Thursday, 31 December 2009

Garrido to play on Saturday

That's the thrust of a Stuart Brennan article in the Manchester Evening News this morning. Free-kick specialist and forgotten man of the Mark Hughes era Javier Garrido is set to start at the Riverside. And he's looking forward to it:
"Everyone is excited about the FA Cup," he said. "We are Man City and have to focus on every competition, so we are going to Middlesbrough to win.

"We have big players and need to do our best to go as far as possible...

"There are many games in January, which is different to Spain. Everywhere else stops for winter, but not here!" he said with a grin.

"It's great for footballers because there are many games and it's important for everyone to be ready. Nobody wants people injured but at the moment there are many injured players and that has opened the door for other players who don't get so many chances to play."
It's good news for him. Our squad looked bloated over the summer but a recent spate of injuries have made us very grateful for the depth. A few weeks ago Garrido looked miles away from the squad but he is probably the best candidate at left back now. Wayne Bridge is injured, and neither Sylvinho nor Pablo Zabaleta have looked comfortable there in recent weeks. Zabaleta may also be required to play right-back on Saturday (presuming Richards rather than Boyata or Mee partners Vincent Kompany at centre-back), and after his successful cameo at Molineux I would not be surprised if Zabaleta is deployed on the right of midfield again in the future. Particularly with that game at Old Trafford coming up - we don't want Richards exposed to a Fábio da Silva/Gabriel Obertan double-team down the wing.

The most important thing, though, is Garrido's chance to atone for the 8-1 defeat at the same venue twenty months ago.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Ireland out for two weeks

The Player of 2008/09 will miss the biggest game of 2009/10 - the Carling Cup semi-final first leg against United next week. He's out for two weeks with a hamstring injury.

This could have interesting repercussions. Mancini has so far been drawn between playing 4-4-2 and 4-3-3. Against Stoke he started with the former and then switched to the latter. At Molineux he did the opposite. Stephen Ireland is probably the best argument for playing 4-3-3. With him out of the picture the case for 4-4-2 is much stronger.

At this stage it is very difficult to predict what Mancini will do. But I'm going to take a stab at a 4-4-1-1 set up at the Riverside, with Robinho playing behind Tévez, and Martin Petrov and Vladimir Weiss on the wings. More on that in the preview, though.

Barry's role

One of the main features of the Mancini era to date has been the return of a degree of tactical discipline. We were famously cavalier under Hughes, and our poor defensive record could be just as attributable to our throwing bodies forward as to individual defensive errors. The change of emphasis from Roberto Mancini is seen here in the changing role of Gareth Barry. At White Hart Lane - the last game before the board decided to sack Hughes - Gareth Barry made most of his passes in Spurs' half, but in drifting forward he made us too easy to break down. At Molineux, though, with the exception of one or two forays down the left, Barry has stuck closer to Nigel de Jong and made us harder to break down.

by Guardian Chalkboards

The Eriksson revival, ii

Mancini - protégé of Eriksson - has brought back two of SGE's buys into the City side - Martin Petrov and Javi Garrido.

This is good, but it's also important. Because on Saturday we return to the Riverside, which hosted our shameful 8-1 defeat in May 2008. Garrido and Petrov both started that game, and if they play this weekend then they have a good opportunity to atone for it.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Team of the decade

What better way to mark the end of the 2000s than with a composite team of the decade? This isn't the best players to play for City in this decade, but nor is it quite the players who made the biggest contribution to the club. It's closer to the latter than the former, but I have still allowed myself a goalkeeper who has only been at the club for eleven months to date. Danny Pugsley at Bitter and Blue has done his own. Let me know what you think.

I've gone for a 4-4-2, with a conventional right winger and a left midfielder drifting inside. I've also gone for a seven man bench, which is only slightly anachronistic and makes the exercise much easier for me.

Goalkeeper: Shay Given

I know that he signed for us with only twelve months remaining in the decade. But I just can't leave him out. In terms of quality he is at home in the Bert Trautmann/Joe Corrigan bracket of Manchester City goalkeepers. When did we last have the best player in his position in England? Certainly no-one in my lifetime. Because we've been through this enough recently, but Shay Given is a magnificent goalkeeper. His shot-stopping is miraculous. Just think of the games he's already won for us: last season there was Boro at home and Everton away, this season Blackburn away, Wolves at home and Chelsea at home. Throw in the shoot-out in the UEFA Cup last 16 game in Aalborg and he's already made himself a City legend.

MCFC 2009- 44 games, 0 goals.

Right-back: Micah Richards

I know he has his critics, and I'm certainly one of them, but there is something immensely heartening about an Academy graduate who by the age of 21 has already played 141 games for the club and has 11 full England caps. It shows the young man's promise which, while not yet fulfilled, is still certainly latent. He emerged with a bang - a stoppage time header at Villa Park to get a replay in the FA Cup fifth round in February 2006. He played at right back under Stuart Pearce, before Eriksson moved him to centre back - replacing Sylvain Distin - and buying Vedran Ćorluka. In retrospect it was a move that hindered Richards' development: his gifts are better suited to playing wide, and he faced the same problem when Mark Hughes bought Pablo Zabaleta. But he still plays more often than not, and while he still has a lot to learn he is also still very promising. Also good for the occasional goal.

MCFC 2005- 141 games, 5 goals

Centre-back Richard Dunne

Our Player of the Decade. Richard Dunne was bought by Joe Royle in 2000 and after initial problems with weight and alcohol, he managed to transform himself into a towering centre-half of the old school: fearless in the tackle, towering under crosses, corners and long-balls, and with a better touch and change of pace than people gave him credit for. Four consecutive Player of the Season awards - 2004/05, 2005/06, 2006/07 and 2007/08 - demonstrate his importance in those rather stale mid-decade years. He was never part of a great City side, but his determination and consistency was perhaps the main thing that stopped us from dropping down into the second tier again after 2001. When he was sold in 2009 it felt like a symbolic break from mid-decade mediocrity as we reached for the stars. But he has excelled at Villa Park so far, and gets extra points for his deciding not to celebrate after scoring against us there in October. Naturally captains the side.

MCFC 2000-2009 345 games, 7 goals

Centre-back: Sylvain Distin

The other half of the Dunne and Distin partnership, the best and most important part of the team in the years of mid-decade inertia. He was brought to the club by Kevin Keegan on winning promotion to the Premiership in 2002, and won Player of the Season from his first year. He gave us five seasons of top service, complimenting Richard Dunne perfectly - a bit taller, a bit quicker, and left-sided. He was soon made captain and served admirably before Stuart Pearce chose to give it to Richard Dunne instead. That contract dispute eventually led to Distin's departure to Portsmouth at the end of the 2006/07 season, which was a real shame but had been inevitable for some time. I've applauded him at recent games against Portsmouth, and have been in the minority - which leaves a rather sour taste.

MCFC 2002-2007 206 games, 6 goals

Left-back: Niclas Jensen

This was the hardest position to pick. The number of left-backs we've been through this decade - Wayne Bridge, Javi Garrido, Michael Ball, Stephen Jordan, Ben Thatcher, Michael Tarnat, Niclas Jensen is incredible, and throw in auxiliaries like Sun Jihai, Danny Tiatto, Danny Granville and it all gets a bit confused. Picking the best one is made even harder by the fact that none of them have been any good. But I'm going for Niclas Jensen. Kevin Keegan signed him in January 2002 and he impressed as City galloped to the First Division title. He played throughout the 2002/03 season, always neat and tidy rather than cavalier. And given that this is more about special memories than objective analyses, his awesome volley against Leeds United has got to count for something too.

MCFC 2002-2003 53 games, 2 goals.

