Mancini serves notice that all-out attack is off menu
Manchester City 2 Stoke City 0
Monday 28 December 2009
"He comes from Italy, has pasta for his tea..." runs one of the new anthems to Roberto Mancini which issued around Eastlands late on Saturday afternoon. You imagine that City's new manager, with the elegantly tailored overcoat and suavely draped Manchester City scarf, goes in for something more refined of an evening, but if this first exposition of his football principles is anything to go by then the sentiment is accurate enough. There will be fewer gastronomic delights from now on.
Chief executive Garry Cook, whose grim face next to chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak told the story of his week, had reasons to feel the trauma had been worth it. From City's catenaccio defensive tactics at the end to a shrewd, early tactical move after the midfield begun so stutteringly – shifting Robinho back to the left side of a 4-3-3 with Martin Petrov out right – it is clear that the A4 sheet of paper Mancini kept whipping from the breast pocket of his overcoat was there for good reason.
But the statistic which told the story of what Manchester City are perhaps about to become flashed up on the scoreboard at the interval. A first half of 66 per cent possession elicited just two shots and though they happened to be goals, the thrill has followed Mark Hughes on the road out of east Manchester.
Mancini clenched a fist and disappeared down the tunnel but to observe him after the match, explaining in his faltering English that the "first half was good and the second so-so" – and then to remember how Hughes would march in to his press conferences still breathless from one of those many six-goal occasions his side had just contributed to – was enough to make the heart ache. Cook might have increased his chances of a top-four finish but he has added to the homogeneity of the Premier League, too.
Doubtless, he will point to City's first clean sheet in the Premier League since the goalless draw at Birmingham on 1 November, and to the strong indications that Mancini will not indulge Robinho. The Brazilian's pitiful display would have been most disheartening of all to those who witnessed his thrilling hat-trick in the corresponding fixture last season and he has fallen a very long way since, managing just three goals in the past calendar year.
Mancini has not yet spoken directly with the Brazilian about his future desires, though the kick aimed at a stray tracksuit as he walked toward the bench suggested a new broom has not swept a new sense of perspective into him. "[A conversation] is for the future," Mancini said. "The important thing for me is that Robinho stays here because he can earn a place in the history of the club." And can he make the Brazilian stay? "I don't know."
Mancini's decision to start with Martin Petrov, not an enthusiast of the previous manager, rather than Craig Bellamy, who so volubly was, underlined the sense that he is not one to be cowed. It helped him that the Bulgarian's goal, which he slid in after Robinho had missed his aim at Carlos Tevez's low cross, suggested Hughes had been missing a trick all along. Petrov has scored in each of the four games he has started this season and he, for one, questions the old guard. "Every time I score, I go to the bench," he said. "Maybe in the future I will speak 100 per cent but what he was doing with me I think was unfair."
Mancini takes his side to Wolves today, with Kolo Touré in place for one last game before African Nations Cup duty and with Roque Santa Cruz and Shaun Wright-Phillips back, so Robinho might not get another start.
Mancini indicated in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport on Christmas Eve that it is his desire to proceed with Hughes's 4-3-3, though the stronger defensive line he is demanding suggests that will morph into something more pragmatic in the course of games. "The most important thing was that we held a defensive line with the goalkeeper and the four defenders," Mancini said on Saturday. "You have to create a balance and realise that the big teams do not concede goals every game."
Easier said than done, given that the familiar, rickety defence left Shay Given with two top-class saves to make. Brian Kidd saw this only too well, though the way Mancini banished him away with an outstretched hand when Touré got the sharp end of his tongue contributed to the general sense that Kidd was not welcome. A new man with his own mind then, but Mancini's pragmatism suggests the poster City have hung at their ground needs to be refined. "Blue sky thinking" it reads. The sky has a ceiling, now.
Manchester City (4-4-2): Given; Zabaleta, Touré, Kompany, Sylvinho (Richards, 61); Ireland, De Jong, Barry, Petrov; Robinho (Bellamy, 71), Tevez (Garrido, 90). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Vidal, Weiss, Boyata.
Stoke City (4-4-2): Sorensen; Wilkinson (Huth, 48), Abdoulaye Faye, Higginbotham, Collins; Whitehead, Diao, Whelan, Etherington; Sidibe (Beattie, 52), Sanli (Fuller, 59). Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Lawrence, Pugh, Delap.
Referee: L Mason (Lancashire).
Booked: Stoke City Diao, Whelan.
Man of the match: Petrov.
Attendance: 47,325 .
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