The Early Years
It is Saturday December 19th, 2009 and inside their own stadium, on a cool afternoon, with Christmas in the air, Manchester City are in the giving mood.
They’ve powered into a 2-0 early lead against Sunderland, through goals from Roque Santa Cruz and Carlos Tevez, but the visitors have hit back with two goals themselves, also inside the first 25 minutes, to level the score. When Craig Bellamy makes it 3-2 after 35 minutes the rumours begin to spread and by the time Kenwyne Jones levels on the hour the entire stadium knows Mark Hughes is getting sacked. Santa Cruz’s winner makes it 4-3, a famous scoreline in the Premier League, and one that gave the watching Roberto Mancini much to think about.
The Italian isn’t in the job yet but he is already in the stadium. His presence, before one of his own has even cleared his desk, just added to the narrative post-match where most in the football community felt the Welshman had been hard done by.
“Patience is not a big quality anymore in our society and when football is quicker, the patience is even shorter,” said Arsene Wenger following the firing.
He was one of many managers who stuck up for Hughes. However, those who looked closer could see City were in a mess that December having conceded 17 goals in the final seven league matches of his tenure, with Hughes struggling to find a team that could score and be defensively solid. In those seven games alone, in the six positions in front of the back four, he had played Gareth Barry, Nigel De Jong, Stephen Ireland, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Martin Petrov, Craig Bellamy, Emmanuel Adebayor, Robinho, Tevez, Santa Cruz and even midfielder Vincent Kompany.
Sitting sixth after 17 games, after spending over 120 million pounds in the summer on Barry, Tevez, Santa Cruz, Adebayor, Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott, club chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarek made his move:
“Roberto is a hugely experienced manager with a proven track record of winning trophies and championships. What is absolutely clear is that he believes our potential to achieve at the highest level and importantly in his own ability to make it happen.”
The English press disagreed and so harsh was their take on the firing of Hughes that newspapers were banned inside City’s training ground.
On Christmas Eve, Mancini gave his first pre-match press conference and had to deal with questions about his current players loyalties to Hughes. He reacted with a swagger, a smile and a message of intent, saying: “I appreciate some are close to Mark, that is a good thing for a manager. When I go away from here in 15 years with five Premier League titles and four cups, the players will be the same with me.”
A woefully poor, defensive-minded, Stoke provided the perfect tonic for the Italian’s debut at home, although Shay Given’s magnificent saves on efforts by Tuncay and James Beattie certainly helped City secure a comfortable 2-0 win. Mancini’s XI that day played a fluid 4-2-3-1. With Lescott out with an ankle injury, Kompany played centre-back for just the second time that season and ended his career as a any kind of holding midfielder. Barry had his best City performance alongside De Jong as two pivots set the tone for Mancini’s City, while the three of the four in front of them played very well. Robinho, who was taken off for Bellamy, did not.
City were rejuvenated and more importantly organised. Another clean sheet followed two days later in a 3-0 win at Wolves. “In Italy it is impossible to play two games in three days but this is England and that was fantastic. Can we win the league? All is realistic,” stated the Italian post match.
By the middle of January, City were fourth but were outplayed at Everton, a ground Mancini would grow to dislike. That day Santa Cruz left the game injured after just nine minutes and Robinho was sent on to replace him. By the hour mark the Brazilian was back on the bench. It was the first sign of Mancini’s impatience with his players and Robinho never played in the Premier League again, leaving for Santos by the end of the month.
Adam Johnson and Patrick Vieira came through the door swung open by the Brazilian but were stunned on their debuts with a 2-1 loss at Hull. City’s front four of Ireland, Bellamy, Tevez and Adebayor were poor and the overall tempo to City’s play was too slow.
Ten days later they showed up to Stoke on a cold, February evening without Tevez who had been allowed to go home to Argentina to be with his family following the birth of his premature baby daughter.
Five days later, 4th placed City drew 0-0 with 5th placed Liverpool a game remembered for nothing but Mancini’s quote afterwards: “I do not know where Carlos is. It is a big problem for us because we have an important week. It is no good, Carlos has been eight days at home and I do not know if he has been working on his fitness. I hope he can come back here within two days, he has had some problems which have now been resolved and I need him.”
