It’s flabbergasting to see how fast things can change in the span of a year.
At this time last year, Manchester City was preparing for a friendly against Premier League rivals Arsenal, at the Olympic ‘Bird’s Nest’ Stadium, in Beijing. City, fresh off their last-minute title triumph on the final day of the Premier League season, were a class above the Gunner’s on the night. Despite both sides missing several key players on vacation, City vividly reminded those in attendance how they won their first league title in 44 years.
As the 2012/2013 Premier League season approached, Roberto Mancini’s men were clear favourites to retain their title, based on the fact that they were now ‘winners.’ City arguably had the best starting lineup in the league, but they failed to gradually improve, while Manchester United acquired the Golden Boot winner Robin Van Persie for £24million
City added Maicon, Jack Rodwell, Nemanja Nastasic, Scott Sinclair and Javi Garcia to their squad last summer, relatively all squad players, to a side that won the league on goal-difference – relying on a collapse from their cross-town rivals, which ultimately saved Mancini’s job.
Yet expectations were arguably set too high for Mancini’s men, and they failed to deliver, ending the season trophyless – specifically crashing out of the Champions League group-stage and their horrific FA Cup final loss to Wigan. Injuries, training ground bust-ups and Mancini’s tactical deficiencies were just a few issues that City faced last season, leading to the 11-point difference between the two Manchester clubs.
With City aspiring to dominate domestically, and eventually become a European powerhouse, the results achieved last season were putrid – and change was imminent. Mancini was sacked a year to the day of winning the league, with the club’s reason being – failure to hit “stated targets” and the need to “develop a holistic approach to all aspects of football at the club.”
However, change began at the start of last season, when City presented Ferran Soriano as their chief executive officer. Soriano, a former vice-president at FC Barcelona, was a key component to the Catalan side securing a sponsorship deal with Unicef, and the appointment of Pep Guardiola in 2008.
A few months later, Txiki Begiristain was given the role as director of football. Now both men that joined Barcelona in 2003 with former club president Joan Laporta, had teamed up to begin a new challenge in Manchester. Prior to their arrival, Barcelona were on a four-year trophy drought, and went 11 years without claiming a European Cup – yet during their time with the Catalan club, Barcelona won two Champions League crowns and four league titles.
Begiristain, who is now responsible for player recruitment, was keen on bringing Pep Guardiola to the Ethiad this season, but Guardiola decided to move to Germany to take over as Bayern Munich manager. With Mancini losing the plot, Begiristain and Soriano were in need of a manager, and set their eyes on hiring Chilean manager, Manuel Pellegrini.
“What we are asking the new manager to do is build a squad but also a football concept and a way of working that will last for the next 10 years,” Soriano said.
“We want a manager who knows about football but we want somebody who knows about man-management. It is impossible for us to win the Champions League if we don’t have a group that behaves like a family,” he said.
Unlike Mancini, Pellegrini is a manager that has displayed his tactical proficiency domestically and in Europe. The Chilean was provided with limited amount of talent, which led to his cautious approach in Europe – solely based on tactical discipline, organized defending and calculated attacks. The Chilean guided Villareal to the semi-finals of the 2005/2006 Champions League, while his former side Malaga was seconds away from reaching last year’s semi-finals, making Pellegrini the first manager to guide two debutants to the Champions League quarter-finals stage.
With Guardiola unavailable, Pellegrini was an ideal choice for City – a manager that’s tactically flexible but also experienced with building projects and creating an identity, which is what City’s lacked during Mancini’s tenure. European experience was also beneficial in City’s decision, but also Pellegrini’s ability to build his side around his playmakers – doing so with Juan Roman Riquelme, Santi Cazorla and most recently Isco – that being vital with David Silva in the side.
Begiristain and Soriano were also keen on getting rid of the ‘bad seeds’ at the club, which led to the sales of strikers Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez for a combined fee of approximately £27m. Although Balotelli and Tevez achieved periods of success during their time at the Ethiad, their off-field issues were beginning to taint the clubs image. City made no profit off either sale, leaving many to classify the deals as another failure by the City board, yet City indicated the sales had nothing to do with making a profit.
“I was worried about the image we were giving to the world,” Soriano said.
“What we want is not the image of unity, we want the unity – with the new manager, we are asking him that the dressing room has as much harmony as possible, knowing total harmony is impossible,” he said.
With City selling two of their four strikers, and still needing a few reinforcements, there was no surprise to see Pellegrini bolster the squad. Thus far, City has acquired Sevilla duo Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas, Fernandinho and Fiorentina attacker Stevan Jovetic.
Last season, City formed a formidable backline that conceded a league best 34 goals – but only Everton scored fewer goals than City of the Premier League’s top eight sides, which is a poor feat, mainly for a club that aspires league success.
It was evident that City needed to improve their attacking options, and it began with the arrival of Fernandinho – a player that has been often overlooked by the Brazilian national team, but has thrived at Shakhtar Donetsk. The 28-year-old midfielder is arguably a better Ramires, who has the ability to break up play, but also burst forward into attack with his energetic runs from midfield. According to whoscored.com, Fernandinho averaged a Champions League high, 3.9 dribbles per game, which highlights his explosive runs from midfield. Fernandinho’s talent is undeniable, providing much needed depth in midfield for City, and Pellegrini will be eager to build a partnership with Yaya Toure that offers a tactical balance.
Jesus Navas is potentially the direct element of attack that City lacked last season, despite signing Scott Sinclair. Navas’ will to stretch the game with his width and take on defenders is a positive, considering Mancini chose not to play with a direct winger. Although Navas’ statistics from last season are underwhelming, the Spaniard has showcased his talent for the national team, often coming on in the second half to provide pace and quality crosses into the box. Navas was in the La Liga Top 10 for key passes, averaging 2.1 a game, yet it’s not certain as to whether Pellegrini will use direct winger or instruct his wingers to drift into midfield like he did at Malaga.
Nonetheless, Begiristain believes that Navas is a player that provides City with an additional element going forward .
“He is an absolute gift for us. He goes past people and stretches teams. He will give us something we don’t have,” Begiristain said.
City’s final two acquisitions were ideal replacements for the departed Balotelli and Tevez. Negredo, like Navas, has a few doubters to silence, despite scoring 25 league goals last season – taking his tally to 59 goals in the last three seasons. Even though Negredo was one of the top goalscorers in Europe last season, many have been quick to highlight the Spaniard’s woeful clear-cut chances rate highlighted by whoscored.com – the striker led Europe with 29 missed-clear cut chances. Although Negredo is unlikely to walk straight into the starting lineup, it’s a stat that could affect City in the future. Mainly, Negredo’s work-rate, ability to link with the midfield and converting his chances will be the decisive factor, on his road to silence the doubters.
Jovetic’s arrival to the Ethiad provides City with versatility as the 23-year-old can play as a striker, a second striker or on either flank. 27 goals in the last two seasons is a remarkable feat, considering the Montenegrin was sidelined for the entire 2010/2011 season with an anterior ligament injury. Jovetic’s ability to use both feet, play in multiple systems and his eye for goal showcases why he’s an asset to City’s attack, while his desire to win trophies in Manchester is also beneficial.
Once again, City has spent approximately £90m on these four men, but unlike the past, this quartet is eager to win trophies and eventually become world-class players. Although these are not the flashiest of signings, Pellegrini has shown in the past that he can get the best out of his players.
With the Premier League in transition, these purchases, along with the arrival of Pellegrini have vastly improved City’s squad.
Pellegrini’s ability to adapt to the league and implement an identity will be vital – yet 12 months later, City look equipped to rise to the occasion, as they’re finally assembling a team.