Right-midfield: Shaun Wright-Phillips

One of the first names on this team sheet. Wright-Phillips is the boy who was told he'd never make it and the prodigal son rolled into one. He emerged first under Joe Royle, more often than not playing up front, before Kevin Keegan used him as a wing-back in a 3-5-2. He soon started to dazzle with his pace on the ball, his ability to wriggle through defenders and an astonishingly powerful shot with a low backlift. He reached eleven goals in both 2003/04 and 2004/05 as he became one of England's most promising young wingers - the strikes against Arsenal and Manchester United are still legendary. In summer 2005 we could not turn down Roman Abramovich's money but in August 2008 Mark Hughes brought him back to Eastlands. Two goals in his second debut at the Stadium of Light was the perfect welcome present. This season he recreated his derby wonderstrike in a League Cup quarter-final.

MCFC 1999-2005, 2008- 207 games, 44 goals

Central midfield: Joey Barton

For all the controversy, the crimes, the acts of malice and cowardice, Joey Barton was an excellent player for Manchester City. His determination to make the very most of his talents was inspiring, as was his determination and energy on the pitch. He emerged on the fringes of the team in our first season back in the Premier League under Kevin Keegan, and after that made more than thirty appearances in each of the next four seasons. It was under Stuart Pearce, though, that he really came into his own. Nicolas Anelka left in January 2005 and Shaun Wright-Phillips was sold that June. When Pearce took over that spring he inherited a team shorn of any attacking quality. So it was Barton who took responsibility, dragging the team forward, creating and scoring most of the few goals we managed in Pearce's two full seasons. He may not have been the most talented player in the squad, but he was one of the few able to impose his will, and was just as responsible as Richard Dunne for our avoiding relegation in 2005/06 and 2006/07.

MCFC 2003-2007 142 games, 17 goals.

Central midfield: Stephen Ireland

Our third Academy graduate in the midfield, Stephen Ireland is the fourth player to come through the ranks and play at least one hundred games for the club this decade. He is a great example - like Barton - of self-improvement. He made his debut under Stuart Pearce and clearly had a quality midfielder latent inside him. But he was too small, too inconsistent, and so was played on the wing too often. This pattern broadly continued - as well as various personal indiscretions making the news - under Eriksson. It was only under Mark Hughes that Ireland finally found his voice as a footballer. He retired from international football, worked on his fitness and became an attacking midfielder of the highest order. Hughes build the team around him, and he dazzled with his touch, his creativity, his work-rate and his awareness. The 2008/09 City Player of the Season award was a formality - the PFA Young Player ought to have been but went to Ashley Young.

MCFC 2005- 135 games, 23 goals

Left midfield: Ali Benarbia

Not a left winger, but he has to play somewhere. Ali Benarbia, in tandem with Eyal Berkovic, inspired Kevin Keegan's City side to a glorious First Division title in 2001/02, accumulating 99 points and scoring 108 goals as they went. (It was also City doing our bit for world peace, uniting an Arab and an Israeli in glorious harmony.) People compared him to Georgi Kinkladze but he was more of a playmaker than a dribbler, feeding Shaun Goater, Darren Huckerby and Paolo Wanchope as they carved up defences across England. Moreover, he saw the return of a quality footballer to Maine Road for the same time since Kinkladze. Joe Royle did a fantastic job at City but it wasn't always pretty - Benarbia provided a welcome re-introduction to football, just as Elano and Martin Petrov did in August 2007. He couldn't quite reproduce it in the Premier League, but that did nothing to tarnish the memories.

MCFC 2001-2003 66 games, 11 goals

Striker: Nicolas Anelka

He may not be the most popular, but Nicolas Anelka was surely the best centre forward to play for City in the 2000s. In terms of his achievements at City this is demonstrably true, and in terms of the best striker to wear the shirt he is in a very tight battle with Carlos Tévez which he probably edges. Kevin Keegan spent big on him in the summer of 2002, hoping that he could tackle 'le Sulk.' He did ok - getting two and a half seasons out of him, in which he scored 46 goals for the club. His performances were no surprise to anyone who had seen him at Arsenal - pace in behind and clinical finishing - the only question is how long he would last once it was clear that we were a mid-table side. He packed his bags for Istanbul in January 2005, with not much love from the fans. But remember these two facts - he has scored more goals for City than he has for any other club, and he scored more top flight goals for us (37) than anyone since the mid 1990s.
MCFC 2002-2005 101 games, 46 goals.

Striker: Shaun Goater

Another easy pick. One of Joe Royle's first acts as City manager was to buy Goater from Bristol City in March 1998, and the Goat scored the goals that fired Royle's side to successive promotions in 1999 and 2000. He bagged a respectable eleven in the relegation season of 2000/01, and Kevin Keegan kept him on board for the promotion push of 2001/02. He was better than ever - putting Benarbia and Berkovic's passes into the net and scoring 32 goals in 44 goals. Even with the purchase of Nicolas Anelka he still played enough games in 2002/03 to score seven goals, including the famous humiliation of Gary Neville in the last ever derby at Maine Road. Not as talented as Anelka, but he scored more goals for City and was much more popular. An all-time great.

MCFC 1998-2003 189 games, 103 goals


David James Bought to replace David Seaman, he gave us two and a half good seasons before leaving to join Harry Redknapp's Portsmouth one year before Sylvain Distin did. There were a few mistakes but also some magnificent saves. By all accounts a good guy as well.

MCFC 2004-2006 100 games, 0 goals

Steve Howey Joe Royle brought in the Newcastle veteran to keep us up in 2000/01, and while we were eventually relegated it was not due to lack of effort on Howey's part. He went on to give two full seasons of service under Keegan and provided much needed experience.

MCFC 2000-2003 103 games, 11 goals

Danny Tiatto The Melbourne Zabaleta, Danny Tiatto was a seriously dirty player but no less popular for it. He could play left back or midfield, and was one of the main battlers in Joe Royle's side. Was never as popular with Kevin Keegan.

MCFC 1998-2004 128 games, 4 goals, 7 red cards

Kevin Horlock Another left-footed battler who could play in defence or midfield, Super Kevin Horlock was a better football than he looked, signed by Frank Clark but excelling in the first two seasons of the Keegan era, anchoring for Eyal Berkovic and Ali Benarbia.

MCFC 1997-2003 211 games, 44 goals

Elano Just as Benarbia and Berkovic did in 2001, in 2007 Elano brought good football back to City. Bought by Sven from Shakhtar Donetsk, he gave us an autumn of magical displays, running games and scoring goals unlike anyone we had seen in years. 10 out of 10 penalties too.

MCFC 2007-2009 64 games 18 goals

Martin Petrov Just edges out Mark Kennedy and Trevor Sinclair for the last winger slot, his pace and crossing ability makes him the best old fashioned outside-left in the Premier League when he has his knee ligament problems under control.

MCFC 2007- 51 games, 11 goals

Paulo Wanchope Leggy, unpredictable and inconsistent, Wanchope gets in ahead of Darren Huckerby and Robbie Fowler by virtue of just being a bit more fun. He got a decent goal return under Royle and Keegan, and would have got more were it not for injuries.

MCFC 2000-2004 59 games, 29 goals

Eriksson revival

It's well known that Roberto Mancini was a protégé of Sven-Göran Eriksson, having played under him at Sampdoria and at Lazio. We know that Mancini has spoken to Eriksson since taking over.

Perhaps as a result of those conversations, or maybe just out of a sense of loyalty to his mentor, he has brought back two players that Eriksson signed for City in the summer of 2007: Martin Petrov and Javier Garrido. It's worked - Petrov scored against Stoke, and Garrido scored againt Wolves.

I just hope that this doesn't apply to Benjani too.

Mancini praises Bellamy

Good news from Daniel Taylor's blogpost on the game last night:

Mancini was equally effusive about a player he joked was "not my friend" but who seems to have adapted seamlessly to the Italian's new tactics. "I think Craig is a strong character, a good player and a good man and, for me, it's good that he stays with us," Mancini said. "I'm happy to have difficult players. I played for 20 years and I know very well the way big players work. I don't have a problem with that. If the player has technical quality, is strong and a good character, these are the most important things."

