Mancini fluffs his lines as the pressure builds (by Nik)
At the start of last season, Mancini struggled to get to grips with the English media – press conferences, post-match interviews, in fact any kind of interview. Now of course, this was in part due to his patchy English, but there was also an element of nervousness mixed with an unhealthy dose of Benitez-ism. In fact, for much of last season, Mancini managed to blend a defensive style on the pitch, with an equally defensive one off it, and it was only towards the end of the term that he seemed to hone his relationships with the media and press pack at large, and thence how to work with, and respond to it. Gone were the combustible reactionary post-match interviews and the non-conformist pre-match press conferences and in came a more profound Mancini; a manager who, almost all of a sudden, became aware of the magnitude of his position, the riches at his disposal, the expectation of City fans. Praise for opposition managers became commonplace, as did the protection of his players and a steely pragmatism; Roberto also made sense: he pleaded for patience and referred to his ‘long-term project’, understanding a hierarchy was in place, a league where United and Chelsea were expected to finish above them last season; knowing too, that spending would have to continue to even think about challenging the other side of Manchester, and a squad Fergie had taken the last three years or so to finesse and culture. The media training had worked.
And for much of the present season, the Italian’s control remained ~ his club had adopted (albeit sooner than expected) loftier climbs, the media swooned Bobby and City, and he duly responded in kind. Then came the defeat of Everton and the Tevez turnaround, and a dreadful run of two wins in nine away games. Mancini has lacked composure in front of the camera (including on the sidelines, as the imaginary cards and fist pumps become ever more omnipotent) ever since, orating in an ever confused and reactionary manner, and importantly (at least for those concerned), publicly holding his players to account on a number of occasions. Something Ferguson has never been inclined to do, realising the importance of solidarity. This week we have had the rather bizarre response to the question on whether he could trust Mario Balotelli on the field:
“No, never. I don’t think anyone can trust Mario.”
Of course, he may well think these things, but to state them publicly is another matter. After the Sunderland game he continued with his criticism:
“Mario and [Edin] Dzeko should have scored two or three goals in a game like this.”
On Aguero’s mystery injury prior to the Sunderland game:
“I can’t tell you what he has done exactly, but it was stupid, very stupid.”
Last week, we had the missed press conference at Stoke City, and the failure to shake Pulis’ hand; not to mention his impromptu comments only days before the game he commented, “We will win the title, we will win. We will do everything to win the title.” Rumours of a Mourinho agreement to coach the team next season can’t have helped proceedings, but it is all rather terse and novice-like from the former Inter manager of three consecutive Scudettos.
During a tricky, yet inevitable, patch for Mancini’s blues, the manager seems to have caved under pressure. Perhaps this is what is truly meant by the term ‘mind games’, as Gary Neville discussed only this weekend. It is a known, if odious fact, that the media loves to first provoke, then harass and judge, a manager and his mental strength at every opportunity, and preys on perceived weakness; it is then perhaps a manager’s ability to be able to foresee the obstacles in advance, plan for them, and ensure that his team isn’t affected by his inability to handle the bubbling cauldron which typically reaches an incredible intensity at this stage of the season, which ultimately compounds his coaching and managerial talent so usefully. Whether it is trips to Bosnia, discuss footballing issues with the ‘Gods’, players squabbling over who takes free kicks, or Carrington’s very own ‘Fight Club’, Mancini – and with it, his team – certainly does seem to be feeling the pressure, and part of that blame, if only small, must be down to his clear regression in the handling of the sometimes aggressive media inquisition. City may yet win the title of course, but it certainly won’t be because of Mancini’s media savvy.
Hatem Ben Awesome (by David)
I didn’t get to see much football last Sunday, as I was taking in ’The Hunger Games’ at my local cinema. Now, by all means it lived up to the hype – but my thoughts come Sunday evening were on someone that didn’t live up to the hype. Hatem Ben Arfa. I remember watching a wafer thin, confident young man stride on to the field for his Lyon debut, and being suitably impressed over the corresponding months at his style. Somewhere along the line it all went wrong though. He fought with the press, opposition players, fellow team mates and coaching staff. “Arrogant” and “Idiot” they said. He shone in those first few months alongside Karim Benzema, and then the careers of the two went in considerably different directions. Benzema went to Madrid, Ben Arfa went to Marseille – no one else wanted to take risk. It came as even greater surprise when he turned up at Newcastle then, many thought he’d hit rock bottom. They were wrong, as Ben Arfa was thrust out of the public glare, and into one of hard work. Things were going well until he was on the receiving end of a horrific challenge by Nigel De Jong as Newcastle took on Manchester City. It may have been him finished at the Tyneside club as many had questioned his mind-set when fit, but he remained focused on returning to the club who had game him such a wonderful reception. Even more so, when finally fit, he’s struggled to get into a thriving Newcastle side. He’s remained committed however, and has worked feverishly in training to support the Magpies European push. Against both West Brom and Liverpool, Ben Arfa delivered the sort of performance that has had the likes of Arsené Wenger drooling over him in the past. The slalom runs, quick feet, sweet skills and key passes were all on show, as the 25 year old reminded everyone he still has time to justify the hype.
Manchester Midfields: I want what you’ve got (by Rob)
As the season has gone on, Manchester City’s aura of invincibility has gradually faded, and their weaknesses, both on and off the pitch, have come into clearer view. One aspect of their play in particular has become apparent: with David Silva running out of steam* and Yaya Toure only showing his power in short bursts since returning from the African Cup of Nations, City have looked woefully short of ideas from deep in the midfield zone. Gareth Barry has gone way off the boil. Nigel de Jong offers only karate kicks and baldness. The excellent David Pizarro has been criminally underused since his January signing, though his 20-minute cameo was the main reason for City’s comeback against Sunderland on Saturday. Similarly, City have looked very narrow in their games, and their wing play has been more or less non-existent since late December.
