It was one year ago today that Mark Hughes was replaced by Roberto Mancini as City manager. This is still the defining, framing event of the ADUG era and the one that tells us the most about the owners and their approach.
My reaction at the time was fairly intemperate. I described the sacking of Mark Hughes as "destructive and devious". I stick by the second word if not the first. We should certainly analyse Roberto Mancini's record over the past year, and how that reflects on ADUG's decision making, and there will be more of that later. But it's still worth, even now, reflecting that Mark Hughes was treated with contempt by the club, that leaving a condemned man out in the dock in front of 48,000 people is no way to treat something, even with a generous pay-off soon after. This is a moral stain that still lingers.
But that was only half of my critique. I didn't just say that this was a badly-executed decision, I said that it was a bad decision. Ultimately, it's on those grounds that this swap will be judged, and not on the grounds of fair play. And on this I was wrong. Because Roberto Mancini has revealed himself to be a better manager than I expected. Noticeably better, I think, than Mark Hughes.
And I feel confident saying that even in the knowledge that Mancini failed the first test he faced: he was tasked with attaining Champions League football, and he failed. He could have got us beyond the League Cup semi-final, but he didn't do that either. So why do I still like him? Well, I don't think the targets he was set were realistic. He was put in a very difficult position. Putting a new manager in charge with a squad that isn't his half way through a season just isn't a smart move: for precisely the reasons I thought it was wrong to get rid of Hughes, I think it's unfair to blame Mancini too much for our finishing fifth last year. He was dropped mid-season in a league he didn't know, with a squad that wasn't his, and asked in a half-season to improve their record. Getting to a 90-minute play-off with Spurs and losing it is no great failure on Mancini's part.
This season, though, with his own players and with some familiarity of the Premier League, you'd naturally expect more from Mancini. And that's what we've got. We're third in the league, two points off the top (five if United win their game in hand), and we won our Europa League group without really playing our best players that much. We're not Guardiola's Barcelona but after our fourth consecutive summer of overhaul one shouldn't expect us to be. Given the new players that have come in and the depth of the squad we're probably going to improve as the season progresses: so the position we are in now is a satisfactory one.
That is to say, I think Mancini is doing a good job, a better job than I expected, and a job in keeping with most realistic expectations. The most obvious improvement from Hughes is the defence. This is comfortably the most impermeable defence I've seen in my time as a City fan. The experience of going into games confident that we will not concede is novel, and one that is still being synthesised into my match-day psyche. After 38 league games in charge, Mancini's City have conceded just 31 times (0.81 goals per game). Contrast that with Hughes' tenure: 77 conceded in 55 (1.4 goals per game). Even if you ignore 2008/09 and just give Hughes time after his summer 2009 spending it's 27 from 17 - 1.59 goals per game. This is a statistically significant difference. Moreover, it's not a difference that can really be ascribed to better personnel under Mancini. Yes, Jerome Boateng and Aleksandar Kolarov have played a handful of games this season but for the most part it's been done with defenders Hughes signed, or that were here before him (Joe Hart, Micah Richards). Now, for the first time in living memory, we have one of the best defences in the country. In the time since Mancini took over, Chelsea and United have conceded 29 and 27 goals respectively, in one fewer league game. So far this season, we've got the second best record, one goal behind Chelsea, and three behind United. It's an obviously impressive record.
Of course, football, like anything else, is a trade-off. And the attacking football has not been as thrilling as it was under Hughes. Too often we have lacked ideas in the final third, and only a remarkable goal-scoring run from Carlos Tévez has kept us winning games. It's not healthy to rely so much on one player, and that reliance is why the current situation is so disconcerting. But, I do sense that this is changing. Not that we don't need our captain any more - until we get a competent replacement, we do - but that with every game he plays David Silva gets better, and that in doing so he reveals himself to be the most gifted player we've had at City in my lifetime. Not quite as effective as Tévez, yet, but his superior for technique, grace and imagination. With Tévez, the improving Silva combines magically. Without Tévez, well, Silva still manages to do well enough. There has been an improvement in our attacking as a team in recent weeks, and it's not reading too much to suggest that now that Mancini has fixed the defence he is allowing himself to be more ambitious.
Because this now feels like Mancini's team, in a powerful sense. He has been ruthless in expelling those that didn't fit in: Robinho, Stephen Ireland and Craig Bellamy, the three best players under Hughes, have all gone. Vincent Kompany and Nigel de Jong are still here, but are such obvious Mancini Lieutenants that to imply any residual loyalty to Hughes on their part is laughable. Tévez, of course, is a difficult one: Mancini's defensive move to give him the captaincy - sound logic, still - has not worked and it looks as if a summer departure is likely. But, then, this is Carlos Tévez and so I'm not sure the fall-out reflects too badly on Mancini. Putting our volatile captain to one side, there is a now a core of players at City, either signed by Mancini or recently buying into his work, talented and ambitious, of a similar generation. From front to back, Joe Hart (1987), Kolarov (1985), Zabaleta (1985), Kompany (1986), Boateng (1988), Silva (1986), James Milner (1986) and Adam Johnson (1987). These players are only going to get better and I would be surprised if, two years after Mancini's appointment, they did not still represent the core of the squad.
Some of this is irrational: The scarf, the good looks, the scrap with David Moyes. Some of this is lucky: Tévez found form, Valencia sold Silva, United, Chelsea and Arsenal all have problems, leaving us in a competitive league position. But I think there is a rational and empirical basis for believing that City are a more serious prospect than they were one year ago, and that this is largely down to the cold focus and stern judgement of the coach. I know that I overrated Hughes, and I'm loath to repeat the same mistake, so I'll try not to. Suffice to say that I think things are progressing fairly well.