Never was this more evident upon his return when City went to leaders Chelsea and won 4-2. While the world focused on Wayne Bridge not shaking John Terry’s hand, Mancini masterminded a 4-5-1 with Pablo Zabaleta in central midfield and Johnson joining Bellamy on the wing, feeding the forever moving Tevez, in front of them. City destroyed Chelsea on the counter attack, which caused two Chelsea players to be sent off, and Mancini had his first key win.
A month later, however, they remained out of the top four after losing 2-0 again to Everton, this time at home when Mancini was sent off for a fracas with David Moyes over the ball.
They had now lost momentum to Tottenham for the fourth spot and it all came down to their penultimate match when they hosted Spurs, who led them by a point, in one of the most anticipated games of the season.
Peter Crouch’s 82nd minute goal secured Tottenham’s place in the top four and ensured City would have to wait another season to play in the Champions League.
“We must now be allowed to develop, ” the manager said post match.
“We believe he is definitely the right manager for this club for many years. Roberto’s going to do a wonderful job,” stated Al Mubarek following the loss. He added: “He needs time this summer to prepare.”
Prepare he did helping City spend close to 150 million pounds on Mario Balotelli, Jerome Boateng, Edin Dzeko, Aleksandar Kolarov, James Milner, David Silva and Yaya Toure.
Only Silva and Toure started the opening game of the 2010/2011 season, a 0-0 draw at Tottenham, remembered for the day Joe Hart took over the number one spot from Shay Given. Hart wasted no time in making Mancini look good, making brilliant saves to deny Jermain Defoe, Tom Huddlestone and Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
City were clearly more talented but struggled for consistency early on, impressing in wins over Liverpool and Chelsea but again looking lethargic in losses at Sunderland and Wolves.
Away performances were becoming a concern, even if the results didn’t always show it, as Mancini struggled to find ways to let his creative cannons loose.
Eight clean sheets in their first 16 games of the season showed they’d make significant progress in organization post-Hughes but it had come at a cost in front of goal.
Everton, fittingly, marked the Italian’s one year anniversary at the club with a 2-1 win at City but this would prove to be an extremely rare blip on their home form as they wouldn’t lose a league home match for another two years.
On their travels, though, problems persisted. A 0-0 at Arsenal in January saw the Italian lambasted by the newspapers for negative football and losses at Aston Villa, Chelsea, Man Utd and Liverpool soon followed with the one at Anfield arguably their worst performance of the season.
City, with Milner and Johnson playing wide, and Dzeko and Tevez up top, conceded far too much space and were battered 3-0. While Andy Carroll celebrated his first goals for his new club, 4th placed City, after 31 games, looked down and saw Tottenham just three points back with a game in hand. It was a position they never imagined they would be in and it was all down to their away form.
A further loss to Everton again highlighted their inability to dictate an away match against a top side but a Champions League slot was eventually secured when they won at Blackburn and beat Tottenham at home prior to a date in the FA Cup final against Stoke.
A day out at Wembley saw them simply overmatch their opponents in midfield and although the game wasn’t thrilling, City cruised to a 1-0 win thanks to a goal from the game’s best player in Yaya Toure. It was their first FA Cup triumph for 42 years.
Eight days later they wrapped up Mancini’s first full Premier League season in third place with a win at Bolton, securing their 18th clean sheet of the season and ensuring the 33 goals allowed past them was the least they had ever conceded in their history of top-flight football.
One and a half season’s into his time at City, Mancini had made City far more organised, harder to beat, taken them into the Champions League and brought them a trophy. Mark Hughes was a forgotten man as the fans, repeatedly singing Mancini’s name, saw the Italian as the leader who took them to a place they had dreamed of when their club had hit the football lottery.
Time to deliver
City’s summer spending of 2011 was relatively moderate compared to the previous two years but there was nothing conservative about the capture of Sergio Aguero, who arrived from Atletico Madrid for 38 million pounds. Aguero was seen to be the man who could unlock tight games and be the difference maker to help the team go from third to first. In Mancini’s first full season the club had got to 71pts and scored 60 goals, targets many clubs would be happy with but not tallies that win titles, which is what City now fully expected to do.
City hosted Swansea, to complete the opening weekend of the season, on a Monday night and the game was one of many played under Mancini that ignited in the second half after a stuttering first half, with City netting four outstanding goals in the last 35 minutes to win 4-0. It was cruel on Swansea but Aguero’s brace was stunning, marking his arrival in England with an exclamation point.