It seems pretty clear that the rumoured Bellamy/Mancini rupture has not happened and will not happen. Which is great news for us.

TLDORC December awards

This was one of the most dramatic months I can remember in my liftetime as a City fan. It started with two of the very best performances under Mark Hughes, with very impressive home victories over Arsenal Reserves and Chelsea - which was described as a possible Mark Robins moment for his management of the club. Then we went to Bolton and played out a 3-3 draw, typical of our season, full of defensive errors at both ends. The next match was the worst City performance of the season, losing pathetically at White Hart Lane 3-0. The decision was made to sack Mark Hughes and replace him with Roberto Mancini, but nothing was announced before another high-scoring game - a 4-3 defeat of Sunderland at Eastlands. The new manager came in and ground out two important wins against average opposition: 2-0 against Stoke at home, and 3-0 at Molineux. All told it was seven games, seventeen scored, ten conceded, one managerial change and we're only one goal behind Aston Villa.

Arsenal Reserves (h) 3-0 (thoughts, ratings, reax)
Chelsea (h) 2-1 (thoughts, ratings, reax, more reax)
Bolton Wanderers (a) 3-3 (thoughts, reax, more reax)
Tottenham Hotspur (a) 0-3 (thoughts, ratings, reax)
Sunderland (h) 4-3 (thoughts)
Stoke City (h) 2-0 (thoughts, reax, more reax)
Wolverhampton Wanderers (a) 3-0 (thoughts, ratings, reax)

Player of the Month

The last two months I've been pretty loath to give out this award, after some rather insipid performances. Not this time - because there's such a clear and deserving winner. I'm not even going to bother with honourable mentions; it's all about Carlos Tévez. This month he has been exceptional, scoring eight goals in our seven games - some of them brilliant, most of them crucial - as well as impressing with his endless running and hassling, supporting his teammates, and in the last two games leading the line through the middle.

The best was probably his second against Bolton - surging through defenders before hitting it with his left foot into the far bottom corner. He scored a very similar goal at Molineux - again, his second and City's third in the game. His next best was against Arsenal, robbing Tomáš Rosický and hitting it into the far top corner. His fourth best goal saw the humiliation of another Czech international at Eastlands - this time Petr Čech who failed to pick up Tévez's freekick. In fifth place was his karate kick against Stoke, with his penalty against Sunderland in sixth and the two deflected goals - his first at the Reebok and his first at Molineux in seventh and eighth. So it's a pretty good record. Add to the only half-decent performance at White Hart Lane and it's a very impressive record.

I must admit to being sceptical in his first few months at City. Like Emmanuel Adebayor, I worried that his move to City was a means to embarrass his former club; and getting revenge on his former employers was more important than our own success. While Adebayor has - and I am not pleased that this is true - proved me right, Tévez has proved me wrong. Mark Hughes had always said that having missed pre-season with injury, that Tévez would take a while to get going this season. I thought that he was covering for his big money signing, but it turns out that he was right.

Tévez is probably playing his best football since his first season at United, and we are very lucky to have him. When he was misfiring earlier this season, it was common for writers to say that Ferguson was astute enough to know that Carlitos was only a squad player, and that Hughes had been sucked in and paid too much. True enough, maybe. But a player is always going to have a different value to Manchester United as they will to Manchester City - as Hughes pointed out. And Tévez is, simply put, one of our best players. It is a shame for Mark Hughes that Tévez's best form coincided with the last games of his reign at City. It might take Roberto Mancini to prove Hughes' investment was a wise one. But if Tévez's form continues he will be the leading man for the new era at City.

Performance of the Month

Nigel de Jong against Chelsea - He shut down the Lampard/Ballack/Essien midfield with his best ever performance in blue. Another Hughes buy who will already have impressed Mancini, and will be crucial to his new era.

Goal of the Month

Lots of contenders but I'm going for SWP against Arsenal - put through down the right, he cut inside the left back and smashed the ball into the roof of the net from twenty yards. It was a replica of the fourth in the 4-1 derby win five years ago, but it meant even more. Honourable mentions for Carlitos' second at the Reebok and Garrido's free-kick at Molineux.

Wolves reax

Henry Winter, Daily Telegraph

Still lacking a target man with Roque Santa Cruz and Emmanuel Adebayor injured, Mancini set City up in 4-1-4-1 formation until his successful decision to switch to 4-4-2, pushing the outstanding Bellamy closer to Tévez, bringing the 34th-minute goal. The pace and persistence of the new-look strike-force, short of size but big of heart, thoroughly alarmed Wolves defence, combining for the breakthrough. Bellamy looked as liberated in the middle as Robinho looked forlorn and frozen on the City bench.

Sam Wallace, The Independent

Roberto Mancini made the radical step last night of changing his prediction for City's season – upgrading them from top four material to Premier League title contenders – and he did so on the back of one of the best performances in recent weeks from Bellamy. Carlos Tevez might have scored two goals but it was Bellamy who gave City their bite.

Perhaps it was the cruel reminder of Muscat's unpleasant challenge on Bellamy that gave him the impetus to stretch Wolves' defence for the first goal, finished by Tevez. But something has raised his game back to the level it was at when he scored twice against Manchester United at Old Trafford on September. He was back to his spiky best.

Peter Lansley, The Times

As in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Stoke City, Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong sat in more than was their custom under the previous manager, while the full backs, Micah Richards and Pablo Zabaleta, ventured forward only if they knew they had cover. Javier Garrido, on as a substitute, was granted licence to take the free kick late on that saw off Wolves’ spirited challenge. But it was Bellamy, working in tandem with Tévez, who gave City the cutting edge that proved the difference between the teams.

Stuart James, The Guardian

The Italian's decision to drop Robinho and replace him with Craig Bellamy was totally vindicated, with the Welshman an effervescent presence. He created the first goal and made life uncomfortable for the Wolves defence throughout with his searing pace, although it was Carlos Tevez who exuded a ruthless touch in front of goal. The City forward scored twice to take his tally to eight in seven matches.

Neil Moxley, Daily Mail

It helps when a manager has a player like Tevez to call upon and a player like Craig Bellamy to feed off him. The Argentinian is at the height of his powers, while Bellamy is not far short.

Wolves manager Mick McCarthy was genuinely pleased with his side's effort. But they lost 3-0 at home, and that was not unfair on either team.

Wolves player ratings

Given For all the possession Wolves had, they barely tested Shay Given. He had to make one good save from his Irish teammate Kevin Doyle in the first half but that was it. Must be relieved to play behind an organised defence for a change. 6

Richards Restored at right back and did well. He's always been good in the air and so Wolves' aerial barrage was comfortable for him. Clearly told to attack less than under Hughes, which could well be good for him. 7

Touré Another improved performance from the captain. He won everything in the air and organised those around him. But if we buy in January who is to say that he will come back in? 7

Kompany We had been lacking a dominant figure at centre half but at Molineux Kompany provided it. Towering aerially, he threw himself in front of everything. Our centre backs for January 2010 will be Kompany and one other, which is quite a change. 8

Zabaleta Started at left back - where he has done well before - but looked very out of touch; off the pace and sloppy in possession. Early in the second half he was moved to right midfield and did much better: shutting down Wolves' attacks down the left and passing it smartly too. 6

Ireland Started in the hole before moving wide right. Struggled to really pick up space and drifted out of the game. Substituted early in the second half with a possible hamstring strain. 5

de Jong Had a big physical battle with Karl Henry - gave and took some hefty tackles. Used the ball simply and wisely. Partnership with Barry looks to be a key part of the Mancini team. 7

Barry Grew into the game. His accurate long passes to Bellamy and Petrov were crucial to our counterattacking game, and he did well to win the freekick from which Garrido scored. 7

