MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson clashes with Manchester City Manager Roberto Mancini (R) during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium on April 30, 2012 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
It has taken time, but Roberto Mancini has learned his best XI. City will be hard to stop now.
As Barack Obama's first term has so far shown, it can take a long time to turn power into authority. Like a young country maiden moved (to the chagrin of the servants) into her stately new husband's stately old home, Roberto Mancini, too, has had problems settling in. Last night, though, the former Inter Milan manager came of age as his Manchester City side overcame their city rivals in a potentially title-deciding derby.
Holding his own against Sir Alex Ferguson in a duet of Hand Flaps on the Touchline, Mancini performed last night as a man finally comfortable with his position. Given the keys to football's most potent ‘war chest', Mancini has, at times, performed like a man spoiled by choice. Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli, Samir Nasri and (of course) Carlos Tevez have all struggled this season. To varying degrees, these struggles can be attributed to personalities but they have all been exacerbated by Mancini's tactical vacillations.
Balotelli and Dzeko, both of whose seasons have been defined by hot streaks cold streaks, have made 14 and 15 Premier League starts respectively. In midfield, Nasri, Adam Johnson and James Milner have similarly irregular performance patterns with 23, 17 and 10 starts respectively and their form has been similarly patchy. Whereas most top sides have a roughly predictable strongest eleven, with slight alterations dependent on opposition, City under Mancini have been something of a hotchpotch with selections, seemingly, made at the changing whims of a capricious manager.
Recently, though, that has changed. Last night's 11 was the same as that which started the 2-0 victory over Wolves and had only one change (the excellent Yaya Toure in for Nigel de Jong) from that which destroyed Norwich 6-1. The meek loss at Arsenal, which left City 8 points behind Manchester United, seems to have focused minds at City. Amidst all his ‘it's finished' bluster, Mancini has settled on something like a preferred 11 and this, not mind-games, has led to all 8 points of their rivals' advantage being clawed back.
Last night, Ferguson set out a reactive team with a five man central midfield. Designed to control the game and protect the 3 point advantage (by drawing), Ferguson's plan didn't really work. His midfield was broken between the energetic Park Ji Sung and the more cerebral style of the Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick. Nani, presumably, was included to sprinkle some imagination into the mix. Ferguson was banking on a strange sort of aggregated symmetry - take the strengths of, for example, Carrick, Nani and Park, and you get something like the ideal midfielder. The problem is that that can go the other way - aggregate the weaknesses of the same three and you have something disastrous. When your individuals are matched against a cohesive midfield unit of complimentary talents it is their collective weaknesses, rather than their individual strengths, that will tend to be exaggerated.
And that's what happened last night.
That happened, in large part because Mancini played his newly settled team. Toure was superb and seems to be comfortable playing alongside Gareth Barry, whose dogged reliability is complimented well by the slippery movement of Nasri and David Silva. City's preferred midfield have played a number of games together and enjoyed a number of wins. Their superior cohesion has evolved out of these consecutive successes.
The eight point gap, and his consequently fatalist rhetoric, seems to have liberated Mancini; consecutive wins, regular starting lineups and, potentially, a first league title EVER* suggest the Italian has, finally, become comfortable in his role.
* Not ever; it will be their third ever and first since 1968. Soccer IS older than you.