Friday 27 April 2018

Miguel Delaney: Manchester rivals so far off where they should be

High-profile new managers' first port of call will be to address deep, underlying problems at City and United

Manchester City went out of the Champions League in the semi-final against Real Madrid
Manchester City went out of the Champions League in the semi-final against Real Madrid

Miguel Delaney

So, this is what one of the most sensational and thrilling seasons of all comes down to at the end: a likely anti-climax. The only way there will be any chance of drama on the last day will be if Manchester City feel some danger of defeat at an erratic Swansea City, all while requiring Manchester United to beat Bournemouth to claim that last Champions League place.

These aren't exactly the ingredients of a Sergio Aguero moment, or the kind of epic action seen at the end of the 1994-95 title race at Upton Park, where United's 1-1 draw gave Blackburn Rovers the title. Yet, if this finale is not exactly fitting for a season that has seen everything from Leicester City somehow capturing the Premier League trophy with ease to Jose Mourinho losing his job just months after he won the title, it is perfect to sum up the sense of drift about both Manchester clubs' campaigns.

It is almost symbolic that City don't even need to win at Swansea. Unlike four years ago, the two clubs are not fighting to win the title. They are only trying to finish bottom among the leading clubs, for entry into the continental competition that signals elite status, even if it doesn't feel entirely deserved.

It is far from inconceivable that City could slip up, only for United to also drop points against Bournemouth. That would be entirely in keeping with their seasons, since they keep handing the initiative back to each other. United couldn't even get a draw at West Ham on Tuesday to force City into needing a win today, and that despite leading 2-1 with 15 minutes left.

It also emphasises why the clubs need to take the initiative as regards their future. City already have by appointing Pep Guardiola to replace Manuel Pellegrini, while United are increasingly expected to hire Jose Mourinho, after progress was made by his representatives.

Everything about those moves would make Manchester "the centre of world football" - as one high-profile figure put it - but it couldn't feel further from that right now, not when one of them will suffer the ignominy of having to play in next season's Europa League. This could be a play-off to prevent high-profile new bosses starting their reign in the lower-profile continental competition, with the oddity that Champions League qualification could yet see Louis van Gaal hold on to his job.

Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini struggles to find solutions if his team is struggling. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA
Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini struggles to find solutions if his team is struggling. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA

The fact they are the two teams left scrabbling for fourth place should provoke a few questions about the progress of their 'projects'. After all, it is not like their hierarchies would be appointing these two huge names because they want to take that final step. They are way behind that, with so much else that needs to be done. Those appointments would only be the start of something new again, rather than the finishing touches to something grander. The clubs need the jolts to bring them back to life.

Yet there was a bizarre moment in Pellegrini's press conference on Friday when he complained that City do not get enough "praise" for what they have done. The Chilean argued they are not compared to other clubs in the fair way they should be, and implied the Abu Dhabi-owned side are resented for the nature of their expenditure, pointing to the assessment of the one league title he won in 2013-14.

"This was my impression from the first year," Pellegrini said. "I felt in that moment [people thought] we won the title because Liverpool lost it. Why? Because maybe this club is making the sin to try and be a big team in a few years. That's why it's important to compare with all the other teams and I think this team is doing better and deserves more praise."

It was finally a show of fight for the club from Pellegrini in a last stand that will go down well with fans, but was also too often missing from his team in the last two years. That is why his protestations are preposterous.

The resources City and United possess mean they should at least be challenging for the title. That should be a given. If they are falling well short of that, they are under-performing, and should ask big questions as to why.

Much of City's underwhelming season has been put down to the announcement of Guardiola's appointment, but the extent of their decline indicates it is much more deep-rooted. Pellegrini actually went on to give the perfect argument as to why he should be replaced. The 62-year-old is fundamentally a good manager who is capable of facilitating excellent attacking football, as was seen in that first season, but he doesn't have many solutions or fall-backs if they aren't on form.

That explains why they have had big defeats so often, and reflects the way Pellegrini has failed to instil a psychological baseline, that grit and resilience that defines repeat champions. There was no clearer example than the insipid performance put on at Real Madrid when they were just 90 minutes from a Champions League final.

The manager is not the only one at fault, though, and the core of the team - especially Yaya Toure and even David Silva - look spent. It is little wonder Guardiola wants to bring in eight players this summer.

None of this is to say City are dysfunctional. They are installing an infrastructure that should be the envy of many elite clubs, and that infrastructure is one reason why Guardiola chose City above United and others. It is just that some at the club feel everything is too superficially business-like, without the identity and intensity that properly elevates them. This is what Guardiola is expected to provide.

Sergio Aguero looks dejected during Wednesday’s defeat to Real Madrid Photo: Reuters
Sergio Aguero looks dejected during Wednesday’s defeat to Real Madrid Photo: Reuters

That was what Van Gaal was supposed to provide at United but, beyond the admirable introduction of young players like Marcus Rashford, it's hard to see how he has.

The defeat at West Ham showed so many ways that the manager has often gone against the identity of the club. Most troublingly, the side seemed unable to get up for a big game that meant so much. Contrast Tuesday's tepid display with one of the most famous West Ham-Manchester United matches there has been, and one that has fired the rivalry: that game in 1994-95. Alex Ferguson's side required a win to also win the title and, at 1-1 going into stoppage time, had more shots on goal in one 12-second burst than the three Van Gaal's team had in the entirety of the 90 minutes last week.

It was as if they had nothing on the line and, just like City, that kind of flatness is exactly why they are where they are. Van Gaal has, of course, had more than one preposterous comment to match Pellegrini's, but the best came after the 1-1 draw to Leicester City, a result that just about spared United the humiliation of seeing a team crowned champions on their pitch. Claudio Ranieri told the Old Trafford boss after that game he was doing a "fantastic job". Without skipping a beat, the robust Van Gaal responded "I am".

That is an odd conclusion from two campaigns that haven't even seen the English league's most successful club come close to challenge for the title they have won 20 times.

Of course, as with City, it's not all the manager's fault. There are huge questions to be asked of United's power structure, and one story has it that Van Gaal was surprised when he found out he would have to do so much of the work in terms of identifying transfer targets. It is because of the lack of true football expertise in the club that United have backed themselves into a corner. If they don't go for Mourinho, they don't have many other options.

Both teams have idly wandered into a corner today. The question is whether one will finally come out fighting. It would make a change. Manchester may become the centre of world football next season, but it is only the centre of attention today because both clubs have spent so long just drifting.

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