As Manchester City summed up their season by losing to Norwich on the final day of the 2012-13 Premier League, fans around the Etihad continued to display banners and sing songs to their recently departed manager Roberto Mancini. It was hardly surprising that they did so. With City having previously gone 35 years without silverware, Mancini walked into the manager’s office at the City of Manchester Stadium and procured not only the 2011 F.A. Cup but also the 2011-12 Premier League trophy the following season. They were (and are) successes that, for fans of a club so overshadowed by their local rivals, meant the world.
Those successes were not enough to prevent Mancini’s departure at the end of a poor 2012-13 season, which saw Manchester City knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage without a win, defeated by Wigan Athletic in the F.A. Cup Final and 11-point runners-up to Manchester United in the final Premier League table. As was proved by Abramovich’s sacking of Carlo Ancelotti in 2011, triumphs at the top level are quickly forgotten. In the age of the mega club, only continued success is enough to provide job security for a manager.
It is into this environment that new Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini is entering. The former Villarreal boss is now coaching a club that seeks to join the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United as one of the world’s best – an admirable ambition for a club that played second-division football as recently as 2002. And it is here that he must leave Mancini’s mistakes behind if that ambition is to be achieved.
First and foremost on Pellegrini’s agenda must be to keep in mind at all times that the relationship between players and manager will have an effect on performance and form. Mancini’s frequent public criticism of his own players may have been either attempted psychology or simply frustration, but either way his tactics of calling out players such as Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany and Samir Nasri (regardless of how much the latter of these may have deserved it) in public had a definitively negative impact on the City squad. Post-match media interviews are not the place for such discussions – they belong, as Sir Alex Ferguson exemplified, in the dressing room, well out of reach of cameras and microphones. At the same time, however, he must also find balance and assert himself as the boss. If anyone looks and acts the part, it is Pellegrini. It is a delicate yet crucial equilibrium to discover if City are to return to the top of the pile.
The next battle Pellegrini must win will be ongoing – signing the right players. It cannot be said that Mancini failed entirely at this task. David Silva, Yaya Toure, Mario Balotelli, James Milner, Edin Dzeko, Gael Clichy and Sergio Aguero all arrived during the Italian’s tenure at the Etihad, and all played significant parts in winning the Premier League trophy. In his final year, however, a flurry of last-minute signings yielded only one consistent performer; Matija Nastasic. Javi Garcia was an inadequate replacement for the departed Nigel De Jong, Scott Sinclair spent most of the season on the bench due to Mancini’s reluctance to play wingers and Maicon was well past his use-by date. Jack Rodwell initially looked a failure but injury covered up his potential to be a top player, and he showed flashes of brilliance when he did play, so a final verdict on the former Evertonian is yet to be handed down.
What role Pellegrini has played in this season’s signings is unclear thanks to the growing influence of Soriano and Begiristain on Manchester City, but no matter who is directly responsible, it seems to be an earlier and more measured approach to the transfer window. It is difficult to see any of Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, Fernandinho or Stevan Jovetic being a complete failure – all four are quality players. While Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United have all been making plenty of noise about Luis Suarez, Gareth Bale, Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas respectively, City – despite spending more money than any other club in the Premier League this season by a considerable margin – have slipped under the radar and seem happy to have made their purchases early, which should allow all four time to bed in with their new manager, teammates and country. This kind of transfer activity – getting quality players in early on in the window – should continue under Pellegrini’s reign.
Dubbed ‘The Engineer,’ Pellegrini is a man who likes to construct a balanced and efficient team and his tactics will play a key role in City’s success. At both Villarreal and Malaga, he favored the implementation of a 4-2-2-2 system with attacking full backs, two central defensive mids and attacking midfielders who can move from the wing to the centre. Whether he will bring the same formation to City is unsure but what he will do is play with a solid back four – Mancini’s experimental 3-5-2 is unlikely to ever see the light of day under Pellegrini. Hart, Zabaleta, Nastasic, Kompany and Clichy will suit Pellegrini’s system perfectly in the back.
If he does elect to stick with what he knows, Toure is likely to be joined by one of Fernandinho or Milner as central defensive midfielders. Silva, Navas and Nasri will take up the attacking midfield options and a rotating forward line of Dzeko, Aguero, Negredo and Jovetic should provide plenty of goals. The other option favoured by Begiristain is a Barcelona-esque 4-3-3, which City could play any number of different combinations in given their incredible strength in depth in both midfield and attack. Regardless of which formation, the flexibility offered by the City squad will mean Pellegrini can execute whichever formation he needs at any time whilst maintaining the stability of four at the back, something Mancini could not always do in his final season.
Finally, Pellegrini must succeed where Mancini failed hardest: the Champions League. Mancini could not shake his European curse during his stay at City and although both group stages saw City competing in arguably the most difficult groups of the competition, there is no excuse for failing to win a single match in last season’s contest. Thankfully Pellegrini has plenty of European pedigree to give City fans more confidence this season – his successes with Villarreal and Malaga were often achieved in difficult circumstances. The possibility of what he can do with financial muscle and the players currently comprising the City squad will leave many fans drooling. Nonetheless, success on this stage is not optional. Although Pellegrini will not be expected to win the competition immediately, progression into the knockout stages is a must.
Mancini’s departure from Eastlands was the result of a combination of factors. No one incident or failure in particular could be blamed for his sacking towards the end of last season, but there was enough in a mixture of poor tactical choices, questionable player signings, broken-down manager-player relationships and European failures for the higher-ups to agree that Mancini’s time at the club should end. Pellegrini looks to be a solid choice as his replacement and can hopefully leave Mancini’s mistakes behind, but only time will tell.