It has been noticeable over the years how increasingly Premier League games are staggered across the week, presumably as part of the commercial dictates behind the sport. It was already stretching the tolerance of the fans to first divide games between Saturdays and Sundays; but to now divide them across as many as five days of a week, with some on Monday, some on Wednesday, and some not occurring at all, strips the competition of its intensity and makes it hard to follow with any sustained interest. It was news, but not surprising, to hear that Man City had a Premier League game the other day when none of their rivals seemed to have a game at all on that week. Beyond the immediate disorienting effects on fans, there is the loss of a more intangible quality that was associated with the traditional league kick-off time of 3pm on a Saturday and hearkened back to a time when the commercial growth of football did not yet stretch the patience of its fans with gimmicks and over-saturation that dulled the joy of the game. It is perhaps this sense of overload and fatiguing ever-presence of football content which has spurred fans to lose their sense of perspective between football and life, pleasure and work.
So Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has now met with representatives of Falco to discuss a possible future deal for the £45 million pound striker. One might think that a manager who is in charge of four world-class strikers and struggling to get enough goals out of them might consider such a move a damning indictment of his managerial qualities, but apparently Mancini has no such qualms. His attempts to dress up the naked poaching of any player who seems to provide a stop-gap solution to his problems as long-term team-building may find approval with his patient owners for longer than it does with others. However there’s only so long a man can pull wool over people’s eyes, and failure to get out of the Champions League group stages for two years in a row has nothing to do with inexperience and everything with incompetence – as does the failure to make the most of the lavishly gifted squad already at his disposal.
Tonight’s glamour match of the Champions League between Real Madrid and Manchester City represents an opportunity that Roberto Mancini would be foolhardy to pass up. City struggled badly under Mancini in a tough group in their first test in the deeper waters of the Champions League, during a campaign that did nothing to dispel the perception that a manager who had failed to replicate domestic success at Inter on the European stage had his limitations. However, if ever there was a chance for a manager and team who are both making steady and impressive strides to maturation to make the final leap to being serious contenders at the highest level, the luck of the draw has given them it. Cancelling out, or even overcoming as tough an opponent as they are likely to face in the Champions League is not beyond the realms of possibility for City anymore, and doing so right from the off will set them in good stead for the rest of the competition. If they seize the opportunity to shine against the best that has been presented before them tonight, it could serve as the graduation of City as a football team and Mancini as a manager to the highest level.
The most surprising aspect of Manchester United’s capture of Robin van Persie is the amount they have stumped up for his services. United have been squeezed both by Arsenal, who forced them to increase their original bid of £15 million by 9 million to £24 million before selling, and the player himself, who stands to enjoy a £50 million reward if he stays the length of his contract and millions more in bonuses should United win trophies during his time with them. For a club saddled with frightening amounts of debt, and a manager acutely aware that the largest weaknesses in his team remain in midfield, the glamour of such a move cannot entirely put to bed questions it prompts of Ferguson’s management. Is it possible that City, in the way they riled him last year through the 6-2 annihilation at Old Trafford, and tortured him with the illusion of a close-fought race before confirming the brutal truth of their superiority in the dying seconds of last season, have clouded his judgement? Reports are circling that Ferguson is planning a final stand against the new might of City over the next two years, and that the pursuit of van Persie was part of a strategy to bequeath a legacy worthy of Manchester United to his club. However, at the risk of sounding condescending, the modern-day manager has more to worry about than winning trophies at any cost, and should Ferguson’s incredulous outlay on an injury-prone player be a contributing factor to United’s continuing slide into financial trouble in the future, then his impact on the club will be up for review.
Besides, the neutral always associated Ferguson’s stature as a manager with his ability to address every one of the great challenges of their profession: from balancing the books to developing youngsters, from playing an entertaining style of football to winning trophies with tactical acumen. In his apparent desperation, it is doubtful he has even gotten that last part right: overloading his team with strikers and comparing them to the 1999 vintage overlooks the fact that his trophy-winning team were anchored by a dynamic, powerful midfield that is missing today. If reports linking Ferguson to Kaka are to be believed, then that would reassure that he has not completely lost sight of how to tackle a City team that is strong in every area of the pitch, but still doesn’t clear him of the charge of being financially negligent and strategically short-sighted. Kaka and Van Persie will both need replacing by the time Ferguson is believed to be pulling up sticks, and the perils of leaving a team’s long-term future in the vicelike grip of senior players can be seen at Chelsea, where Jose Mourinho did the same thing and cast a shadow over the club that was not fully redeemed by their negative triumph in the Champions League.
