To quote possibly the worst manager we’ve ever had, I can see the carrot at the end of the tunnel. That carrot, or light as Stuart Pearce should have put it, is Pep Guardiola: our knight in shining armour on his way to erase an almightily ‘meh’ 2015-2016 campaign from memory. It’s just a shame the Spaniard’s surname doesn’t rhyme with a nice motor, but I’m sure we’ll come up with a suitable chant.
Mentioning Premier League winner and two-time Capital One Cup conqueror Manuel Pellegrini in the same sour, stale, rancid breath as Pearce seems absurd to some. To others comparing the two makes sense. One half of the fanbase will refer to the trophies and the all-out attacking football; the other to what Pellegrini failed to do with the resources he had available to him. The 62-year-old was a glass of water between two strong cocktails, a calming influence following Roberto Mancini’s tempestuous reign and a man to shepherd the club safely into what promises to be the most exciting era the club has ever seen. Pellegrini’s job was to calm the waters and he did it well.
In what proved to be his final season at the Etihad Stadium, City flopped – strange, considering there were headlines at the end of August 2015 reading ‘Five Reasons Why Manchester City Can Go Unbeaten This Season’. Those first five games – 15 points, 11 goals, and no stains on the clean sheets from ties against West Brom, Chelsea, Everton, Watford, and Palace – were fantastic, weren’t they? After Vinny had signaled to the rest of the league that City were back, roaring belief into the faces of the travelling fans after heading in the final goal in a 3-0 win at the Hawthorns, it seemed clear that we were going to breeze it.
And things just got better. The unveiling of the new South Stand saw the Etihad consumed by an atmosphere we’ve not seen at Eastlands for a while. There was a togetherness in the stadium that day and a sense of community that the players responded to. They went and smashed reigning champions Chelsea 3-0 with £44m signing Raheem Sterling tearing Branislav Ivanović a new bottom-hole on the left wing. This was definitely going to be our year.
Three wins followed. 19-year-old Kelechi Iheanacho’s 90th minute winner at Selhurst Park ensured £55m man Kevin De Bruyne’s debut would be one to remember. De Bruyne, signed from Wolfsburg a day after a 2-0 home win over Watford, scored 16 goals and made 15 assists in all competitions in his first season at the club, forging a strong relationship with the supporters who could not get enough of the 24-year-old’s #swag. Watchers of the Premier League are suckers for scorers of great goals and suppliers of defence-splitting assists and De Bruyne became a player rival fans could not help but hate to love on his return to England. In my eyes, only Fernandinho outperformed the Belgian this term.
But after we were quite inevitably drawn in another Champions League group of death with 2014-2015 finalists Juventus, Borussia Mönchengladbach, and Europa League winners Sevilla, things turned sour.
“Everything started off so well but the early season promise after that run of five consecutive victories had long since faded by the time City limped across the line in Swansea. When things unraveled, they unraveled very quickly, and that, more than anything, meant Manuel Pellegrini bowed out under something of a cloud.” – Sam Lee, Manchester City correspondent for Goal
City did a fine job of helping the Old Lady across the road in their Champions League opener against Juventus. A not-at-all fortunate shouldered goal from Kompany may have tempted a few into putting money on a 2015-2016 quadruple but second half goals from Mario Mandžukić and Alvaro Morata proved we were far from invincible. The 2-1 loss also saw Kompany limp off with his first of what would be five serious injuries, paving the way for £35m man Nicolás Otamendi to try and prove he was even worse than Eliaquim Mangala. There’s no arguing that the former Valencia player succeeded.
Mangala is a failing but hard-working student of the game who could genuinely thrive under a manager willing to give him the time of day. He’s eager to learn and perhaps deserves our sympathy. Otamendi, on the other hand, adopts a more mindless approach to defending and spends more time on the floor than on his feet. What astounds me is that not a single member of the coaching staff told him to stop diving into tackles and allowed him to embarrass himself right up until the final day. It’s no surprise that the club will move for the likes of John Stones and Aymeric Laporte in this summer’s transfer window.
September was a month that brought us right back down to Earth. We suffered our first league defeat to West Ham and then found ourselves on the end of a 4-1 thrashing at White Hart Lane. Drubbings would become commonplace for Pellegrini and his team who finished the season with just one win and 30 goals conceded in 14 against top eight opposition.
October was a month of resurgence with inspirational performances from Agüero and Sterling helping the side to 20 goals in six games. Admittedly woeful against teams in the top half of the table, City, at least, were the flat-track bullies of the 2015-2016 campaign. Newcastle and Bournemouth were on the end of severe beatings as the Blues looked to rediscover their August form and the 11 goals scored in those two games inspired the lads to a 2-1 win over Sevilla at the Etihad – De Bruyne’s late, late strike securing us a very important three points.
