What’s happening in the blue half of Manchester is surprising, but it is certainly not unprecedented. This current City side gives an eerie déjà vu of the 2012-13 season.
After Sergio Aguero scored the goal that got Martin Tyler saying his name in the fashion Premier League watchers will always remember, many felt that it was finally the time of the “noisy neighbours”. Roberto Mancini talked up his side and said that he wanted to leave a legacy behind by building a period of domination, like his city-rivals had done in the Premier League era under Sir Alex Ferguson. Surprisingly, or not-so-surprisingly, given the poor transfer deals and the bust-ups in the dressing room, City suffered a hangover after a glorious season and ended up without silverware. The club went so close to getting one through the FA Cup. They only had Wigan to beat to ensure their season was not trophy-less. What looked like a comfortable win for the defending league champions in the 2012-13 FA Cup Final, ended 1-0 in Wigan’s favour courtesy of a goal from Ben Watson. With absolutely nothing to show off for even moderate success that season, sure enough, Roberto Mancini was sacked and replaced by Chilean Manuel Pellegrini.
The former Real Madrid manager enjoyed immediate success and scored a domestic double in his first season in charge of the Citizens. Winning the League Cup would have been considered decent for just his first campaign with the club, but what was remarkable was that his side didn’t give up on the title after the loss to Liverpool at Anfield and unlike the Reds, they didn’t bottle their advantage once Brendan Rodgers’ side lost to Chelsea.
This was a good start to Pellegrini’s career in the Premier League and many thought that the big spending club has finally got a manager for the near future. People admired Pellegrini’s class and found him to be in stark contrast of his controversial predecessor as he did all his talking on the pitch, was low key and much more diplomatic. But just one year hence and it all seems to be getting bizarrely undone for the Chilean in an eerily similar way like Mancini’s final year in-charge of the club.
The second-season syndrome, which is the exact opposite of Jose Mourinho’s version of it, has hit Pellegrini’s City and has hit them badly. The goals have dried up, there is a clear overdependence on stars and when they decide to show up, the defence is in tatters, the squad is ageing and there seems to be no balance in the side. Add to that, Pellegrini’s recent stubbornness is only making matters worse. He employed the 4-4-2 formation against Barcelona and the system looked like a wrong fit for his side, very clearly. But just a week later, he played the same formation against Liverpool and in exactly the same fashion, City failed to dominate proceedings at Anfield and went home putting Chelsea in an even more comfortable situation on top of the table. He has gone on and said that people can say what they want, he is not changing City’s system:
“The important thing is to continue playing with a style we are not going to change. We are going to be an offensive team, playing on the opposition’s side, not with 10 players behind the ball. Everyone can talk what they want. I know what is better for this team.”
City also have the oldest squad in Europe currently. If results are coming with experience, people won’t look at the age of players, but when the side is under so much scrutiny, one can’t help but see that there are only three main first-team players under the age of 24. The manager’s preference for experience is well documented through his signings of Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo, who were almost 28 when they were signed. Fernandinho was already 28 while Willy Caballero and Martin Demichelis were both in their 30s. Experience is vital, especially to compete for trophies, but it is usually the mix of age and youth that yields results.
There is clearly an over reliance on the likes of Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and David Silva to show up. In fact, City proved to be quite an expensive one man team when they failed to win any of the four Premier League matches in Yaya Toure’s absence owing to Africa Cup of Nations duty with Ivory Coast.
Despite spending a huge amount in the last two years, City’s transfer business has far from been astute or yielded results. Pellegrini’s key players are still those signed by Mancini (Silva, Aguero, Toure, Nasri, Milner) or the Italian’s predecessors (Hart, Kompany, Zabaleta).
Sometimes there is not much which can be done off the pitch. What I mean is that pondering over the failed transfer (of sorts) right now is not something Pellegrini will be, or should be, doing. Instead, he should be looking to get his defence sorted and getting the right balance between attack and defence.
Pellegrini was told to get five trophies in five seasons and he is well on course to do it. But the football world has little patience. Getting titles can’t guarantee you a long-term stay. Ask Ancelotti, or ask Mancini himself. It is extremely likely that the Citizens will end up without silverware this season and the lack of it could end up costing the manager. But much of it will depend on whether Soranio, Begiristain and the City administration could land a suitable replacement (They are said to be chasing Diego Simeone and Pep Guardiola). If he is lucky enough to survive, he has a lot of areas to sort out, from the homegrown players conundrum to the transfer dealings. But foremost, he needs to prioritise coaching and find the right system for the players. Pellegrini will hope he is given time to get back next season and challenge for trophies on all fronts.