As Manuel Pellegrini walked from the tunnel and took his seat on Saturday afternoon, he smiled towards the fans in the Colin Bell Stand and gave a warming wave to those applauding his team out onto the pitch. He embraced Watford manager Quique Flores, as his opposite number came out onto the pitch-side, before dusting down his jacket and taking his seat in the dugout.
Having watched his team dismantle West Brom, taken Chelsea to the cleaners, and then ease through the gears to victory against Everton, the Chilean had the stature of a man who was carrying no baggage. He was relaxed – perhaps the most relaxed he’s ever been when taking his seat in the Etihad Stadium – and he was a man who had all of the answers.
Four months ago, the situation was different. Back in April 2015, as Pellegrini took his seat for what would turn out to be a comfortable 2-0 home win against West Ham, the Chilean wasn’t carrying the air of a care-free man that follows him around today. He had the weight of the world on his shoulders and he looked like he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks.
That afternoon, it was baffling to many that he still had a job. It came seven days after the Blues had travelled to Old Trafford and put in a woeful fight against an entirely beatable Manchester United team. Despite taking the lead, the visitors never looked like winning the game from the moment the home side equalised. Questions were being raised about whether Pellegrini was indeed the right man to manage City to future success – especially as that defeat made it a run of just four victories in 15 games.
As the pressure mounted on his shoulders, the Chilean dug his heels in further. His team was showing a disastrous run of form and he seemed very unwilling to change things – relying on his players to turn up and perform at a time when nothing they did was working. The manager regularly failed to solve the same problems that were cropping up match after match – an exposed defence, a captain so woefully out of form he needed to be taken out of the spotlight, an inability to attack with pace and directness, and a lack of clean sheets. As a result, he was being scrutinised for being unable to facilitate a turnaround in fortunes and the poor showings just rumbled on and on.
When the axe didn’t fall the morning after the Manchester derby defeat, many were mystified – it felt like the club had little option but to relieve him of his duties. That it hadn’t fallen by the morning of the West Ham match was more of a surprise: in that week, Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp had confirmed he was to step down as coach of the German side and he that made him available, there were rumours City might be able to tempt Pep Guardiola into leaving his contract a year earlier than it finished, and there were also suggestions Patrick Vieira may have been ready for the step up to the first team management fold.
And, at the time, all of them seemed to inspire a little more confidence than Pellegrini – who looked like a dead man walking. He was beaten. Bruised. Battered. He’d take his seat in the dugout with his eyes looking more bloodshot and his hair so ruffled that it looked like he’d spent all morning tearing at it while he thought about how on earth he was going to get a result. He looked like he’d aged another decade over the course of the season.
The victory over the Hammers couldn’t have been more comfortable. It felt like he’d bought himself another week in charge and that it would be after the next defeat that he’d be asked to clear his desk and told “thanks, but no thanks,” for the coming campaign. And he must have been worried as soon as Aston Villa equalised with five minutes to play, but Fernandinho stole the points for the home side late on.
There followed four more victories, as Tottenham, QPR, Swansea and Southampton all tried to capitalise on City’s poor campaign and take maximum points. All of them were left disappointed and defeated, though.
So it left the Blues in a very strange position. They had a manger that was widely seen as a lameduck, but who had finished the season by securing second spot in the league when it had looked a possibility the club might have slipped as low as fifth. To some it would still not have come as a shock had the two parties went their separate ways, but when that didn’t happen in the days after the final whistle against Southampton, it became clear the club had decided to stick by their man – though he’d surely be on a final warning for 2015-16.
What hadn’t helped the Chilean throughout the back end of the previous season was the constant rumours over his job. They were, of course, natural given his side weren’t hitting top form, but that was largely conducive to piling more pressure on his shoulders. This is where the club were smart.
Everything seemed in place for the rumours to continue. Pellegrini’s contract, it was widely known, was to finish at the end of the season and that coincided with when Guardiola would be free from his agreement at Bayern Munich. With the former Barcelona manager on very good terms with City’s Director of Football Txiki Begiristain and Chief Executive Ferran Soriano, it wasn’t a difficult stretch to imagine the swap coming at the end of the year.
Pellegrini signed a contract extension on the eve of the new Premier League season and it was announced moments before he faced the press at the City Football Academy for their first conference since May. “Nice to see all of you again,” the manager opened with that Friday afternoon. “I wish you all a very good season, with good news.”
At the time, it seemed a gentlemanly way to start the new campaign. However, as the season has progressed and it seems that the Chilean has become a little more feisty with the media, they’re now looking like very well chosen words, indeed. He doesn’t want any more of the negativity that surrounded the club in 2014-15 to be doing the same for 2015-16; the chairman and the board have stood by their man, and now he was going to get down to business.
That was reflected on the pitch. His team turned up at The Hawthorns and put in the best performance of the opening weekend, blowing every other top flight side’s display out of the water. They did the same as they hosted Chelsea the following week – while Jose Mourinho stressed about the result being “fake”, Pellegrini relaxed into his five-point lead over the Champions.
A tough challenge at Goodison Park was overcome by again remaining calm and plugging away with their revitalised pass-and-move style of play. The same could then be said as the Blues beat Watford, who defended so deep that their furthest man forward was frequently 15-yards inside his own half.
In the second half of last season, neither Pellegrini nor his players were willing to take a chance. The manager slipped into familiarity with his team selections and his tactical approach to matches, while the starting line-up frequently remained rigidly in position and failed to pull opponents around the pitch to create gaps. While the 4-4-2 wasn’t in of itself a problem, it became an issue when it was clear some players were lacking the form needed to make it work.
As soon as the Chilean relaxed, backed by the club and again by the fans, that calming influence has been seen on the pitch. Rejuvenated by the arrival of just one player into the regular starting selection (so far), the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Yaya Toure – joined by Raheem Sterling – have been moving around the attacking third so fluidly, they’ve proven too difficult for anyone to deal with.
After the brand of football that’s been on display so far, it seems weird to even have suggested that the manager mightn’t have been here this season. In fact, he feels safer in his job than he’s ever been – even after securing the league and cup double in his first year. It’s been a remarkable turnaround and credit to him for it.
Pellegrini’s looking like he’s enjoying being in the dugout again. He’s relaxed and he’s been the calming influence the club so badly needed over the summer. Most of all, he’s got a smile back on his face.
And who can blame him?
Written by David Mooney.