Roberto Mancini: too many ideas, too few good ones
It seems so absurd, but the facts are neutral and immutable: the best team in England in 2011-12 are not even one of the top 24 teams in Europe in 2012-13. Manchester City were already out of the Uefa Champions League when they went into their match against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday night, but their 1-0 defeat at the claustrophobic Westfalenstadion saw them finish bottom of their group. City did not even make the Europa League.
“You cannot be embarrassed when you play 100 per cent,” Mancini said, looking a touch embarrassed. “I do not feel we lost our application but if you want to win games you have to score and at the moment we have this big problem. When we have a chance, we do not convert it. We need to resolve this.”
As explanations go, this was remarkably unintelligent from one of the game’s deep thinkers. If, with proven internationals, you score freely in the league but not in Europe, a pattern begins to develop. A better explanation for City’s malaise would be this: they struggled in Europe because their forwards, usually so impressive in the Premier League, seemed so easy to stop, and their midfield players seemed unable to unlock more disciplined opponents. Remember, it was the same last season for City in Europe.
Europe requires the kind of nuance that Mancini seems to lack. For all his thinking and tactical tinkering, he seems to have too many ideas but too few good ones. It is not enough to construct the most expensive team in history. Make the chequebook available and anybody can do that.
In mitigation, Group D was the toughest in the competition: Real Madrid are among the favourites, Borussia among the dark horses, and one should never discount Ajax. The English champions should probably always be seeded, irrespective of the particular club's past European record. However, six matches, no victories, and just seven goals scored is the form of a team that had no business playing at such a level. Even Blackburn Rovers in 1995-96 were not this bad.
It is becoming increasingly evident that what works in the Premier League does not necessarily work in Europe, and vice-versa. It took Alex Ferguson six years to turn Manchester United from the best team in England in 1993 to the best in Europe in 1999. It seems unlikely that Mancini will have that much time to create a team of European champions.
Conversely, while Rafael Benitez won one European Cup with Liverpool in 2005 and reached the final two years later, only once did his team come close to winning the Premier League. Benitez did not seem to have the ideas to plan a season but he was brilliant at planning for individual matches (as he proved on many occasions against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea), which worked so well in Europe.
Under Roberto di Matteo, Chelsea performed poorly in the Premier League last season but seemed inspired in Europe, where their tactical restraint, tedious as it was to watch, made life awkward for Barcelona in the semi-final and Bayern Munich in the final.
Mancini is more difficult to pin down. City came close to finishing runners-up last season and only won the Premier League title on goal difference. My belief was that they won the championship in spite of Mancini and not because of him. He was better at finding players than he was at finding systems. He proved poor at dealing with the capriciousness of Mario Balotelli and the irrationality of Carlos Tevez. For a squad so rich in talent, City occasionally looked naïve at crucial times, especially last March when the season looked like turning into a nightmare.
Mancini still does not appear to have a preferred system or even a preferred first XI line-up. He was found wanting in Europe when he switched to three defenders away to Ajax when victory was there for the taking. City’s 3-1 defeat in Amsterdam owed as much to Mancini’s bad management as it did to player error. Micah Richards emerged afterwards to confirm that City had were less than acquainted with the system. They had not practised it properly. “It is something that we have not worked on very much and it is the second time we have conceded after going to a back three," Richards said, dispensing with diplomacy. “We will have to work on it. We are happy just to play, but I think the players prefer a back four. It is what the manager wants.”
Throw into the equation bad finishing in most of the matches, bad defending (particularly against Real Madrid in Spain in September), and a general lack of balance, and you have a recipe for failure. City got what they deserved. Only by retaining the Premier League title can they make up for the disappointment and perhaps save Mancini’s reputation.
It never felt right for City from the moment they conceded a late goal to Real in Madrid. It's not on,” Joe Hart, the City goalkeeper, said, looking furious. “You cannot go 2-1 up and lose the game. We can only blame ourselves. We dug deep, got a lead twice and threw it away. It's hard to come off the field after losing 3-2 and be positive.” Mancini emerged quickly to slap down Hart. “Joe Hart should stay in goal and make saves,” the manager said. “If anyone should criticise the team it should be me, not Joe Hart. I am the judge, not Joe Hart.”
Mancini gets it right sometimes. His key decision – interestingly, going from a back four to a back thre – helped to turn a possible defeat against Tottenham Hotspur into victory last month, but there is an arbitrary element to life at Manchester City, which was always going to make their European campaign difficult.