Petrov Started on the right of a front three but moved to the left wing early on. Troubled Wolves with his pace and running, and provides better delivery from wide areas than anyone else at the club. 7

Bellamy Proved wrong anyone who thought that he would not be part of Mancini's Man City. Started left but moved up front, his movement and running when we were on or off the ball were as good as ever. The turn and pass for the first goal were so good that we can forgive his two misses. 8

Tévez His hot streak continued: matching the Bellamy-style running with another two goals. The first was deflected but the second was a perfect left footed finish from the edge of the box. Eight goals in seven games in December. 8


Garrido His renaissance continues - he played the last half hour at left back, and scored a brilliant free kick bent round the wall. I don't know if it was better than his against Liverpool but it certainly meant more. The new Michael Tarnat. 7

Robinho Ten good minutes, setting up Tevez's goal and almost scoring himself. n/a

Sylvinho Too late to mark. Spoilt my Fantasy League week. n/a

Monday, 28 December 2009

Wolves 0 - 3 City

  • Heroic defending under pressure. Grit. Organisation against set pieces. Work rate off the ball. Thrilling counter-attacks. Isn't this all what Mark Hughes was meant to bring us? Tonight we looked like an idealised version of a Hughes side. Mancini appears - and of course it's early days - to have already conjured up the type of side that Hughes tried and failed to summon. At this stage it's impossible to separate the various contributory factors here: new manager bounce, two easy opposition sides, a natural variance in performance levels across the season and so forth. But there's no doubting that the appointment of Roberto Mancini has coincided with a serious upturn in our performance.
  • The most pleasing area was our newly robust defence. This was the main failing of Hughes this season and there is no doubt that we have improved. We were fortunate just how witless Wolves were going forward - but defending high balls into the box has been a weak point recently and Kolo Touré, Vincent Kompany and Micah Richards won almost everything they had to face. Wolves had most of the ball but forced Shay Given into very few saves. It helped that we did not reckessley commit six or seven bodies forward whenever in possession. And we have faced two very blunt attacking sides so far - and have Middlesbrough next - but so far there has been a noticeable improvement in this area.
  • Of course, defending well is only part of the game plan. You've also got to be good on the break. And we were brutal and brilliant; breaking at speed through the front three of Martin Petrov, Carlos Tévez and Craig Bellamy. It won't always come off like this but they were excellent - Tévez and Bellamy in particular. Bellamy's spin for Tévez's goal was excellent, Tévez set up Bellamy's missed chance in the first half, Petrov put him through in the second. Garrido's free kick was won by Barry after good work by Bellamy. Robinho was sparky when he came on but the idea of replacing our forwards with someone slower and lazier is absurd. Shaun Wright-Phillips, maybe. But Robinho and Adebayor aren't getting back in on current form.
  • I wrote before the game that 4-3-3 was definitely the way to go, and that is how Mancini started. But it wasn't working and so half way through the first half he switched to 4-4-2 with Martin Petrov wide on the left and Craig Bellamy closer to Carlos Tévez. It clearly worked well - Petrov stretched the Wolves defence, and the successful Bellamy/Tévez link up is mentioned above. But it's the second time in his two games that Mancini has made a tactical change half way though the first half which has turned the game. Full marks.
  • The last thing we need now is to get carried away, to say that we will finish fourth or even win the league. It's just been two games, against two poor teams. But there's enough here to think that we can still have a decent season despite recent events.

Mancini denies Kjær link

It's always interesting to see foreign footballers and managers who work in England talking to the press in their homeland - you get a bit more honesty and therefore a bit more information than you otherwise would. Look at Nani's infamous rant against Sir Alex Ferguson this autumn. Today we learnt of Roberto Mancini talking about Palermo's young Danish defender Simon Kjær:

"At the moment we are in training and I have to think about other things," he told "Could the Dane interest us? At the moment we have other targets. We're not thinking about Kjaer."

This makes sense. Kjær may well be the future of football, but does not fit with our immediate needs. With Kolo Touré on African Nations Cup duty, and Joleon Lescott and Nedum Onuoha injured, Vincent Kompany is currently our only available centre back. Kolo will partner him tonight, but then flies off to Angola. If we don't sign anyone it's going to have to be Kompany and Micah Richards in the FA Cup Third Round and Carling Cup semi-final, which is far from ideal. Signing young will players who will become good is very exciting, but what we really need now is an experienced centre-back who will come into the side and settle quickly. Whether that's Matthew Upson, Iván Córdoba or even Sol Campbell I don't know. As long as we can get someone in quickly.

PS Kjær used to play for City fans' favourite Danish side FC Midtjylland.

Ireland on Mancini

One of the best things that Roberto Mancini could do at City, both in terms of the success of the team, and my enthusiasm for his reign, is to play Stephen Ireland centrally in a 4-3-3 system. Since Ireland's emergence as a quality player roughly eighteen months ago, it has been clear what his best role is: in the hole, with two defensive midfielders behind him and three forwards in front. This was the key to his success in 2008/09 - although he did play there a few times under Eriksson. One of the disappointments of 2009/10 to date was Hughes' preference for a 4-2-4 with requires a base of Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry - and no real place for Ireland.

As is know well known, Mancini started on Saturday with a 4-4-1-1, with Ireland wide on the right, before switching to a 4-3-3 much better suited to Superman, who enjoyed his new opportunity:

“I am willing to play anywhere and do anything I can to enable he team to be successful but I have never made a secret of the fact that I am happier in a more central role,” declared the long serving midfielder.

“I started on the right in a 4-4-2 but we switched to a 4-3-3 quite early against Stoke and it enabled me to get on the ball more and influence the game. I think that is where I play my best football...

Roberto Mancini got everyone together and is keen for the staff to bond as quickly as possible with the players. The new manager has encouraged us to play football on the floor and only play it long as a last resort.”

If Mancini does what Hughes did last season, but not this one, and builds around Stephen Ireland, then I will be more enthusiastic about his management of the club.

Bellamy staying

Very good news from Craig Bellamy, in an interview in the Mirror today - he says that he wants to stay at City:

"I want to stay and I am going to stay," Bellamy said. "I am committed to that. I am committed to Man City. I have bought into the idea of where Man City is going to go and I am a huge part of where it is at this stage.

"I have no problem with Mancini. None at all. It's not his problem he's here. What happened to Mark Hughes has got nothing to do with him.

"He put it very well at his press conference when he said he won all those trophies at Inter and still got sacked. That is the game. It's what the game is.

"There is no resentment towards him from me. Every player at the club is exactly the same. If you want to be part of this club, you have got to start playing.

This is just a delight and a relief to read. Like all City fans I love Bellamy, and I was worried that his apparent anger at the dismissal of his mentor would lead him to leave City. The point is, though, that leaving City is something that many players will be quite loath to do now. I'm not saying this is the only reason, but Bellamy does have a well paid contract which lasts until the end of the 2012/13 season. He would probably struggle to get a similar deal elsewhere. When you add the fact that when we buy some decent defenders we'll get better, and that we've got a decent shot at Champions League football within the next few years you can see why staying at City has its attractions.

Bellamy does talk very candidly about the sacking of Hughes:

"I went to see him in his room after we had been told he was fired. I wasn't yelling about what I was going to do or anything. I just wanted to thank him.

"When I got there, I didn't know what to say. What do you say to a man who you highly respect and who has just lost his job?

"He said to me: 'You have been incredible this season. Just carry on. You are on the best stage you could ever have. Carry on playing the way you are. This is the perfect platform for you'.

And about his own injuries:

"Do I think I am going to be here in two or three years lifting trophies? No I don't. I don't think I will be able to sustain the level of play necessary. I think fitness will be a problem. My body has taken a toll.

"I'd love to be here long enough to win a title but I haven't thought too much about it. People thought I would be shipped out when the big signings came in in the summer but I thought of that as an opportunity on the big stage.

