Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Pellegrini Should Be Feeling the Pressure

Sid Lowe’s recent interview with Manuel Pellegrini is fantastic and should be read by anyone interested in football. The most refreshing thing about it is the chance to see how smart the man is, which rarely comes through in the most common forum for managers: pre-match interviews. That format is limiting for all managers, but more so for Pellegrini, for whom the soundbite is anathema. He is mostly reduced to listing injuries, praising the opposition, and giving no bulletin board material for the opposing team, which means he often comes across as boring and uninspired. However, in this interview he talks intelligently about Financial Fair Play, viewing process over results (something which many football journalists could stand to learn), and City’s performance against Barcelona. I agree with him on just about everything. Unfortunately, the one part where he is wrong is likely what gets him fired at the end of the season.

Let me reproduce the most important part of that interview:

 “I have no sense whatsoever [that my job’s at risk],” Pellegrini continues. “Of course we want titles but the vision inside is different. We want development, constant improvement. You have to be able to say: ‘We’ve got better.’ Or: ‘What can we do to be better?’ And it’s not always sack the coach. Sometimes it’s reinforce the squad or bring in younger players. The way we work matters too. Not just in my case: Roberto [Mancini] didn’t continue, but not because one year he didn’t win anything. It’s not ‘lose and you’re out’.
Every statement there is factually correct. Yes, improving the team is more important than the actual results (especially in the cup competitions, which are always going to be subject to randomness due to the nature of the tournament). Improvement does not necessarily come from replacing the manager. It’s not a “Lose and You’re Out” situation. But when you look at the situation objectively, despite his not having any sense of pressure, it’s hard to argue his job is not at risk.

The problem is that his statement assumes City have shown “development and constant improvement” this season, which they pretty clearly haven’t. In comparing the numbers this year and last (see below for details), all signs are that City have regressed, irrespective of the win-loss results. Possession is up, but chances created (as measured by SOG) are down. This speaks to the sterile possession City have enjoyed against the likes of Burnley and Liverpool recently. The Finish Rate is down too, although that can partly be explained by extemporaneous factors like injuries and the departure of Negredo. Joe Hart’s improved play has reduced the Opponent’s Finish Rate, but overall goal difference and SOG difference are down from last year. If anything, City’s results have been better than their performances suggest, particularly in the CL group stages where they barely managed to scrape through and their consensus best performance (at the Stadio Olimpico) was when Roma had 9 shots on target to City’s 4.

Year Off Eff Def Eff FR Opp FR TOP% Goal Diff SOG Diff
2014-15 108.12 87.69 32.52% 25.29% 60.24 1.07 2.72
2013-14 121.15 84.30 39.66% 28.10% 57.68 1.71 3.08

Moreover, while Pellegrini is right that changing managers is no panacea, it’s probably City’s only option if they are to improve. The two alternatives Pellegrini cites, reinforcing the squad and bringing through young players, will be difficult for City to do. FFP restrictions have already limited him in getting new players this past summer, and there’s every chance it will again (despite the usual Messi rumors). As for youth players coming through, it hasn’t exactly been a hallmark of Pellegrini at City. I can count on one hand the number of players to move into the first team during his reign, and the total number of appearances on two. I wouldn’t be surprised if Marcos Lopes steps in if Milner moves on in the summer, or Shay Facey replace Boyata (or even Demichelis) if his loan spell with NYCFC goes well. But those would be changes at the margins, and a true breakthrough like Harry Kane at Spurs is probably unrealistic for a variety of reasons. In reality, a change in managers is probably the only thing that will change the direction of a team that has stagnated.

A new manager wouldn't be able to solve every problem certainly, but he could certainly help. That would begin with corner kick routines, which are just farcical at this point. Goals from corners have dropped precipitously this season and a new coach might be able to make a few tweaks (not aim each corner to the near post, inswinging corners instead of outswingers, more Silva-Milner short corners) to improve the rate of return. It would also be a signal to the numerous players that signed long-term deals over the summer that their place is not guaranteed, and hopefully that would help improve their level of performance.

Pellegrini was absolutely the right man to come aboard and steady the ship after the Mancini era. He did very well in his first season and okay in his second, and should leave with his reputation enhanced from where it was before he signed on at City. I've defended him before and believe he got too much stick for the Barcelona game (completely agree with his take on the tie in the article). But he is not looking like the man to move this team forward, and if he doesn’t have the sense his job is at risk, someone needs to impart that to him immediately.

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