On the other hand, while United have been in great form over the past few months, major (and justified) concerns still exist about the state of our midfield. The most common complaint is that it lacks muscle, which Athletic Bilbao exposed brilliantly in the Europa League. Similarly, there’s a major lack of creativity higher up the pitch, which is responsible for the hysterical Twitter reactions whenever Sneijder/Hazard/*creative midfielder of the moment* has his name mentioned in tedious United-related transfer rumours**.Indeed, when you look at it, each Manchester team seems to have what the other needs in midfield. United’s main weaknesses – creativity and power – are two areas in which City has abundant resources, with Yaya Toure and Milner providing brawn and energy, while Silva and one-time United target Nasri offer brains and flair. City lack calm, composed passing – which Carrick and Scholes have been delivering abundantly since their Etihad reunion in January. City also lack the wingers to stretch a game, as opposing teams have caught on to them and played very compact defensive systems. United have always been strong on the flanks, and Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have been two of the best players in the league recently. It would be very unlikely to see either side poach the other for talent, but even considering the disparity in financial resources, it should be interesting to see what they do to address their midfield deficiencies this summer.
* And apparently carrying an ankle knock.
** Though I can’t remember Sir Alex ever signing a true playmaker in his time at United. All I’m saying is, don’t get your hopes up here.
Zlatan’s the man (by Rob)
It seems to have gone slightly under the radar, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been the best “mortal” player in the world this season. That’s to say, he’s been best player not called Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo*. Robin van Persie has come close to being that guy, but two things count in favour of the giant beak-nosed Swedish martial artist.
First, his Champions League output has been excellent – especially in a straight head-to-head with RvP in the last round. Notwithstanding his first-half miss against Barcelona last week, he’s consistently done well on the big stage, scoring goals, working hard (by his standards at least), holding up the ball and playing a strong creative role – he’s played 2 key passes per game in Europe, the same as Xavi Hernandez for Barcelona. Outside of the two dominant Spanish clubs, only Toni Kroos and Franck Ribery have higher Champions League average ratings than Zlatan.
Second, Ibrahimovic has been delivering consistently under terrific pressure in Serie A, as he aims to keep up his amazing record of consecutive league titles (which currently stands at 8). He’s shown such a versatile game this season, holding up the ball for midfield runners, setting up a large number of goals, showing his usual bewildering array of skills, and scoring an incredible variety of goals – from long range scorchers, to neat side footers, to moments of genius improvisation.
He’s dragged a distinctly ordinary Milan team** to a 2-point lead over Juventus at the top of the league, and the side missed him when he was suspended in February. I’d argue that he’s been even more valuable to Milan’s season than RvP has been to Arsenal, considering that the Dutchman’s explosive performances have only brought his team into a dogfight for 3rd place. The pressure associated with a non-title race just isn’t the same as that at the very top of a league. Against Barcelona, Ibra showed that he’s only human. But over the season, he’s been the best of the rest.
* For the sake of keeping things fresh, FIFA should probably consider making an award like this every year.
** The Milan starting midfield against Roma last week consisted of Massimo Ambrosini, Antonio Nocerino, Sulley Muntari and Urby Emanuelson. Emanuelson played as a trequartista, i.e. in the same spot that Rui Costa used to occupy. I nearly set the universe on fire that day. Zlatan scored two goals and Milan won 2-1.
Park, Park, wherever you may be… (by Doron)
You might be surprised to learn that Park (United’s Park) has already appeared in more league games this season than he did last year. Only just over half of his appearances have been starts though, in fact the only other season he’s appeared off the bench more than this one was his debut campaign.
He’s not started a league game for United in over 2 months now and has only been really used of late in “less meaningful” games – starting three out of the four Europa League games. He never has been and never will be a regular starter, considered undroppable but ‘big-game-Park’ hasn’t really been ‘big game this year’ – starting only 1 of the 9 league games played so far against either Spurs, Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool or Chelsea.
A year after he quit international football to concentrate on putting his energy into United, his role in the team has been reduced to nothing more than a bench-warming squad player. Park’s not a bad footballer at all but when the side had injuries earlier in the season, his deficiencies were only highlighted – an inability to produce a spark or play as a natural winger.
Park’s success at United has been borne out of the fact that when chosen in a team containing various ‘flair players’ he’s able to hound the opposition and do some of the crucial midfield running. United’s change in system this year doesn’t necessarily require that though. With midfielders sitting deep and others playing high up, interchanging with the forwards, there’s been very little need for for an all action, slightly out of control, running machine.
It’s feasible that Park will become surplus to requirements this summer and moved on. His position in the squad could well be replaced by someone more able to ‘fit’ into Ferguson’s new vision. And yet, you could understand why he might stay. He has the kind of experience Fergie loves; his commercial value to the club is (sadly) important; he doesn’t complain and can play anywhere; and, he’s the kind of player who’d get games away from home in Europe.
With less than 150 starts across all competitions in six seasons at the club, Park’s career at United has been an odd one. If he left this summer, it would probably be a quiet departure with little fuss or outpouring of emotion from the fans. Likewise, if he stayed, he’d continue to be somewhat unnoticed as his role in the team would surely become even more reduced next season. Personally, I see no harm in keeping him, United need squad players like him but if he can’t adapt into the new more fluid system then you do have to wonder if it’s worth it…