After the grotesque chanting at White Hart Lane on Sunday, Big Sam makes moves to endear himself to the Hammers' hardcore by unveiling a revolutionary new formation to be used at Old Trafford if/when they get a man sent off -- the first real tactical innovation since the 4-2-3-1.
So, Sparky has gone and some windswept mic-thruster in West London tells us that, before the almost certain arrival of 'Arry (who has realized that the Poole to Kiev commute presents problems for his non-negotiable early doors pooch perambulation), it has today been up to Mark Bowen and Eddie Niedzwiecki to prepare the Hoops for their trip to Old Trafford. Here's how they've done it:
For no real reason other than wistfully watching Michael Laudrup
sat on the Swansea bench smiling beatifically at the worthy-though-limited efforts of Routledge and
Dyer, two wingers not fit to lace his boots (not because they were too wee), I
decided to pick an XI from the current Premier League bosses. They’d play
4-3-3, reverting to 4-3-1-2 with Laudrup in the free role when/if the shit was
hitting the fan.
PREMIER LEAGUE GAFFERS XI
Di Matteo (Chelsea)
Gaffer’s Gaffer (aka Gafferísimo): Ferguson (FA)
If you think this team – aside from the front line,
obviously – isn’t up to much, then you ought to have a look at Serie
Liga or the Bundesliga.
You’d barely scrape a 5-a-side team out of any of them.
Instead, they’d probably come unstuck against each of
English football’s next two tiers’ composite Gaffer XIs, even if the Champo
doesn’t have a goalkeeper. It seems that, in England, you do have to be a horse before you become a jockey.
CHAMPIONSHIP XI (4-4-2;
Pearson or Mowbray (Leicester/Middlesbrough)
LEAGUE ONE XI (4-1-5:
make the system fit the players, yeah?)
Crack-Up’, the great American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald’s incredibly
candid account of the nervous collapse he endured aged 39, at the height of his
fame, he observed with great acuity that it is often when things are going well
with the major things in life (relationships, career, health, finances) that little
cracks can start to appear, fissures that will eventually break you like an
old plate – if not definitively, then in some irreversible way. Suddenly,
without knowing quite why, you reach a threshold of lowered resistance; things
that you could put up with yesterday or the day before now become quite intolerable.
So it was that prior to the controversial 2-2 Champions
League draw with Ajax, an animated Roberto Mancini held a press conference at
which, in response to a line of questioning that had picked up on and pursued
some of his more cryptic recent statements, he made a vehement defence of his
record as boss and the strides Manchester City had made under his tenure. He
looked like he’d had enough…but of what?
“Of course all life is a process of breaking down,”
Fitzgerald writes, “but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work – the
big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside – the ones you
remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends
about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that
comes from within – that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything
about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be
as good a man again.”
Unbeaten after ten Premier League games and well positioned
on the shoulders of both Chelsea and their cross-town rivals, you’d be forgiven
for thinking that there was little need for agitation at Eastlands – be that
among fans, board, players or management. The superrich arrivistes – the noisy
neighbours – are, in modern football parlance, “entitled to believe” that,
having removed the championship monkey from their back, they have the resources
to barge their way into a prime seat at Europe’s
And yet, as it stands their all-but-certain Champions League
exit may not even to be offset by the UEFA-gerrymandered sop of backdoor Europa
League qualification – and a quick glance at Sunday’s floodlit Abu Dhabi grand
prix, with the sky blue painted run-offs and omnipresent Etihad branding tells
you that, as Mancini himself observed a week ago, the owners are indeed “very
serious people” when it comes to fast-tracked success – while their 22 league
points have featured only 18 goals, half the number that the opening ten games
of their title campaign did.
It was, initially, a very different story. So porous were
they in defence that it took the visit of toothless Sunderland
(13 shots on target all season) for them to secure a first clean sheet of the
campaign. Now they appear to have lost their cutting edge, not all of which can
be attributed to the missing playmaker, David Silva. They were fortunate to
draw at Upton Park last weekend, even more so to beat Swansea, while WBA deserved a point at least
from the previous game.
Of course, you would think that Mancini, steeped in the ultra-cautious
gioco all’Italiano (slightly less starchy
descendant of catenaccio), would be
happy to have partially shored up the back line, even if, temporarily, it
appears to have been at the price of his attacking thrust. And while his
rudimentary English and guarded manner are an open invitation for the media to
scrutinise his pronouncements for meaning perhaps not there, you couldn’t help
but feel that there was a subtext to his blindingly obvious assessment at West
Ham: “if you don’t score, you don’t win:
this is the football”. Perhaps it was a thinly-veiled criticism of Mario
Balotelli, who missed City’s best chance and was seen scowling at and cursing
his boss after being hauled off (still, he did successfully locate the armholes
of his big warm jacket).