As ever with a Bellamy interview, it's honest and interesting. Do read it all.

Wolves preview

One of the main presumptions people make about Roberto Mancini is that he doesn't have the nous and experience to win tough Premier League games, particularly on the road. I don't know how valid a criticism it is - I think it's largely based on lazy stereotyping of foreign football cultures - but that doesn't necessarily make it wholly invalid. It's quite possible that the pace and physicality of a match like this will discomfit Mancini, but then again it might not.

I think the point to make - and this is something I feel very keenly - is that this is a learning experience for all of us. Nobody really knows what to expect from Mancini. Will he favour the big name players, or freeze them out? Will he get men behind the ball, or encourage a more attacking approach? Will he maintain the Hughes and Bowen levels of intense physical training or not? On all of these questions there is evidence - largely from testimonies from his management of Sampdoria, Lazio and Inter, but also from his public pronouncements as manager - supporting both sides. The more we see of his Manchester City, particularly once he has brought in his own players and imposed his own style, the more we will know. But remember that it took Mark Hughes the whole of 2008/09 to gain full ownership of City, and even then I don't think he was too happy with the results. These things take time.

So I'm not sure I can confidently make a prediction on this one. I'd probably just take a point, as long as we play well. I imagine that the policy from Saturday of not throwing six or seven players forward at every opportunity will be continued, which will mean a slower and tighter game but one where we should have a bit more control. In terms of selection I'm sure Craig Bellamy will come in for Robinho, and that's it. Shaun Wright-Phillips for Martin Petrov is an outside possibility.

These are the very first steps of a new era, and even if the board want instant results, there's no point in pretending that we can see the clearest image of what Roberto Mancini's Manchester City will look like this early. Three points would still be just as welcome though.

More Stoke reax

Ian Herbert, The Independent

Chief executive Garry Cook, whose grim face next to chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak told the story of his week, had reasons to feel the trauma had been worth it. From City's catenaccio defensive tactics at the end to a shrewd, early tactical move after the midfield begun so stutteringly – shifting Robinho back to the left side of a 4-3-3 with Martin Petrov out right – it is clear that the A4 sheet of paper Mancini kept whipping from the breast pocket of his overcoat was there for good reason.

But the statistic which told the story of what Manchester City are perhaps about to become flashed up on the scoreboard at the interval. A first half of 66 per cent possession elicited just two shots and though they happened to be goals, the thrill has followed Mark Hughes on the road out of east Manchester.

Tim Rich, The Guardian

Nevertheless, this was the first clean sheet Manchester City had kept at Eastlands since Wolves were beaten 1-0 on 22 August. Kolo Touré, placed in an unfamiliar partnership with Vincent Kompany, showed the pace and desire that seemed to have eluded him in the last few frantic weeks, playing behind a midfield shored up by Gareth Barry. Touré will play the return at Molineux before leaving for the African Cup of Nations, while Emmanuel Adebayor will have a medical to determine whether he is fit enough to travel to the tournament in Angola.

Ian Ladyman, Daily Mail

Wearing a City scarf, what he was then presented with was pretty typical of what has gone before.

City looked lively and dangerous going forward but conceded possession too easily and needed good goalkeeping and a little fortune to ensure they earned their first Premier League clean sheet since the 0-0 draw at Birmingham on November 1.

Oliver Kay, The Times

In his first game as manager, Mancini could not have done more to accommodate Robinho. Not only did he restore him to the starting line-up, after the Brazil player was pointedly dropped for the final match of Mark Hughes’s tenure seven days earlier, but he deployed him initially in a free role, giving the forward licence to roam wherever he liked.

It was not just a clean slate but a blank canvas, but given the opportunity to express himself Robinho again seemed to scrawl something resembling a transfer request.

Henry Winter, Daily Telegraph

In accounting for a Stoke side whose passing was shocking, Mancini favoured a version of 4-4-2 with Robinho supporting Tévez and Nigel de Jong holding. Along with Barry, who ventured forward regularly and productively, the industrious De Jong can expect to be the central rock on which Mancini will build.

Stephen Ireland and Martin Petrov swapped flanks, the Bulgarian to stunning effect in arriving suddenly from his new station on the right to sweep in City’s first. Robinho was allowed a free rein by Mancini but disappeared in the hole and it was little surprise to learn that the Italian intends starting Bellamy at Molineux tonight. Mancini likes a gifted, string-pulling technician supporting a frontrunner, as he did so ably with Vialli. Robinho failed his audition.

Neil Custis, The Sun

Indeed, the expansive attacking football of Sparky's reign looks to have been replaced with a more pragmatic approach. Like Jose Mourinho when he first went to Chelsea, Mancini has decided to sort out the defence first and think about attacking later.

The two central midfielders who used to push up to support the attack, now stay back.

Gareth Barry, and in particular Nigel de Jong, were excellent in these roles.

De Jong cleared up everything in front of his back four and then despatched the balls to others to do as they wished.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Petrov pleased to play

And surprisingly candid in his criticisms of Mark Hughes:
"Every time I score, I go to the bench!

"Now is not the time to speak about my situation. In the past six months too many things have happened with me. Maybe in the future I will speak 100 per cent. But what he was doing with me I think was unfair...

He said: "I have been away from Bulgaria for ten years, and it's the first time for a long time I've not been playing. But I'm a professional and I grow stronger. If you're not playing, you grow stronger for the next time that you do."

He's out of contract in the summer. If the events of Saturday make him more likely to stay, it's certainly a good thing.

Stoke reax

Duncan White, Sunday Telegraph

So it is to Mancini’s great credit that he came out of this game with a debut victory. It was on the, ahem, efficient end of the scale but with a clean sheet and a few chances to spare the City fans will not be complaining. Indeed the Italian will take particular pleasure from his direct tactical intervention precipitate the opening goal.

Paul Wilson, The Observer

The Italian has barely been at Eastlands a week, yet home fans were complimenting their new manager at the end for supervising a boring match. Gone was the comedy of errors of last week. City were sober and sensible, purposeful and poised, and they were rewarded with only their second home clean sheet of the season in the league. "I'm very happy," Mancini said afterwards, still sporting the sky blue City scarf he had worn during the game. "We played very well in the first half and only so-so in the second, but the most important thing was that we won."

Ian Herbert, Independent on Sunday

Gone was some of the carefree, attacking football which has seen City score three goals on each of eight outings this season but look so defensively brittle as well. Serious defensive scares were not entirely absent but the result was their first league clean sheet since the goalless draw at Birmingham on 1 November.

Jonathan Northcroft, Sunday Times

One cloud, though, curled across the new blue moon. City more or less had to secure three points using 10 men, so risible was Robinho. The Brazilian’s parlous levels of effort and motivation were not boosted, as might have been expected, by the arrival of a new manager and yesterday his touch and creative input were poor. The only good thing he did was an accident, his miscued shot from close range following a buccaneering run by Carlos Tevez slicing straight into Petrov’s path for Petrov to make it 1-0 after 28 minutes. Everything else in Robinho’s game was awry and he had just run the ball out of play after his close control failed when Mancini replaced him with Craig Bellamy.

Rob Draper, Mail on Sunday

There was a new tactical approach, City alternating between 4-3-3 in attack, with Martin Petrov joining Carlos Tevez and Robinho, and 4-4-2 in defence, with Petrov dropping and Gareth Barry moving left.

Yet there was scant evidence of improvement in defence, despite the double training sessions in the week. After £220million spent in 18 months, City still have a rotten back four.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Mancini: 'Bellamy is my friend'

Good news for all us Bellamy-lovers - Mancini has denied any reports of a rift with fans' favourite Craig Bellamy:

"Bellamy is my friend," Mancini said. "There is no problem. I spoke with him two days ago.

"We have two games in three days and I need all the players at 100%...

