Man City’s awful results in the Champions League have been…well…exactly what every non-City supporting fan hoped they’d be. Despite their expensive and talented squad up there with some of the best teams in the world, they have so far only picked up 1 point in their group. Even worse, their performances have hardly even warranted that, being second-best in every one of their games. Followers of the Premier League will testify to City’s excellence after their superb domestic campaign last season, which makes their predicament in Europe all the more perplexing. What is it about the Champions League that converts City’s superstars to the pub team they resembled against Dortmund and Ajax?
City will – and have – pointed to the quality of Group D. And they have a point, what with it containing the champions of 4 of the best leagues in Europe (La Liga, the Bundesliga, Eredivisie and the Premier League). Each of these teams have talent in abundance and know they’ll have to be on the top of their game to progress in this group, meaning they will give their all on each performance. But with City’s spending power equalling Real Madrid’s and far exceeding Dortmund’s and Ajax’s, that is no excuse. Their starting XI against Ajax cost them £184.7 million, and the total of all the City players including substitutes cost £251.7 million. That’s just under £17.98 million per player. Only Real Madrid – ironically the team City came closest to beating – can compete with those figures, their XI+subs against Dortmund costing approximately £277.4 million (£21.3 million each)*. Furthermore, whilst it has been well documented that money does not guarantee instant results, City have undeniably had (domestic) success, with a return of two major trophies since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover. His investment has returned the goods and amassed a squad of brilliant footballers. This success in England puts even more question marks over their continued failure in Europe. Last year they could (just about) put it down to naivety. This year, despite the group draw, they did not have that excuse.
One theory being bandied about is that the English league is falling behind its European counterparts in terms of quality, enabling City to dominate one and falter in the other. I don’t buy this. The Premier League has ruled in the Champions League in recent years, reaching the final at least in every year since 04-05 except for 09-10, and one week of poor results does not change that despite what certain media outlets might say. Furthermore, whilst they faltered this week, 6 of the 7 English clubs in European football are in a good position to qualify from their group. To me, it seems over-zealous hyperbole to state that the English game is a spent force a mere 3 group games into the season following an English team winning Europe’s top competition. No, the quality of English football is not the reason for City’s struggles.
Another theory, and one with a lot more credibility to it, is that the problem is Roberto Mancini. His personal managerial record speaks of a glittering, trophy-laden career on the domestic front but continual disappointments in Europe, albeit usually via the knockout stage. To Mancini’s credit, there have been few excuses. He has been honest in his interviews and admitted that City’s failings are their own doing, whether that was defending too deep against Madrid, not running enough against Dortmund, or personally making poor choices against Ajax. He has not blamed any refereeing decisions and refused to accept Champions League inexperience as an excuse. Thank God he hasn’t, because their team is full of players that have played in the Champions League. Tevez, Balotelli, Aguero, Dzeko, Nasri, Maicon, Kompany, Clichy, Javi Garcia and the Toure brothers had all played in the Champions League before joining City. No, I believe City’s shortcomings is best be shown through Micah Richards’ outburst against Mancini after the Ajax game. Richards blamed the back three formation Mancini employed, revealing the two reasons City are struggling – poor player attitude, and Mancini’s mistakes.
Mancini must take some blame for their losses, as he has and as any manager should. But he can’t be completely blamed – the players themselves are the ones on the pitch playing the game and they have to hold themselves accountable, which I don’t think they are. Mancini has actually done a pretty decent job of handling the egos in his team so far. Yes, he’s made mistakes, but dealing with Tevez’s revolt last year and Balotelli’s constant behavioural irregularities can’t have been easy. However, Richards is now the second player to have spoken out against the team this year, after Joe Hart claimed the team “can only blame [themselves]” for losing to Real Madrid. Hart and Richards have never come across as petulant prima donnas, so their comments must be taken seriously. Whilst they came in post match interviews in heightened emotional conditions and footballers have never been the canniest of public speakers (oh, the perils of Twitter), their comments hint at an attitude towards the game that may be their undoing. It implies that they believe the hype around them. I doubt they pay too much attention to the media, but the amount of praise and admiration that is dolled out to City’s players must have leaked to them somehow, and that may have led to a few of their players resting on their laurels and believing that they can win games just by turning up. Some of their performances in the League this year have been unconvincing even in victory, such as their most recent game against Swansea, and interestingly their better players this year have been those pillioried last year, those with a point to prove such as Tevez, Dzeko and Kolarov. Mancini must control this over-confidence if he is to succeed in general, let alone in Europe. Thus far they have scraped their way through most of their games by just about doing enough, winning the majority of them by one goal. It is a far cry from the swaggering, goal-scoring form they started last season with. They certainly have the quality, but need to be reminded that they still need to work hard to succeed. Perhaps their current Champions League predicament will kick them into action?
Even if it does, there are still concerns surrounding Mancini. After the Ajax game he displayed genuinely concerning levels of naivety and managerial ineptitude. He openly admitted that he “prepared badly for this game” and he even suggested that tactics weren’t important:
“We changed for five minutes to three at the back, but we always have 11 players. I don’t think that is important – three, four, five, six or seven defenders. If someone wants that as an excuse then OK, but it’s not the reason. If you have the spirit or quality to play in the Champions League, you can play. If not, you can’t. This is the problem. The tactics are not important.”
Is he seriously saying that tactics aren’t important in the Champions League? Try telling that to Roberto Di Matteo, whose tactics for Chelsea won the competition with arguably the weakest Chelsea squad since Abramovich took over. It comes across as a Mancini tantrum after having his decisions questioned by one of his players. In my opinion, he felt undermined by Richards and responded with a statement that he (surely) doesn’t actually believe. Nevertheless, if he really didn’t prepare for a crucial, must-win European game then yes, he does only have himself to blame. How many more times can he do that before Sheikh Mansour refuses to allow it? It would be rash and foolish to sack Mancini even if they did crash out of the the Champions League at the group stage, yet the suggestion is not entirely fanciful. It’s within Mancini’s abilities to reel back his squad, do his homework and bring his team back down to earth, just as it’s within the squad’s capabilities to salvage their European campaign. But the players need to give more to the cause before that can happen, and that giving needs to happen from the first minute of their next Champions League game.
*All figures are approximates taken from http://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/