Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini must feel pretty damn smug at the moment. Having spent the back-end of last season facing some serious doubts from City supporters and the English media at large about whether he was fit to remain in-situ at the Etihad, it was a surprise to many to see him keep his job over the summer. But keep his job he did and the Blues have been earning rave reviews since the new campaign started.
Once it was clear that he would keep his position, he had a hell of a lot of work to do over the summer. Not only did he need to repair the confidence of the squad that fell woefully short in last season’s title defence, he also had to rebuild himself somewhat.
The Chilean drew praise throughout the 2013/14 season for his calm demeanor in the face of great pressures and stress. As he engineered City’s Premier League and League Cup double, everybody knew he was the perfect antidote to Roberto Mancini. The Italian had been abrasive, fiery and damn it he was entertaining; It was exactly what City had needed at the time.
However, that firebrand approach could only work for so long and once his squad grew to despise him, something different was needed. So City appointed his opposite; A man who gave nothing away, whose man-management style could bring harmony back to a squad that had bigger cracks than the Mancunian Way.
Football is fickle though. As City failed to match up to expectations in 2014/15, he came under fire for the exact same things that he had been hailed for just a year before. As City slumped to a 1-0 defeat at Burnley’s Turf Moor, he faced a barrage of abuse from the away end for standing on the touchline and not motivating his team. He looked lost – the spark appeared to have gone completely.
I fell into the fickle trap too. I thought maybe a bit of gesticulating and shouting would at least make him look like he had more of a clue. In hindsight, that was nonsense.
What we should have given more credence to was Pellegrini’s man-management skills. They were evident throughout 2013/14, when he was able to coax a tune out of players who had been consistently hitting bum notes at the end of Mancini’s reign. Most notably, Samir Nasri and Edin Džeko discovered their finest form and both spoke highly of the gaffer and his influence on them at various points throughout that campaign.
Maybe we should have banked on that same boss finding a dressing-room that many thought he had lost last season. Several key members of City’s first team were off the pace as they limped to a runners-up finish. Chief amongst them was Vincent Kompany, who’s return to his best form in August has been more pronounced than any other player. Yaya Toure, whilst overly scapegoated last season, is also looking more like the player that City fans have idolised for five years, and less like the one that many thought would be moved on in the summer window.
Bacary Sagna looks like a different person, in more ways than one. Not only has his barnet finally been chopped in favour of a bald head, but he’s also a much improved footballer.
A lazy writer would associate Sagna’s improvement with his change of hair style, in some kind of reverse Samson comparison, but this writer wouldn’t dream of doing that. The Frenchman’s early season form has been so impressive that when Pablo Zabaleta returns from injury, he might struggle to dislodge his right-back rival from the team for the first time since 2012.
Eliaquim Mangala, like his captain and centre-back partner Kompany, has looked immeasurably better in the opening four games of the new campaign. He is more assured and much calmer than he was for large spells in his debut season. There are more players who have been similarly re-born over the summer months, but I want to avoid just writing a list.
The one common denominator with them all is their manager. All of his charges look a yard faster than at any point last year. They look hungrier for success and ready to fight for each other and their gaffer. Such qualities cannot be overvalued in the cut-and-thrust of a title race in a league as competitive as the Premier League.
Some managers, like Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, have no problem publicly singling out their stars when their levels drop below their best. That has never been Pellegrini’s way. Whatever he has done has been behind closed doors.
It is probably fair to assume that there were some strong words spoken throughout last season. To us on the outside, it may seem that Pellegrini’s calm exterior can’t be breached, but it is not possible that he has made it to the upper echelons of European football without being able to stick a few rockets up some posteriors when required.
Maybe we should have all seen this coming. Maybe the fact the he repaired one severely fractured City squad should have been enough evidence to suggest that he would do the same again. I don’t mind holding up my hands up and saying that I had hoped Manuel Pellegrini would be dismissed from his role as Manchester City manager and I also don’t mind saying that I am delighted to now be eating my words.
That’s not to say the criticism last year wasn’t justified, but the conclusion I assumed would be the natural one never came to pass.
The biggest decision that Khaldoon Al-Mubarak and his team had to make this summer was whether to put somebody else in the hot seat. They were clear and decisive that Manuel was their man, to the point of handing him a one-year contract extentsion.
Everybody at Manchester City should be thankful for their decision; the Blues look set to reap rich reward for it.
Written by Richard Burns