“He who loses money, loses much; he who loses a friend, loses much more, he who loses faith, loses all”
In many respects, Roberto Mancini has the best job in world football. The bottomless pit of money, the plethora of talent and the realistic expectations of Champions League football next year should all work in his favour. And he has spent big, he has recruited talent and his Manchester City side currently lie in the fabled fourth spot. Yet tonight, the axe looms menacingly over his head and it is certainly justified.
The snowball has started to gather momentum particularly after two uninspiring 0-0 draws. His team lacks imagination and creative drive but more crucially, his team simply don’t appear to trust him. Mancini’s overly cautious approach has left his attacking options displaying a clear lack of faith which underpins a simmering tension around Eastlands.
The Italian’s decision to deploy three defensive midfielders has angered football fans everywhere. The purists and the neutrals have been queuing up to lay into him. Mancini is essentially playing fantasy football with the embarrassing riches City possess. So it was frustrating to see them line up on Wednesday as though they were a newly promoted side in desperate need of a point.
With the emphasis clearly placed on being hard to break down, results hinge on the attacking players conjuring up plenty of magic. This is where Mancini’s shortcomings are laid bare.
Craig Bellamy, one of his most exciting, direct players, was cast aside. Emmanuel Adebayor’s commitment is questionable especially considering the ambivalence he shows towards Mancini. Naivety consumes the explosive Mario Balotelli and Mancini has been publically critical of City’s other bright hope, Adam Johnson. So when City need reliability; when they need inspiration, the onus falls directly on Carlos Tévez.
Mancini is all too aware of his importance:
“Since the start of the season it has been the case that if Carlos Tévez doesn’t score, no-one does”.
And when City have been good, Tévez has been magnificent. Nobody questions you when you’re winning and Tévez’s goals have often masked Mancini’s defensive tactics. But in recent weeks Tévez has become disillusioned and without him, City’s tactics have been brutally exposed.
Is his team any more resolute and negative than the Inter Milan side that stifled and suffocated Barcelona over two legs last year? Mourinho was hailed as a tactical mastermind whereas Mancini has been crucified for promoting boring football. The crucial difference is that Inter’s players brought into Mourinho’s ethos.
Certainly it would be easier for his players to rally behind Mancini if he was promoting the type of renegade, cavalier football which has made Tottenham so utterly captivating thus far.
But at City, they moan about the double training sessions, they party after defeats and generally undermine Mancini at every turn. Even James Milner, a player who has been lauded for his professionalism, treated his substitution today with disdain.
I don’t expect Mancini to adjust his managerial style and abandon his cautious approach, particularly in the bigger games. So he must then focus on repairing strained relationships off the field. He has a talented, exciting prospect in Johnson and Mancini must find a way to keep him focused on football. Criticising him in public and keeping him on the bench clearly isn’t working. Then there is Tévez. Mancini has to bend over backwards to ensure his best player is happy because without him, his team looks very ordinary.
There are no points for style and you don’t get bonuses for goal gluts. But Mancini’s philosophy is endearing him to neither the fans nor the players. Lose the faith of your team and the end won’t be long.
“I can’t even spell spaghetti never mind talk Italian. How could I tell an Italian to get the ball? He might grab mine!”
In the aftermath of another dismal showing in an international competition, everybody has a diagnosis for the terminally ill English national team.
Is it the manager? Is it the egos of the exceedingly rich Premier League players? Is it the absence of a winter break? Or is it the influx of foreign players in the country’s top division? All likely theories but it is the latter which I want to draw attention to here.
It is a theory I refuse to subscribe to. All of England’s squad played in the Premier League last year and the majority play for clubs who continually play in Europe’s premier club competition, the Champions League.
Nevertheless, The Premier League is certainly concerned about the development of young British players. It is concerned enough to offer a remedy, the home-grown rule. As a result, this season, clubs will need to include no more than 17 non home-grown players in their 25 man squad.
One club who this certainly doesn’t endanger is Aston Villa. Villa’s proposed squad contains 13 players who qualify as ‘home-grown’. Of these, 11 were signed by Martin O’Neill, the man who has just stormed out of Villa Park in a dispute over future transfers.
O’Neill’s gripe was obvious. He wanted more money and he wanted it to assemble a squad capable of toppling the established order. He has seen Gareth Barry depart and he fears James Milner and Ashley Young are on the verge of leaving too. But owner Randy Lerner’s counterargument was also fair. He had given O’Neill plenty of money every summer since he joined. He now faces the unenviable task of trimming a wage bill which is 85% of the club’s turnover. O’Neill may bemoan Lerner’s sudden frugality but the American has opened his wallet on multiple occasions for the Ulsterman before, it is time to close it shut.
O’Neill’s problem is that he loves to buy British. Like the old man who turns his nose up at the lasagne in Tesco, he never could take to that ‘foreign muck’. With the exception of some of those hotly tipped for relegation, Aston Villa are perhaps the least multi-national team in the Premier League. Stiliyan Petrov, Carlos Cuéllar, Habib Beye and Brad Friedel may not originate from these shores but they were already well versed in the British game when they came to Birmingham. Their current foreign legion includes John Carew and two back-up players in Moustapha Salifou and Brad Guzan. Moreover, for all the hype regarding their academy, only Gabriel Agbonlahor is a regular. Martin O’Neill assembled this squad rather than inheriting it and he has built a team with a distinctly British flavour. It is this which endears him to both the public and the media but it is also a serious flaw not to include talented foreigners in your ranks.
The main reason is economical because buying British in O’Neill’s line of business is a rather costly hobby. The 11 home-grown players in the current squad that O’Neill signed are: Luke Young £6 million, Richard Dunne £6 million, Steve Sidwell £5 million, Stewart Downing £12 million, Ashley Young £10 million, James Milner £12 million, Curtis Davies £8 million, Emile Heskey £3 million, James Collins £5 million, Nigel Reo-Coker £8.5 million and Stephen Warnock £8 million. James Collins and Richard Dunne both represent their countries but only James Milner and Emile Heskey made an impact at the World Cup with England. Acquiring established international players comes at a fraction of the cost and you can’t help but feel O’Neill missed a trick by sticking with the Brits. He has signed good players, but nobody who you would consider capable of performing on the Champions League stage. The 11 players listed earlier only represent the legacy O’Neill left behind; the BBC estimates that 30 of O’Neill’s 50 signings were British.
Many believe that O’Neill is a fantastic manager and they believe he did a great job at Villa. I would concur with the first statement but I believe he did an OK job and nothing more. He spent big and ultimately produced little. Had O’Neill invested some of Lerner’s millions in cheaper foreign talent, he may have won a trophy or finished in the top four. They certainly wouldn’t have spent so much on squad players and the finances would now be in a far better state.
If the influx of foreign players has done one thing in this country it is raise the price of British players. The new home-grown ruling is only going to exploit this more. Under O’Neill’s British-first approach, Villa had no chance of progressing further.