Fans are in thrall to the win-at-all costs mentality that Mourinho has spread in the game, and Ferguson’s embracing of the same approach has reduced his appeal to the neutral. Watching Manchester United sweep all before them in the most unlikeliest of fashions in 1999, through thrilling attacking play and script-defying comebacks, was a transforming experience that sparked my love of football, but Ferguson has flattered to deceive since then. His 2008 crop that repeated Champions League success owed too much to the individual talents of Cristiano Ronaldo to really extend his reputation beyond being a pure winner in the same way to a creator of great teams thrilling to the mind and soul. Some pinpoint conceding goals like a hole-filled boat against Real Madrid at home in 2003 as the moment when Ferguson sacrificed his pure attacking instincts in favour of a more pragmatic, trophy-sure approach to playing the game. Since that concession, he has also struggled under financial constraints to replicate his successes with the kind of young players he was once famed for developing. Even though fans point to Tom Cleverly and Chris Smalling, there can be no doubt that Ferguson has changed as a manager to keep up with those who splurge to win and has sacrificed some of what made him previously stand out from the managerial crowd in the process.
Robin van Persie might bring him goals and confirm his place in the pantheon of great sporting managers, but one cannot help but feel the achievements that made Ferguson a sporting icon stood for more than just winning while paying scant attention to the collateral damage.
“I don’t think we can play for the Champions League with this squad…We have to improve as players…if you don’t change a lot of players, you can’t hope to win like other teams.”
Is there not one Manchester City player who is as offended by Roberto Mancini’s most recent comments about them as I am? He professes his lack of faith that a team that won the Premier League can go far in the Champions League and urges his players to improve themselves, before declaring his wish “to change a lot of them” to continue winning.
With every plaintive comment expressing his dissatisfaction with those he coaches, Mancini reveals himself more and more as a myopic manager whose understanding of his profession excludes player nurturing and long-term development in favour of an almost childlike practice of buy, field, win. It would be interesting to see him cope at a club that did not have such a sizeable advantage to the rest of the field (City because of their riches, Inter because of Calciopoli), and where he would actually have to engage in coaching once again. In the meantime, it remains to be seen how City respond to his latest round of demands for players at a time when their expenditure has sent them on a head-on collision course with UEFA ahead of the onset of FFP rules in 2013-14.
As Roberto Mancini’s thinly disguised complaints over Manchester City’s lack of transfer activity become more and more frequent, the sense of disbelief at his ignorance of the irony of his stance grows. Mancini presides over the most expensively assembled squad in the history of football, yet never fails to take an opportunity to demand that the club’s owners continue their excessive spending habits on his behalf. Last year, his request that he needed “two or three more players” to win the Premier League was attended to by the City board who sanctioned the buys of Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and Sergio Aguero. However, by January, Mancini was complaining that player injuries and the African Cup of Nations meant he would “need more players” to maintain the club’s lead at the top of the table. It has been a familiar story this summer, with Mancini adamant that the burden of “winning again” rests on City’s ability to buy new players and “to change some players in some positions.”
Apart from his qualities of solid defensive organisation and a unique rapport with Mario Balotelli, it has been difficult to see what Mancini has added as City manager. Despite making full use of City’s riches he still required a last-minute goal to secure the Premier League title, and his obsessive quest to acquire new players ignores a manager’s duty to develop those he has already bought. Micah Richards, Adam Johnson and James Milner might feel short-changed by his public declaration that he “needs to change some players in some positions”, while Samir Nasri pointedly spoke of his need to “feel loved by the manager” in order to perform at his best. Mancini’s quotes and actions have never served to portray him as a manager who is also an individual fan of his players, and who embraces all aspects of management beyond the imperative to win. He jars most negatively in this regard with Nasri’s old manager, Arsene Wenger, whom Thierry Henry fondly described as having the rare ability to give players “confidence in themselves.” It was Wenger, not Mancini, whom Kolo Toure chose to call for advice upon discovering he had failed a drugs test in March last year.
If Robin van Persie follows through his intention to leave Arsenal, he would do well to remember what he will be leaving behind. He will be hard pressed to find a manager anywhere who cares as deeply about his players’ careers, or creates tactical systems that consider giving them a platform to shine as important as the function they serve in a team. Many scoff at Wenger for failing to bring trophies home to Arsenal but, setting aside the dedication and professionalism that propelled Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero to new heights last season, there has not been one player who can be said to have flourished under Mancini’s watch. This, along with his timidly defensive playing style, are indictments of his management that cannot be totally papered over by his ceaseless observations that his squad requires strengthening.