Mancini added: "He understood when I told him he wasn't starting. Today we played Robinho. It is possible we will play Craig at Wolves on Monday."

Everyone knows how close Bellamy was to Mark Hughes, and how upset he was at the previous manager's depature. But that does not mean that Bellamy's relegation to the bench today is the result of a deepening rift. While this is ultimately unknowable, I am not sure that Hughes himself would have started Bellamy today. We know that Bellamy cannot play games with only 48 hours rest between, and so realistically he could only have started one of the Stoke and Wolves games. And if Bellamy was only to start one game this week then Wolves is the obvious choice, not only because of his strengths (hitting teams on the break), but because Robinho is much better suited to a game like today's, which involved breaking down a team who were likely to get men behind the ball.

I'm sure we'll see Bellamy on Monday night.

City 2 - 0 Stoke

  • So the Mancini era starts with a win - like the Eriksson era but unlike the Hughes one. Stoke City at home is almost as easy a game as he could have asked for, but with our injury problems and recent distractions three points were not inevitable. If this is a precedent, first half goals and then a bit of catenaccio would be a nice change from the cavalier style of Mark Hughes. But we will come up against harder side than this.
  • Mancini's solution to the Tévez/Ireland issue was to have Carlitos lead the line with Ireland restored to his best position, in the hole of a 4-3-3. If we are play a more possession based game then we can't do it without Ireland. How exactly we do this when our two target men - Adebayor and Santa Cruz - are back, is unclear. But neither of them present a particularly compelling case for inclusion.
  • By all accounts (I caught some of the game but by no means most) Vincent Kompany did well at centre half. As of tomorrow, he is our only fit and available centre half. Presumably Micah Richards will partner him at Molineux but it will be interesting to see if Mancini goes back to Serie A for a centre half. I dream about Chiellini but wouldn't mind Iván Córdoba either. And if we do buy either who will they partner?
  • Martin Petrov's contract expires at the end of the season. If this re-invention of him as a right winger becomes a theme of the Mancini era, will he earn a new contract? If you want a sleepless night, imagine Petrov going to Spurs on a Bosman in the summer.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Happy Christmas City fans

While we can disagree about Hughes or Mancini or Cook, we should use today to unite around more important things.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

A new era

We're in a pretty novel position at City this week: on the brink of a new era, but still in mid-season. It's the first time it's happened for a while. The start of the Hughes era coincided with the start of the 2008/09 season, as did that of Eriksson in 2007/08. Stuart Pearce was different - emerging out of the end of the Keegan era as a caretaker but only being permanent from 2005/06. Keegan himself replaced Joe Royle at the start of 2001/02.

To go back to the last time we did this sort of thing - sacking a manager in mid season and finding someone else - it's when Joe Royle took over from Frank Clark in February 1998. Of course, it was all the rage in the mid 1990s. But that's another story. It does throw up some interesting issues for followers of football clubs, though: How do you understand the part of the season after the managerial change? Who is ultimately responsible for it? Do the objectives for the season stay the same? Or do they drop to allow for a bedding in period? It seems in our instance that the change came about due to a raising of expectations, and with rumours of a possible contract break if we fail to get top four, that those raised expectations remain locked in place.

So it's going to be a big learning experience for all of us. And how better to start learning than with a busy festive period and two Carling Cup semi-finals.

Looking forward

It's tempting to keep on going on about Mark Hughes. After some early scepticism I had become a big fan of his, and I think that he was been treated quite shamefully by the club hierarchy. His replacement was not just a bad decision, but one executed in a quite craven and cowardly fashion. But - there comes a point when this sort of thing is just useless. And we've got a very helpful example from just eighteen months ago.

When Eriksson was sacked I was distraught. Or, to be more precise, when it was announced that Eriksson was to be sacked I was distraught. After we lost 8-1 at Middlesbrough my sympathy for him largely dissipated. But it was such a disheartening way to end a season that I wasn't exactly fizzing with excitement for City in the summer of 2008. I was angry with Thaksin and, like many who shared my position, criticised Thaksin for thinking that he was 'bigger than the club.'

True enough. Thaksin himself made a bad decision, and also executed it in a craven and cowardly fashion. But - if one argues that no chairman or owner is bigger than the club, then surely an equivalent argument has to be made regarding managers. Just as our allegiance to City transcends any owner - whether Swales, Thaksin or Khaldoon - then surely the same is true of managers. The eternal, ineffable elements of the club - the fans, the colours, the traditions, the songs - are still there regardless of whether I happen to like the guy in the dugout or not.

Which is a long way of saying that as baffling and infuriating as the last week has been - and as preposterous as the decision was, even by the standards of decisions made by people running MCFC - it has no impact on my enthusiasm for the games against Stoke and Wolves, or on my hope that we might get to the Carling Cup final, or on my love of Nigel de Jong, or on my fear that Pablo Zabaleta might not be quite as solid as I first thought. If I can forgive Hughes for replacing Eriksson, I can certainly forgive Mancini for replacing Hughes.

Sylvinho looks forward

This has been reported as being 'Brazilians welcome arrival of Mancini' which I don't think is quite the point. Sylvinho is simply making the important point that we have 21 EPL games left as well as a League Cup semi-final against United. This can still be a historic season for MCFC, but not if we let recent events distract us:

“It has been a strange few days but when you’re talking about football at a high level, it’s always difficult,” Sylvinho said. “Some things happen and, as a player, you have to be prepared to adapt to a new system.

“Even when you’ve got a new coach, training is normal and we try to do our best. Mark Hughes is a good guy, a good manager, a good boss and he tried to do his job and the best for the club, but football is too quick, it changes a lot and you have to be prepared.”

I imagine that Sylvinho will play at left back on Boxing Day - unless Mancini happens to like the look of Javi Garrido. But with all that Serie A experience I don't know if Mancini will see Sylvinho's lack of pace as a major stumbling to his playing regularly for us at fullback.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Mancini's double training sessions

Some news is starting to come out about the manner in which Roberto Mancini will manage our very own. And it's good news, really, relative to what I was fearing - he's got the players coming in for double training sessions:

The Italian has wasted no time putting his players through their paces, effectively cancelling Christmas as he works frantically on tactics before his first game in charge at home to Stoke City in the Barclays Premier League on Boxing Day.

City’s players did double sessions totalling 4½ hours on Monday and again yesterday as Mancini took a close look at the squad he has inherited from Mark Hughes, who was sacked on Saturday night after 18 months at the club.

They will undergo intensive training again today and tomorrow with a less gruelling session on Christmas Day. The players will then report to the team hotel in Manchester at 8pm later that day.

I'm pleased to hear this. One of the best rationales for replacing Hughes with Mancini is that Hughes did not quite have the profile to manage big players. His poor relationship with Robinho was no secret, and his relationship with Adebayor deteriorated as far over three months as that between Arsene Wenger and Manu did over three years. And so one could construct an argument that we need to get the best out of these big names, and that we could do that by bringing in a manager more sympathetic to them. It's not an argument I agree with, but it's not lunacy either and is certainly the sort of thing you can see a non-football specialist, whether Garry Cook, Khaldoon or Sheikh Mansour himself arguing.

And given Roberto Mancini's style and reputation as a player it would be easy to imagine that he would be that sort of manager - willing to indulge the big name stars in the hope that they grace us with a good performance here and there. This fear grows even more acute in the knowledge that Mancini's managerial mentor is Sven-Göran Eriksson, who, when City manager, was famously indulgent of Elano - best friend of our number one galáctico, Robson de Souza. Having City descend into some less classy version of the last days of Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona is something that seriously worried me. So I am delighted to hear that he's got the players working as hard as he does.

Even more of a relief is the testament of his former players at Lazio and Inter to exactly the same point. First Diego Simeone, who played for Mancini's Aquile side:

‘I would warn the Manchester City players that Mancini is very rigorous and serious in his work.

