Balancing the Second Eleven

All talk that Roberto [Mancini] has lost the support of the players is being based purely on the word of a group of players that have no future at the club and their hangers on.-Unnamed Manchester City source

The relationship between Mancini and Tevez may be tumultuous, but underneath there is some kind of real understanding.  

Manchester City is widely criticized for collecting temperamental and entitled players who are later surprised to learn that they are not starters. Any player joining a new club should keep this in mind, but as far away [with little influence] as possible. Yet this would require at least some relationship with reality.

Do Manchester City signings assume they will start by right or was something conveyed to them that proved insincere? The club is drawn to players performing at the top of the market as well as players with discipline problems or ones with tarnished reputations for the way they left their former club.

Once forced to join the club’s second eleven, there is the grumbling at practice under the breath and later on the phone with wife or agent, followed by bitching—mostly over the phone. There is an anger phase and agitation to leave the club, which is snuffed out when the situation stagnates and the player is left to pout and stew. Why this very real possibility doesn’t cross the players’ minds before signing is hard for one understand.

Allowed to fester, disaffection can become a disruption, and once it begins seeping into the public can be a sign of unrest or a precipitate for it. Those on the outside can smell the outgassing of a bubbling mutiny. Manchester City contains high levels of swampy discontent that could hinder their push into the top four.

Roberto Mancini has worked hard at containment. First, there is the captaincy, bestowed upon an unsettled Carlos Tevez, which marks the détente between the player and manager and papers over the problem. A tempestuous relationship of this kind usually sees a player consigned to the bench, instead of elevated to captain. The enticement as incentive, the captaincy as adhesive bandage adds insight to Fabio Capello’s struggle with the media over the value and meaning of national team captain. It is multi-purpose, has strategic value including becoming a form of currency as opposed to the traditional and narrow conception of symbolic and heroic leader and communicator.

Appointing Tevez captain has been discussed in terms of merit. On the pitch, he’s earned it. But for those who see communication as prerequisite for leadership, Tevez’s doesn’t qualify. His English is not considered sufficient. For others, including Mancini, the promotion is warranted based on his unyielding hard work— Tevez as archetypal leader by example. Credit to the Argentine, for his clear discontent has never affected his performance. This is an example of professionalism and leadership—and if anyone in English football deserves to lead by example it is Carlos Tevez—but may not be is the right kind of example for a captain.

The tug of war between the captain and manager expresses what brings them together and pulls them apart.

Actions speaking louder than words must have resonance in Italian. It is sufficient reason for Mancini to effectively respond to any criticism. “I would like all players to be like Carlos, because in that moment every player wants to stay on the pitch.” The justification also provides cover—albeit thin—for the primary motive of appeasing Tevez. In the humid thick air of Eastlands, Tevez’s promotion may serve another function. In a squad of unhappy players, it serves Mancini’s interests to appoint a captain who could only address the team’s problems in Spanish or by tirelessly trying to kick ass. It is a move to quiet disaffection by restricting the channels of communication.

Emmanuel Adebayor can’t seem to cut a deal with Mancini. Either the manager doesn’t fancy the striker’s style of play or there is something unappealing in Adebayor’s temperament, or both. When things are not going Adebayor’s way, he inclines toward stewing and bouts of juvenile behavior, unlike Craig Bellamy who is abrasive and explosive, and who was quickly sent away, anywhere was fine. Mancini appears to respect neither response. The Italian comes off as straightforward as his defensive strategy. Getting to know Tevez over the course of a season and through private summits, Mancini may have discovered a respect for a man as equally rugged and matter-of-fact.

Then there is Shay Given, currently pacified, but for how long? Supplanted by Joe Hart, Given’s position of start-me-or-sell-me can’t be solved by making him their Cup goalkeeper. This list goes on with the frowning Shaun Wright Phillips, the scorned Wayne Bridge, and the forgotten Roque Santa Cruz. Lastly, there’s Robinho, whose response to being shipped out to Brazilian club Santos was to unveil himself by landing on the Santos’ pitch in a helicopter. Absurd, but telling.

The clash of entitled egos and internal skirmishes could have been mostly avoided. It is difficult to believe that the management didn’t anticipate this. In light of City’s spending power and the league’s planned implementation of Financial Fair Play, the problems of having too many big babies in one town could be part of a multi-year plan. Buy as many of the world’s best players (or the best who are willing to come to City) and slowly weed out the disenchanted and inferior. Once the dust settles, a title-contending team will be what remains.

A club spending its way to the top is not a new strategy, but building a title winning team from scratch through the magnitude of city’s financial strength is unprecedented. With bottomless pockets, it’s an investment with significant loses built into it. Time—and not that much of it— will measure the success. Buying over-valued players, some of whom will be sold at discount, is not a problem for the club.

The current discontent among this crop of players may be weathered, but if they do not meet expectations, then they will be swapped for new highly paid and overvalued players, which could breed new discontent. The perpetuation of the cycle could become a problem for a growth strategy that assumes targeted signings will continue to have a desire to be a part of the City dream once these players learn that they are in fact part of a weeding-out process.

All clubs encounter disaffected players, but none have dealt with it on City’s scale. The Chelsea teams of the last few years have been packed with stars at every position. Michael Ballack, Deco, Alex, Carlo Cudicini—all accustomed to starting roles—were, to varying frequency, consigned to a second eleven. There could have been much discontent, but no peeping, squawking, or foot stamping ensued. Do they possess a different psychological composition that City stars? Did the Chelsea players understand better what their roles would be when they joined Chelsea? Were they sold a different package before signing? What makes Carlo Cudicini, relegated to backup while at the top of his game by the arrival of Petr Čech, different from Shay Given?

12/7/10

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