Explaining the rationale behind Manchester City's decisions

Wednesday July 10th, 2013

After parting with Robert Mancini, Manchester City appointed Chilean Manuel Pellegrini to manager.
AFP/Getty Images

There is a willful Luddism about English football and, at times, it's infuriating. When Manchester City sacked Robert Mancini toward the end of last season, it released a statement that, slightly foolishly, contained the word "holistic." It's a term not often used in football, one that carries a whiff of patchouli, of blissed out gurus and robed believers, an image wholly at odds with gritty, industrial Manchester. And so it was derided.

Once again, City became a source of fun, and Mancini, the football man, was seen as having been treated unfairly. The battle lines may not have quite been distinct, but they were clearly there: Mancini, one of ours, against them, the coalition of Spanish technocrats and Abu Dhabi businessmen who run City; an underlying narrative that was further amplified when Manuel Pellegrini, a Chilean with no previous experience in any European country other than Spain, was appointed to manager.

Mancini pursued the line in an interview with Corriere dello Sport last week. "[Ferran] Soriano?" he sneered. "For him I was too big within the club. A manager in full control, loved by the fans still today. He judged a person and a context without knowing anything about the people he should have dealt with. I never thought of him as an interesting person from a football perspective. We never spoke the same language. And I'm not talking about Italian, Spanish or English. His past at Barcelona? I think he was coming from an airline. I've been in football since I was 13 and I had never heard anything about Soriano. He arrived in England with his manager role and I saw that he loves to speak, to get media exposure."

It's true that Mancini remains hugely popular among fans, who took out an ad in Gazzetta dello Sport to thank him for his time at the club, repaying a similar ad Mancini had placed in the Manchester Evening News thanking them. But Mancini's personal jibes against Soriano simply make no sense. Yes, Soriano did join City after three years at Spanair, but before that he had spent five years as vice president of Barcelona. He may be a professional manager rather than a football man in the sense of somebody who has spent their life in the game -- something else guaranteed to raise suspicions -- but his experience cannot be doubted. As for the allegation that Soriano loves media exposure, it's simply nonsense: until Mancini was sacked, Soriano didn't give a single on-the-record interview or press conference.

There is another narrative at work here, one that works for Mancini and against Soriano. Football is a profoundly conservative sport. In Britain, there is a general nostalgia for the football of the 1960s and '70s, when personality managers first began to come to the forefront: Bill Shankly, Brian Clough, Don Revie, Malcolm Allison and Tommy Docherty. They were tough, quotable, fascinating men, each with their own individual quirks. They had grown up watching the game, then playing the game, then managing in the game and talking about the game; they were of the game in the same way fans and the vast majority of journalists are. They ran every aspect of their clubs and, vitally, decided on transfer policy: it was something Shankly insisted on when he took the Liverpool job in 1958.

That approach is no longer possible, at least not at the top level. Clubs are too big for one man to run, so more and more there is the need for a chief executive, a director of football and a manager, who is essentially a head coach. It's a logical division of labor. Why would a man who is good at organizing players on a pitch and arranging their training be expected to be good at balancing a budget or sorting out promotional activities? Still, that division means that a number of key decisions over issues such as transfers are now made by people who aren't football men -- people who speak the jargon of the pinstripe rather than the pitch, people like Soriano.

Yet is running a football club on "holistic" grounds really such a bad thing? I bumped into Soriano at a book awards presentation in Milan in March. He admitted that City had got its transfer policy wrong last season, that it had made the squad bigger but not necessarily better. He said the club would offload players this summer and make "three or four" top signings. Picking up Jesus Navas, a lightning-fast option on the right, and Fernandinho, a quick, versatile and intelligent holder with a fine range of passing and a ferocious long shot, fits that model, answering specific needs within the squad.

Soriano also gave me a copy of his book, Goal: The Ball Doesn't Go In By Chance. In it, he never uses the word "holistic," but he does discuss "virtuous circles" and how each part of the club -- the team, the coaching staff, marketing, p.r. and youth development -- should work together. The academy, as it did at Barcelona, should play to the same style as the first team with a clear route of development. Soriano also wrote about how a manger must become a guide for his players, a father figure who can nurture them. Mancini, notably, seems to have been unpopular with both players and staff. At the very least, Mancini regularly became embroiled in rows or fights, something that goes against Soriano's stated desire for harmony. And he almost never picked players from the youth team, even to take up places on the bench.

It was a combination of these factors and Mancini's awful record in the Champions League -- something that was true during his time at Inter as well -- that prompted his downfall. The move to appoint Pellegrini as his replacement is a risk, of course, and there must be concerns as to whether, even in an increasingly global football market, a 59-year-old can adapt to the English game. The mockery that he has never won a trophy in Europe, though, is misplaced: Pellegrini did take little Villarreal to the semifinal of the Champions League and managed a then-record number of points with Real Madrid in near-impossible circumstances. Never before has a side finishing second gathered 96 points, and rarely before has a manager found the president and the media so determinedly against him. Pellegrini then took Malaga to within seconds of the Champions League semifinal despite the sudden cuts in funding last summer.

And of course, he did win trophies in South America, where he spent the first 16 years of his managerial career: the Copa Chile, an Ecuadorean title and two Argentinian titles (with different sides) as well as an Interamericana with Universidad Catolica and a Mercosur with San Lorenzo. Soriano and the director of football,Txiki Begiristain, have more experience in the Spanish market than the English one, so it's understandable that they should turn to somebody who impressed them there.

The Pellegrini appointment may be a success or failure, but it is one that has logic behind it. And so too, given Soriano's approach, does the dismissal of Mancini. Pellegrini may not work, but that does not necessarily invalidate the rationale behind Manchester City's decision. This is football's new age.

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