x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

From frugal to fantasy football for Roberto Mancini

As the Manchester City manager enters his third year in the hot seat, his club are looking stronger than ever.

Roberto Mancini has defied many critics during his time as Manchester City manager, helping the club to their first trophy in 35 years – the FA Cup.
Roberto Mancini has defied many critics during his time as Manchester City manager, helping the club to their first trophy in 35 years – the FA Cup.

Two not out. It may not sound a great deal, especially when Sir Alex Ferguson celebrated the 25th anniversary of his appointment at Old Trafford last month, but it has a significance nonetheless.

Roberto Mancini arrived at Manchester City in December 2009 and, defying plenty of predictions of his demise, begins his third year at the helm with his side at the summit of the Premier League.

It is not longevity by Ferguson's standards, but the more relevant comparison is not with Manchester United, but Chelsea. In the Roman Abramovich era at Stamford Bridge, only Jose Mourinho has lasted as long.

Yet the nouveau riche are not always as impatient and, when City narrowly missed out on a top-four finish five months into Mancini's reign, patience was displayed.

It has been rewarded. Year-on-year progress brought the FA Cup, a first major trophy since 1976, and a third-place finish last season. In the current campaign, City are setting a fearful pace in the Premier League.

With 41 points from a possible 48 and a 100 per cent record at home, they are leading from the front. Avoid defeat against Stoke City tonight - appropriate opponents for the anniversary party, as the Potters were the first side Mancini's City defeated as well as being beaten finalists in last season's FA Cup final - and they will top the table at Christmas.

In contrast, two years ago, they were sixth at this stage.

"We have improved a lot as a team," Mancini said; indeed, the fact that Martin Petrov, now a squad player at Bolton Wanderers, scored in his first game bears that out. "It is not easy to improve quickly because although we have bought good players in the last year and a half, it is difficult to put [a team] together in a year."

Arguably, he has put together two, with a major rebranding exercise every year; first as frugal and then with a greater focus on fantasy football. Each step was taken to correct past problems.

The team Mark Hughes bequeathed Mancini, while expensively compiled, conceded goals at an alarming rate (78 in 55 league games).

The Italian's initial achievement was to recognise that the benched Vincent Kompany was the club's outstanding central defender. Elevated first to the team and then the captaincy, he has been a catalyst for change.

Having proved they could defend, City then showed they could attack. David Silva's winner against Arsenal brought up a half-century of league goals.

Interchangeable but very different, Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko all figure among the division's leading scorers.

With his elegant class, Silva is becoming the team's defining figure when, as a slight figure in a sizeable side last season, he appeared the exception.

But that is Mancini's City. Perceptions are not changed as much as abandoned altogether. The accident-prone Hughes side were reinvented, the reliance on Carlos Tevez removed, the notion of City as nearly-men consigned to the past.

Money talks, as City's critics are quick to point out, but spending it is the simple part. Forming a team is where managerial skill is required.

In Mancini's case, it is very much his own side: there are often only three Hughes recruits selected (and one of them, Kompany, was under-appreciated by the Welshman). He has been unafraid to exile his predecessor's players, whether Craig Bellamy, Emmanuel Adebayor or, eventually, Tevez. The Argentine was pragmatically promoted to the captaincy but, in assembling a world-class attack, Mancini ensured Tevez could not hold him or the club to ransom.

It is that combination of clarity of vision and tough decision-making that has propelled City forward. Mancini's two years have been notable for his astute assessments of what was required to reach each step of the journey; whether ruthless puritan who realised 1-0 wins formed the path to the Champions League, or unexpected adventurer, surprising and subduing the rest of the division with a constant supply of goals.

Along the way, Mancini has defied categorisation. He is the connoisseur of clean sheets whose side are setting scoring records, the disciplinarian who indulges the unpredictable Balotelli, the amiable figure who ranks among management's hard men. It is only the quest for perpetual improvement, the demand for perfection, that defines him.

"We have done well until now but it is important we continue to do better if we want to stay top for a long time," he added, raising the bar again. In year three of his personal project, one target overshadows all others: the title.