European progress, domestic regression, and three trophies – Manuel Pellegrini’s time at City

As the final whistle blew on Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Swansea, there was a line of Manchester City fans ready to say goodbye and good riddance to manager Manuel Pellegrini. By and large, his final two seasons in charge of the club have been somewhat underwhelming and that’s soured the view of his overall performance as boss – but, as is the way with most things in football, the Chilean’s tenure in charge of the Blues can’t be viewed as black or white, as many would like it to be.

Given how his time has ended, Pellegrini can’t really be seen as a success, but equally to view him as a failure over the three years would be doing him a disservice. There’s the distinct danger that the positives he’s brought to City will forever be bogged down in the ham-fisted nature of the club’s title challenges in 2015 and 2016, combined with how they hobbled over the finishing line into the Champions League qualifier position.


When he first arrived at Eastlands, Pellegrini had a job on his hands. After the behind the scenes chaos in the final weeks before Roberto Mancini’s sacking, the beginning of the 2013-14 was a far more placid affair. If reports are to be believed, the Italian had fallen out with the vast majority of his squad and the only bridge that he hadn’t burnt was the one to the fans, borne out by the to-ing and fro-ing of newspaper advertisements as the two thanked each other for the memories.

That meant that when Pellegrini first set foot inside the Carrington training complex – as it was back then – he was taking charge of a group of players that had spent the last six months in what’s assumed to have been a very hostile environment. While it didn’t win him any fans in the press, the Chilean brought everybody together and got them all rowing in the same direction; he kept the focus on the pitch and any journalist or reporter that went to one of his press conferences barely got a story.

What’s more, he had to win the fans. While the supporters were never hostile towards the Chilean, they still missed their lively Italian. If his early performances were below par and he took some time getting his feet under the table, then the stands could quickly have turned on him.

It was a deliberate move by the club to bring in a much more controlled character. Mancini was something of a press officer’s nightmare; a live wire that could explode at any given opportunity. Pellegrini is the exact opposite; six weeks into his tenure, the attending journalists stopped trying to get a reaction because there was little point – it was clear the manager was only in the room with them because he was contractually obliged to, and his answers gave very little away.

The answers to his pre-match press conferences could be written before he gave them – the opposition were dangerous, they had to focus on this game before the next, he didn’t have any thoughts on this rivalry or that bit of animosity between players, teams, or staff.

He would only blow his top once, as he slammed referee Jonas Erikson after a loss to Barcelona, which led to a touchline ban. He later said he regretted how he’d conducted himself in that post-match press conference in 2014.

Manchester City v Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Round of 16

In the end, perhaps his persona is part of the reason why his legacy is tainted so much by the underperformance in his final two campaigns. The Chilean is very beige – something he later admitted in an interview with The Guardian’s Sid Lowe was a deliberate change of style – and it meant that there was little for the fans to get behind at times. Contrast how Pellegrini’s calm demeanour on the touchline was perceived when things were going badly to how Mancini’s frantic ranting and raving was viewed – yet both were still, in essence, doing the same job and making decisions they felt were best for the team.

When the going got tough, Pellegrini’s time ran out quicker because there was little in the way of an emotional connection to supporters. Mancini always knew that good relationship he developed early on would buy him some more time and it was that which made his sacking such a difficult move for the club to sell, even if it was the correct decision.

Again, though, the truth is that Pellegrini would probably have been handed his P45 earlier during his reign had there been no deal – be it a signed contract, a gentleman’s agreement, or a handshake – that Pep Guardiola would take the reigns from July 2016. There were plenty of opportunities where axing the Chilean wouldn’t have been the wrong decision – after the 1-0 loss at Burnley in March 2015, following the 4-2 defeat at Old Trafford the next April, or even as late as the 4-1 home battering against Liverpool and the 2-0 defeat at Stoke that came in November and December respectively.

That City didn’t sack him as the number poor results slowly crept upwards was a growing clue that a deal was in place for something to happen soon. The jigsaw fitted together quite nicely, especially as Guardiola’s contract expired at Bayern Munich in the summer of 2016 – and he then announced that he’d be leaving at the end of it. The club might have put a temporary end to the speculation by giving the Chilean a contract extension at the beginning of 2015-16, but it was back with a vengeance in the New Year and by February it was decided by all parties involved to make the announcement to remove any doubt.


Looking in from the outside, it feels like that was a move driven by Pellegrini himself. If he was to go, then he was to go on his own terms – and it seemed like he’d decided to put a final statement down as the constant speculation about his position was undermining his ability to do his job properly.

It’s mildly amusing that many of the journalists attending his pre-match press conference on Monday 1 February ahead of the 1-0 win at Sunderland expected to get the usual bare bones to pick through in terms of a story. Soon they were blown away by how it ended, as Pellegrini addressed them directly.

