It’s time Mancini went back to basics
In the past six years, Roberto Mancini has won three Serie A titles and the Premier League. In terms of major championships collected during that period, only José Mourinho can equal him. It is a formidable record and, based on that alone, Mancini should be hailed as one of the greats of his generation.
Yet the suspicion lingers that he has just been fortunate, the right man in the right place at the right time. He took charge of Internazionale with the other big guns in Serie A weakened by the Italian match-fixing scandal. At Manchester City, he has had unprecedented resources. Look, his accusers say, at his record in the Champions League: in his first two seasons at Inter, Mancini’s side went out in the quarter-finals; in his next two, they went out in the last 16.
Last season, Mancini’s first in the Champions League with City, brought a group-stage exit. Then, it was possible to have sympathy for City. Uefa’s odd way of seeding sides gave them a tough group in which they accumulated 10 points – usually enough to qualify. This season they got another difficult group, being drawn with the champions of Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. Still, for the Premier League champions, a side assembled at such expense, to have taken a single point from their opening three games and to be left needing, by Mancini’s own admission, “a miracle” to qualify, seems to be more than misfortunate.
The real worry for City fans is that the poor form exposed in Europe is actually not just another example of Mancini’s now fabled poor Champions League record, but part of a wider blight. Amid the delirious drama of the final day of last season, it seemed impolite to ask how it had ever come to that. The assumption then was City, a first Premier League first now in the bank, would kick on. In fact the fear for neutrals was that they would dominate to a tedious extent.
That certainly hasn’t happened. If anything, City have gone backwards, frequently winning games this season because their high-class individuals have done something spectacular rather than because of a coherent structure or team plan. Against the likes of Southampton and QPR, even West Brom, that can be enough; against the champions of Spain, Germany and Holland, it isn’t.
Last season Mancini had a dynamic and tough team, one seasoned with exceptional and unpredictable individual forwards. This season he seems to be attempting to develop their style into something more possession-based. That explains the sale of Nigel de Jong, the way Joleon Lescott – whose partnership with Vincent Kompany was probably the best centre-back pairing in the Premier League last season – has fallen out of favour and the experimentation with a back three.
The question, really, is why? City had an effective way of playing; the Barcelona style may have been praised across the globe, but there is more than one way to play. A certain evolution is desirable, necessary even, but the concern must be that this is change for change’s sake, almost as though Mancini feels he must prove himself, that he must make clear that what City do is down to him and his genius and not just down to having lots of good players.
After the fortuitous draw against Borussia Dortmund, Mancini was clear: “I know what the problem is.” After the 3-1 defeat to Ajax, he was adamant: “I take full responsibility. I didn’t prepare properly for this game.”
Perhaps he is just trying to take the heat of his players – and if he is, that is laudable – but perhaps there is also an impulse to turn the spotlight on himself.
That might sound harsh, but there is evidence the players are becoming disgruntled. “It’s something we have not worked on a lot,” Micah Richards said after another tactical switch had failed to come off against Ajax. “That’s twice we have gone to a back five and conceded but the manager likes it. If we want to do well with it, we are going to have to work on it.”
It’s time, perhaps, to go back to basics, to stop overcomplicating things. If the results come, then Mancini will receive due praise.
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