Friday, 9 November 2012


In ‘The Crack-Up’, the great American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald’s incredibly candid account of the nervous collapse he endured aged 39, at the height of his fame, he observed with great acuity that it is often when things are going well with the major things in life (relationships, career, health, finances) that little cracks can start to appear, fissures that will eventually break you like an old plate – if not definitively, then in some irreversible way. Suddenly, without knowing quite why, you reach a threshold of lowered resistance; things that you could put up with yesterday or the day before now become quite intolerable.

So it was that prior to the controversial 2-2 Champions League draw with Ajax, an animated Roberto Mancini held a press conference at which, in response to a line of questioning that had picked up on and pursued some of his more cryptic recent statements, he made a vehement defence of his record as boss and the strides Manchester City had made under his tenure. He looked like he’d had enough…but of what?

“Of course all life is a process of breaking down,” Fitzgerald writes, “but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work – the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside – the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within – that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.”

Unbeaten after ten Premier League games and well positioned on the shoulders of both Chelsea and their cross-town rivals, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was little need for agitation at Eastlands – be that among fans, board, players or management. The superrich arrivistes – the noisy neighbours – are, in modern football parlance, “entitled to believe” that, having removed the championship monkey from their back, they have the resources to barge their way into a prime seat at Europe’s top table.

And yet, as it stands their all-but-certain Champions League exit may not even to be offset by the UEFA-gerrymandered sop of backdoor Europa League qualification – and a quick glance at Sunday’s floodlit Abu Dhabi grand prix, with the sky blue painted run-offs and omnipresent Etihad branding tells you that, as Mancini himself observed a week ago, the owners are indeed “very serious people” when it comes to fast-tracked success – while their 22 league points have featured only 18 goals, half the number that the opening ten games of their title campaign did. 

It was, initially, a very different story. So porous were they in defence that it took the visit of toothless Sunderland (13 shots on target all season) for them to secure a first clean sheet of the campaign. Now they appear to have lost their cutting edge, not all of which can be attributed to the missing playmaker, David Silva. They were fortunate to draw at Upton Park last weekend, even more so to beat Swansea, while WBA deserved a point at least from the previous game.

Of course, you would think that Mancini, steeped in the ultra-cautious gioco all’Italiano (slightly less starchy descendant of catenaccio), would be happy to have partially shored up the back line, even if, temporarily, it appears to have been at the price of his attacking thrust. And while his rudimentary English and guarded manner are an open invitation for the media to scrutinise his pronouncements for meaning perhaps not there, you couldn’t help but feel that there was a subtext to his blindingly obvious assessment at West Ham:  “if you don’t score, you don’t win: this is the football”. Perhaps it was a thinly-veiled criticism of Mario Balotelli, who missed City’s best chance and was seen scowling at and cursing his boss after being hauled off (still, he did successfully locate the armholes of his big warm jacket). 

It is not the only statement Mancini has made of late that ought to raise an eyebrow or two. He also said, with a hint of self-protection, that it could take City “ten years to win the Champions League”, which you can imagine being at least five years too slow for the Emirati owners, especially as the Italian has never been beyond the last eight in the competition. Indeed, they might quickly conclude that the fault might be him – at least, if they take him at face value that his undercooked experiments with a 3-4-1-2 were a “failure to prepare the game”. 

He also made public declarations that he has rebuffed “seven or eight” suitors including a Russian plutocrat-funded ‘project’ at Monaco, all of which might be taken as an indication that he is starting to unravel under the strain. Aside from his outburst at the end of the Ajax game, about which there was some justification (although the force that he drew upon, the vehemence and ire, seemed to tap into a hidden magma of pressures), there are signs of what might euphemistically be called restiveness. Others may call it cracking up. 

Is this intense and serious figure growing exasperated with his high-maintenance, underperforming charges? Has he perceived Txiki Begiristain’s arrival as Sporting Director as assistance (displacing Brian Marwood) or threat (smoothing the post-sabbatical path of Prince Pep)?  

As with many footballing problems, the solution for Mancini and Man City may just be a couple of good results or convincing performances away. Equally likely, a few wins may simply paper over the cracks. Here’s Fitzgerald again: “Sometimes…the cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the icebox under leftovers…”

A glance at his options shows that a search for both potency and balance is eminently achievable. Indeed, perhaps the crux of the problem for Mancini is not so much the individual talents at his disposal, but how their respective characters blend, both on-field and, especially, off, and how that translates into man-managerial issues.

Carlos Tévez’s behaviour last year was little short of scandalous, his rehabilitation a function of City’s desperation and the amoral pragmatism that football imposes on its protagonists – from diving players, to bosses working under the sword of Damocles. Meanwhile, to describe Mario Balotelli as high-maintenance is like referring to a Hurricane Sandy as “a bit of a nuisance”. The ‘Why always me?’ t-shirt slogan was among the more conspicuously attention-seeking attempts at suggesting at suggesting one ought to fly under the radar. Taking a few cool penalties cannot be adequate recompense. 

At a certain point last season, both of these players, we were told, would never play for Manchester City again. This sounds suspiciously like a crack. And there may be a third problem emerging, too. Edin Dzeko’s polite-yet-abrupt rebuttal of the BBC reporter who tried to dub him “supersub” at West Brom demonstrated that he is also reaching the upper threshold of his discontent, particularly as he is playing well and rescuing games for Manchester City.

Yes, they have helped create history and lanced a 44-year-old boil. But, as with all players, they are, in the most neutral sense of the word possible, mercenaries. How long before their waning motivation, the lure of the next salary hike, his own fatigue and language difficulties make this group unsalvageable for Mancini? Is there a solution that can fix the plate together?

Across the city, Sir Alex Ferguson has proven highly adept at keeping a stable of four forwards relatively content, not least when his treble-winning side had the bromance of Yorke and Cole plus trophy-starved-and-hungry Teddy Sheringham backed uncomplainingly and, um, deadlyly, by the baby-faced assassin, Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer. Yes, Tévez, Berbatov, Ronaldo and Rooney could not be sustained (although the Bulgarian’s insouciance can often be confused with diffidence) but today he has a reserve striker in Javier Hernández who is not only down-to-earth and humble (Danny Welbeck likewise), but also dedicated and deadly in the box. 

Even as Mancini’s spirit and zeal are sapped, that doesn’t mean he cannot ‘get the job done’, as it were. As Fitzgerald says: “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” As he attempted to recover, he realized that “the question became one of finding why and where I had changed, where was the leak through which, unknown to myself, my enthusiasm and my vitality had been steadily and prematurely trickling away.”

Perhaps if Mancini simply cuts his losses with Balotelli – concedes that Mourinho was right, that he is “unmanageable” – then the overriding criteria he should use in seeking out his back-up strikers is humility first and foremost, then hunger, perhaps even a certain shyness (everywhere except the penalty box, of course). He needs a player who plays infrequently, but who grumbles even less. A Victor Moses, or perhaps a Dimitris Salpingidis – a player who rolls up his sleeves, like Tévez did once upon a time, and who inspires through graft.

Ah, the crack-up: always too late when you realize it. Speaking of the blows that subtly and insidiously break you from within, Fitzgerald concludes: “A man does not recover from such jolts – he becomes a different person, and, eventually, the new person finds new things to care about.” Perhaps it’s time to call in the psychometrics people, and not those who tested Super Mario.

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