Monday 23 April 2018

Pellegrini cuts tragic figure as on-field action plays second fiddle to 'managerball' game

'There is a strong sense that Pellegrini has not capitalised on City's league title win in 2014'
'There is a strong sense that Pellegrini has not capitalised on City's league title win in 2014'

Paul Hayward

There is a case for renaming football 'managerball.' Even as second faced third in the Premier League the epic speculation-swirl around Pep Guardiola threatened to frame Manchester City's Manuel Pellegrini as a mere seat-warmer for the Bayern Munich coach, who is almost certainly England-bound this summer.

Nor were Arsenal in any mood to make Pellegrini feel more secure in a first half that showed for the umpteenth time why writing off Mesut Özil was a boomerang that has taken out many pundits.

Özil, the assist-meister, helped set up both Arsenal's first-half goals, by Theo Walcott from the edge of the Man City penalty area, and Olivier Giroud through Joe Hart's legs.

City had a dreadful record here at Arsenal (one win in 18 league games) so the bright start by Arsène Wenger's men was true to form.

But there is now no way of separating events on the pitch from the issue of Pellegrini's future. Between now and May, City will need to dispel the sense that the whole club is treading water until the big thing happens.


The big thing, of course, is the presumed touchdown of Guardiola to electrify a club who have just embraced Chinese sovereign wealth and so will be more conscious than ever of their international showbiz rating, which has tended to be quite low.

Pellegrini cannot give them a higher one. He was hired as the antidote to Roberto Mancini: a calm builder who understood the need to add fluency to Mancini's powerful but sometimes mechanical operation.

Those intentions seem very dated now. Time is increasingly unkind to Pellegrini and more money has been lavished on his team.

With Leicester City guaranteed to be top of the table at Christmas, Pellegrini started with one £50m recruit (Kevin De Bruyne) and left another on the bench until Arsenal's flurry forced him to send on Raheem Sterling in place of Fabien Delph at the interval.

There has never been a Christmas like this for manager instability, manager movement.

Not at the top, anyway. Plenty of lesser coaches go the way of turkeys at this time of year. But this time we are talking matinee idols, household names. "Palpable discord" has seen off Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. Louis van Gaal has his finger in the dyke at Manchester United.

And all the industry chatter points to Guardiola taking over from Pellegrini in the sky blue zone of Manchester at the end of this campaign.

Unless Chelsea, United or Paris Saint Germain can hijack Guardiola's probable next move, Pellegrini is doomed to appear a tragic figure counting the days. Not that he could complain.

The timeline suggests he knew he would be joining City when Mancini, his predecessor, was on the slide.

Too phlegmatic for his own good sometimes (imagine Guardiola in that Etihad Stadium coaching zone), Pellegrini is unlikely to chainsaw the chairman's desk in half if Guardiola arrives in his place.

There is a strong sense that Pellegrini has not capitalised on City's league title win in 2014. Instead they surrendered the crown for a second time in the Sheikh Mansour era 12 months later, to Mourinho's Chelsea.

Although this campaign has taken them into the Champions League knock-out rounds as group winners, the league season has been underwhelming. You have to blink to believe some of the stats about their 17 games thus far.

For starters, City had not won away from home in the league since the stoppage-time winner at Crystal Palace in September. Nor had they scored on the road in their last three fixtures. Back-to-back wins had eluded them since mid-October.

With these players, they should be slashing and burning their way to the title, even without Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero, who returned from a heel injury.

All the time, the teasing continues in Germany, where Bayern Munich chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge says of Guardiola: "I think I know where he is going. But I would like to leave the announcement to him or his new employer."

Even Pellegrini is feeding the rumours.

"Pep Guardiola will work here," he said at the weekend. "I don't know if it will be next season here at City, or even at another club, but I am sure that one day he will come to the Premier League."

City are run of course by former Barcelona executives Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, who must answer to Abu Dhabi - and China - for City's jerky, unconvincing league form.


For much of this game they drew on the old theory, now less credible, that Arsenal can be muscled out of games.

But rough tackling in the middle of the park - and one disgraceful lunge into Giroud's back by Nicolas Otamendi - bore no fruit.

Instead it brought out the warrior in several Arsenal players, especially Nacho Monreal, who nailed two City players in one move and was rewarded with a double high five from his captain, Per Mertesacker.

An hour into this battle between Leicester's nearest pursuers Arsenal might have been four or five goals up, but Hart's goalkeeping offset City's negligent defending.

Again and again Ozil and company seemed to stroll though City's defensive screen and their centre-backs.

Until Guardiola's future is clarified these will be uncertain times for City, whose players cannot hide behind the doubts around Pellegrini.

In trying to look tough here, they appeared a bit soft in the vital areas of concentration and resolve. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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