‘Any player who does not buy in to the work rate and the spirit of the team will be out, without a doubt.

‘These things are important to him. He is very open with his players but he is also very clear. He believes in team unity above anything else. He thinks that is the way to be successful. The players he has there at City will have to understand that.

And then Esteban Cambiasso, who looks like Stephen Ireland but plays like Nigel de Jong, anchor of Mancini (and Mourinho's) Nerazzurri team:
"With Mancini the players can expect hard training.

‘There will be a lot of ball work, a lot of tactical discussion and they will be asked to repeat certain plays over and over again. In some ways, the drills will be mechanical.
‘Mancini will do what is necessary until they get things right.

‘I am convinced that Mancini’s style will be right for the Premier League and that City’s results will improve but there will be a lot of work for the squad to do on a daily basis.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Nedum out until January

Injury news to greet Mancini:

The defender strained a calf muscle during Saturday’s win over Sunderland and now faces a recovery period of three to four weeks. This news comes the day after Joleon Lescott had his knee operation to remove some floating bone, but the summer purchase from Everton is also out until into the New Year.

At least this takes a big decision out of the new boss' hands. Presuming that nothing else goes wrong, Vincent Kompany will partner Kolo Touré at centre half on Boxing Day. He could play Micah Richards I suppose, but he doesn't exactly fit into an Italian's idea of a good centre half.

More on Mancini

I said yesterday that I don't know much about Roberto Mancini. And I still don't. But here are a few more writers' takes on him:

Kevin McCarra, The Guardian

Mancini appreciates more than most that a real bond with the crowd and his employers can only be established with success. He is slick, too, referring to seven trophies at Internazionale while omitting to mention that two of them were Italian Super Cup victories. Evidently, Mancini has an entirely practical approach to public relations.

That should be of benefit to him at a club where dangers lurk. "Next year we want to win the Premier League," he said wisely, although qualification for the Champions League with a fourth-place finish is the immediate priority. Mancini appreciates the expectations and never made the mistake of adopting a low-key tone.

James Ducker, The Times

Displaying all the confidence José Mourinho had upon his unveiling as Chelsea manager in June 2004, when he famously declared he was a “Special One”, Mancini said: “At this moment my target is for City to arrive in the top four this season and next season we want to win the Premier League. Sir Alex [Ferguson] is a big manager who wins lots of trophies but we want to do better than Manchester United.”

John Curtis, The Independent

There are signs that the languid manner also includes tolerating interference from the owners in transfer acquisitions. And whatever doubts City fans might have about Mancini's ability to take them further on their journey – his reputation as "one of the best Milan managers in 30 years" as Garry Cook put it yesterday is undermined by the fact that two of his three scudetto victories were won with some of the toughest competition relegated by a match-fixing scandal – his appetite for the British game is unmissable.

Press conference reax

Henry Winter, Daily Telegraph

In truth, this was a tale of two Cities, the ludicrous land inhabited by Cook and the sang-froid kingdom of Mancini, unlike Cook a proper football man. Mancini was up for the challenge. "If you manage in Italy, living with pressure is the norm,'' he added. "So that won't be a problem for me here. I stayed at Inter for four years which was a record.''

Mancini, elegantly attired, was calmness personified as Cook stumbled through an opening address with all the dexterity of David Brent at the Christmas party. Cook pleaded with his audience to focus on Mancini, not on the departure of the popular Hughes. No chance.

James Ducker, The Times

If he [Garry Cook] survives this, he can survive anything. On the other hand, maybe he should just be sacked for using phrases like “the trajectory of recent results”, which apparently was “below the requirement” of 70 points.

People with a knowledge of football don’t use such terms. Manchester United’s “trajectory of results” did not look too good in February 1996 when they trailed Newcastle United by 12 points but come the end of the season they had won the title.

Ian Herbert, The Independent

Mancini tried to posit the suggestion that the sheikh had asked for a meeting to discuss general footballing issues. "In Italy this kind of thing is normal. It's normal for people in football to do this," he said. Cook tried a similar line, saying "the managerial position was discussed in general terms" at the meeting. "There are no conspiracy theories," he repeated. But the revelation destroys in an instant all those assertions the club has made about its Arab owners having a different, more honourable and pragmatic way of doing business to others in the football world. It is also a major setback for Cook's reputation which, after a gaffe-prone start to his City career, had been starting to pick up.

The press conference

Another big day yesterday - Roberto Mancini's first press conference as City boss - and it was almost as dramatic as the last few. First Garry Cook read out a statement, trying to explain and justify the board's decision to sack Mark Hughes and appoint Mancini mid-season. This included a claim that the job was only offered to Mancini last Thursday. I will let James Ducker take up the narrative:

Having stressed in his statement that City had approached Mancini only after the 3-0 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur last Wednesday, Cook was forced into the most embarrassing of climb-downs when the former Inter Milan coach admitted that he had met al-Mubarak and Sheikh Mansour, the club’s billionaire owner, a fortnight ago. Oops. Cook at that point went crimson and, squirming in his seat, had little choice but to correct his original claims.

As such, his statement that “I think it is important for people to know that Roberto was only offered the job after the Spurs game; we negotiated on Thursday and finalised his agreement on Friday” became this: “Two weeks ago Roberto met with Khaldoon,” Cook said. “After the Spurs game, there were further discussions on a more serious level.

“The [original] discussions were general. They were about football. We were considering our managerial options at the time. It [the manager’s job] was discussed in general terms.”

It was one of the most remarkable examples of someone slitting their own throat in modern football.

Note that Garry Cook's statement was revealed to be false not by some great Woodward and Bernstein operation, nor by a counter-statement from Mark Hughes and Mark Bowen, but by an admission from Roberto Mancini himself. If the new manager, who has an obvious motivation to back up the official board line, can expose flaws in the statement, then it suggests that it will take no great prodding to reveal the whole thing as a sham.

There are so many more unanswered questions, but I will just take one set. Cook said that after the summer recruitment drive the target was changed from sixth place to seventy points. How explicit was this made to Mark Hughes? He certainly denied it in his LMA statement. How far below 70 points would have been ok? Were we not close enough to the necessary average to judge Hughes at the end of the season? And what of the cups? A League Cup semi final is beyond our usual achievement, was this factored in at no point? Cook said that 'the trajectory of recent results' was below our target, but as Henry Winter pointed out:

An eight year-old could have picked holes in Cook's anti-conspiracy theory. Observing that the Premier League target for this season had been changed to "70 points'', Cook rather ignored that the table showed City were on course for that under Hughes. If they win their next two games, Stoke City and Wolves away, City will have 35 points from 19 games, halfway to Cook's target at the midway point of the season.

Anyway, the truth is out now. The manager's job was effectively offered to Mancini after the Hull game; Hughes' fate was left to rest on a dodgy penalty decision against Kolo Touré. In one nostalgic sense this is good news, it tells us that there is something immortal about the soul of Manchester City. We can sell Maine Road, knock it down and move to a 47,000 seater stadium across town, we can get taken over by a Thai Prime Minister and then an Arab Sheikh, we can buy Robinho, Shay Given and Carlos Tévez, but still, in a quite fundamental sense, Peter Swales will always be chairman of MCFC.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Burt: Bellamy transfer request

A worrying report coming out this lunchtime - Craig Bellamy, to whom Mark Hughes was close to a father figure - is so upset at his departure that he has issued a transfer request:

Bellamy is understood to have delivered his request although it’s not known whether its verbal or written, and informed City that he is so angry by what happened that he would prefer not to play for the club again. Mancini’s first game in charge is the Boxing Day fixture against Stoke City.

We should get confirmation of this one way or the other soon. I'd be gutted if he went, he's one of my favourites. And if Mancini starts Robinho ahead of him on Saturday I will not be very impressed.

