With Manchester City and Chelsea tied at the top of the table, January 1st, 2015 was the turning point in the Premier League title race. In the 12 league matches since, Manchester City have lost to Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Arsenal, and Manchester United, and discussions have turned to whether Southampton can leap City for the final Champions League position.
Aside from The Guardian’s Paul Wilson ranking him as the worst manager in the Premier League this season, Manuel Pellegrini has largely escaped the criticism that usually trails managers. Perhaps it speaks to how highly regarded “the Engineer” is in the media. He did prove his big club managerial pedigree last season, as City scored 102 goals to win the league (and must have provided him with some solace after getting fired from Real Madrid after only one season).
Instead, blame is spread elsewhere. Gary Neville is not the first to point out how the last two years of transfer windows failed to improve the starting 11, a nearly unforgivable showing for a club with billion dollar resources and even higher aspirations.
Out of their 10 highest paid transfers, only Fernandinho has broken into the starting 11. Looking back at the same derby fixture from last season when City beat United 3-0, outside of Sergio Aguero for Edin Dzeko and James Milner for Samir Nasri, City lined up the exact same. United, on the other hand, replaced their entire back four save for Phil Jones, added Ander Herrera’s legs and Ashley Young’s goal and assist to the attack.
There is something to be said about continuity, but another argument made for keeping up with trends that come and go in a matter of months. United overhauled an entire philosophy in one summer. Chelsea added Diego Costa, Loic Remy, Filipe Luis, and Thibault Courtois. Arsenal added Alexis Sanchez. Meanwhile, City start eight players from their 2012 champion side.
With due respect to Matthew McConaughey, City kept getting older. The core of the side is between 27 and 30 years old, with no player younger than 24. The latter is even more strange when taking into account the role of technical director Txiki Berigistain, who oversaw Barcelona during their golden age of youth development from 2003 to 2010.
Consider how Arsenal’s season (and potentially Arsene Wenger’s future) was revitalized with 23-year-old Francis Coquelin and 20-year-old Hector Bellerin’s fresh legs inserted into the starting lineup. Berigistain must have a joker card for Pellegrini to play somewhere in the City academy.
Unless that joker card is reserved for City’s next manager.
Pellegrini's Supporting Cast
Pellegrini, with his engineer’s temperament, was hired as the antidote to the volatile Roberto Mancini. Indeed, during the side’s recent run of underachieving results, there’s no rumors of a fractured dressing rooms – only disappointment and an eye towards the summer transfer window. It’s probably one year too late, but at least Pellegrini isn’t fighting his own players.
Pellegrini brought with him a reputation for stylish, attacking play. City has demonstrated that in spurts, highlighted by their opening goal last weekend in which James Milner, David Silva, and Sergio Aguero passed and moved their way through United’s defense. But the biggest difference between last season’s success and this season is on the other side of the ball. Wayne Rooney pointed out that United attacked City’s lack of tracking back in their 4-2 victory.
Pellegrini dealt with a lack of balance with “players who find it difficult to defend” at Real Madrid. Herein lies the secret of Pellegrini teams at their most overachieving. The 2004-05 Villarreal and 2012-13 Malaga sides reached the semifinals of the Champions League on a budget, yet out-aestheticized opponents. It’s one thing to attack and win with Yaya Toure, David Silva, and Sergio Aguero, another to do the same with Isco, Ignatio Camacho, and Julio Baptista.
Seen through rose-colored YouTube glasses, Villarreal and Malaga did have moments of genuine brilliance. His 4-2-2-2 box formation ensured that his Riquelme or Isco would always be covered by the selflessness and intelligence of Marco Senna’s, Juan Pablo Sorin’s and Jeremy Toulalan’s. In this setup, no manager got more from their role players than Pellegrini.
There’s always one Dortmund, Malaga, or Atleti every year, an untraditional side overachieving in Champions League. But unlike Simeone and Klopp, Pellegrini never became an institution. And while he showed he can manage a big club to success, he’s more interesting as the restless indie filmmaker forced to experiment on a small budget. Pellegrini never needed much, anyway; a playmaking protagonist, a goal scoring side kick, and characters actors surrounding them. He, as much as any manager, understands how creativity needs a foundation to shine.
But maybe this blip in Pellegrini’s second season, and potentially his third season managing the club, never mattered in the big scheme of Manchester City. He was the quiet bridge for Real Madrid to wait for Jose Mourinho. Calls for Pellegrini to get sacked are quelled by rumors that City are waiting to hire Pep Guardiola at the end of next season, reuniting him with Berigistain and former Barcelona VP Ferran Soriano.
Louie Van Gaal’s famously observed that United were unbalanced last summer. But he’s figured out the middle ground between running and creativity in his own way. The sum of the unorthodox midfield trio of Fellaini, Herrara, and Carrick are especially dynamic with passing and through the air. And they will track runners. Now, less than a year later, it’s Manchester City who are broken.