The Last Tango with Manuel Pellegrini

History is littered with charlatans. Charles Ponzi banked a fortune at the expense of ‘investors’. Alessandro Cagliostro masqueraded as a count and traveled Europe, selling love potions and elixirs of youth. It would be unfair to call Manuel Pellegrini, ‘That Charming Man’, a charlatan, but he pulled off a great trick to keep his job at Manchester City last year.

This isn’t intended to be an assassination of Pellegrini. His first season in charge was spectacular and a joy to watch. We destroyed teams playing swashbuckling attacking football, scoring loads of goals, and being the Premier League’s great entertainers. The bruised egos of the squad also found their smiles again. Still, even in a record-breaking year, we almost cocked it up and needed Steven Gerrard’s slip to derail champions-in-waiting Liverpool from finally making it ‘their year’ (after telling us it will be for 20-odd years).

Since that season, it has been a slow and painful decline under Pellegrini. I look at the 2-2 draw with Burnley at the Etihad in December 2014 as the turning point. There were worrying signs prior to that, with the home defeat to Stoke a precursor to what was to come, but City were still winning consistently and in fact had been on a seven game winning run before the draw with Burnley. To simplify, things started to go to shit with the arrival of 2015. Wins became draws and draws became defeats from January to April. City’s form declined steeply and top four suddenly became a doubt.

Then something happened. After a humiliating derby defeat at Old Trafford, the players found their mojo and went on an almighty winning run of eleven leagues games – six of them at the end of the 2014-15 season and five of them to start the 2015-16 season with a bang. Everything looked rosy again. Even Kolarov looked great! Things were looking up and everyone agreed – City were going to walk the 2015-16 Premier League and continue that whole boom-bust cycle of having a great season, followed by a not-go-great season, and repeat.

And then we lost to West Ham at the Etihad. It was an unlucky defeat in which a force field seemed to surround Adrián’s goal. 72% possession, 27 shots, 16 corners. ‘A bad day at the office’ as the football cliché goes. Many other such clichés would soon follow to try and explain a serious decline. It was after a 4-1 defeat to Tottenham that City decimated Newcastle (6-1) and Bournemouth (5-1) in back-to-back games at the Etihad, convincing many that things were back on track. Months later, we now know that this City team have merely been flat-track bullies this season.

Since putting Bournemouth to the sword in October, Pellegrini’s men have failed to win two Premier League games in a row. We’re talking 21 matches here spread across five months. It hasn’t all been doom and gloom – for a period of that run it went WDWDWDW, but even in that spell we were thoroughly unconvincing.

Let’s go back to October 2014 when tactical genius Sam Allardyce said, after his West Ham side upset City:

“We all know City play a certain way, they come away from home expecting to win and go and attack you. We’ve seen a lot this season that those spaces they leave can be exploited by other teams. We exploited those spaces brilliantly.”

Allardyce was right. Pellegrini’s City team is very easy to play against and sometimes opponents need only one or two attacks to win the match. While Silva, Raheem and Kun try and grind their way through well organised midfields and defences, opponents can often bypass Pellegrini’s defensive set-up with a single pass, presenting an attacker with a one-on-one chance against Joe Hart.

Football is constantly changing, evolving. Coaches learn from their mistakes, adapt and improve. Some of them, anyway. Others get left behind and with Pellegrini, nothing seems to change. There is very little thinking outside the box, no radical formation changes, no wildcards. No, wait, there was one – a prodigious teenager named Kelechi Iheanacho, who bagged some crucial goals, only to go back in the bin when the disappointing Wilfried Bony returned from injury. Price tag over performance appears to be one of Pellegrini’s mantras.

Some will point the blame at the players and also Txiki Begiristain’s player recruitment to defend Pellegrini. Others will throw out the ‘3 trophies in 3 years’ line, which is not as impressive as it sounds when you consider two of those were the lowest priority trophy. Don’t get me wrong, I would never turn my nose up at any trophy, but the League Cup is not the Champions League or even close to the FA Cup in terms of prestige. Our title challenges this season and last have been shambolic. Standards at Manchester City are, or should be, exceptionally high now with the resources and level of investment the club is privileged to have. A team like ours should be challenging for the title until the very end, not bowing out in shame weeks or months before.

Throughout the season, there have been a multitude of excuses to disguise the reality that City are one of the worst coached teams in the Premier League. A recent one, excusing the thrashing from Liverpool at Anfield, was that the players were tired and City had injuries. Keep in mind that Liverpool had less time to rest the week before, having played Augsburg in the Europa League, and also had more injuries than City. Then the teams met in the cup final, where everything did work for once, resulting in the highlight of the season and a rare victory over a top side. The point being, there was no excuse for another big capitulation in the Premier League game that followed the Wembley triumph.

