Manchester United vs Manchester City: Where have City's transfer dealings gone wrong?

Manchester City have set new standards for excess. Yet for the second time in three years the club seem destined to follow a title-winning season with one where they win nothing

The Romans would have regarded it as an omen. On Easter Sunday, a vast pall of smoke hung over the Etihad Stadium as a fire from a nearby chemical plant belched out of control. A 6ft wall of foam, caused by water from the fire engines mixing with detergents inside the building, swept up the Ashton Canal, which runs alongside the stadium. It looked like the end of somebody’s world.

Twenty-four hours or so later, it was the end of Manchester City as champions of England. Selhurst Park, scruffy and worn at the edges, was an appropriate place for their faltering season to collapse completely. It is a corner of south London utterly removed from the sleekness and ambition of the Etihad campus, which, at a cost of £200m, boasts an academy stadium with 7,000 seats, training pitches, a sixth-form college and a leisure centre amid the abandoned pubs and battered housing of Beswick, the deprived heart of east Manchester. With revenues of £310m (up £79m in four years) they are the seventh richest club in the world.

Domestically, no club has won more than the four trophies City have brought to the Etihad Stadium in the past four years. Were they to win at Old Trafford this afternoon, it would be their fifth successive triumph in a Manchester derby. And yet the feeling is the money should have brought more, a lot more. For the second time in three seasons the team with a wage bill that is the envy of Europe have followed a title-winning season with one in which they win nothing, a campaign characterised by a series of vapid performances in which they were beaten by teams earning a fraction of their millions. The question is who is to blame?

 

The manger: Manuel Pellegrini

Manuel Pellegrini is what they call in Spanish football a “Mister”, a gentleman. Bobby Robson was a Mister, brought into Barcelona to soothe the club after a year of savage infighting that scarred Johan Cruyff’s last year at the Nou Camp while they waited for Louis van Gaal to become available. Pellegrini’s contract expires in 2016, at the same time as Pep Guardiola’s runs out at Bayern Munich. It is not a coincidence and it is one of the reasons he is likely to survive the season. Carlo Ancelotti will not take a year-long contract to keep Guardiola’s seat warm.

Pellegrini’s task was to repair the fabric of the dressing room after the divisiveness of Roberto Mancini and make City a force in the Champions League. The first has been accomplished rather better than the second.

According to Manchester City’s kit man, Les Chapman, Pellegrini invariably says good morning when coming into training “which makes a change”. When he managed Villarreal, he insisted that the club should have an extra bonus payment for the people who worked at El Madrigal.

He is not a football obsessive in the way that Arsène Wenger or Rafael Benitez are. No man who abandoned football to help the  reconstruction of Chile in the wake of the 1985 earthquake that left two million homeless could be. There is his tennis, his golf, his books. It had been more difficult to find a golf course this season: “But I keep my own life,” he said. “You must continue to have a normal life.”

He is not one for great speeches, although in that he is not alone. Before Sergio Aguero snatched the title from United on the last day of the season, Mancini went to the chapel of St Bede’s College, where the club’s academy students are educated, to pray. Then he went to the dressing room, where he said  almost nothing. “You need a little motivation in the dressing room,” said Pellegrini. “But you need to be careful about an excess of   motivation, especially in a derby. It is important to have a cold  mind even though you might have a hot heart.”

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Pellegrini reacts during the 2-0 defeat to Crystal Palace

Pellegrini’s most important footballer is not the club captain, Vincent Kompany, but the man he operates alongside. Martin Demichelis has played for him at River Plate, Malaga and now Manchester City. “I owe Manuel Pellegrini everything,” said Demichelis in the run-up to the derby. “When he talks to you, he makes you feel important and you want to repay that. It was very different when I was at Bayern Munich with Louis van Gaal. From the moment he stepped into the dressing room things began to rot. I had a contract for another three years but I had to leave, I couldn’t stand it.”

