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Premier League

Mancini mind games keep City top

Manager uses psychological tricks, from 11pm texts to surprise tactics in training, to keep his players on their toes

The text messages tend to drop at 11pm and only when they receive them will Roberto Mancini's players know what the landscape of the following day looks like. They reveal whether training sessions at Manchester City will start at 10.30am, as late as 4.30pm outside of the winter months, or some time in between: there is no set routine. The short notice appears to be Mancini's way of preventing his players from drifting off into a fog of complacency, or in Mario Balotelli's case drifting off down Deansgate, insulated by the thought that training remains the best part of 16 hours off.

Such are the methods that have helped Mancini make City the Premier League's Christmas No 1 for the first time since 1929 – and the pressure does not ease off when the players actually reach the training pitches of Carrington. If you think that David Silva & Co fancy their chances against their own club's centre-backs in training, then consider the current restrictions they are being put under. Players are restricted to two touches, perhaps three, in practice games. "It's hard... now the pitches are a bit more slippery," Joleon Lescott revealed yesterday. "The manager does well to restrict [the touches]. It keeps us on our toes."

It's the way things have been at Mancini's City from the start. He is the manager who has had the training ground hill built at Carrington and who has had no time for the players who can't deal with the rigours of his regime. There was a smile on his face late on Wednesday night when, reflecting on Micah Richards limping off the pitch during the demolition of Stoke, he called him crystalli and tapped his glass. The inference was that the defender struggles to shrug off aches and pains during games because of his fragile and delicate nature. Mild impatience was just below the surfac e.

Mancini briefly curbed that impatience when he arrived at City two years ago. The biggest problem the new City manager faced in the first six months, which privately he now admits were hard, was the fierce loyalty of some to his predecessor, Mark Hughes, and for a time he watched and waited. "He came here in mid-season after the regime of Mark Hughes and didn't change a lot," said Lescott, one of the few Hughes signings to have survived. It was at the start of the 2009-10 season that he demonstrated the steel which is now familiar. "When we came back for pre-season the next summer [things happened]," Lescott said.

Where Hughes' preference was for quick, high-tempo games in training, Mancini pushed ahead for shadow-play sessions and tactics boards, in the teeth of opposition from some of the old guard. "I understand that maybe they are not happy working on tactics but this is my method," he said early in that period. "I work because if you want to win the Champions League and Premier League you must be prepared very well for every situation: tactics, power, running. I don't know if they don't like that but if these things are not good, it is impossible to win." He was also clinically clear in his mind who was in and who was out. There was preferential treatment for Carlos Tevez, who was granted extended holidays in Argentina and, later, the captaincy. But those whom he did not value found him just as brutal as Rafael Benitez always was when casting players aside at Anfield. "If you are not in Robi's team you might as well be dead," said one who knows his methods well.

Those methods certainly take him a long way from Malcolm Allison. City's earlier dashing managerial legend had an equal love of fine food – for Mancini, it is the San Carlo franchise inside Kendal's department store; for Allison, it was the little French restaurant at the Rusholme end of Platt Lane – but the similarities stop there. While Allison's great talent was to inculcate a sense of belief in his men that made them stand 10ft tall – from the left-half Alan Oakes, who would sweat profusely before games, to Colin Bell, the man he christened "Nijinsky" and convinced he did have the racehorse's qualities of endurance – Mancini leaves his players on the edge. It is the survival of the fittest.

The two men bear comparison in their desire to try new methods to get the best results on the training ground. Allison went in for tactics boards and would return to Platt Lane from the statistician he had found at Salford University, armed with evidence of who had run hardest the previous Saturday. Mancini is also scientific about his substitutions. He has no compunction about removing those he believes have failed him, with the 60-minute substitution very common. He is also unflinching about making negative points about his players in public: Adam Johnson has borne the brunt, though Samir Nasri, Micah Richards, Carlos Tevez, Craig Bellamy, Robinho and – this week – Wayne Bridge, have not been immune.

In the main, the squad's management is not quite so blunt as it seems. The psychologists working at City, for instance, focus on the subtleties of how to help players put mistakes behind them in games and move on in the match environment. Mancini's assistant, David Platt, is also a foil to the Italian: the one who encourages the players not in the first team and works hard on the fine detail of loan deals to help develop younger players. Platt often attends to the detail of strategy meetings with the City board while it is Mancini who takes care of the all-important phone calls to Abu Dhabi. Chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak likes to be called after games for a debriefing and Mancini complies. Hughes had Khaldoon's mobile number but never used it.

For some players, there has been no way back with Mancini. Robinho, a player Mancini believes is made for Europe's sunnier climates, was quickly dispensed with and so, too, Bellamy, though there is understood to have been a personal reconciliation between the two. But Gareth Barry and James Milner have been survivors, emerging from fallow periods as better players this season.

There have been some mighty personalities to deal with across two years but Mancini has drawn on his own huge self-esteem to tackle them without flinching. On the Italian television show Le lene, where guests are asked to describe themselves with one word, Mancini chose "Genius" when his moment arrived. His players will tell you that reply was not tongue in cheek and the Premier League table suggests his answer may have been right.

Points make prizes: Are 90 enough?

Roberto Mancini says City need 90 points to win the League. But how many points have won the previous 12 titles?

99-00 Man Utd (91pts)

00-01 Man Utd (80)

01-02 Arsenal (87)

02-03 Man Utd (83)

03-04 Arsenal (90)

04-05 Chelsea (95)

05-06 Chelsea (91)

06-07 Man Utd (89)

07-08 Man Utd (87)

08-09 Man Utd (90)

09-10 Chelsea (86)

10-11 Man Utd (80)