There is so rarely a flicker of emotion on Manuel Pellegrini’s face that the way he seized on the question of why he had not taken the chance to sign Angel Di Maria this summer was as significant as his answer.
The punishment that Uefa has handed Manchester City for breaching Financial Fair Play rules had prevented City bidding, he said. “Yes I think it is very easy,” he said in response to the question. “I suppose you already know. We have an important restriction [on our] budget this year. We cannot spend the money that United paid for Di Maria. We have an important restriction on the amount of players we can have this year and also the amount of money we can spend. Very easy question.”
The essential follow-up had not been fully voiced before he had replied to it.
Journalist: “But if you had that money to...”
Journalist: “...spend, would you have bought him?”
Pellegrini: “That’s supposition. I don’t think it is good today to answer those things. We had the restriction and we had to do it.”
Pellegrini is right. The limitations on City imposed by Uefa last May – a £49m net cap on spending in the summer’s transfer market, and a stipulation that the total wages of next season’s City Champions League squad must not exceed last season – did make the £59.7m United laid out for Di Maria impossible. The club’s net spend this summer was £9m but the £40m which could be used in January if necessary would not have started to make a move viable.
But while the Chilean’s acceptance of the financial territory City occupy provided a diplomatic alternative to the way Roberto Mancini would have responded, you could understand him feeling frustration. Some at City are privately astonished that Madrid actually agreed to sell the Argentine. Pellegrini also declared ahead of this weekend’s Manchester derby that he does not feel United have improved since last season – they are “similar” to the David Moyes side of last season, he claimed. But the most ardent fan from the blue side of the Manchester divide could not deny that Di Maria has instilled something to fear in the United side. Pellegrini knows it. He saw Di Maria’s very considerable contribution – two goals and three assists – on the four occasions he played for Real Madrid against the Chilean’s Malaga side.
What makes Di Maria’s presence across town all the more galling is that the failure of City’s own acquisitions to deliver has been a substantial part of the reason why City are at best “similar” to last season and arguably inferior. Eliaquim Mangala looks vulnerable and Pellegrini’s initial unwillingness to field him understandable. Fernando was strong against Liverpool and Newcastle United but was injured against Stoke City and has been unconvincing since.
But the factor which has swung the derby weekend optimism in United’s direction has been the sense that they are the team with more than one plan. Louis van Gaal has tried numerous combinations already in the past two months – 4-2-3-1, 3-4-1-2, 3-3-3-1 – to fit the players at his disposal, while Pellegrini has looked like a manager with only one idea. City’s familiar strategy of playing through the centre – generally 4-4-2 – has allowed opponents, like Newcastle in midweek, to pack out the central space and City have not looked for alternative ways of working. “There can be no excuse for that, as far as I’m concerned,” The Independent’s analyst Danny Higginbotham wrote after the Capital One Cup defeat. “Pellegrini has got some incredible players at his disposal and you can see from their demeanour on the pitch that they just want a plan. Against Newcastle, they started kicking out and their heads started going down.”
Manchester City vs Manchester United combined XI
Manchester City vs Manchester United combined XI
1/11 Goalkeeper - David De Gea
Manchester United might have conceded more goals than City (13 to 10) but De Gea hasn't been to blame. The Spaniard has been making crucial saves this season, such as when Eden Hazard got in one-on-one last weekend and his superhero-esque save late on against Everton. It's led to talk of a move to Real Madrid for the former Atletico stopper and sees him get in ahead of Joe Hart.
2/11 Left-back - Gael Clichy
Luke Shaw is starting to show glimpses of why United paid so much money for a 19-year-old, but not enough to be selected ahead of the much more experienced Clichy. The Frenchman is doing enough to keep out Aleksandar Kolarov more often than not and looks assured at the back and is always a threat going forward.
3/11 Centre-back - Vincent Kompany
Whilst Louis van Gaal struggles to work out what his best options at centre-back are, Kompany has been looking his usual assured self. The captain has been gobbling up strikers and continues to put in exquisitely timed tackles with incredible regularity.
4/11 Centre-back - Martin Demichelis
The Argentinian was something of a laughing stock last season but has now settled and continues to look like Kompany's best partner at the back despite the big-money arrival of Eliaquim Mangala. Demichelis has made nine appearances to the summer signing's six so far this season. Marcos Rojo would be the stand-out challenger from United for the position, but he doesn't look comfortable at centre-back and recent performances suggest he's at risk of ending up a bigger laughing stock than Demichelis was.
5/11 Right-back - Pablo Zabaleta
Rafael has been the regular starter at United when fit but the Brazilian continues to ask more questions than he answers with sporadic performances that at moments make him look like the next Gary Neville, but in others more like Phil at Euro 2000. That's why Zabaleta has little trouble being selected as our right-back.
