by Nathan Critchlow
As a City fan it pains me to write the heading ‘Pellegrini: Time to act or be axed’. It may seem to some like a knee-jerk reaction. Despite their shock home defeat to Middlesbrough in the FA Cup City are still 2nd in the Premier League, into the knock out stages of the Champions League for a second successive season and have only lost two of their last sixteen games, going unbeaten over the traditional banana skin of the Christmas period. Crisis? What crisis?
It could be argued that City’s recent blip could be down to our charming Chilean being struck by the well-known ‘Manager of the Month’ curse [Pellegrini won the award for December]. However, in my opinion the alarm bells for City and particularly Manuel have been ringing for months. Poor performances including losing 2 goal leads to Burnley and Sunderland, below par performances against Championship opposition (including a 2nd successive FA Cup knock out to lower league opposition) and a very fortunate point against a struggling Everton side have been masked by City’s recent good results. So where is our beloved double-winning manager going wrong?
Unlucky with selection and injuries
Arguably Pellegrini has been unlucky with injuries and selection availability at all points of the season. Already so far this season City have been forced to play a large period without Argentinean goal-machine, Sergio Aguero, whilst even the usually robust Bosnian diamond, Edin Dzeko, has been out injured. In midfield both a rejuvenated Samir Nasri and wizard-of-steel David Silva have sat out over a month of action at different points. Even in defence Captain Kompany has seen a recurrent calf injury follow him like a bad celebrity stalker. His form has definitely suffered as a result. Unsurprisingly City are also suffering from the loss of all-round bulldozing, box-to-box demolition, part-man part-god midfielder, Yaya Toure, who is playing in a ridiculous 4th African Cup of Nations (AFCoN) since 2010.
It would, however, be harsh to blame City’s failing on injuries and unavailability alone. In fact the club has barely dropped any points in the absence of Sergio and Kompany, whilst excellent results against Bayern Munich and that night in Rome came without the blundering force of Yaya. In fact City still had excellent array of players available for most of their poor results this season (Roma at home, Arsenal at home, Stoke at home, Burnley at home, Middlesbrough at home, CSKA Moscow home and away). Incidentally whilst typing that I’ve also just noticed that the vast majority of City’s bad results have occurred at home, something practically unheard of since the takeover. So if City’s failings cannot be pinpointed within team availability then were else?
No Plan B
Part of the problem is Pellegrini’s lack of versatility. Quite simply there seems to be no plan B, no matter what the score, game or opposition. This lack of diversity is perhaps not a surprise as last season Pellegrini stuck rigidly to the 4-4-2 formation in which the spearhead of Negredo/Dzeko and Aguero simply blew all-comers away in a frightening display of awesome attacking prowess. This season the Charming Chilean seems to prefer a 4-2-3-1 formation, with either of F’s (Fernando and Fernandinho) and Yaya holding and an attacking trio of Nasri/Milner, Silva and Navas sitting behind the lone forward, usually Aguero. This formation is all well and good (as evidenced by some good results) but teams have started to suss it out and Pellegrini has shown no signs of versatility when things aren’t going well.
Under Pellegrini’s beloved, wonderful, Italian narcissistic predecessor (Bobby Mancini), City fans saw first-hand how effective a regular Plan B can be. Mancini would sub on Dutch destroyer Nigel de Jong and push forward Yaya Toure in a formation switch which delivered levels of consistency which are usually only reserved for your local postman. For Pellegrini no such devastating switch seems to exist, not even a switch to their previously devastating 4-4-2 formation. Although the faces may change from game-to-game the formation does not, and the opposition teams continue to put up strong resistance regardless of substitutions. Pass and pass, ball goes out to Navas, wait for the overlap, cute pass, chance. It’s almost worryingly predictable. This was evident in the game against Arsenal. There has been a lot of press about how good Arsenal were. No doubt they played well, but City put up very little resistance and Arsenal, in truth, weren’t given a decent game. Manuel, if you are reading this, you need a plan B. Oh and some plans for set pieces.
