The House Roberto Built
By BillyShears, Tue 13 September 2011 11:39
It seems like an eternity ago. With forked tongues and evil glares London's press pack turned up en masse to greet Roberto Mancini with not the warmest of British welcomes. Today at COMS as the Italian sits down for his first Champions League press conference, he may allow himself a small satisfied smile as he reflects upon how different things are. Having masterminded City to their first trophy in decades last season, he's begun to win over even the most cynical of observers. As plenty would say, not before time either.
The genesis of Mancini's team has been a fascinating one for lovers of the beautiful game and the tacticians who bring it to life. Discipline was the first port of call. Anyone who remembers the two legs of the Carling Cup semi final back in early 2010 can marvel at the contrast between the group of players who took the field on both those occasions and matched their decorated neighbours tackle for tackle and position for position, with the motley bunch who rolled over in embarrassing fashion at White Hart Lane just a month earlier.
The seeds of today's Manchester City were planted back then. A team which had looked incapable of keeping a clean sheet against even the lowliest teams in the league under Mark Hughes seemed to be growing a spine under the watchful eye of their new manager. The squad itself was still a hodgepodge of 'old' City and 'new' City and, as such, even an upturn in City's points 'trajectory' couldn't edge them into 4th place come May of that year, but Roberto had firmly set out his stall.
Summer 2010 brought another influx of top quality talent to the soon to be renamed Etihad Stadium, and as the season started many bookmakers somewhat mischievously had Roberto as one of the favourites for the sack. An oddity considering his pedigree and how little time he'd actually been in the job, but then who said football is fair.
2010/2011 was to be the season to change it all. Funny now to think that as late as April 2011 after the worst performance under Mancini, a 3 - 0 reverse at Anfield, there were muted calls for his head, and murmurs in the press that one more bad result and he'd be gone.
To understand why this was the case we should hark back to an earlier trip to one of the Sky 4. It was the 0 - 0 draw at the Emirates, which seemed to tip even the most prosaic of observers of City and Mancini over the edge. Mancini was showing himself to be the anti-Wenger. Setting out a team which boasted European cup winners and World Cup finalists to effectively park the bus Italian style.
Whilst City supporters for the most part went home delighted with the point, the media and most neutrals began to loathe everything Mancini stood for. The accusations being levelled at him were that he wasn't by half a brave enough manager. That he was cautious by nature, that he didn't understand what it took to win the premiership, and most damning of all, that even some of his players didn't particularly enjoy playing his way. Underneath it all was the belief that the "richest team in the world" should be playing football befitting of that moniker. Mancini though was playing the percentages rather than trying to curry favour amongst the elite. He would have no doubt argued his team had rarely been out of the top 4 since that season had begun, so there was method to madness. It didn't stop the sniping.
Of course everything changed in an instant. A poor kick from Van der Sar. An even worse pass from Carrick. The driving force of Yaya Toure and his right boot, and less than a week after the Anfield obliteration came redemption at Wembley. City took to the field and after a slow, ponderous, some of us whispered "typically Mancini" start to the match, took control of the FA Cup semi final and played United off the park and played themselves into the final.
The obligatory defeat to Everton aside, the rest of the season proved to be the stuff of dreams for the Blues. As Arsenal and Spurs watched their season slowly implode, City had gained a new lease on life. It seemed beating United had beaten the victim mentality out of the squad. Suddenly the nerves and the caution of the previous 18 months seemed to ebb away with each perfectly placed pass. It was as if the club had been a Navy warship attempting over months to perform a 3 point turn and change direction. It had been a slow and cumbersome affair, but now that the ship had changed direction, it was full steam ahead. City swallowed up the FA Cup, after the appetiser of finishing not only in 4th, but in 3rd on the same amount of points as Chelsea, thus leaving Arsenal with the not so nice prospect of a Champions League qualifier in August.
I was reminded in my drunken haze on the night of the Cup Final victory of a phrase the Italian media had often used to describe Mancini. Loosely translated "Kissed by Good Fortune" is how it read. Or, in footballing parlance, a lucky bastard.
As the summer months idled by and people turned to musing on the upcoming season many questions were asked. Of Man City though, only one question was asked. What would Mancini do? As one of his fiercest critics, which no doubt signalled me out as a traitor amongst many Blues, I was sceptical about seeing much of a change. In my eyes Mancini had had the tools in 10/11 to play more expansively and hadn't done it, so I struggled to see why he'd suddenly change his ethos overnight (or more accurately over the summer). He'd shown he could play percentages, and that his much maligned tactics had actually worked in the end, so there seemed little reason for his to fix what wasn't really broken.
And then the roof got put on the house. Or more accurately, the roof was Samir Nasri and Kun Aguero. The key signings in the summer of 2011 proved to be the catalyst for a change which has seen City sweep aside all before them in the opening weeks of the season. As the goals rain down and the team are being likened to Barcelona, it's hard to imagine a greater contrast in perceptions. Even those dyed in the wool cynics over at Match Of The Day can scarcely contain their praise for City, and more importantly, for City's manager.
We'll all have to wait for Mancini's memoirs to know whether this was always the season when he was going to let the handbrake off his City team, or whether it was in fact some of the harsh criticism he endured which scolded him into action. Whatever the case may be, not just the City supporters, but football in general is the winner. A new force has been born in the Premier League, and one which is about to make it's seminal journey into the Champions League. Who'd bet against Roberto taking one if not both of the big prizes come May 2012? Certainly not me...