6/11 Holding midfielder - Daley Blind
Manchester City provided three options for this position but none of them warrant a place ahead of Blind. Yaya Toure has looked nowhere near his best whilst Pellegrini can't seem to work out if Fernando or Fernandinho is a better option alongside him. Meanwhile Blind has made a great start since joining from Ajax. Sitting deep, the Dutchman's sharp passing provides the base for attacks whilst his even sharper tackling stops opponents in their tracks. His late equaliser in the 2-2 draw with West Brom proved he can operate further forward as well if required.
7/11 Midfielder - David Silva
The little Spaniard is a class act that would probably get in any side. An eye for a pass and ability to deliver it ensure he is always among City's chief threats from the centre of the park. His goal in the recent defeat to West Ham was pure class. Silva manages to keep his fellow Spaniard Juan Mata out of the side. The former Chelsea player has been decent this season but not done enough to ensure he should be a regular in the United side when everyone is fit.
8/11 Midfielder - James Milner
He's not the most fashionable player, but as The Independent's Paul Scholes wrote earlier this season, every team should have a Milner. Scholes said: 'I would say he is an excellent attacking player in his own right. Milner’s team-mates will be very glad to have him around, even if he does not always get the acclaim elsewhere.' The England international keeps Ander Herrera out, but only just because the Spaniard has impressed since arriving at Old Trafford.
9/11 Forward - Angel Di Maria
Manchester United paid a British record transfer fee to bring Di Maria in from Real Madrid and thus far he's looked worth every penny. The Argentina international has brought back that width and pace so much associated with United and despite concerns over his goalscoring record has netted three times in his seven games for United so far. Playing on the left-hand side, he keeps out Stevan Jovetic, despite the Montenegrin looking better than he ever has done since signing for City.
10/11 Forward - Sergio Aguero
Aguero or Robin van Persie? It'd be a nice conundrum for a manager to enjoy but based on the season so far, it goes to the Manchester City striker. The Argentinian has 11 goals from 12 games - despite only looking half-fit for most of it. Aguero is quite simply the best striker in the Premier League. In contrast, Van Persie has struggled this term despite the presence of his international mentor Van Gaal. His shirtless celebration after scoring a late equaliser against Chelsea showed his relief at getting back among the goals, and highlighted how frustrating a season it has been up to this point.
11/11 Forward - Wayne Rooney
Edin Dzeko has impressed in a City shirt this term but not as much as Rooney. And as well as keeping out the Bosnian, the Manchester United captain also keeps team-mate Radamel Falcao away from our combined XI. The arrival of the Colombian was supposed to signal the return of the good times at Old Trafford, but between being jet-lagged and not match-fit, Falcao has failed to make an impact with just one goal so far. In contrast, prior to his suspension Rooney had looked in strong form with six goals in 10 appearances for club and country. However, the temperament that got him a red card means the armband goes to the City captain Kompany in this XI.
Pellegrini – who disclosed on Friday that the decision to play David Silva in midweek has backfired disastrously with the Spaniard’s subsequent knee injury keeping him out for three weeks – denied there was a predictability. “I don’t agree with you the conclusion that they know how we play and that’s how they can do it,” he said. “I think that every manager knows the way a team plays and the performance of the players in that game makes the difference. I just said that the last two games – and I include Stoke , though maybe there wasn’t quite so many chances – that the goalkeeper was the best player on their team. I don’t know if you as a manager can predict that. I think we are always making different changes, not only in the names of the players but in the way we play. During the game I always make changes to try and improve the performance in defending and attacking.”
To an extent, his hands are tied by the Manchester City creed. When the chief executive Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain hired Pellegrini it was on the understanding that he would fit into the City creed of football, which would be used at all levels of the club. The philosophy is that City will always play the City way. With Pellegrini, like Arsène Wenger, the interest in how the opposition sets up is of less significance. The statistics on Pellegrini’s ability to recover losing half-time positions are not encouraging though. In nine of the 12 Premier League games he has trailed at the interval, City have lost. In four out of seven games at real Madrid, the outcome was the same.
City’s players may come to the fore. Sergio Aguero, Yaya Touré and Samir Nasri are capable of damaging a fragile United defence. “It’s normal,” Pellegrini said of the collapse in form. “It’s not good to do it but normally all the teams have the moment in the season when you are not in your best moment. It is important for it to be at the beginning of the season and not at the end of the season.” But after four wins in 12 Pellegrini has some convincing to do. “I don’t know what pressure is,” he said, unconvincingly.Reuse content