Manchester City vs. Chelsea: Two dead men walking face off

Clive Rose

Manchester City take on Chelsea at the weekend, and there's a high chance that when this fixture comes around next year, both managers will have departed us.

Despite Roberto Mancini's protests to the contrary, it seems likely that he will get the boot at the end of the season. In one particularly ill-advised phrase, the man who oversaw a second consecutive group-stage exit in the Champions League and a 12-point deficit in the league demanded to know: "Why would they sack me?" Rumours of Manuel Pellegrini seem the most likely, although of course there are more glamorous names hovering around.

His opposite number, Rafael Benitez, looks increasingly unlikely to be offered the job on a full-time basis. With shades of his reign at Internazionale, he has fuelled the intrinsic distrust of the fans with a series of preposterously aloof comments as his team struggles on the pitch. Every apparent breakthrough is quickly followed by a disjointed and impotent display, with last night's terrible display against Sparta Prague only the latest in a series of shambolic performances.

The real clincher for both men is that neither team appears to be playing for them. Both look like they have no hunger or drive, and have allowed the chance to compete for their stated goal of the Premier League title to slip away from them alarmingly early. In Chelsea's case, they now even face a battle to remain in the top four.

The affluence and remarkable squads of both clubs plays a factor too, but particularly in Chelsea's case, their managerial revolving door is a beast that cooks and eats itself. By sacking so many managers, they invite twice the speculation on the next one as soon as performances drop. Manchester United's success is often put down to Ferguson, with plenty of reason, but he also makes tactical blunders, bizarre rotation choices and unsuitable team selections like anybody else. Perhaps the biggest benefit he provides is one of the underrated bonuses of stability and success for so long - his position is never, ever questioned. No defeat, no matter how severe, will be followed with calls for his sacking, and no player need ever think twice about playing for him. If you're playing for Manchester United, you're playing for Alex Ferguson. What's the difference, anyway?

Of course, nobody would suggest that Chelsea or City should simply persevere with Mancini or Benitez for twenty years in the hope that one day they will achieve that level of automatic respect. But they cannot allow the situation to get out of control, where every manager is heralded as the chosen one, only for players to be considering whether it's worth bothering to heed his instruction since he'll be out the door in a week as soon as a patch of bad form comes along.

Instead, both clubs have moved towards more continental approaches, and it would seem to make sense. With the manager less of an autocrat, his image as the supreme leader of the team is dulled - he is just another staff member, and it allows there to be a degree of continuity across a period of time where the coach is changed repeatedly if necessary. Manchester City moved in this direction with the appointment of Txiki Begiristain as Director of Football. Chelsea have long taken ultimate power away from managerial hands, but at the same time, there is no other presence to absorb some of the limelight or scrutiny as appropriate. Every Chelsea manager seems stuck in an isolated position, a rabbit in the headlights between the two impenetrable and shadowy cliques of the boardroom and the dressing room.

Perhaps the eventual departures of Ashley Cole, John Terry and Frank Lampard will lessen the effect of the latter. Nobody would be surprised if Benitez were to go at the end of the season - he can only have himself to blame - but it is another embellishment of the myth that only the manager can be held responsible. Anybody taking the Chelsea job will know that there is more chance of the sun not rising than scrutiny falling upon the likes of Ron Gourlay over mismanagement.

In short, the move towards a more continental management structure makes sense for teams that are unable to deal with the prospect of dropping out of an increasingly competitive top four. But if that happens, they cannot continue to use their managers as automatic fall-guys, in the same way governments fire ministers to make it look as though something has been done. Even when the person in question is completely guilty, sometimes the system needs to be called into question too.

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