Leicester, Spurs, Liverpool and United have all beaten us in the last couple of months. We haven’t even been able to compensate with our impressive brand of flat-track bullying as much, having been held to a 0-0 draw away at Norwich. Aston Villa, one of the worst Premier League teams in recent memory, were kind enough to roll over after a first half of stubborn resistence, though. Since Guardiola was announced, we haven’t taken a single point from a top 16 side in the league. We’ve managed just 36 points from our last 25 games. There are many stats like these floating around, all of them damning and quite hard to comprehend.

Blaming the players is another deflection from Pellegrini’s inability to coach this team effectively. Don’t get me wrong, they can be infuriatingly bone idle at times and some of them need to go, but we’re talking about a big group of professionals here. When so many of them fail to perform to their abilities, do you blame the whole lot or look elsewhere? Elsewhere, of course, being Manuel Pellegrini and his ability to train and motivate them. I’m going to risk the wrath of City fans here by bringing up Alex Ferguson. Here’s a man who would not stand for 90 minutes of underperforming, let alone a season’s worth of it. He was a highly demanding coach, but at the same time respected by his players, and the result was United being the most consistent team in England for many years. Pellegrini seems neither capable of inspiring his players or setting them up well in the majority of our most challenging games.

Pellegrini has been handed some average signings and player recruitment deserves an article of its own. The injury record has also been appalling and something must change there. But despite these factors, we have always been able to field a team that, on paper, is equal to or better than the opposition. Take the 0-0 draw with Norwich for example. Would you fancy Wes Hoolahan playing behind Aguero? How about Gary O’Neil replacing Fernandinho? Would Tim Klose oust Vincent Kompany from the City eleven? Man for man, there was not a single player on that Norwich team superior to his City counterpart. And yet they cared and had a plan, while all we got was was a dry, stale performance from the Blues, devoid of ideas and cutting edge. Pellegrini, like on so many occasions this season, had no game plan. No inspiration. Nothing.

We now have eight league games to go and under The Engineer, who may have to be relabelled The Demolition Man by the time he departs the Etihad in a couple of months, we are at serious risk of missing out on Champions League football. This could be very costly for the club.

Returning to an earlier point, the winning run that began late last season wasn’t all good. It did ensure that we finished second, but it also saved Pellegrini’s job and gave a number of players who thrived in that purple patch, such as Aleks Kolarov, a stay of execution that they didn’t deserve. City have tried to be the extreme opposite of Roman Abramovich’s trigger-happy dictatorship at Chelsea by promoting stability and harmony. There is a place between those extremes, though, where an underperforming manager can be sacked quite fairly for not doing his job well. Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich are three clubs I’m convinced would not have tolerated the poor form City endured under Pellegrini from January to mid-April 2015.

Pellegrini has not been up to task, again taking into account the resources he has at his disposal, since December 2014. Only the knowledge within City that Pep Guardiola would arrive a year later may have saved him last summer. Reports from South America claimed that Alejandro Sabella was convinced City had an interest in him, while Rafa Benítez was also linked before Real Madrid snapped him up, so it’s likely that City bosses flirted with the idea of change, before deciding to risk another year of Pellegrini. Again, that purple patch may have fooled them into believing the poor form last season was just a blip.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Pellegrini. He’s affable and carries himself with a rare dignity and class. Other than an outburst at the Champions League referee Jonas Eriksson, he hasn’t created any controversy during his tenure. But sometimes, you have to separate the man from the job he is doing. Some are unable to do that and believe Pellegrini deserves unlimited patience because he’s a nice guy. He’s a great guy, but he’s not a great coach. He did a fine job of repairing a broken dressing room and reactivating a broken City team, but his usefulness ended there. A number of managers could have done what he has since, a good many of them probably better.

Manchester City need an A-lister, a tag both Mancini and Pellegrini are too limited to deserve. Luckily, one is on his way very soon. Pep Guardiola is the next-level manager this club deserves, one with key skills that Pellegrini lacks. A coach who is always thinking, moving the pieces around the board, not procrastinating until the 60th minute. A motivator who will win the minds of his players and demand nothing less than excellence, hopefully bringing a relentless consistency and intensity we’ve lacked despite our successes in the last five years. A five month run of no back-to-back league wins under Pep? That won’t happen. He’s a winner and will soon make people forget the reign of Pellegrini, which started so well, but sadly will, or should be, seen as an overall disappointment in my view. I would love for him to make this entire article obsolete and a laughing stock by going on to win the Champions League, but I can’t see it. Can you?

I was in my usual South Stand spot against United and at 1-0 down, the City faithful were already looking beyond the current mess to what is to come. This song swept through blocks 114 and 115, trying to lift others in the stadium, as Pellegrini again failed at his job. Pellegrini’s reign will be over soon, a year overdue I would argue, and an exciting new era awaits on the pitch… so don’t worry about a thing.



  1. Pingback: Wilfried Bony: Doomed From Day One – City Watch

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