Manchester City have had a slow start to the season as the Italian attempts to add flexibility to his squad and build a dynasty following their Premier League triumphSPECIAL REPORT
By Greg Stobart
Roberto Mancini has never hidden his combustible nature as either a player or manager, which came to the fore once again as he clashed with Paul Lambert during Manchester City's home defeat to Aston Villa in the League Cup on Tuesday night.
After exchanging choice words with the Villa boss on the touchline following a tackle from Gareth Barry, Mancini cut a dishevelled and distressed figure in his post-match interviews as he complained of being treated differently to Sir Alex Ferguson, clearly irritated and seemingly under pressure.
City visit Fulham on Saturday looking to end a run of four games without a win in all competitions, but any pressure on Mancini at such an early stage of the season is that which he puts on himself.
Lambert joined the likes of Ferguson, Mark Hughes, David Moyes and Arsene Wenger in provoking Mancini’s ire, but the Italian cares little. For him, it is all about winning matches and trophies.
While some could interpret his spat with Lambert as a sign of Mancini ‘cracking up’ or feeling the pressure of a poor start to the campaign, it is worth remembering that the 47-year-old won the mind games battle with Sir Alex last season.
He piled the pressure on United by continually insisting the title was theirs to lose as the title race dramatically turned on its head, with City winning the league and two Manchester derbies last term. It is all about perception.
So Ferguson is not always the king of mind games, and Mancini’s irascible nature is actually one of the factors that has made him such a success in bringing together a dressing room of egos; turning a group of extremely talented individuals into a cohesive team unit.
Mancini is desperate for City to evolve after their Premier League triumph this season having sold his long-term vision to owner Sheikh Mansour over the summer to secure himself a five-year contract at the Etihad Stadium.
That has meant changes that might not have been expected. City want to build a dynasty rather that fall into the same trap as Arsenal and Chelsea by building a great title-winning side only to slip backwards through lack of progress.
Mancini, in true Italian tradition, considers himself a master tactician. The experimentation with a 3-5-2 formation this season - popular in Italian football after Juventus’ success last season - has drawn criticism but the manager believes it is crucial to add flexibility to the squad.
Mancini is a thinker and he decided to add more strings to City’s bow after the home defeat to United in the FA Cup in January. At half-time, the hosts were 3-0 down to their great rivals and down to 10 men following the dismissal of Vincent Kompany, but Mancini switched to three at the back and City came ever so close to earning a replay, eventually losing 3-2.
In training, assistants David Platt and Angelo Gregucci - who is a specialist defensive coach - will lead a session with the whole group before Mancini works on tactics with the defence, midfield and strikers as separate groups.
What is missing, and it has been obvious on the pitch, is a cohesion between those three units as the coaching team work on adding variety and new systems. City are yet to keep a clean sheet this season and have conceded 14 goals in seven matches.
Mancini believes part of the reasoning behind the slow progress is beyond his control.
For a start, key players like David Silva and Mario Balotelli only began pre-season training in late July following Euro 2012, while Mancini made no secret of his frustration with the club’s slow progress in the transfer market during the summer.
He is still smarting from the failure to land the players he identified as top targets for City to retain their Premier League title and challenge for Champions League glory. He wanted Daniele De Rossi, Eden Hazard and Robin van Persie, and a last-minute trolley dash in August has done little to ease Mancini’s frustration with football administrator Brian Marwood.
Mancini does not get on particularly well with Marwood, who retains a key role at the club despite the arrival of Ferran Soriano as chief executive, but - as has been well established - he is not alone.
Mancini’s personality does not prompt close working relationships or loyalty. He knows he is offish and not particularly likeable, and he leaves others to build a spirit within the camp.
Perhaps part of the problem at Carrington in the first month or so of the season has been that training has become too intense and is all about business, with some of the fun sucked out of sessions.
Players have privately admitted to missing two key figures on the training ground from last season in Attilio Lombardo and Nigel De Jong, who were huge characters, well-liked and figures of fun. The former is now in charge of the development squad while Dutch midfielder De Jong was sold to AC Milan on the last day of the transfer window.
Mancini, though, has patience and faith that his plan will work out. He also has confidence that the Abu Dhabi owners will continue to back him even if City fail to maintain their Premier League title this season.
Faith. It is an apt word given Mancini is deeply spiritual and superstitious. He believes in fate and destiny, and as such was not overly concerned last year when City failed to qualify from a Champions League group that included Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villarreal. For him, it just was not their time.
European competition is, of course, a huge part of Mancini’s thinking as he looks to shake off a stigma that he has not worked out how to achieve results in the Champions League.
Yet he is not under pressure from the powers-that-be at the Etihad Stadium, only from himself. Mancini has cut a rather spikey, downtrodden figure lately, but he has faith that he will prove what he is really made of.