Roberto Mancini will always have his detractors, as a player and now as a manager. For some, even a list of achievements is not sufficient to allay the doubts. As a player, he was already combustible, confrontational, opinionated, a leader even then. As a manager he has kept these traits, rubbing up many a player and the odd manager the wrong way. For those who don’t see him a great manager, and there are quite a few Manchester City fans who fall within this group, his trophies as Inter coach were tainted, worthless almost, because of the scandals that gripped his competitors. Two titles were won by default, the other won without serious competition. As for his success with Manchester City – well anyone could win the league with that amount of investment. Only last week, CNN’s Italian correspondent conducted a poll asking who was the worst manager to win a Scudetto title. The results? 1. Allegri 41%; 2. Mancini 22%; 3. Zaccheroni 13%; 4. Eriksson 12%. Mancini is a manager that still has many to impress, it seems.
The common theme of attack though is to point out his record in Europe. Here, Mancini’s teams have struggled, and it is an area he needs to succeed in if he is to be considered a truly great manager. Without it, the doubts will always remain. His Inter side were knocked out by the likes of Valencia and Liverpool, and he has never experienced the latter stages of Europe’s premier cup competition.
The fickle hand of fate hasn’t helped Mancini to some extent. Both seasons have seen City drawn in the fabled “Group of Death”, but the problem with the seeding system is that continued elimination at the group stages could see City regularly drawn in tough groups, a situation that can only be avoided once top seeding is obtained, which seems a distant dream at the moment. Even so, as fourth seeds they could have got easier draws than the last two competitions, and if they are to grow into the Champions League, and work out how to succeed, an easier group might help, where mistakes are not exposed so often, where confidence can be allowed to grow.
The oft-quoted mantra used to defend Mancini, namely that you need experience to crack Europe has some basis in fact, as Manchester United have only won it twice during Alex Ferguson’s long reign (he himself has said in the past that he considers the number of victories to be the most disappointing aspect of his spell at United), Arsenal never have, and Chelsea have only just triumphed for the first time, though how they did is something of a mystery!
However, it is not an excuse for failure. Borussia Dortmund are also in their second season back in the Champions’ League, and seem to be doing fine, just as Napoli did last season. Experience helps, but it is not the be-all and end-all.
What’s more, if failure in Europe can be pinpointed at Mancini’s door, he has plenty of experience, as do many of the City squad. It is only the club itself that lacks experience, but should that matter?
But this failure on the pitch goes hand in hand with a certain sense of apathy at City’s woes from off the pitch. If Roberto Mancini brought league success to Manchester City every season, there would be many City supporters that wouldn’t care less about any failure in Europe – for many, domestic success is still the priority.
Against Ajax, Mancini’s tactics were all at sea. A familiar formation to begin with, but then the shuffling of the team shape began, and the panic-induced decision to go to 3-5-2 bore the usual results, i.e. a goal for the opposition. Micah Richards said too much after the match, but he said what many think to be true – the players just aren’t comfortable with three at the back, as shown by Gael Clichy’s exasperated face at what he was supposed to do during a five-minute spell that did much to extinguish City’s hopes in this season’s competition. And the frustrating thing is that a change of formation was not really necessary. City had gone behind, but were on top before that for the first time in the match. Ajax’s goal came from a set-piece that had little to do with formations, and more to do with zonal marking. Mancini’s subsequent adjustments just made matters worse.
The three at the back is a system that can flourish of course; it just hasn’t yet. City’s (relative) struggles this season haven’t all originated from the wrong formation, in the same way that zonal marking isn’t an excuse either, as it was used in City’s title-winning season, when City had the meanest defence of all. And as Mancini said after defeat in Amsterdam – if you don’t understand (a new system), you are not a top player, and cannot play in a top team.
City were comfortable against an average side that were there for the taking in their Amsterdam Arena, but sloppy defending once more cost them dear. With just one clean sheet all season, the current side is a far cry from the often water-tight team of last season. Mancini has been hindered by not capturing his main summer signings, and there is a feeling that he is increasingly frustrated that the squad and tactics have not progressed. Mancini should be applauded for trying new things, for trying to take the team to a new level, but did the team need new ideas after such a successful season?
But as is natural after a poor performance, the vultures have started to circle. People are beginning to question Mancini, and there is also talk (by a vocal minority) of his tenure at City being in danger. The tabloid and broadsheet newspapers alike are running with stories of mutiny within the squad, partly caused by his public criticisms of English players. Talk of a departure though is mindless speculation – this scenario is highly unlikely. As manager of the League Champions, Mancini has plenty of credit in the bank, and the ink is barely dry on a new five-year deal. But City’s owners will not accept failure in Europe for long, and that credit will dwindle if poor results continue. For Mancini, he has to work out the path to success in Europe, and quickly. For him, it could be his record in next season’s competition that ultimately decides his legacy at City, or at least the length of his stay.