “inners” see that as the effect of poor summer transfer dealings and the failure to strengthen significant positions. The “outers” blame poor management and point to the fact that the only two players sold in the summer were the underwhelming and inconsistent Johnson and the solid but somewhat limited De Jong. The latter was only on the pitch for that title-clinching game because of Yaya Toure’s injury and it’s unlikely he’d have been on otherwise. The rest of the title-winning team is still intact but the “outers” claim that Mancini just hasn’t been able to get the best out of them in the way a top manager should.
Which brings us to the off-field criticisms. Well one mainly, which is his man-management. His time at City has seen fall-outs with a number of players for various reasons. There were the Hughes loyalists like Bridge & Bellamy, who didn’t like the change of style and told him so. They were soon on their travels. There were players like Onuoha & Elano that he didn’t like the look of. In the current squad there’s Lescott, Dzeko, Nasri & Sinclair who seem to be in his bad books for some reason. Modern managers need to work the squad system, which means managing the expectations and morale of players who aren’t the real core players in that squad. At City, we know pretty well the current first choice starting XI. But Dzeko, who would normally start on the bench, has more than once staked a claim for an extended run which he hasn’t been given. Handling that would be a challenge for any manager but Mancini hasn’t really done it that well and Dzeko seems to have lost interest, as his display at Spurs demonstrated.
Then there’s the public criticism of individuals or the group as a whole, when the perceived wisdom is that this sort of thing is best kept behind closed doors. Of course it may be permissible if everything else has been tried but it happens too often. The whole impression it gives is that he is a manager at war with much of his dressing room and that’s not good.
The key test of any manager at any level is whether the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. On their day, City are unplayable and by a distance the outstanding team in the PL. A combined City/United XI would probably have more blue than red but there’s no doubt that with United the whole is greater than the sum of the parts most of the time whereas it’s not always so for City. That’s very much the job of the manager and it’s one where Mancini falls short in my view.
In summary then, I think that Mancini is a very good manager – his record proves that – but maybe not a great manager. That’s my view but I’d also say that’s the view of his peers. When you look at the names being bandied about in the summer managerial merry-go-round, Guardiola is going to Munich, Ancelotti could be off to Madrid, Mourinho? Chelsea or PSG. Klopp’s in demand as is Pellegrini. Even David Moyes is being talked about. But no one’s talking about Mancini, certainly not in connection with any of the clubs named above. In the end, doesn’t that say more than anything I can?