For a writer whose trade and passion is football, I have a terrible knack of sleeping through FA Cup finals. Usually, it is not too much of a disaster – excluding the West Ham Liverpool tie in 2006, every final I’ve been able to remember has been won by the favourite, and usually quite comfortably in a match of little action. I am afraid to say that once again assuming that Manchester City would walk away with it this weekend, my belly full of a late Saturday lunch and crisp cider, by the 15th minute my eyes heavied, and I was once again amid my annual siesta.
It was not until I received a text from a friend, joking at the prospect of Ben Watson making it to an FA Cup final, that I awoke just in time to see Pablo Zabaletta shown a red card. Although I had missed the vast majority of the match, you could instantly tell the significance of the Citizens’ most dependable and consistent player being sent for an early shower.
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Perhaps at the time I was too gripped by the sudden euthoria of Wigan having the upper hand – the Latics are the type of team, composed of style, cult heroes, blind loyalty and belief, that really capture the imagination and thus have a strong following of admirers throughout the country, including myself – that the prospect of Roberto Mancini’s job slipping away was not at the forefront of my consideration.
But as Wigan netted from a corner, a header from Ben Watson, to the irony of my friend’s mocking, and the clock began to run down without any hint of a serious reply from the Skyblues, it became obvious that it would be a trophyless year at Eastlands; the first since Mancini took over the big spenders since 2009, which would no doubt lead to grave consequences.
Whereas the Italian’s tagline before the match – ‘three trophies in three years’ – had an acceptable ring to it, considering City’s non-existent title defence this year, the analysis of the Manchester club’s season upon the final whistle became; embarrassing in Europe, lukewarm at best during a stale year in the Premier League, and overall no silverware, after losing to a club likely to be playing Championship football next season at Wembley.
Needless to say, for a club who has spent £1 billion on transfers alone in a bid to transform them from the depths of mediocrity into a European institution, any year without accolades can only be constituted as a failure. With rumours rife throughout the season, it now appears that Mancini’s job is currently under review, with the almost certain outcome to be that he will be handed his P45 and a ticket back to Italy, as early as today, without even gracing him with the respectful opportunity to lead out a team he lifted the Premier League title with in glorious fashion a year ago this weekend.
But is it right that the City boss is taking the full brunt of the club’s failings this season? And is it fair that his tenure should be cut short by a Cup final alone, where momentum, fate, and the magic of the FA Cup was always going to be in the Latics’ favour? Is he simply becoming a scapegoat for a club frustrated by its difficulty in progressing?
The first mistake regarding City’s poor season was in the summer, and it had little to do with Roberto Mancini. The most hotly desired purchase last year was Robin Van Persie – at £20million, the Premier League’s most prolific and talented marksman was a steal. But despite the infinite finance at the club’s disposal, the Dutchman, set to top the scoring charts for a consecutive season, chose local rivals Manchester United, going on to lift the first Premier League title of his career with the Red Devils.
The Italian gaffer could tell it would come back to bite them; we were only a few weeks into the season when he began criticising Bryan Marwood, the club’s head-honcho when it comes to transfers, and no doubt made an enemy within the club’s power structure in the process. Fire-power has been the difference between the two Manchester clubs this year, with Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Van Persie firing on all cylinders, whilst Edin Dzeko has been unable to shake his ‘super-sub’ reputation, Sergio Aguero has spent the year layed out on a physio bench, Carlos Tevez has been industrious but not clinical, and Mario Balotelli’s career in England imploded by the January transfer window.
Instead of a sharp-shooter, Marwood supplied new recruits in Maicon, Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell, Scott Sinclair and Matija Nastasic, all of whom excluding the latter have had a limited effect on the first team, with Rodwell, Maicon and Sinclair making just 11 Premier League starts between them. The board expected Mancini to simply get on with it – he already had a team of superstars from the previous season. Yet even the most dim-witted of managers will tell you that continuous growth and upgrading is required not necessarily to improve, but simply to maintain.
Furthermore, Van Persie’s decision to opt for the red side of Manchester in many ways sums up the difference between the two clubs, and further gives us an insight into how City’s season within 90 minutes became judged as a complete failure. Whilst the Red Devils remain ever consistent in almost every way possible on and off the pitch, the Citizens are unpredictable; the cut-throat acquisition and casting aside of players, constant rumours of in-fighting and training ground bust-ups, and the star-studded cast’s tendency to play their football far too casually on occasion, implying an underlying arrogance rather than self-confidence.
With Mancini at the helm, there is a simple but true argument that the buck must stop with him. But the United mentality of success after success has been forged over years and decades, and it as much due to the club’s infrastructure from top to bottom – the staff, the coaches, the manager, the chairman, the youth system, the scouting network and the unquantifiable effects of reputation – as it is any particular individual, crux of talent or available funding. My criticism is quite simply; how can you expect the Italian to mimic such a system of repetitive success in the space of four years, unlimited finance or not.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not the soon-to-be-axed City boss’s biggest fan. His continual tinkering during the first part of the season smacked of naivety and idealism. It’s difficult to measure how many points the use of 3-5-2 cost the SkyBlues in the Premier League, but it certainly contributed heavily to their poor European form. Similarly, with the finance at the club’s disposal and the constant flurry of talent arriving at the club, Mancini’s job at Eastlands has been more along the lines of a glorified babysitter than it has a coach, man manager or tactician, and he has not kept the unruly kids under his control.
He’s struggled to get the team performing at top gear for more than in patches throughout his tenure, and despite his apparent media mastery, I find his open criticism of players in the press lacking in class and astuteness. Furthermore, although this campaign’s obsolete title defence cannot be rested entirely upon Mancini’s shoulders, as a number of City’s marquee players have quite simply not turned up this year, he’s failed to create a mindset that would not allow for complacency to creep in.
The 48 year old has certainly made his fair share of mistakes, but my concern is that his impending dismissal is as much to do with the club’s failings as it is his as a manager. It seems that Mancini’s accomplishments – turning it around to defy the odds and lead the Citizens to their first Premier League title last year, in no small part due to his ability to take all of the pressure of the players and onto the roster at Old Trafford, in addition to lifting the FA Cup in 2010 – have long been forgotten, and instead, a single year of nothing-doing is evidence enough for a managerial death sentence.
But the fact is, in the grand scheme of things, City are still relatively small fish in an ocean of continental football. Their Champions League naivety has shown ever since their initial qualification, and they are still a long way behind Chelsea, Arsenal and United in terms of accolades and silverware; it was only 12 years ago that they were crowned champions of the English second tier.
The club has come on leaps and bounds since then, but it is a long way off providing the consistency of United, the kind of consistency that guarantees a trophy per year, as seems to be the current requirement, and getting into the habit of ‘hiring and firing’, based upon unrealistic targets of silverware, is certainly not the short-cut to getting to the same level as their local rivals.
Mancini has become the scapegoat for the board’s frustration and impatience – a face and embodiment of an invisible and unquantifiable factor they cannot put their finger on – and no doubt, the Italian’s replacement, most likely Malaga’s Manuel Pellegrini, is wondering what qualifies as an acceptable year, and furthermore an acceptable tenure, as City boss.