What a difference a year makes. In football, 12 months can maket the man or tarnish a hero’s legacy beyond all repair.
Manuel Pellegrini was the toast of the blue half of Manchester a mere year ago after guiding them to a league and cup double. Fast forward and the Chilean is the hot favourite to be the next Premier League manager to leave his post, a theory compounded by the 2-4 defeat to his club’s bitter Mancunian rivals on Sunday.
It cannot come as much of a surprise in this modern vintage of revolving door managerial change. Pellegrini’s men have now lost six of their last eight games in all competitions, and have gone from title contenders to Champions League hopefuls in a matter of three months.
After being hounded by the media for some kind of comment on his future, Pellegrini finally broke his silence. “It is my responsibility and the only way we can change this is by winning games,” he said. “I am not talking about my position. It is not important.”
Refreshing honesty – but the Chilean may want to reconsider. This time last season his side were third in the table, having accumulated 70 points from 32 outings; seven points behind leaders Liverpool, but with two crucial games in hand.
This time around they have claimed 61 points from the same number of matches, and are a weighty 12 points behind table-toppers Chelsea. Crucially, they don’t have any games in hand to call on. And that, ultimately, could prove to be Pellegrini’s downfall.
When Rather Than If?
The Man City decision-makers have previous in replacing their chosen leader with games to spare: Roberto Mancini, who had, ironically, led the club to their first title in 44 years the previous season, was dismissed with two games of the 2012/13 campaign remaining.
And this precedent has set tongues a-wagging. Patrick Vieira, the club’s elite development squad manager, is rumoured to have impressed the hierarchy and could well be placed in caretaker charge – in much the same way that Ryan Giggs was across town towards the end of last season.
The suggestion is that if City’s Champions League qualification hopes are in any danger then Pellegrini will be moved aside, and Vieira will take over the reins until a permanent gaffer can be sourced during the summer.
From walking on air to walking on egg shells….where has it all gone wrong for Manuel?
The players Pellegrini has signed haven’t, by and large, lived up to their expensive billing. The likes of Jesus Navas and Stevan Jovetic have failed to impress, Fernando has been almost anonymous, Alvaro Negredo was shown the exit door barely a year after signing, and £42 million man Eliaquim Mangala shows signs of promise but has a hefty price tag to fulfil.
During the 2014/15 campaign, champions-elect Chelsea have splashed out around £80 million on season-defining talents such as Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas. Rejuvenated Arsenal forked out a cool £75 million on Alexis Sanchez – one of the stand-out performers this term, Danny Welbeck and others.
Even their Manchester rivals, undergoing a recent renaissance under Louis Van Gaal, threw £110 million at trying to revamp their ailing squad.
And City? They serenely handed out £60 million for a second string goalkeeper, an unproven centre back, a limited midfielder and a striker who has made just two starts in four months.
Left behind? Pellegrini’s men are barely on the same track.
In his double-winning campaign of 2013/14, the Chilean chief relied on a single system to carry Man City to glory – and it clearly worked.
But this year his variation of a 4-4-2 has been cruelly exposed – none-more-so than against Barcelona in the Champions League Last 16, when the rigidity of the system saw the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar enjoying as much space as somebody eating an egg sandwich on a hot train.
With no Plan B up his sleeve, Pellegrini has continued to trot out his charges in much the same vein week in, week out – and paid the consequences: “We know some of their players are not the best at getting back, defending and tracking runners; and we felt we could make them pay for that.” That was Wayne Rooney’s assessment of Sunday’s performance.
That subtle accusatory finger was being pointed at Yaya Toure, for so long a behemoth of the midfield but now seemingly a shadow of his former self. But the ‘richest club in the world™’ shouldn’t be reliant on one man to make them tick, should they?
It’s telling that if Toure, Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany were all missing from City’s starting eleven, they suddenly look a very average side indeed.
The timing of any decision on Pellegrini’s future will largely be dictated by the availability of a top-class replacement. The likes of Pep Guardiola have long been touted for the hot seat, but he is likely to see out his Bayern contract which runs until the summer of 2016.
It is rumoured that the vultures are circling over Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti, although his side remain just two points behind La Liga leaders Barcelona and very much a Champions League force to be reckoned with. Incidentally, Ancelotti was passed over for the City job when Pellegrini got the nod in 2013.
Perhaps Jurgen Klopp’s commitment to Borussia Dortmund, after an indifferent season, could be tested. Or maybe the abrasive Diego Simeone, in stark contrast to Pellegrini’s ‘nice guy’ style, could be tempted from Atletico Madrid.
And then there’s Rafa Benitez, whose win ratio of 56% in English football at the helm of Liverpool and Chelsea could prove of interest to the Manchester City board of directors.
Either way, it seems as though Manuel Pellegrini’s time is up.