Roberto Mancini: out of his depth
“Hand it to them now,” barked the headline after Manchester United began the 1985-86 campaign with ten straight league victories. But in the one-horse race, United contrived to finish fourth. In 2012-13, with United now six points clear at the top of the Premier League after a 3-2 victory away to Manchester City on Sunday afternoon, there is talk among some observers of another one-horse race.
Hand it to them now? "It is a long season," Roberto Mancini, the City manager said, and for once he is right. Nevertheless, auguries are good for United, and, with Mancini in charge, not so good for City.
This is probably the worst United team since 2006 but they still appear to be ahead of everybody else in England this season, which is most important. It helps Alex Ferguson, the United manager, that Chelsea have mastered the art of self-destruction. It helps that Arsene Wenger has lost the ability to buy his way towards relevance. It helps that Mancini is out of his depth as manager of Manchester City.
Yet again, when it mattered most, Mancini got his tactics and line-up wrong. Starting with Mario Balotelli backfired horribly and gave United the initiative. Waiting until the 50th minute to replace Balotelli with Carlos Tevez was madness, for only after that did City begin to play. City have more spark when Tevez and Sergio Aguero play together, which, at home against your nearest rivals, should have made the decision easy for Mancini. Balotelli has no place in a decent team. He is too capricious, too erratic, and too selfish. City should sell him.
Just as inexplicable is the sudden emergence of Kolo Toure, who, though absent from the City squad for the Uefa Champions League matches, entered the fray against United in place of the injured Vincent Kompany after 20 minutes. Kolo Toure did not look fit, and one must wonder what this means for Joleon Lescott, who remained on the substitutes’ bench and appears out of contention.
The match was splendid. United deserved their two-goal lead thanks to Wayne Rooney, City deserved to pull it level through Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta, but United proved worthy winners if only for their greater intensity and consistency over the 90 minutes. One was not surprised that Robin Van Persie, the United striker, scored with a deflected free kick in stoppage time at the end. United never looked beaten, even when City had the momentum late on.
Although I rarely regard Rooney as being capable of disseminating anything of interest, he was right in his post-match assessment: “There is desire and passion at the club, and under Sir Alex we never know we are beaten. It is no fluke how many games we have won late on. We know it could be in injury time or in the first minute. You have got to keep on pushing.”
It would be wrong to say that City do not “keep pushing” – that was how they won the Premier League last season – but the team seems to be an embodiment of their manager: capable of much that is good, capable of much that is bad, frustrating, unpredictable, inconsistent, unreliable. (The same adjectives that would apply to Balotelli). City supporters should also worry about what has happened to Samir Nasri and to Joe Hart, two world-class players who are not performing anywhere near close to world class.
Mancini is not a great manager. He is the type to complicate the game, to think too deeply about axiomatic situations. Ferguson is less of a thinker but far more successful, even, in this instance, with an inferior team. With Mancini, one is reminded of the Biblical quotation: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” [Luke 12:48].
Mancini has everything he wants: an unlimited budget, the choice of any player he requires, the backing of a massive fan-base, and even the aura of mystery that the media have bestowed upon him. He won the Premier League title last season but seemed to spend much of the campaign trying to finish as runners-up. City won – just – in spite of him, not because of him. City won because they had the best players. City won because they spent the most on player wages. Had he handled Tevez and Balotelli with greater competence, City might have sewn up the title by April, rather than leaving it to the final seconds of their final match last May.
May seems such a long time ago. City have since fallen out of the Uefa Champions League. They did not even make the Europa League. Now they are slipping behind in the Premier League. For how long can Mancini survive? The pressure must be now intolerable.
Mancini’s advocates, and there are many, will no doubt point to his achievement in winning the FA Cup in 2011 and in winning the Premier League in 2012, but, for me, these are minimum requirements from a man who has the greatest latitude of any manager in the world. Under him, City do not look anywhere near a team capable of mounting a serious European challenge.
He might need to win the Premier League again just to keep his job – if, indeed, his employers afford him even that much time.