Journos on Mancini

Because we're not playing until Saturday I'm not going to write too much about our new manager for a few days. Of course it's very important but the big story now is why on earth we thought it was smart to sack Mark Hughes, and why on earth we thought it was acceptable to do it like we did. Looking forward to the Mancini era can wait a few days (I've got to find something to do between charades and Titanic on the 25th). But it's still worth getting to know him a bit. And I must admit that I don't know much. I follow Serie A with some interest, but that's largely coincided with the arrival of José Mourinho. I know very little of Mancini's coaching career, and have no real sense of the style of his Inter team. (If you do know please leave it in the comments.) But the major newspapers employ people whose job it is to know these things, and they have a few insights today. First up is Gabriele Marcotti, The Times' European football correspondant who is, I think, himself Milanese. He writes of 'Mancio':

Sharp-tongued and outspoken, Mancini can be prickly and, over the years, he has had his share of run-ins with other managers, most notably Fabio Capello. His enemies have also questioned his record in Serie A. As Juventus fans like to point out, “his first title was handed to him by a tribunal, his second came when Juventus were in Serie B and Milan had a points penalty [for their respective roles in the Calciopoli scandal] and he had to come from behind on the last day of the season to win his third.” Yet there is no denying that he succeeded in doing something that 15 managers before him had failed to do: deliver a title to the black-and-blue half of San Siro. And there is no question that his sides play modern, attacking football that is effective and entertaining.

Next up is Ian Herbert at the Indy, who is their MCFC expert. He is less enthusiastic about our new boss:

"Mancio" mirrors Hughes in some ways: reserved, softly spoken and a manager who has no desire to cultivate a relationship with the press. But he differs in his relationship with players and is seen as a manager who wants to be close to his players. It was part of Hughes's tough culture that he was not willing to mollycoddle his multimillionaire stars.

Neither are there signs from Mancini's eight-year coaching career that he is as keen on developing youth players as Hughes. Only when Jose Mourinho succeeded him did youngsters like Mario Balotelli and Davide Santon flourish. The future looks a very different place for City.

Kevin Buckley writes more about his bad relationship with the press in the Guardian:

Despite winning the coveted Serie A scudetto three times on the trot in his four seasons at Internazionale, his early reticence with the Italian media quickly degenerated into spikiness and culminated in a furious post-match slanging match on live television when he exchanged insults with a pundit who criticised Mancini's churlish monosyllabic responses. It was the astonishing outburst in March 2008, after seeing his lauded Inter side lose 3-0 on aggregate to Liverpool in the first knockout round of the Champions League, that sealed his fate as Inter's coach.

There will be more about him in the coming days, I'm sure. And I'll write about it then.

Conn: Decision made in Abu Dhabi

David Conn, one of the most insightful reporters of the machinations within football clubs, has written today that the decision to sack Hughes came out of Abu Dhabi, rather than the Cook and Marwood double act:

From Abu Dhabi, Mansour and Khaldoon looked at their Premier League acquisition and considered that they had lavishly improved everything, the playing squad, training ground, stadium and all the supporting infrastructure – of which they believe Marwood's contribution to be a significant plus – but the one area which had stayed the same was Hughes and his coaching staff. They formed the view, which looks hasty to many in football but does not feel that way to them, that if they left Hughes in charge, the performances were not going to improve.

They will say, still, that they wanted Hughes and his team to succeed, and City sources argue that Marwood and Cook gave the manager full support until Mansour's confidence was finally lost.

Reports like this are difficult to evaluate. I suppose I would rather it was Sheikh Mansour who decided to sack Hughes. It's easier to live with being run by an impulsive billionaire owner than it is by his sneaky, whispering employees. A well run football club should be run by experts who work for the owners, I think, rather than the owners running it themselves. We just seem to have the wrong experts. Any chance we can buy David Gill off United?

Telegraph: Cook tried for Hiddink first

A Jason Burt article in the Telegraph today claims that Garry Cook offered the job to Guus Hiddink before the deal was done with Roberto Mancini:

At the start of this month, Cook met Hiddink’s agent, Cees Van Nieuwenhuizen, at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport armed with an offer for the Dutchman to succeed Hughes immediately. Furthermore Cook had arranged for a private jet to be put on standby so that Van Nieuwenhuizen and Hiddink could fly directly to Abu Dhabi to meet City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan and seal the deal.

Cook’s behaviour shows he went much further than attempting to sound out Hiddink and made a concerted attempt to hire the Russia coach. The Daily Telegraph revealed that City planned to remove Hughes last week and had approached Hiddink before then offering the job to Mancini.

If true, this at least shows that the club considered other options before Roberto Mancini. And, to be honest, I would be much less disappointed with their conduct if they had replaced Hughes with Hiddink. But the question remains: having been rejected by Hiddink, did the club not consider the policy of abandoning their plans to replace Hughes? Sacking Hughes in December was only ever going to be devious and unfair, but if you replace him with Hiddink at least it's a probable improvement. If you're going to be callous at least be calculating too.

Sacking reax

Sam Wallace, The Independent

In the space of one afternoon, Manchester City became a very different club. The kind of club who leave their struggling manager marooned on the touchline while the news of his demise spreads around the stadium. The kind of club who allow their manager to absorb his own fate in the full glare of the television cameras while his successor has already been anointed.

Every step of the way on Saturday, City got it wrong. First, they made Hughes wait until after the win over Sunderland to learn his fate officially, although he, like everyone else, had known the truth for a lot longer.

Henry Winter, Daily Telegraph

No class. No intelligence. No credibility. When Khaldoon al-Mubarak became chairman of one of English football's most famous footballing institutions, the feeling was that Manchester City were in good hands. No more.

Until his craven decision to sack Mark Hughes on Saturday, Mubarak had seemed a breath of fresh air after the stench of the Thaksin Shinawatra era. Of course, there was all the nonsense of rushing in Robinho without proper consultation with the manager or consideration over whether the Brazilian had the requisite character. Of course, there was Mubarak's similarly misguided pursuit of Kaka but that was as much down to the naïvety of his excitable chief executive, Garry Cook.

Matt Lawton, Daily Mail

But Cook lost his nerve and proved, yet again, just how ill-suited he is to the role he believes he is performing - not just turning City into one of the most successful clubs in Europe but one that commands respect.

To do that, you need a bit of class, a bit of style. But the manner in which Hughes was dismissed, indeed the manner in which Cook has conducted himself since moving from Nike to the City of Manchester Stadium 19 months ago, would suggest he is seriously lacking in such qualities.

Oliver Kay, The Times

The rights and wrongs of Hughes’s dismissal have been debated elsewhere — a personal view is that he was on the right track and should have been given until the end of the season — but, from the outside, even when aware of his troubles in dealing with characters such as Robinho and Emmanuel Adebayor, it looks like a board hitting the panic button.

Oliver Holt, The Mirror

But now City will have to reap what they have sown.

First of all, that will mean a widespread loss of goodwill. Because the way they've behaved towards Hughes shows that, actually, they've got less class than Chelsea, not more.

Hughes was one of the reasons why a lot of neutrals still liked City even when others were put off by what they saw as the vulgar show of wealth from Sheikh Mansour in the transfer market. Hughes' quiet, dignified style was the antidote to that.

How it happened, ii

More in today's papers about how we came to replace Mark Hughes with Roberto Mancini. And it looks even worse for Garry Cook, Brian Marwood and Khaldoon al-Mubarak than it did yesterday. Initially, we thought that even though Khaldoon reached out to Mancini after the 1-1 with Hull, that a firm decision was not reached until after the loss at White Hart Lane. We now learn from Ian Ladyman that the decision to sack Hughes was taken after Jimmy Bullard's equaliser:
Last night it emerged a verbal agreement on Mancini’s three-and-a-half-year contract was reached on December 2, as City beat Arsenal in the Carling Cup, but the board wanted to delay the appointment until after tough games against Chelsea, Bolton and Tottenham.