Not giving youth a chance
Given the recent opening of City’s brand new CFA training and youth development complex it is very surprising that there still doesn’t seem to be a clear pathway for young players to break into the 1st team. Is Pellegrini reluctant to use them? It certainly doesn’t reflect the developmental philosophy that Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano are apparently looking to implement. Perhaps I am expecting too much too soon, but City have a very good track record of young players making the step up to the top level and the fact remains that only the diminutive Spaniard Pozo has really made a break-through this season, and only this appeared brief and somewhat out of position. This lack of breakthrough is made even more confusing given the injuries City have suffered this season. It must be quite demoralising for young players such as Thierry Ambrose, Devante Cole and Bersant Celina to see James Milner deployed as an emergency striker in home games such as Burnley. It must be even more demoralising for Patrick Vieira, whose hard work every day goes into making these players ready for such occasions. In fact look at the bench for the weekend loss at home to Middlesbrough. Not a single development player included. If they cannot even get off the bench in that type of game then when can they?
The list of youth players who have played well in the UEFA Youth cup and league (both U18 and EDS) number highly and include; Brandon Baker, Thierry Ambrose, George Evans, Angelino and Seko Fofana to name only a few. Ask any fan who regularly watches the games and highlights of City’s development set up and they’ll give half a dozen more. Surely given the succession philosophy the club prescribes to and Financial Fair Play restrictions that cloud the club’s present and future this pathway to the first team must become much clearer. I am not saying that they should be chucked in against the likes of Chelsea and Barcelona, but if they are not blooded in games of a lower stature then how can the club ever expect to get a return from such players in big games in the future?
Poor transfer dealings
There is also no hiding the fact that Pellegrini’s transfer dealings this summer, and to an extent last summer too, have been a little bit perplexing and underwhelming. I must say at this point however that it is difficult to know who is fully in charge of player recruitment, but still I am sure at City the manager plays his part. Although there is no doubt that £30 million pound centre-half Mangala will eventually come consistently good, one has to question whether it would not have been better to integrate young Dutch defender Karim Rekik into the first-team? Instead he’s on loan at PSV, playing well and is top of his respective league. Likewise Nastastic has been completely out in the cold (latterly going to Germany). I’m not sure what went on between them and Pellegrini but I’ll tell what both Rekik and Nastastic are 100% better than Boyata.
Fernando, Newcastle away aside, has not looked any better than Jack Rodwell (sold to Sunderland) and certainly not better than Javi Garcia at the end of last season (sold to Zenit). His performance against Middlesbrough yesterday just summed up his time at the club. Maybe he needs time to settle? Maybe he does, but the fact remains that we already had somebody who had just settled into that position. Furthermore the decision to sell/loan Negredo and keep misfiring, hospital bothering, Stefan Jovetic seems baffling. Negredo’s performances in the 1st half of last season were crucial. Jovetic just hasn’t been good enough. The signing of Bony is almost an admittance of this and City fans no doubt certainly hope the Ivorian will help turn their fortunes, albeit three weeks after actually signing. Bacary Sagna must certainly be querying his decision to swap a regular berth in the Arsenal team for a regular place on City’s bench. Granted I’m not saying he should dispose the mercurial ‘PabZab’, but if game time was always due to limited then perhaps the home grown sometimes brilliant, sometimes hapless, Micah Richards may have been a better option. That’s just my opinion, but opinions are part of the beauty of the game.
The most worrying of all transfer dealings is the Lampard ‘arrangement’. Whilst many fans will no doubt be pleased with some of Lampard’s crucial goals in the 1st half of the season it was a widely held belief that he would fill Yaya’s huge boots during AFCoN. How many games has he started since Yaya left? None. In fact he’s only played 58 minutes out of a possible 270. Given this lack of game time and the fact that Yaya will probably assume his place in the team again after AFCoN, it does raise questions of why City were so keen to extend his loan to the end of the season. It has certainly caused more aggravation that is necessary.
Okay rant over. I’m the first to support any City manager (even Stuart Pearce), but in order to keep the fans onside it is important that the Charming Chilean starts to show that when the going gets tough, he gets going. Given that City play at away at Chelsea, Stoke and Liverpool in their next 6 league games and also have a crunch home tie against Barcelona in the Champions League, Pellegrini couldn’t have wished for a harder run of games in which to prove himself. Over to you Manuel.