What a difference a month makes in the world of soccer. After leading the Premier League, and having been handed a seemingly favorable draw in the Europa League against Sporting Lisbon, Manchester City have seen their season take an almost unthinkable turn. At one point competing for four trophies, the Manchester blues are almost certainly going to end the season without silverware, and one need to look no further than to Roberto Mancini for their precipitous fall from grace.
Managers are the customary scapegoats for their teams’ ills, and as such, blaming the Italian is hardly a surprise. Nevertheless, Mancini may have just unwittingly authored the manual for what not to do when attempting to steer a team burdened by massive expectations, towards glory. Ultimately, Mancini proved inept at dealing with the problems that inevitably result from building a team with overpaid mercenaries: disgruntlement over playing time, antagonistic personalities, and the consequent media fallout.
The first problem found its climax in Carlos Tevez’ refusal to come off the bench against Bayern Munich in the Champions League. While there were some minor media grumblings of dissatisfaction within the squad, the Argentine’s public subversion was a clear indicator that the cracks caused by player discontentment had turned into full-blown crevasses. The ferocious British media demanded a stern response from the Italian manager, and it soon got it with Mancini claiming that Tevez would never again play for City, so long as he remained in charge. Mancini’s reaction, while rash, was the correct one, as it most likely proved a deterrent to similar behavior from other players. Yet, as ensuing Tevez transfer speculation failed to materialize, and City navigated through its first dips in form, the pressure to reinstate the Argentine became too difficult for Mancini to ignore, and the Italian was soon telling the media that Tevez had redeemed himself. A tough sell to anyone who had spent the previous months witnessing the mercurial striker’s repeated visits to nightclubs and golf courses, alike.
Tevez’ return to the squad may have been assuaged, though, had the club remained free of other distractions. Still, as Tevezgate dragged on, Mario Balotelli did his best to solidify himself as the pariah of soccer, as his supposed mentor reciprocated by playing his best Neville Chamberlain, appeasing his young compatriot with more starts, and an apparently inexhaustible patience that only served to alienate all his remaining players.
The Balotelli situation was only exacerbated by the fact that Mancini insisted on giving the tabloids a play-by-play of his interactions with the striker. Instead of dealing with Super Mario behind closed doors, and deflecting the media attention, which only compels Balotelli to become more of a side-show – “why always me” – Mancini stoked the fires by calling him “immature” and declaring that one never knows what he will do on the field, and that their meetings were yielding few results.
Such declarations did, and continue to do, nothing more than to mystify those who wonder why such a liability was still allowed to play when championship chances were slowly dissipating. Manchester City fans could only watch in horror as Balotelli walked back onto the field on Monday, after a first half against Arsenal where he should have been sent off for an egregious tackle on song, and where his teammates made their feelings towards him known, when they unceremoniously walked by him as he lied injured on the ground. Even club captain, Vincent Kompany is giving the impression that he’s given up on Balotelli, after serving as a buffer between the Italian and his other colleagues on numerous occasions.
All these incidents are suggestive that Roberto Mancini has clearly lost his way in Manchester, and that his future is elsewhere. One can’t help but cringe when the Italian rubs his forehead during post-match interviews, clearly at a loss for answers, and even more painfully, clearly wondering where it all went wrong.
Mancini’s replacement will certainly have his hands full next season, with expectations being even higher than they were this season. Whoever that manager may be, he will do no wrong by taking a page of Mancini’s book, and quickly tossing it in the trash.