And despite offering indubitably their best display of the season in a 3-1 win at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium to boost our chances of progressing into the knockout stages – a display in which Sterling and Fernandinho shone – we found ourselves drowning in the cold November rain. A 0-0 draw against the hopeless Aston Villa could have been a blip but the 4-1 collapse against Liverpool was not. Gegenpressing the shite out of us under the instruction of their new manager Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool ruthlessly exposed the flaws in our side.
A topsy-turvy 4-2 victory over Gladbach in December meant qualification from Champions League Group D was going to be achieved. Meanwhile, Claudio Ranieri’s fascinatingly brilliant Leicester City were dominating things domestically and went into 2016 at the top of the table. Were Manchester City going to turn the heat back on and prevent this mockery of a season from getting really out of hand? Agüero’s last minute header at Watford convinced people we were and then De Bruyne, our major source of inspiration as we overturned a 2-1 deficit against Everton in the semi-final of the Capital One Cup, got injured and everything went tits up. Cue the best deadline day signing ever made: Pep Guardiola to join Manchester City in July. It was the lift we all needed.
But consecutive defeats to title-chasers Leicester and Tottenham suggested that the announcement may have come at a bad time for City. Pellegrini was now a lame duck unable to motivate the players as effectively as he once could. We’d been poor all season but it was in February that City really began to lag in the title race.
“In a strange way, Guardiola coming in kept Pellegrini in a job. He could quite easily have gone after the 4-2 defeat to United last April – but the board knew they were getting their man in 12 months and felt a safe pair of hands who knew the club was the best option.
Pellegrini will be gutted, though. If he had won the title this season – and he should have, let’s face it – he would have left as arguably the most successful manager in the club’s history.” – Rob Pollard, Manchester Evening News
Pellegrini did, however, ensure that City would claim silverware in his final season at the club. Willy Caballero was so good it was funny in the penalty shoot-out at Wembley, making three massive saves to win us the Capital One Cup against Liverpool. Yaya Touré bagged the winning spot-kick, but it was Caballero – or William Gentleman in Spanish – who was mobbed by his teammates. A week earlier goals from Agüero, Silva and Touré in Kiev had all but guaranteed us a place in the quarter finals of Europe. But was the draw going to be as kind as it had been for the last 16?
The answer was a rather solid no. Zlatan Ibrahimović’s Paris Saint Germain had already won the league before the season had even begun and had disposed of Chelsea with ease in the previous round. If an 18-year-old Marcus Rashford could do us in a Manchester Derby at our place, the big Swede and his pal Ángel Di María weren’t going to have much trouble doing it in the Parc des Princes. Extraordinarily, that didn’t prove to be the case as City, as they had in Europe all term, gave offered a disciplined display in Paris enough to earn a 2-2 draw. The returning De Bruyne was pivotal in this one and he was now the man City fans were looking to as dreams of a European semi-final, and possibly even a final, became more realistic.
And then with one delicious swipe of the Belgian’s boot in the reverse fixture at a booming Etihad Stadium, there we were in the semis. Ten-time champions Real Madrid, a side many of us would have had no qualms about meeting in the quarters, stood between ourselves and the final in Milan, but it was an unacceptable lack of desire rather than any sort of inhuman brilliance from Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale that ensured the season would end with a whimper. It was a solid enough display at the Etihad, but City did not look like a team that needed a goal at the Santiago Bernabéu and Bale’s deflected effort was enough to send the Spaniards into their 14th European final.
Last term, this would have been a proper ‘Fernando’ moment. However, City’s very own octopus has impressed and now looks to be a useful member of the squad alongside Fernandinho in the middle of the park. Twelve months ago the only similarity between the Brazilian and his nickname was their ability to play football; now, we’re seeing the ex-Porto man putting a leg in all over the field. The jury is still out on whether Guardiola will decide to reward him.
And unless Pep has a masterplan to transform Wilfried Bony into the world’s strongest centre half, he’ll be gone this summer along with Kolarov and Zaba who, sadly, are no longer good enough.
On the final day of the season – a day we’d been eagerly anticipating since February – a draw in Swansea was enough to secure a place in the top four, even if it was goal difference that separated ourselves and Manchester United – a team that had been castigated all season for their poor football. The last time we finished level on points with United, Agüero’s 93rd minute strike against QPR won us the title.
“The Law of Gradually Diminishing Returns came vividly into view as Manuel Pellegrini’s third and final term at the helm of the Good Ship Manchester City would down in increasingly fraught circumstances, a long slow death, washed up on the modern day rocks of MCFC “failure”: a League Cup, Champions League semi-final and 4th place. How times, and expectations, change.” – Simon Curtis, ESPN
Expectations will be even higher under Pep Guardiola’s reign. Arguably the finest manager in world football at present and renowned for his ability to turn bread into wine on the football field, averageness will not be accepted. And with José Mourinho now just round the corner in the Salford slum, prepare for one hell of a season.