MARK Hughes doesn’t seem to be having much luck with post-match handshakes this season. First there was Tony Pulis, then there was Tony Pulis again, and now there’s Roberto Mancini.
Hughes’ return to Eastlands with Fulham, his first visit to Manchester City since then they sacked him on a surreal Saturday afternoon 14 months ago, was always going to have a bit of bite about it.
Fulham’s manager seemed to relish the conflict, suggesting before the game that City’s three best performers this season were players he signed – Vincent Kompany, Nigel de Jong and Carlos Tevez.
It’s a version of the truth – a number of other players Hughes brought to City have not performed well this season – but it’s still the truth. And that is perhaps a sign of how City have progressed in some ways since Mancini arrived in December 2009, but not in others.
City’s defensive record is better than it was at this stage last season, the league position is healthier, and I would argue that the squad is stronger (although the number of injuries to key players is testing that last theory). And yet their league record is exactly the same as it was last season – 50 points from 28 games.
Last season, City didn’t qualify for the Champions League. After today’s 1-1 draw with Fulham, a finish in the Premier League’s top four is by no means guaranteed this year either, as Tottenham and Chelsea have games in hand. City must face both before the season is out. The results will, I suspect, be hugely significant.
Under Mancini, I feel that City have improved tactically, for all the accusations that he lacks a sense of adventure. The way they played against Arsenal at the Emirates in early January was not attractive to watch, but they eked out a 0-0 draw against top-four rivals when, in the past, they might easily have gone under.
Generally, in the big games, Mancini has succeeded in frustrating the opposition. They kept a clean sheet at Tottenham on the opening day without playing well, they beat Chelsea in September – a time when Carlo Ancelotti’s men looked like reigning champions – and they ensured Manchester United didn’t sneak a win at Eastlands in November. (Although again, it was not an enjoyable game to watch.)
Had Wayne Rooney not scored the goal of the season in the derby at Old Trafford earlier this month, City would surely have got something there too.
And yet I wonder about Mancini’s overall management of the squad. Back in the summer, there were a flurry of newspaper stories speculating as to how City would meet the Premier League’s new 25-man squad rule. (I should know. I wrote some of them.)
At one stage last summer, City had 32 senior players on their books. (It was around this time that the infamous spoof squad photo featuring 80-odd players and staff – including Wayne Rooney, Kaka, Fernando Torres and the character from Where’s Wally? – first appeared on the net. You know, the one that ended up accidentally finding its way to Aris Salonika’s match programme the other week.)
Mancini trimmed the squad to 27 in time for the Premier League’s September 1 deadline, leaving striker Kelvin Etuhu and back-up goalkeeper David Gonzalez off the list. Then in January, he shipped out Emmanuel Adebayor, Wayne Bridge and Roque Santa Cruz – three Hughes signings that didn’t work – and only brought in Edin Dzeko.
In the meantime, Mancini has lost Adam Johnson and Shay Given to long-term injuries, and De Jong, Kompany, Micah Richards and James Milner – and, today against Fulham, David Silva – to shorter-term ones, while waiting and waiting for Michael Johnson to recover from a series of injury troubles that have blighted him over the last four years.
For the last two games, Mancini has been struggling to fill a bench. It’s an extraordinary situation given how many players he had seven months ago. If he is right in suggesting that City’s injury list is down to bad luck, then he could do with finding some fortune soon.
Mancini is also developing a habit of criticising individual players in public. Adam Johnson frequently got it in the neck from him earlier in the season, then after Christmas it was Joe Hart, and now it’s Mario Balotelli.What this does for team morale is anybody’s guess.
It’s true that Balotelli didn’t offer an awful lot after the wonderful goal that gave City a 26th-minute lead this afternoon. All the same, it was surprising to hear Mancini speak his mind so openly about him afterwards.
“I am not happy with Mario,” Mancini said. “He scored a good goal, but I am not happy. He should play well. But today he didn’t.
“For a striker, it is important to score. But a striker should also play for the team.”
Mancini pushed hard to get Balotelli to City from Inter Milan in the summer. Evidently, the 20-year-old is not the easiest person to manage. When he’s good, he’s brilliant. When he’s bad, he’s infuriating. A tally of nine goals in 15 City appearances, though, suggests he might be worth the hassle.
Of the rest of Mancini’s summer signings, only Silva has really impressed. Aleksandar Kolarov and Jerome Boateng have been inconsistent in the full-back positions, Yaya Toure isn’t always as influential in midfield as one might expect, and Edin Dzeko is still plainly adjusting to the pace of the Premier League. Hence Hughes had space to get in his jibe about City’s best players this season.
City were unconvincing this afternoon, and Balotelli’s opener came against the run of play. Two minutes into the second half, Andy Johnson got down the right in behind Kolarov, and crossed low for Damien Duff to tap in.
Fulham deserved a point, and might have had more. The frustration in the crowd translated to boos at the final whistle. The frustration on the home bench translated into a row between Mancini and Hughes over a full-time handshake.
In a way, it felt as if things had come full circle. Hughes lost his job at City because too many draws were hitting the club’s league position. It was weirdly appropriate that his first return should end in a draw too.