Around this time last year, Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City were sitting two points clear at the top of table. He had won the F.A. Cup the previous season—City’s first silverware in three decades—and by May had captured the club’s first league title in even longer.
Yet somehow, despite those achievements, it appears that the Italian is under more scrutiny now than he was before he had won anything with the Manchester club.
The summer transfer window turned out to be not the brutal plundering of the world’s best talents, but rather a more frustrating affair—for Mancini, not the City accountant. Instead of recruiting the big names that City fans had become accustomed to being paraded in front of them over the past few years, Mancini saw in the arrival of Scott Sinclair, Jack Rodwell and Javi Garcia.
All three are a good players—good, but not great. There has been a raging debate over City’s treatment of fringe players who, should they be at another team, would almost certainly play every week. Both Sinclair and Rodwell are promising young English talents who are at the age whether you either make the cut, or fade away.
At their former clubs, Swansea and Everton, each would make the first 11 on a regular basis—an absolute necessity when trying to push raw talent to its full potential. However at the Etihad, the chances to play are dwindling, especially as each game is becoming a must-win.
Javi Garcia was more accomplished when he arrived in east Manchester, but not much. Twenty-six today, he failed to break into the Real Madrid first team before being shipped out to Benfica and has only registered one senior appearance with Spain. Of course, ousting the likes of Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso is a tall order, but compare Garcia’s international contributions to David Silva’s 69 Spanish caps or Sergio Aguero’s 42 for Argentina. The disparity in quality of last summer’s recruits and those of 18 months ago is there to see.
Mancini is being taken back to his time at Inter and Lazio and will have to get used to the idea of managing a real team again. Not in a "City players are figments of my imagination" sense, but in that he will not have limitless funds to throw at positional weaknesses anymore. And going by his comments about the lack of transfer business in the summer and more recently City’s points deficit, he is not taking it well.
Abu Dhabi has shown its hand by only shelling out for class talent, as opposed to world-class—Mancini must now make it work. He needs to think back to when, like most other managers, he used to have two or three star players—and a less pricey but invaluable squad to back them up.
The recruitment of La Masia (Barcelona’s academy) masterminds Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano shows that City are approaching it correctly. After all, Barcelona are a perfect example of how to build a strong team around three key players. So perfect, in fact, that they break the rule, as Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta are today worth a combined, say, £300 million, but they all cost Barca next to nothing.
City may not reach those kind of heights, but they have the financial clout and current staff to get as close as anyone, even with Financial Fair Play looming. All they need now is Mancini to get on board.
And in typical fashion, no one really knows what Roberto is thinking. He has finally seen the back of an unnecessary distraction—who I always believed was a vanity project on Mancini’s part anyway—in Balotelli. The media are seemingly already trying to create a rift between new Director of Football Begiristain and Mancini, reporting that the director had announced that City would be adopting a Barca-esque 4-3-3 system next season. The manager claimed he’d heard nothing of the sort.
Another strange situation is that of City’s back four. While Mancini has done well by bringing 19-year-old Matija Nastasic from obscurity to a first-team place among a team of world-class players, he has in the same move obliterated the all but impenetrable wall that was Kompany and Lescott—a partnership that was integral to City’s triumph in May.
As demonstrated when Kompany and Lescott shared a rare but lacklustre game in the centre of defence, those kind of partnerships take months or even years to build. The form they developed has been scuppered by the Serbian’s arrival, and also Mancini’s weekly tinkering with his back four earlier this season.
With Yaya Toure coming back, City can now look straight down the track to May. Granted, United are ahead, but with the pressure of two Champions League meetings with Real Madrid, and potentially more with other European elite, it is down to Mancini to rally his own troops and set them loose, while trying to retain his own focus (and keeping Nasri as far away as possible).
Because there will be questions to answer should City end 2012-13 with nothing, mainly concerning Mancini’s inability to fully utilize a group of players with such devastating potential. Every football fan likes to think they could manage a team, but we can all be forgiven for announcing in the pub that—with a team like that—we would’ve had the title wrapped up by Christmas. Having come from Barcelona and being able to say that they’ve been there, done that, Begiristain and Soriano are likely to come from the same school of thought.
You can argue that second place behind Manchester United isn’t that bad, and that a quality team such as Arsenal are currently sixth, but Arsenal did not finish bottom of their Champions League group with just three points. Unfortunately for Roberto, the damage may have already been done, with the only possible salvage for the season, at least in the directors’ eyes, being another league title. At least the Italian is staying optimistic about that prospect.
Trailing fierce rivals Manchester United by nine points with 13 games to go is definitely not ideal, though it could be sitting relatively well with Mancini, Kidd and Platt. The circus that took place at Old Trafford in the last six weeks of 2011-12 will not happen again, but ask Mancini which he would prefer: nine behind with 13 remaining, or eight behind with six remaining? There’s no need to answer that.