Man City Preview: Pellegrini Needs To Do The Right Thing By Toure
Back in the early days of City’s sudden wealth, the standard keyboard warrior’s opening gambit was that this was a club with no history.
This was always a risible thing to say – the club was in truth carrying a dead weight of far too much of the stuff. But what was true is that not so much of it could be classified as successful and only one manager (and even he only for only six years) had achieved sustained success.
So if Manuel Pellegrini joins Ferguson, Mourinho, Paisley, Shankly and Busby in retaining the title of champions of England, he will not just elevate himself into an elite group of managers, he will also be navigating City into uncharted waters. Back to back titles are rare events, and it would surpass the achievements of the beloved Joe Mercer, whose centenary is being marked with entirely appropriate dignity by the club this month.
He is also under serious pressure to make a splash in the Champions League -and by the way, Sheikh Mansour has also made it clear that he quite likes winning the FA Cup and the League Cup too. He’s probably more bothered than I am at losing the Community Shield. If he’s ruining football, he is not doing it by disrespecting domestic cup competitions.
So should Pellegrini fancy his chances? One thing that will reassure him is that his personal profile is once again just as he likes it – a little above someone on the witness protection programme. His Friday press conferences are about to move from Carrington to the all but complete Etihad Campus but they will continue to be eye-wateringly dull. Journalists off to “do” Pellegrini are archetypal travellers in hope rather than expectation of harvesting a story that will interest their editor.
Other clubs have dominated the conversation, but that doesn’t bother him. As another manager once remarked, “sometimes you have noisy neighbours.” Unlike that manager, Pellegrini isn’t trying and failing to conceal that the wind-up has been mightily successful.
As for recruitment, it’s been a case of upgrading rather than demolition and rebuild. Pellegrini appears to have decided that there’s not so much wrong with Joe Hart that a bit of serious competition doesn’t cure, so Willy Cabellero is there if there’s any concern we’ll see the slapdash Joe of 2013 rather than immaculate post-Christmas performer.
Fernando is a defensive midfielder in the style of Nigel De Jong or Matic of Chelsea. In some games, he will be redundant but in others he will be crucial, games in which Yaya Toure is likely to play ahead of two more defensive midfielders and behind a lone striker. These include away games against top of the table teams where extra solidity is wise and away games against bottom of the table teams where a physical battle needs to be won – exactly the matches City tended to find difficult last season.
Cabellero is a direct replacement and upgrade on Costel Pantilimon – a case of a genuine rival usurping a trusted and capable stand-in and Javi Garcia is making way Fernando for similar reasons. Both players can leave with their heads held high – Pantilimon deserves his chance at Sunderland while Garcia, without ever being outstanding, did a fine job at the end of last season and will be rightly proud of his Premier League winner’s medal.
Jack Rodwell obviously needs to play games and have an injury-free run – the two issues are, I am sure, not unconnected and we never saw his full potential at City, while Micah Richards’ likely departure is sad. He has been doubly unfortunate with both injury and the emergence of Zabaleta as a world class player in his position. As Lord Sugar might say, “with regret”, Micah needs to do the right thing for his career and play somewhere else. My only disappointment is that he hasn’t appeared to consider playing abroad. A club in Germany or Italy could be the new beginning he needs and deserves.
But the biggest challenges are with the gun players – the multiple trophy winners whose ambition and hunger needs to be maintained and their bodies managed.
Let’s start with Yaya Toure. It’s been a strange summer. There’s a lot that we don’t know and a fair bit that the City hierarchy also don’t seem to know about this, but let’s focus on one thing we know to be true. The man has suffered a personal tragedy that no amount of money or prestige can make go away.
This presents City with a problem with such a key employee, but also an opportunity. Very rarely in football, the morally right thing to do is also the best option for City’s short-term playing prospects. The best chance of keeping Yaya motivated and performing at the stellar level of last season is to do the decent thing: Respect the man, his family and his loss: Give him compassionate leave if he asks (as they did for several weeks while Zabaleta’s father fought for his life). But also keep him busy. Maybe playing in the Capital One Cup is better for him than sitting at home doing nothing. If it means he’ll need a rest in March, City should have the squad to deal with that eventuality as it arises.
It still may all go wrong and if it does, it will significantly reduce City’s chances of winning the league, but it is difficult to imagine any manager better equipped to manage Yaya at this difficult time than the calm, no-drama Pellegrini.
The best chance of keeping Yaya motivated and performing at the stellar level of last season is to do the decent thing: Respect the man, his family and his loss.
The short-term signing of Frank Lampard gives City a partial escape route, an extra English body, a useful Champions League asset and is an annoyingly – if you are Platini or Wenger – imaginative riposte to Financial Fair Play. However, it’s like replacing a Bentley with a Ford Focus. It will do the job, but in nothing like the same way. If in January, Toure’s back in the groove and Frank is waved off from Ringway on a transatlantic flight with a few decent contributions to his name and everyone’s good wishes, City will be delighted.
Last autumn, Pellegrini made a wise decision to give Vincent Kompany all the time he needed to get fit once and for all. He was rewarded with a much-improved attendance record after Christmas, but Kompany is 29 next birthday and age may catch up with him a little sooner than some others. Injuries need to be managed and playing time rationed to keep him playing at the highest level into his thirties. Even as Mangala arrives and assuming Nastasic stays, Martin Demichelis can expect another busy season – frequently as Kompany’s back-up - allowing a hugely important player to pick some of his games.
The signing of Bacary Sagna appears to be an attempt to anticipate the issues Kompany has had before they happen to Pablo Zabaleta. Pellegrini is seemingly content with the Clichy/Kolarov job-share at left back and while Pablo will surely remain the senior partner on the right - unlike the two left backs who appear to close to equal in the manager’s eyes - Sagna is good enough to play a lot of games, including some marquee fixtures. If this extends Zaba’s City career, it will be a very wise move. He may be an outstanding player and a cult hero, but City were dangerously reliant on his fitness last season and anything that delays the moment City have to replace him is a good thing. While we’re at it, Milner and Navas should be trusted to take some of the load off David Silva, another player whose physical capabilities need to be realistically assessed.
Then there is Aguero. To be blunt, he has not been fit, either for City or Argentina since last December. Dzeko’s outstanding late-season form covered Sergio’s absence, but there is no doubt who City’s number one striker is. With Negredo injured until the clocks go back, will Pellegrini dare to “do a Kompany” and give Kun’s injuries the one thing they need above all – time?
Obviously, Dzeko is available and will be used extensively– one of his many virtues is that he doesn’t get injured very often, and he will doubtless be amused that after being so close to the exit so many times, he is now being wrapped in cotton wool, but Stevan Jovetic is undoubtedly going to play a bigger role in his second season in East Manchester. If he stays fit and plays to his potential, as he has done in pre-season, being patient with Aguero’s health will become hugely easier, even if City play last season’s second, third and fourth placed team in the first five games. A fast start to the season for Jovetic could pay huge dividends for City next April and May – by which time the player himself may well be spending most of his time sat on the bench.
So this is Pellegrini’s to do list: Do the right thing by Toure: Integrate the new signings: Manage Kompany, Zabaleta and Silva’s playing time: Keep Hart under pressure: Wheel out Demichelis again at the right time: Same again please from Dzeko, Nasri, Fernandinho and Kolarov: Make sure Milner, Navas and Jovetic get opportunities and grasp them: But above all, get Aguero fit. Do that and the results will take care of themselves. Just don’t expect him to announce this on Sky Sports News.