After a 3-2 win at Bolton, City travelled to Tottenham at the end of August. Spurs were a shambles, Luka Modric had to be taken off because ‘his head was gone’ as transfer speculation surrounded the Croatian, but City were absolutely magnificent. In a 5-1 victory they produced the perfect away performance, scoring goals from distance, on the counter and as a result of outstanding passing moves. A 6-1 win at Old Trafford would come two months later but there best performance under Mancini remained that sunny day at White Hart Lane.
In 10 Premier League games from late August to late November they collected 28 points from a possible 30, featuring high-scoring games – 6-1, 3-0, 2-2, 2-0, 4-0, 4-1, 6-1, 3-1, 3-2 and 3-1 – that averaged an astounding 3.6 goals for per game. City were ticking all the boxes. Entertaining, fluid, ruthless and successful. In the Champions League they had won two, lost one and drawn one of their first four games and were still favoured to advance by most.
However, cracks were beginning to show in Europe. They needed a dramatic late winner (Aguero again) to beat a poor Villarreal at home, and were badly outplayed in a 2-0 loss at Bayern Munich and at home to Napoli, which ended 1-1.
Then they went to Naples and everything changed. Most remember the brace by Edinson Cavani and the 2-1 scoreline but few will recall how easy it was for Napoli to defend against City. They simply let them have the ball and the English side didn’t do anywhere near enough with it, despite attempting 401 more passes than the home side.
The book was in on the new City. They were too good to try and play around, teams adapted, defended deeper at home and City’s reign as ‘the pure Premier League Entertainers’ was gone for good under Mancini.
In 2010/11 City had scored 26 away goals at a rate of 1.37 goals per game. Good, but not enough to win a title. Following the loss at Napoli, they went to Anfield on the final Sunday in November with 42 goals scored in their first 12 league matches (an incredible rate of 3.5 goals per game) with 23 coming in their first six away games for a sensational rate of 3.83GPG.
For the next six months they played 13 other Premier League away matches, scoring just 15 goals, including six in one game late in the season at Norwich. A 1-1 draw at Liverpool was their worst performance in the league to date, Balotelli got sent-off, and the point only came thanks to a fantastic display by Hart. In their next away game, at Chelsea, they scored early, again went down to 10-men, and lost their first game of the season. It was a performance more like the one at Anfield than any of the first half dozen games of the season, where they had at least 18 goal attempts in all six of the games. At Liverpool and Chelsea they had just seven.
Games over Christmas saw them draw 0-0 at West Brom and lose 1-0 at Sunderland while in January they won 1-0 at Wigan and lost 1-0 at Everton. In four matches they had scored one goal and that was from a set piece. A 1-0 win at Aston Villa, courtesy of Lescott, was again secured via a set-piece. Afterwards Mancini said “It is not easy when teams put ten men behind the ball, but I hope we win all the rest of the games one nil, although one nil is not easy on my heart.”
The two away games in March saw them lose 1-0 at Swansea and draw 1-1 at Stoke, thanks to Yaya Toure’s 35 yard piledriver that deflected off Ryan Shawcross and into the net. Next up on their travels was a trip to Arsenal, Balotelli got sent off again in a game that City failed to register a single shot on target in, losing 1-0 to a late Mikel Arteta strike.
In almost four months, in eight away matches, that featured some of the poorest opponents in the league, City had scored three goals. The same amount as they had scored in injury time at Old Trafford. Even more alarming was the nature of the goals, from set-pieces and a slice of luck that should have gone down as an own goal. Tactically, Mancini had no answers. Milner and Kolarov would give the occasional cameos to add much-needed width but it was in the centre of the pitch where the manager struggled to find the chemistry. At West Brom he played only Yaya Toure in a pivot role, yet in the next match against Sunderland he went with De Jong and Barry with Toure further forward. With Toure at the African Cup of Nations, he attempted to bring more creativity to his team by again playing one holder (Barry) at Wigan and Aston Villa but when the Ivorian returned at Swansea both Barry and De Jong were back in again alongside him.
Mancini had ran out of answers. It was a dramatic fall from grace from their early season dominance and one that anyone in charge of running the club should have been very worried about.
“The title is finished,” said the Italian after watching his side pathetic’s display against the Gunners. His team were eight points back with six to play, United having out gained them 50pts to 37 in the games 13 to 32 of the season. Throughout that run City’s home form had been almost perfect but their lack of invention and overall slow tempo on their travels had allowed United to overtake them.
