Manchester City vs Manchester United: Manuel Pellegrini rues missing out on signing Angel Di Maria

City manager would have loved to have signed Argentine but his options were limited by Uefa’s FFP restrictions

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The Independent Football

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...”

Pellegrini: “Supposition!”

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.

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Manuel Pellegrini

 

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.”

 

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.”

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David Silva is forced to limp off

 

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.

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