“What do you think I am in Manchester for, the weather? I am here to win; only to win; always to win.“
Roberto Mancini was a man of his word. In his three and a half years in charge of Manchester City, the Italian brought an end to the club’s 35 barren years without a major trophy. Quite simply, he transformed City into champions.
Today, Mancini celebrates his 55th birthday. It provides an appropriate moment to reflect upon and appreciate his time on the touchline in Manchester.
Mancini endeared himself with City fans in a manner that few others have come close to. Home and away, on the terraces, it was the manager’s name that came to be sung most often. ‘He comes from Italy, to manage Man City…’
The affection did not go unreciprocated. When he left the club in May 2013, Mancini penned a farewell message to the supporters in the Manchester Evening News. Accompanying a photograph of the trophies won under his management, he wrote: ‘3 Unforgettable Years. You will always be in my heart. Ciao’.
His popularity is perhaps grounded in the fact that Mancini has always identified himself as the underdog. He spent the majority of his illustrious playing career with Sampdoria in Italy.
A successful and highly-rated playmaker, he rebuffed moves to larger, more successful teams like Juventus and AC Milan. Instead, Mancini preferred to devote his cause to delivering silverware to a side with more humble origins.
Sampdoria had been more starved of success than even City had been. Established in the aftermath of World War II, it was not until the 1985 Coppa Italia final that the Genovese side won its first major trophy. Mancini scored in the triumph against AC Milan.
This inaugurated an era that saw a further three Coppa Italia successes, a Serie A title, and a Champions Cup final appearance against a Barcelona, a side which featured Pep Guardiola. Football hipsters, fed largely on a diet of Channel 4’s Football Italia, gravitated towards Mancini’s Sampdoria side.
Yet, when he arrived in December 2009, most people knew little about him aside from the fact he had presided over three consecutive Serie A titles as manager of Inter Milan.
Olive-skinned, debonair, and dripping with self-confidence, it was clear to all City fans viewing Mancini’s first press conference that he was from a different world to his predecessor Mark Hughes.
Aside from his sartorial elegance, his forthrightness quickly won admirers. Whereas most managers seek to downplay expectations and unburden themselves of pressure, Mancini was undaunted. He pledged that the infamous banner at Old Trafford, mocking City’s trophy drought, would be torn down: ‘because we will win’, he said. His mission could not be clearer.
It was not hard to predict that Mancini would seek to impart upon City the defensive solidity intrinsic to Italian football. The defence under Hughes was chaotic. This was epitomised by his final game in charge, a 4-3 victory at home to Sunderland.
In Mancini’s 21 league games in the 2009-10 season, City conceded less goals than they had done in the 10 games preceding his arrival. Egos were reined in. Discipline was instilled. Additionally, this was achieved without detracting from City’s attacking potency.
Results included scoring four goals at Stamford Bridge, six at Turf Moor and five at home to Birmingham. Unfortunately, a defeat at home to Tottenham denied City the much coveted fourth-spot in the league.
But the progress under Mancini’s first five months had been unmistakeable. This set the tone for the following two years. Mancini was adept at setting up his side to grind out a result if needed, but also at crafting a system where creativity could thrive.
His first summer transfer window remains legendary. Yaya Toure and David Silva led the way, joined by Aleksandar Kolarov, Mario Balotelli and James Milner. Edin Dzeko followed by joining in January.
In the 2010/11 season, City finished level on points with league runners-up Chelsea. Joe Hart won the Golden Glove as City conceded the least amount of goals in the league. Champions League qualification had finally been secured.
However, it was the FA Cup success that represented a watershed moment in City’s history. The 1-0 semi-final victory against United is immortalised as a defining moment in the club’s history.
When Yaya Toure breezed past Nemanja Vidic and stroked the ball into the net, the Ivorian accomplished more than just a goal; he had provoked a seismic shift in the balance of power between the two Manchester sides. After that game, the self-belief that permeated the club was palpable.
A further 1-0 victory against Stoke City in the final was evidence of the change that had been brought about by Mancini. A born champion, he had now finally inculcated a winning culture in the squad.
Its importance cannot be overstated. The following season, in an intense back-and-forth title race with United, a psychologically fragile squad could not have coped with the pressure.
The two games against Manchester United in the 2011/12 season brilliantly captured how Mancini had nurtured a multifaceted side. At Old Trafford, a ruthless attacking display delivered the iconic 6-1 humiliation of United.
At the Etihad, with three points needed to return City to the top of the league, Mancini set his side up to frustrate United. After Kompany’s commanding header past David de Gea, City were disciplined and unyielding, depriving United of the slightest glimpse at goal.
Fans will fondly recall Mancini’s remonstrations against Alex Ferguson’s embittered protests towards the fourth official in the decisive victory. It embodied the magnetic passion of Mancini that held so much appeal. His impulse was always to defend himself, to defend his team, to defend Manchester City.
The momentous game against QPR was the climax of Mancini’s two and a half year endeavour to rid the club of its ‘typical City’ baggage. Yet, events had conspired to come perilously close to undoing his efforts.
With five minutes needed to score two goals, many sides would have collapsed under the sheer weight of the looming disgrace. It was only fitting that the league title was delivered in the most dramatic, emotional and unforgettable fashion. Sergio Agüero’s goal will never be eclipsed.
That first Premier League title ensured Mancini will forever retain a place in the heart of City fans. It was a richly deserved success. The side he had assembled was magisterial. A spine of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero remains one of the best the league has ever seen.
David Silva and Samir Nasri acted as the orchestrators, floating into pockets of space in midfield. The overlapping full-backs, typically Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy, provided the width. Kompany supplied the steel in the backline, and Agüero the lethal touch in front of goal. Yaya Toure, technically gifted and physically imposing, served as the conduit that linked it all together.
The final year failed to build on the transformation Mancini had overseen. It was bitterly ironic that he was sacked exactly one year after the 3-2 triumph over QPR. Yet, the esteem with which the Italian was held by the City faithful never dwindled.
The impact he had in Manchester was colossal, both on and off the pitch. Subsequent achievements under Manuel Pellegrini and Pep Guardiola have to be considered with the context of the foundations laid by Mancini’s toil. The Italian turned City into a side that truly belonged at the summit of English football.
For that, we say,
Grazie Roberto, e buon compleanno.
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