It is not the only statement Mancini has made of late that
ought to raise an eyebrow or two. He also said, with a hint of self-protection,
that it could take City “ten years to win the Champions League”, which you can
imagine being at least five years too
slow for the Emirati owners, especially as the Italian has never been beyond
the last eight in the competition. Indeed, they might quickly conclude that the
fault might be him – at least, if they take him at face value that his
undercooked experiments with a 3-4-1-2 were a “failure to prepare the game”.
He also made public declarations that he has rebuffed “seven
or eight” suitors including a Russian plutocrat-funded ‘project’ at Monaco, all
of which might be taken as an indication that he is starting to unravel under
the strain. Aside from his outburst at the end of the Ajax game, about which there was some
justification (although the force that he drew upon, the vehemence and ire,
seemed to tap into a hidden magma of pressures), there are signs of what might
euphemistically be called restiveness. Others may call it cracking up.
Is this intense and serious figure growing exasperated with
his high-maintenance, underperforming charges? Has he perceived Txiki Begiristain’s
arrival as Sporting Director as assistance (displacing Brian Marwood) or threat
(smoothing the post-sabbatical path of Prince Pep)?
As with many footballing problems, the solution for Mancini and
ManCity may just be a couple of good
results or convincing performances away. Equally likely, a few wins may simply
paper over the cracks. Here’s Fitzgerald again: “Sometimes…the cracked plate
has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household
necessity. It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the
other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it
will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the icebox under
A glance at his options shows that a search for both potency
and balance is eminently achievable. Indeed, perhaps the crux of the problem
for Mancini is not so much the individual talents at his disposal, but how
their respective characters blend, both on-field and, especially, off, and how
that translates into man-managerial issues.
Carlos Tévez’s behaviour last year was little short of
scandalous, his rehabilitation a function of City’s desperation and the amoral
pragmatism that football imposes on its protagonists – from diving players, to
bosses working under the sword of Damocles. Meanwhile, to describe Mario Balotelli
as high-maintenance is like referring to a Hurricane Sandy as “a bit of a nuisance”.
The ‘Why always me?’ t-shirt slogan was among the more conspicuously attention-seeking
attempts at suggesting at suggesting one ought to fly under the radar. Taking a
few cool penalties cannot be adequate recompense.
At a certain point last season, both of these players, we
were told, would never play for ManchesterCity again. This sounds
suspiciously like a crack. And there may be a third problem emerging, too. Edin
Dzeko’s polite-yet-abrupt rebuttal of the BBC reporter who tried to dub him
“supersub” at West Brom demonstrated that he is also reaching the upper
threshold of his discontent, particularly as he is playing well and rescuing
games for Manchester City.
Yes, they have helped create history and lanced a 44-year-old
boil. But, as with all players, they are, in the most neutral sense of the word
possible, mercenaries. How long
before their waning motivation, the lure of the next salary hike, his own
fatigue and language difficulties make this group unsalvageable for Mancini? Is
there a solution that can fix the plate together?
Across the city, Sir Alex Ferguson has proven highly adept
at keeping a stable of four forwards relatively content, not least when his
treble-winning side had the bromance of Yorke and Cole plus
trophy-starved-and-hungry Teddy Sheringham backed uncomplainingly and, um,
deadlyly, by the baby-faced assassin, Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer. Yes, Tévez,
Berbatov, Ronaldo and Rooney could not be sustained (although the Bulgarian’s
insouciance can often be confused with diffidence) but today he has a reserve
striker in Javier Hernández who is not only down-to-earth and humble (Danny
Welbeck likewise), but also dedicated and deadly in the box.
Even as Mancini’s spirit and zeal are sapped, that doesn’t
mean he cannot ‘get the job done’, as it were. As Fitzgerald says: “the test of
a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind
at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for
example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make
them otherwise.” As he attempted to recover, he realized that “the question
became one of finding why and where I had changed, where was the leak through
which, unknown to myself, my enthusiasm and my vitality had been steadily and
prematurely trickling away.”
Perhaps if Mancini simply cuts his losses with Balotelli –
concedes that Mourinho was right, that he is “unmanageable” – then the
overriding criteria he should use in seeking out his back-up strikers is humility first and foremost, then hunger, perhaps even a certain shyness (everywhere except the penalty
box, of course). He needs a player who plays infrequently, but who grumbles
even less. A Victor Moses, or perhaps a Dimitris Salpingidis – a player who
rolls up his sleeves, like Tévez did once upon a time, and who inspires through
Ah, the crack-up: always too late when you realize it. Speaking
of the blows that subtly and insidiously break you from within, Fitzgerald concludes:
“A man does not recover from such jolts – he becomes a different person, and,
eventually, the new person finds new things to care about.” Perhaps it’s time to
call in the psychometrics people, and not those who tested Super Mario.