Six wins from their final six, including key away games against very poor sides in Norwich and Wolves, galvanized them and restored belief and when they defeated Man Utd at home in late April the title challenge was in their hands again, and of course secured in the most incredible circumstances by Aguero (again) in the final minute of the season.
Inmates take over
Mancini’s grin never left his face as he celebrated with his players on May 13th, 2012. It was the club’s first top flight league title in 44 years and a sign of how far they had come under their new owners, but privately those in charge at the club couldn’t have been completely satisfied.
City’s season had been littered with stories about Tevez and Balotelli. The Argentine forward allegedly refused to warm up during their Champions League loss in Munich and afterwards Mancini said he would never play for the club again. It seemed like a remarkable statement, yet once he had calmed down and reflected on it, he repeated it time and time again and even before a game against Newcastle two months later went out of his way to tell the press his feelings remained the same.
Tevez, meanwhile, was destroyed in the media although it was never proven whether or not he actually refused to come on as a sub (as Mancini claimed) or just refused to warmup (as Tevez claimed). One would admit either is a real lack of professionalism but only one would require such a dramatic response from the manager. Whatever the real truth was the story was a mess for City and their attempt to become a worldwide force as a global brand.
When Tevez came back for the final nine matches of the season not even Mancini could spin it a way where he looked good. By then he had bigger things to worry about in the form of Balotelli, whose off-the-field distractions, on-the-field temper tantrums and all too regular suspensions far outweighed the quality he brought to the team. Through it all Mancini stuck by him and would often treat questions about his young player with contempt, as if he was the only one in the country who knew what his star pupil could do. Tactically, however, he never backed up his words of conviction. In a 4-3-3 he often used Balotelli on the left, exposing his laziness without the ball and, more importantly, his lack of discipline.
Mancini’s championship, to some, proved that despite the turmoils they went through they had the talent to still win at the end. What it also did was prevent City from making much-needed changes in the summer. Mancini, Balotelli and Tevez all returned together to help City defend their crown in August. The mischief-makers may have thought they could unite and cause lightning – or fireworks – to strike twice but City’s owners smartly disagreed. A change was needed.
The Spanish Armada
Having lost the FA Cup final to Wigan it is now not an exaggeration to think in years to come Manchester City’s most significant moment of the 2012-13 season was the hirings of new Chief Executive, Ferran Soriano, and Director of Football, Txiki Begiristain.
The season on the field was a relatively forgettable one. They were embarrassed in the Champions League after failing to win a single game, and where famously Mancini publicly called out Joe Hart and saw his own players call him out for forcing three at the back on them when they didn’t feel comfortable. In the Premier League they never looked like winning the title, playing at a similar way as they did between games 13-32 the season previous, struggling for width, creativity and, ultimately, goals.
And throughout it remained Mancini’s bizarre choices. His admission publicly that Robin Van Persie signing with Manchester United tipped the balance in their favour was strange considering the amount of talent he still had, talent he had bought. His words continued to do damage to his own club when he did the man, then in charge of transfers, Brian Marwood, no favours by saying the club had made a mistake in not securing the Dutchman’s signature. His choice to use a 3-5-2, particularly from the start at home to Real Madrid, when his team never succeeded in it was naive. As was some of his selections, such as picking Balotelli over Tevez versus Manchester United when he had scored just one goal in his first 12 games leading up to the December clash.
“I love Mario as a guy,” he said afterwards. He continued: “But it is important for him to start to think about his job. He has everything to play well, but we wanted more from him and he cannot play like he did today. I saw players like that in my life with fantastic quality and they end up with nothing, but I don’t want that for him.”
Balotelli would play only two more minutes in the Premier League before departing for Italy, this time for good, but only after being caught having a fist fight with his manager during a training session.
It was the first major move from Soriano and Begiristain as they began work on turning Manchester City into a world class football club on and off the field.
Soriano’s mental intellect and business acumen combined with Begiristain’s football intelligence makes them a dynamic duo not to be ignored inside the landscape of English football in 2013. To understand their beliefs and attitudes it is important to know the roles they played at Barcelona, specifically Begiristain, and, in this case, specifically in the recruitment of a new manager.
