Looking at Manchester City on Sunday, you’d see fluent, pressing, persistent champions. They needed just a draw against West Ham to secure the title, but they clinched it in style with a 2-0. It is almost inconceivable to think that just six years ago, they were beaten 8-1 by Middlesbrough on the final day of the season.
Back then, City had another wannabe sugar daddy running their business. Thaksin Shinawatra, who was later described as “not having a clue about football”, had bought the club less than a year previously. The business relationship didn’t last long and in September 2008, City’s transformation began after it was bought by Abu Dhabi United Group.
There is a popular football chant in the UK, sung to the tune of “Oh when those men”, which usually contains the words “We won the league”. For City, many will be singing, “You bought the league”, however.
That will be a fair statement. City’s UAE fathers have boosted their coffers tremendously and have allowed them luxuries other teams can only dream of. But let’s not make hasty assumptions.
You can buy many things in football. Stadiums with state of the art facilities and big-name players go a long way in buying success, but you cannot buy team cohesion and motivation. City has gone from a team of prima donnas with overwhelming egos to a team who are friends. At the centre of that mind shift is their manager.
Manuel Pellegrini’s influence should not be underestimated. After just one full season in England, Pellegrini has bagged some silverware, but he has done so without the pizzazz of Arsene Wenger circa 1998 or Jose Mourinho in 2005.
When City lost to Wigan in the FA Cup last year, the fans were against his appointment. With Roberto Mancini still in charge back then, fans sang his name in support, while voicing their disapproval of Pellegrini. He began the season with four league losses by the end of November but big wins against Newcastle United, Manchester United and Norwich City were a reminder of what the team was capable of. It took some hard work to get City to a position where they can lift the trophy. Pellengrini, the first Chilean ever to manage in the Premier League, has had his fair share of challenges, but he can walk away from his first season in charge feeling very proud of himself. It has been a title race to remember, with the lead changing hands 26 times in total, once roughly every 10 days on average.
City have had their slip-ups, but they have been calm and composed for most of the season. Much of that belief and composure has been thanks to the man in charge. Under his guidance, he managed to get players to put their egos aside and bring out the best in them as a unit. He has also had to make tough decisions.
Arguably one of the toughest and now most important decisions Pellegrini made this season was dropping Joe Hart in November. Following a string of high-profile mistakes, Hart was given a break and did not return to the team until January. Following his return, Hart looked like the best English keeper in the country once again and it spoke volumes of how intently Pellegrini understands his players and knows what is good for their well-being.
After clinching their second league title in two years, City is fast becoming the poster boys for how to run a big club should be run. There is no arrogance and there is no drama. When Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri and other players chased after their boss to throw him in the air following his post-match chat with TV presenters, it painted a lovely picture. It was far removed from the passive reaction to Mancini’s victory two seasons ago. And Pellegrini’s passive reaction is a far cry from Mancini only referring to colleagues by their surname. Pellegrini has clearly created a dressing room which not only likes him, but also likes playing football together and for their manager.
During his playing days, the 60-year-old was seen as a “mad dog”, but he’s more like a loyal labrador these days. Yet he is no fool and knows that he cannot manage in the way that he played.
“There is another way of managing than as a player. You have to decide you are no longer a player and have a different approach,” he said.
“It’s a very special time. My first year is not easy to get used to English football but I think I managed a great group of players,” Pellegrini added.
“It was a very special because we’ve never been at the top of the table but six games away I told my players we needed to change and they believed in me. They are a special group.”
But all is not moonshine and roses for City. They face a fine of 60 million Euros ($82.5 million) and limits on the size of their Champions League squads for next season after falling foul of the Financial Fair Play regime. The have been disputing the sanctions and will most likely take the case further when Uefa announce their punishment decision next week. It is one of the few sour points of their season, but it is something that comes with this territory. City are becoming the poster boys for how big clubs should be run and what should be done when the sport progresses for form being just about kicking a ball around.
Modern football, especially in the big leagues, is unrecognisable compared to a few years ago. For many, the cash injections are an unpalatable evolution which has turned many away from the sport they once loved. However, small joys remain when good men triumph. And believe it or not, Pellegrini isn’t the only good man at Manchester City. DM
Photo: Manchester City manager Manuel Pelligrini with the English Premier League trophy following his teams win over West Ham during the final English Premier League soccer match of the season at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, Britain, 11 May 2014. EPA/ANDY RAIN
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