The gravest charges made against Pellegrini is that he has stubbornly clung to a 4-4-2 formation that was shredded by Barcelona and Liverpool and that does not win the obvious games. This season City have lost at home to Stoke, Newcastle, CSKA Moscow, Middlesbrough and away to Burnley and Crystal Palace.

When he managed Real Madrid, who had spent £200m on players that summer, they were knocked out of the Copa Del Rey by a third-division side, Alcorcon, whose highest-paid player earned £4,500 a year, an income he supplemented by working as a pizza chef.

It was said the Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez, never spoke to him again. Should he lose the Manchester derby, there will not be too many conversations left to have with Khaldoon al-Mubarak.

Director of football: Txiki Begiristain

“You wouldn’t have the balls.” So climaxed the most important conversation of Txiki Begiristain’s life, the one in which the Barcelona director of football told Pep Guardiola that he rather than the favourite, Jose Mourinho, should take over at the Nou Camp. It was the making of them both.

The principal reason for hiring Begiristain is that he has a direct line to the world’s most sought-after coach. However, in his role of City’s director of football,  Begiristain has been spectacularly unsuccessful. When Jorge Valdano did the same job at Real Madrid he calculated that three of every five transfers fail. Begiristain does not even have that average.

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City director of football Txiki Begiristain

When Mancini won the title in 2012, he asked for Javi Martinez as a holding midfielder. He got Javi Garcia and Jack Rodwell, neither of whom was remotely equipped for the task. Fernandinho has flourished but City paid Shakhtar Donetsk a vastly inflated £30m for his services. Another £64m secured Eliaquim Mangala, who proved unable to secure a first-team place (largely because Pellegrini would not drop Martin Demichelis), and Stevan Jovetic, who was not included in City’s Champions League squad.

In all Begiristain has provided Pellegrini with 10 footballers at a collective cost of £136m. Aside from Fernandinho, only Demichelis (who cost £3.5m) and Frank Lampard, who cost nothing, have proved value.

Begiristain now presides over the Premier League’s oldest squad. The men who will take on United this afternoon will essentially be the men that Mancini managed. The failure to negotiate a new contract with James Milner, described by one leading Premier League manager as “the single most underrated player in the league” seems astonishing. Milner has played in every position for City bar centre-half and goalkeeper and has learned Spanish to fit in with the culture of the club.

THE PLAYERS

When he was running Barcelona, Begiristain had a rule of thumb that contracts should be short, incentivised and given on merit. That rule has been largely abandoned at the Etihad Stadium. Four more years for Yaya Touré, Aleksandar Kolarov and Edin Dzeko, all approaching 30. Bacary Sagna, 32, is paid £100,000 every week. Those four with the longest, flabbiest contracts, have produced some of City’s worst performances.

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Yaya Toure has suffered a drop this season

They have won two games in 2015 with Sagna in the side – against Sheffield Wednesday and Leicester. Dzeko has proved the flattest of flat-track bullies. Five of his six goals have come against Newcastle (thrashed 5-0), Hull and Sheffield Wednesday (beaten 7-0). Touré, whose contract is worth £45m over its duration, has spent the past two months flirting with Inter Milan.

After the 1-0 defeat at Burnley, Pellegrini admitted his players’ minds might have been on the  upcoming fixture with Barcelona, where they suffered the most one-sided 1-0 defeat in Champions League history. For the second successive season they were knocked out of the FA Cup by a Championship side scoring twice at the Etihad. Pellegrini’s greatest complaint about his players is that they do not have the movement or take the risks to break down a side with men behind the ball. Many of those same players were on the pitch when they needed two goals in five minutes against QPR to win the Premier League.

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Sagna has only beaten Sheffield Wednesday and Leicester

That precious indefinable quality, the will to win, seems to have dulled. City had 32 minutes to pull back a one-goal deficit against Stoke, 29 against Burnley and 42 to score twice against Crystal Palace. They lost the lot. You imagine Manchester United, in their pomp, would have won every one.

Additional reporting by Mark Critchley and Alex Taylor

Manchester Utd v Manchester City is on Sky Sports 1, kick-off 4pm

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