Is Roberto Mancini fit for Manchester City?
Come next season, will Roberto Mancini still be the manager of the world’s biggest-spending football club of recent years?
If Manchester City’s owners in Abu Dhabi decide the time has come to move on from Mancini, nobody could accuse them of lacking patience or support.
But is Sheikh Mansour paying attention to those who would suggest that while Mancini is undoubtedly a good manager, he is not proving to be a great one?
The question marks over Mancini are stacking up. The evidence of his competence is starting to weigh against him. Think back to last season’s English Premier League finale, the breathless spectacular denouement as Manchester City scored their second late goal in the dying seconds, beating Queens Park Rangers and wrestling the title away from their successful, hated rivals Manchester United.
It was City's first title for 44 years.
Imagine if Mario Balotelli hadn’t been able to work the ball in the path of Sergio Aguero, imagine the Argentinean didn’t have the space to work it on to his right foot, imagine if he hadn’t finished so sweetly. City would have only the FA Cup to show for the all of the massive investment in this club.
They may have long been a laughing stock even among their own fans but since Mansour and friends entered the Premier League scene, things should have changed. Manchester City should be challenging for the European Champions League and being more dominant on their own territory. Yet the insecurities of the past are still there and the temperamental Mancini does not inspire total confidence.
This season has not been good enough for a club that has spent close to a billion dollars on players in the past five years. They are poised to relinquish their Premier League title to United with barely a fight, 15 points behind with less than two months of the season to go.
A second early Champions League exit reflects badly on the manager, regardless of the opposition. While the draws could have been kinder in both seasons, imagine what two of the teams in their group (Ajax and Dortmund) could achieve with City’s financial muscle.
Real Madrid would certainly not be settling for these two lame exits. Some find Mancini’s tendency to accept blame dignified and endearing. But it is really? To me the Italian is sending out a message that he’s not really to blame, but that he’s big enough to try and protect his players.
Individually the stars have failed to sparkle enough. Not one of Joe Hart, David Silva, Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero would be in my team of the season. Last year all six were in.
Their best players have been two Argentineans: Pablo Zabaleta the previously unheralded Argentinean right back, and the returning bad boy Carlos Tevez - not the way Mancini or anyone would have seen things panning out.
Not easy to handle by all account, but Mancini’s handling of his infamously childish behaviour in Munich last season is questionable. The media was so busy condemning Tevez (justifiably), it cast Mancini as the tough guy who stuck to his beliefs and principles, teaching Tevez a lesson by freezing him out and fining him a fortune.
If only it were that simple. Mancini messed up that night. A great manager - Ferguson or Mourinho for starters – would have got Tevez on the pitch. Rightly or wrongly City desperately needed him to play that night.
What actually developed was more than one argument involving the Italian manager and his players, authority was slipping away and chaos ensued. But the best spin doctor in the world (and I’ve known my fair share) couldn’t have manufactured better coverage than Mancini received in the following weeks. It was eyebrow-raising stuff. I’d always liked him as a player and his early days in management – but why was his ‘hard line’ on Tevez being praised as brilliant management rather than sulky and obstinate? Tevez was a disgrace, but two wrongs ...
The bust-ups with players have continued to happen, suggesting a pressure cooker feeling around the training ground. Mancini can be polite and pleasant with the media but you always feel the turbulence is about to burst through - the molten lava in mount Mancini. His constant sniping at goalkeeper Joe Hart is strange. Tough love? I think it reflects well on Hart’s level-headed character that he continues to project confidence while his manager doubting him.
Mancini’s team selection and tactics are hit and miss. The football City were playing early last season with the avalanche of goals was him and the sky blues at their best. At other times his choices have defied common sense. What is going on with Joleon Lescott? If there was a good reason to break up the partnership with Kompany, injury notwithstanding, then my apologies. If he thinks Matija Nastasic in central defence is a better bet I still can’t see why.
The Serbian was one of the pre-season signings brought in by Mancini and while they are not his decisions alone, Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia, Maicon and Scott Sinclair haven’t worked out. While the highly-paid, highly-rated men in City’s management structure, including Txiki Bergiristain, need to take their share of blame for recent transfers not working out, where is Scott Sinclair? Why has Mancini not given him a chance? A talented young winger whose England career is over before it’s started due to BCS (bigger club syndrome). Previous sufferers include Adam Johnston, Sean Wright-Phillips and Scott Parker. I only hope Manchester United’s teenage striker Nick Powell is given a game before he retires.
So why has Mancini’s job not been openly under threat in a profession where managers are hired and fired week in week out?
Perhaps it’s partly explained by the Manchester City fans, whose situation may well be unique. Captured by the brilliant David Conn in his book ‘Richer Than God’ they are an interesting, likeable bunch. The older fans can never replace the thrill of success under Mercer and Allison in the late 60s and early 70s. But then came the lean years and the mismanagement and somehow City fans fell into their comfort zone.
Their humour, the environment, the belonging, the community, somehow felt right when Manchester City were holding the ball in the corner flag in an early Premier League final day game – failing to realise they needed to score, not protect what they had to stay up.
It comes from the Gallagher brothers from swaggering rock superstars Oasis, reflecting real fans, taking pot shots at United with their perceived global brand and superior ways. The ‘noisy neighbours’ not the have-it-alls.
And when Abu Dhabi United Group told City they’d won the financial lottery, well, it didn’t seem real.
And so the fans love Mancini, just as they loved the other eccentric Italian Mario Balotelli. They love Mancini’s big sky blue and white club scarf, and his emotion. His passion, the desire to fight Manchester United every inch of the way. Mostly they love his unpredictability. Yes he might self-destruct, but that’s ‘Ci-teh’ as the locals pronounce it. That’s Ci-teh more than any big trophy will ever be.
Remember, City may win the FA Cup again this season and are likely to safely qualify for the Champions League. But the owners may have decided Mancini's tenure has run its course. Reports of approaches to other top coaches are becoming commonplace. Mancini himself looks like he’s had enough.
A new coach might bring the club the level of success in England and Europe befitting the investment. But despite my misgivings it’s nice to think Mancini might somehow stay.
The more you think about it, the more this man is a Manchester City manager.
This column appears on the Insideworldfootball.com website where Lee Wellings represents Al Jazeera.