At the end of the 2006-07 season Barcelona, a year after winning the Champions League and La Liga titles, lost their domestic league on goal difference to Real Madrid. Their manager Frank Rijkaard could not lose his job just 12 months after conquering Europe, but deep down Barca’s Director of Football, Begiristain, knew he wasn’t the man to take them forward. In Graham Hunter’s excellent book Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, it is revealed that he began to search for the Dutchman’s replacement as early as October 2007, despite the change not taking place until the summer of 2008.
In a discussion about considering Jose Mourinho for the Barcelona job, Soriano tells Hunter: “The first board discussion about Mourinho was in December 2007. Retaining Rijkaard had proved a mistake.”
A mistake clearly the pair have learned from in the case of Mancini. The rest of the chapter offers a fascinating look at Mourinho’s attempts to persuade Barcelona to hire him including Begiristain’s reasons for not hiring him. After reading this it is clear why the former Spanish international had grown frustrated with Mancini at City.
Begiristain couldn’t imagine Mourinho understanding the club didn’t want or need outbursts in the media two or three times a week. What’s more, the Basque felt that the Barca he was trying to build valued respect for the opponent, honour in defeat, dignity and other fragile concepts more highly than Mourinho did at that time, or perhaps ever would.
Now Mancini is certainly no Mourinho when it comes to loving the sound of his own voice and Barcelona’s players are certainly no choir boys to opponents or referees when things go against them, but the point is how important Begiristain values these traits. This is a brilliant football mind who thinks about a club from top to bottom, who thinks a club’s branding should start with its name and badge followed by its players. More from Hunter on Begiristain:
He was 100% sure, and remains to this day, that Barca would have trained well, played decent, if pragmatic, football and won trophies under Mourinho. However, he was equally sure that these would become pyrrhic victories compared with what Mourinho would cost the socios, the board, Barcelona’s international brand and a host of other intangible concepts that the club saw intrinsic. Begiristain feared that Mourinho felt he was more than the club.
In a league where the managers are the media’s main source of on-the-record information it is not easy for a manager to say just enough and never too much but that was a skill Mancini never mastered. The language barrier didn’t help but can also not be left as an excuse either. He and those he stuck by created too many fires for a club incessant on getting to the top in all areas from analytics, scouting, developing, marketing and playing.
He also didn’t help cover himself in glory with his coaching. Some of his signings – the likes of Dzeko, Kolarov, Lescott and even, you could argue, Balotelli – regressed and lost confidence under the Italian. Others like Maicon, Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia, Scott Sinclair and Samir Nasri at this stage look like very poor buys but even in Nasri’s case, a player many have used as an example in the case for Mancini’s pity, you could say he wasn’t given anywhere near enough chances to play in the central role he succeeding in at Arsenal.
Ultimately, managers are judged by results and that is why the club statement in announcing his firing, says ‘Despite everyone’s best efforts, the club has failed to achieve any of its stated targets this year, with the exception of qualification for next season’s UEFA Champions League.’
The dismissal has, not surprisingly, been met with an outcry, led again by City fans who three and a half years earlier did the same with Hughes. Mancini will always be the man who brought them their Premier League title but he was also a manager who won three of 12 Champions League games, two against a team who would be relegated in Spain and the other against a Bayern Munich side who had nothing to play for in that game. He was also a manager who, since winning 6-1 at Old Trafford over 18 months ago, achieved 139pts in 65 games, scoring 122 goals. Manchester United during that time achieved 157pts in 66 games, scoring 144 goals.
With a considerable gap to make up to their rivals, Mancini still leaves City an abundance of talent but without a clear identity. All of the game’s best clubs have a way of playing on the field and a particular way of recruiting and developing players, yet under Mancini there was nothing from the academy in three and a half years and almost a feeling that bringing together a group of expensive players and putting the same shirt on them would lead to success. A Premier League title was achieved but should that really be enough for a club to hold on to him when they haven’t consistently played very well for over a year and a half?
City’s fanbase continues to be divided on how big they should dream. In one corner stands the old group of loyalists, who remember not too long ago the likes of David White and Ian Brightwell playing in midfield, and still think the team has come along way very quickly. And in the other are the new fans, who love the club because of its new found wealth and world class stars, these fans demand success and are shocked more than the others when they lose because they are not used to it.
Txiki Begirustain and Ferran Soriano aren’t used to it either. And they’ve also likely never heard of David White or Ian Brightwell.
Manchester City are a club going places. They will get there sooner rather than later now they are concentrating on the windscreen rather than the rearview mirror.