Manuel Pellegrini’s staff were entering into the spirit of wearing Christmas jumpers for charity yesterday, though he did not launch into bad fashion with them. “I don’t want to explain why,” he said, steadfastly sporting his black training top – and he was equally unflamboyant when it was put to him that one of the players who has been reborn under his management, Samir Nasri, recently said he resembled Arsène Wenger with his qualities of man-management.
It took the 60-year-old a while to understand the question and after he had turned to his reindeer-jumpered interpreter for help he replied: “I don’t know how he works as a coach. You must ask Samir Nasri about that.” We had. That was the whole point. Yet his broader answer to this question did reveal the topic of conversation which will get even this extremely serious football manager excited.
“I don’t know if we play similar but both Arsène and me, we always try to play creatively and not to destroy what the other team wants to do,” he said. “Both teams play as a big team. That’s very important for your mentality. Some big teams prefer to be very strong defensively and have two, three, four counter-attacking players. In that sense I think we are very similar.”
If you happened to find yourself seated across the dinner table from Pellegrini tonight, it is his search for a consistent way of playing that he would tell you about, because it is his obsession. The mathematical cock-up against Bayern Munich – thinking he needed five goals instead of four – was something he apologised for yesterday but he repeatedly cited City’s capacity to play the same way, whoever the personnel, as an even bigger deal than beating the European champions.
“[It gives us] a lot of confidence that we can change four or five players and the team stays playing the same way. We are trying to find a style of play and changing names and the team plays exactly the same. That for me was the most important test of the game we played against Bayern Munich,” he said.
In the mildly dismissive talk of a defensive philosophy, the Chilean revealed how far removed he is from his predecessor, Roberto Mancini. The offensive players write the script at the Etihad now and the rest are subservient to them. As the midfielder Fernandinho put it yesterday: “My position is to provide for them. It’s like you journalists: you come here and get the interview, and in your office your editor will shape it better.” Though Wenger has been anything but obsessed with tailoring his tactics to suit the opposition either, over the years, he must surely see City’s defence as the weak link to exploit.
It’s why Vincent Kompany – rested in midweek, back today – is such a worry, because he is the bulwark required while the midfielders are off having their fun. There was a stunned reaction in the City directors’ box, half an hour into the game with Everton on 5 October, when Kompany left the field with a groin injury, looking visibly distressed. They divined the seriousness of the situation. Kompany did not play again until 7 December and so fundamental is his fitness to City’s title quest that the 27-year-old is now being encouraged to taper down the intensity when City are well ahead, and preserve himself, rather than plunging into every tackle as if it were his last.
The goalkeeping situation remains the other concern, of course, with Joe Hart unlikely to return to Premier League action today. The high lines City take require him, when he does play, to push up and “sweep” behind the defence – a role which needs better decisions about which balls to come for and which to leave. No one can be entirely sure whether Hart will be up to it, though Pellegrini and director of football Txiki Begiristain have categorically said they have no intention to go looking for a replacement next month.
Such are the fault lines for Arsenal to exploit today, though City’s extraordinary home form leads them to believe they can win a match of creative genius and stake a title claim. “I don’t know if they have been properly tested yet but we certainly have,” Fernandinho said of Arsenal. “I know for us it is a life-and-death game. We want to win to get to the top.”
Pellegrini was characteristically less expansive. He and Wenger are both geniuses, it was put to him, as a joke. “Maybe Arsène is,” he replied. “Not me.”