“Before I finish, I want to tell you I have talked with the club and I will finish my contract on the original date,” he said. “I signed for one year more, but with the clause that the club or me can choose not to use that stuff now, so I finish here on the original date, June 30, so there is not the speculation.

“The club are not doing anything behind me, I knew this one month ago, but I don’t think it’s good to have rumour or speculation about these things, so I prefer to finish today, which I why I have told the players and I have told the press.”

The statement that Guardiola would take charge from July followed shortly after.

Many questioned whether that announcement affected results. Indeed, City lost three of their next four matches and the final nail was pretty much slammed into the title-challenge coffin with defeats to Leicester and Tottenham at the Etihad. However, the problems that existed in those matches weren’t new to the fans – City had already gone three and a half months without winning back-to-back Premier League games and had, domestically at least, been in decline for well over a year.

What makes Pellegrini’s tenure confusing, however, is that there are clear signs of progress, too. It shouldn’t be forgotten the quality of the football that was played at times in the 2013-14 title-winning season, especially through the months of December and January where the club went on a run of 18 wins in 20 games.

Further, they weren’t just beating teams – they were humiliating them. Tottenham must have wondered what hit them when, across 180 minutes in that spell of good City form, they had 11 goals smashed past them. Arsenal left the Etihad shellshocked from a 6-3 battering. West Ham had the demoralising prospect of going into a semi-final second leg 6-0 down.

It may be the competition that is fourth priority for the club and for the fans, but two League Cups in his tenure is no mean feat either. City supporters aren’t so spoiled with trophy wins that they should turn their noses up at a trip to Wembley and a successful one at that. Think back to those days against Sunderland and Liverpool and they were brilliant occasions.


On top of that, the Chilean became the manager to earn City’s first league and cup double – previously legendary boss Joe Mercer took the club to two trophies in a season, winning the League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1970. Pellegrini leaves City having averaged a trophy a season and having the best win rate of any of the club’s managers that’s been in charge for more than 30 matches, and yet he’s going to be largely remembered as a failure.

But here’s the thing – after three campaigns in the dugout, can anyone honestly say that he’s leaving the club in better shape than he found it? While he has little input when it comes to transfers, they have largely been underwhelming during his tenure. Only really Kevin De Bruyne and Fernandinho have proved their worth for him, with many other turning out to be disappointing – though some still have a bright future.

After rallying everybody together for that first title win, the Chilean hasn’t even got close to the Premier League’s summit again – instead, his teams have been battling for qualification to the Champions League and a top four finish. They’ve wimped out of the FA Cup to lower league opposition on two occasions, surrendering the third in what felt like a dogmatic protest against an FA decision that was never going to go in the manager’s favour.

He wanted the tie at Chelsea to be moved from the Sunday afternoon to the Saturday lunchtime, as the Blues travelled to Ukraine for their next match in the Champions League on the Wednesday ahead of the Capital One Cup final the following Sunday. The FA didn’t budge and Pellegrini played a team littered with debutants from the academy.


At best the club has been treading water during his tenure – as domestic regression is balanced out by a huge leap forward in performance on the continent for his final campaign. It’s clear the team were much better prepared for the Champions League in 2015-16 – as Pellegrini focused intently on that competition.

Part of his remit when joining the Blues was to improve their displays in Europe. During the two Champions League seasons City had under Mancini, they were unlucky in one and abysmal in another – as, in 2012-13, they became the first English side not to win a single group game.

In each of his three seasons, Pellegrini got City out of the group and into the knockout phase. His first saw him glide through in style, albeit with a mathematical cock-up that saw the manager not realise that one more goal in the last match would have had them finish first in the table.

Of course, there was no guarantee bringing Sergio Aguero on would have earned that goal in what would turn out to be a 3-2 win at Bayern Munich, but that decision would have given his side a better chance than they had by bringing Jack Rodwell on instead.

It meant a second-placed finish and an unseeded draw. They were paired with Barcelona and were somewhat unfortunate in the first leg. It was the correct decision by referee Erikson to send off Martin Demichelis, but his foul was clearly outside the box – and once Lionel Messi had converted the wrongly-awarded penalty, City had an uphill task.

Pellegrini’s second season in Europe was a little different. Their group wasn’t much harder than it had been the year before – two of the three opponents were the same, after all – but they made a meal of getting through. They didn’t play well until the final 100 minutes, as a late effort turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 win against Bayern Munich at the Etihad, before the Blues stunned Roma with an excellent 2-0 victory in Italy.

Somehow – surprisingly so – that was enough to see them finish second.


Drawn against Barcelona again, Pellegrini decided this time not to try and contain them as he had been doing successfully the season before until Demichelis’s red card, but to attack them instead. He played a suicidal 4-4-2 formation and City were ripped apart in the first half – quite how they ended up with a marginally better result than the last time from a far worse performance was a mystery. Nevertheless, the 2-1 loss was still too much to overcome in Spain.

