Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Manuel Pellegrini rapidly up to speed with Manchester City's ambitions

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 16: Jesus Navas of Manchester City smiles during a Manchester City open training session at their Carrington Training Complex on August 16, 2013 in Manchester, England (Photo by Paul Thomas/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 16: Jesus Navas of Manchester City smiles during a Manchester City open training session at their Carrington Training Complex on August 16, 2013 in Manchester, England (Photo by Paul Thomas/Getty Images)

A week on Sunday will be the fifth anniversary of Manchester City signing Robinho, the deal that changed the dynamic of the English transfer market for the second time in three years and announced the scope of Sheikh Mansour's ambitions in the game.

What followed was not quite what the Abu Dhabi mission statement outlined. Taking a team that had finished ninth in the 2007-08 season and transforming them into Premier League winners was always likely to be a much tougher task than, for example, Roman Abramovich turning Chelsea into league champions after they had finished fourth the season before his takeover.

City had to travel a long way in a short space of time with the Uefa financial fair play rules giving them no scope to build slowly. Looking back over their signings, it is notable that a surprising number of them did work out for the club; while some, like Emmanuel Adebayor (£25m) paid off in the short term and others – Jo (£18m, bought at the end of the Thaksin Shinawatra regime), Roque Santa Cruz (£17.5m) and Jérôme Boateng (£11m) – were mistakes.

City lost the first Premier League game of the Abu Dhabi era, a 2-1 defeat away at Wigan Athletic which was a sign of how far the club had to come. Even after the Premier League title triumph on the last day of the 2011-12 season, it was hard to anticipate the curve being ever upward and so Roberto Mancini's last season in charge proved.

On Monday night, the Etihad had the feel of a new era. A manager, Manuel Pellegrini, who had enjoyed the benefit of a whole pre-season with his squad and the full weight of £90m spent on new players. There can be no guarantees of success but unlike his two predecessors – Mark Hughes, inherited by the new owners, and Mancini, who took over mid-season – this is a manager who has the benefit of much greater stability.

"The performance was fantastic," Pablo Zabaleta said after the 4-0 win over Newcastle United. "The team spirit was great and this is the way we want to play. If you saw Pellegrini's teams before he came to City, they always played this way.

"His team are very aggressive, always trying to kill the ball, get into spaces and, above all, playing to win. He produces aggressive, attacking teams who play with a good tempo and a high intensity. We did that."

It was notable how quickly the ball was moved from City's own area when they won possession and into attacking positions. Fernandinho looked like a £30m footballer, a value-to-cost ratio which cannot be said to be the case with all of City's signings in the last five years. There was an obvious plan of attack which should make the Etihad an exciting place to watch football this season.

Do not expect the same excitement from the post-match press conferences, where Pellegrini could not be more different to his predecessor Mancini, who never spared his own players in particular in his analysis. The Chilean kept saying that he was happy about the result but if that was the case he did a good job of hiding it.

There were also signs on Monday night that the now diminished English element that was established in the first few years after Sheikh Mansour's takeover could fade from City. Joe Hart, one imagines, will be a fixture in the side but the only other Englishman in the first XI, Joleon Lescott, will probably have to wait his turn again behind Vincent Kompany, likely to miss the next two weeks with injury, and Matija Nastasic, when fit.

James Milner almost got a run-out as a substitute on Monday but Pellegrini changed his mind when Kompany was injured. Gareth Barry was not in the squad and has been told he can leave. Micah Richards is injured and it will be interesting to see how he fares in the long term, so too Jack Rodwell. It is a long way back for Scott Sinclair.

Not least when you consider the standard on the right wing of the excellent Jesus Navas, who started in Monday's win. "It is sometimes hard for new players, especially when they come from another league and you have to adapt to a new country, a new language and a new life," Zabaleta said. "But this is a squad where plenty of Spanish is spoken and we will do our best to help him [Navas]. It did not take me long but then everyone is different."

Spanish is spoken all over City now, with Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano in control and their own manager in place. Their war with Mancini is long over and the early signs on Monday night for Pellegrini were very promising indeed.

City slickers: How the debutants rated

Alvaro Negredo

Afforded just 10 minutes from the bench but the striker looked accomplished. Harshly saw effort ruled out for offside.

Mark out of 10 6

Jesus Navas

Spaniard was keen to bomb forward from the start. Linked up well with Pablo Zabaleta and added pace and width to the right-hand side.

Mark out of 10 8

Fernandinho

The £30m Brazilian offered strength and solidity in central midfield alongside Yaya Touré. Liked to get forward but was also booked.

Mark out of 10 8

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