x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pellegrini, Man City keep getting taken by surprise by small fries

Despite insisting otherwise, Sunday's loss to Wigan is just the latest example of manager Manuel Pellegrini and Manchester City appearing to overlook a less-heralded opponent, writes Richard Jolly.

Manuel Pellegrini reacts during Manchester City's 2-1 loss to Wigan Athletic on Sunday. Paul Ellis / AFP / March 9, 2014
Manuel Pellegrini reacts during Manchester City's 2-1 loss to Wigan Athletic on Sunday. Paul Ellis / AFP / March 9, 2014

It was to prove a more pertinent question than even Manuel Pellegrini’s interrogator could have realised. Have you, the Manchester City manager was asked on Friday, looked at the DVD of last year’s FA Cup final? He had, he said, but not since the beginning of the season.

It seemed a fair answer. After all, City’s Wembley defeat to Wigan Athletic did not come on his watch. It was Roberto Mancini’s unhappy send-off. Pellegrini likes to insist the past is irrelevant when it comes to rematches.

Except that, an hour or so after Wigan eliminated City from the FA Cup for the second successive year, their manager, Uwe Rosler, volunteered the information that he had not only studied the tape of the greatest day in Wigan’s history, but copied his predecessor Roberto Martinez’s game plan.

Tactically, Wigan were brilliant. Their 2-1 win at the Etihad Stadium marked Rosler out as a manager of huge promise. It also highlighted two of the principal drawbacks of Pellegrini’s approach: a tendency to take lower-profile opponents too lightly and a habit of appearing unprepared for certain matches City are expected to win.

There is a recurring theme where Championship opponents are involved. Blackburn Rovers took City to a replay, Watford ventured into a two-goal lead before losing 4-2 and Wigan beat them.

While it could be attributed to the levelling effect of the FA Cup, on each occasion, the favourites seemed guilty of complacency; much as Pellegrini denies it, they seemed to take victory for granted.

In each match, too, it felt as if the City manager simply did not know enough about the opposition, prompting the question of whether he is reading, let alone heeding, scouting reports.

It may have been a momentary memory lapse when he stumbled around and failed to find the name of Wigan’s second scorer, James Perch, but a lack of attention to detail has cost City before.

Blackburn earned a draw because Alvaro Negredo, rather than a defender who better handles combating a headed ball, was chosen to mark Scott Dann at a corner.

Similarly, Pellegrini’s first defeat came at Cardiff in August when City seemed unaware of, or at the least unready for, the reality that Malky Mackay’s side were set-piece specialists.

Early-season setbacks on the road, at Cardiff City, Stoke City, Aston Villa and Sunderland, betrayed a certain naivety, which is understandable, or ignorance, which is barely forgivable.

The Britannia Stadium has long provided culture shocks to newcomers. Where the stalemate with Stoke seemed to surprise Pellegrini, who rested a core of regulars ahead of a Champions League game against Viktoria Plzen, was in the difficulty in earning Premier League away victories.

We are all products of our environment and nine years of managing in Spain, where the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona had virtual immunity against shocks, seemed to have blinded him to the competitiveness of England’s underdogs.

Since then, there have been ample occasions when City have demolished the lesser lights. Such routs have been a consequence of Pellegrini’s attacking ethos.

Yet a progressive style of play does not need to be pursued to the exclusion of everything else. Liverpool have outscored City in the Premier League but the positive Brendan Rodgers can be both proactive and reactive, switching shape and moving personnel around for different matches.

The arch-strategist Jose Mourinho regularly looks for flaws in the opposing ranks when determining team selection and tactics.

Pellegrini only seems to consider such matters when City face blue-chip rivals. Like Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, his focus on his own side can be too pronounced.

Though it is only natural that underdogs should worry more about the talents that favourites possess, overlooking the unfancied side’s attributes sends out the wrong message.

While Pellegrini invariably claims before matches that he anticipates a tough game and while he tends to say afterwards that rivals’ tactics did not surprise him, there is increasing evidence to the contrary. His case is scarcely strengthened by the vagueness of his pronouncements.

There is none of the forensic analysis some of his counterparts provide, illustrating their in-depth understanding of even the lowliest of the sides.

Apart from displaying an inexplicable faith in Martin Demichelis, Pellegrini has done much right.

His football can be a joy to watch and it is beyond dispute that his players are far happier than they were 12 months ago. Yet early-season lapses on the road, such as Sunday’s defeat to Wigan, would have been avoidable with better preparation and the concern has to be that the gaps in the manager’s knowledge could end up costing City both the FA Cup and the Premier League title.

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