A trophy with every club he has managed in his short career so far – four Coppa Italia wins, and three Scudetti (although the first of these was ‘assigned’ to Inter due to the Calciopoli scandal). He did not just win these trophies, he set records while doing so. In the 2006/07 campaign – most points in a season (97), most wins in a season (30) and the number of consecutive wins (17) are all current Serie A records. Roberto Mancini is surely the perfect choice to lead an impatient Manchester City to their first top-flight piece of silverware since 1976, right?
Well, the jury is out. You see, statistics can lie, and while the ones presented above can make Mancini appear as if he had created one of the most dominant teams of the decade, much of it came about through circumstance. Inter were handed the 2005/06 Scudetto (Mancini’s first – they would have finished third otherwise), and Juventus were demoted to Serie B for the following season as a result of the match-fixing scandal. Titles were not the only asset given to the Mancini’s Nerazzurri – Juventus’ relegation saw a mass departure of their best players, two of whom transferred to Inter in the summer of 2006. Zlatan Ibrahimović and Patrick Vieira became an integral part of the record-breaking side that year. As if this was not enough, Milan started the season on -8 points, a further punishment from Calciopoli. With their rivals vanquished by the courts, and the best players in the country in their squad, it was very difficult for Inter not to win the league. Their dominance and records are a reflection of the fallout that existed in the 2006/07 season, and that to a certain extent is still lingering around Calcio. Roma were the only team left, and they were not properly equipped to mount a proper challenge until next year, when to his credit, Mancini led the club to a third consecutive Scudetto.
Calciopoli has made it very difficult to assess his work. Many, perhaps unfairly, point to his efforts in Europe as a yardstick for judgement as the Champions League was a more level playing field than Serie A during his tenure. His failure in the competition is seen as a weakness, yet every Inter Coach for the past 20 years has failed in the Champions League, something conveniently forgotten (or ignored) by those who preferred to downplay his coaching ability. Even the mighty José Mourinho is struggling to turn the team into a winning unit on the continent.
Mancini’s game did not translate well into Europe. In a competition where possession of the ball and defence is paramount, his Inter afforded too much of the former to the opposition, making the latter much harder to get right, especially at home. They kept only one clean sheet at San Siro in six knockout ties under the Italian – so it will come as no surprise to discover that out of the four ties that they lost, two were on away goals. The players could not adapt to a different style of football – a slower game where their power was not the deciding factor. It has taken English football years to understand that running around a lot over 90 minutes and attempting to outmuscle opponents will get you nowhere fast in the Champions League – unfortunately Inter did not grasp this concept at all, and it has stuck with Mancini.
Manchester City fans hoping to discover where their players will fit in the Mancini master system may be disappointed to read that one does not exist. During his four years with the club, he utilised more or less every formation imaginable – the only tactic he did not try was three at the back. 4-3-1-2 was generally his preferred choice, particularly in his first couple of seasons. But he desired a squad of players that allowed him tactical flexibility, a capability which he gained over the years with the arrival of wide players in Luís Figo, César and Santiago Solari. This trio were supplemented by the versatile players already at his disposal, like Javier Zanetti and Dejan Stanković, both of whom played wide in important games under the Coach. This flexibility meant Inter played 4-3-1-2, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 at stages throughout his time in Milan. A glance at the City squad suggests some of the characteristics he desires may already be in place. He certainly has enough wide players, with Shaun Wright-Phillips, Martin Petrov, Craig Bellamy and Robinho all capable of filling this role.
It is in the centre where the squad seems to lack the features of a Mancini unit. It was not uncommon to see an Inter midfield of Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Vieira in games, deployed behind a trequartista in the shape of Stanković or Figo (who often played centrally, as well as wide). Depending on his intentions, a frequent alternative would have seen the Portuguese player in place of Zanetti, again with Stanković as the trequartista. In any case, the ever-presents in any three-man midfield were the power and defensive abilities of Cambiasso and Vieira (or Cristiano Zanetti, whose superior ball skills were seen primarily in Europe to attempt to create a possession game). Even in a 4-4-2, attacking players such as Stanković had to play out wide so that the defensive duo could patrol the middle. A closer examination of the individuals in the City squad who could fulfil this function in the team throws up an initial problem. Nigel de Jong is the only player who even comes close to resembling the players Mancini had at his disposal for this function at Inter. Gareth Barry will occupy the defensive space, but he is not a destroyer, and he does not have the physical attributes Mancini requires. That is not to say he has no place in his team – his ability on the ball will undoubtedly be required in the midfield, in the same way as the two Zanetti’s were at Inter – but it would not be at all surprising to see a powerful midfielder acquired in January.
He has every chance of succeeding. Finances will not be a problem, and the lack of patience evident at the club will not phase a man who has worked in Italy – a football environment where Carlo Ancelotti’s eight years at Milan are seen as a major victory for Coaches. He will add a tactical nous to City, especially during the defensive phases of play, which is so obviously missing. And, despite the power game in midfield, the football is not bad either.