Things changed in 2015-16, however. They were the first English club to qualify from the group stage, guaranteeing themselves a place in the knockout phase with two matches to go. They – bizarrely, it has to be said – won the group, despite losing twice to Juventus, and they reaped the rewards for doing so.

They were seeded for the draw and were handed a less daunting task of a trip to Ukraine. An excellent display at Dynamo Kiev rendered the second leg meaningless, while a great (but flawed) performance in Paris followed by an damn-near perfect second leg against PSG threw City into the competition’s semi-finals for the first ever time.

Yet, it still felt like that, when the going got tough, the tough didn’t ask any questions for fear of upsetting the established giants. The excellent wins in Europe in 2015-16 all came against sides that weren’t of the so-called elite bracket. Of course, Sevilla, Kiev and PSG aren’t pushovers – but they’re not ranked among the best of the best, a category City so badly want to get themselves into.

The manner of the defeat, rather than the loss itself, to Real Madrid proves that there is still some way to go. All teams can lose, but once again City failed to put up much of a fight. It was as if there was no kitchen sink to throw at the Spanish side in the closing stages and Pellegrini’s assertion that he had no regrets in his approach to the match afterwards only served to distance himself from the fans further.

He should have regretted it because his team could have done something more than continue with the same style of play to try and get the goal they needed to make the final, especially when that style wasn’t working. Once they fell behind, somewhat unluckily to a deflected cross, it never felt like City would rescue the tie.

Real Madrid v Manchester City FC - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg

Perhaps that’s one of the biggest problems of Pellegrini’s tenure that many will remember. City have become somewhat softer and easier to upset. The Chilean’s record in the big games and when the pressure is on has been nothing short of awful – four points from a possible 30 against the teams in the top six in his final year is the reason why they only just scraped into the top four.

Even in his first season, where he lifted the Premier League title, Pellegrini lost to twice to Chelsea and again at Liverpool, the two teams that were really challenging his side for the league until the death.

Worse, the team just didn’t respond to setbacks. Throughout the last three years, the poor reaction has been lasting longer and longer – it began by City struggling to regain control of a match once they had conceded a goal, even if it was against the run of play. By 2016, it became a genuine fear that a defeat could be predicted beforehand based on how much pressure the opposition would put the Blues under.

The old City – at least, the previous incarnation of this successful City side – could be counted upon to score last-minute winners. It feels like Pellegrini’s team is too polite to do that, more likely in fact to concede because the defence always had a mistake in them.

Hull City v Manchester City - Premier League

Defending was never one of the Chilean’s priorities, perhaps strangely given he was a centre-back during his playing days. With the exception of Pellegrini’s first season in charge, City’s defence looked shaky and nervous – and every defender in the squad has struggled under his stewardship at one point or another.

Above all else, though, it has to be remembered that the last three years haven’t been spent just existing. The club has won trophies, even if the manager was just keeping the chair warm for his replacement for the final however-many-months that Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Sorriano had agreed an in-principal deal with Guardiola. Pellegrini steadied the ship when it needed steadying, brought some good times with him in patches and he kept the engine ticking over until the club’s coveted man was available – while still winning the majority of his games, too.

It might have gone to the wire, but the club remains in the Champions League and has achieved several successes in the last three years – though perhaps it’s not quite gone how many would have expected.

The Chilean was clearly the right man for City in 2013. By 2016, it’s obvious that he’s not been the man to take the club to the next level and perhaps he never was. Maybe his role was keep it around about where it was until the best manager in the world became available, while giving the fans something to cheer about along the way.

To measure Pellegrini as either a success or a failure at City would be to over-simplify his time in the Etihad’s dugout and try to make an issue that has so many conflicting factors into a black and white topic. The correct answer is that he’s probably been both and neither at the same time, depending entirely on what his original brief was.

Ultimately, though, the Chilean’s departure is coming at exactly the right time for the club. He finishes on 99 wins for the club – as his side couldn’t take their chances in a match that perhaps summed up his time with the Blues in his final game at Swansea. They started brightly, faded a little in the middle, and stumbled over the line at the end.

There’s been some good times and there’s been some bad times. Come what may, the club is in a position to take full advantage of the incoming Guardiola’s skills – and that, at least, must count for something. It’s been an interesting three years, and now there’s an interesting new era to begin.

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Written by David Mooney.


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2 comments on “European progress, domestic regression, and three trophies – Manuel Pellegrini’s time at City
  1. That’s a decent read – and I guess I pretty much agree with it all, but given the Pep situation its hard to think how it might have been have been handled much differently all in all I think he was the right man and at the right time.

  2. I do wonder if our defenders are as bad as the media would wish us to believe. I think they’ll inprove immeasurably as soon as they have a calming, dictating midfield in front of them. I wish this problem had been sorted out last summer. Maybe this year could have gone better then!

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