Ian Ladyman: Conquering Europe can wait, Roberto… just make sure you win the league to earn another shot at glory
14:13 GMT, 25 October 2012
The American actor and director Woody Allen once described a relationship as being like a shark. ‘If it stops moving forward then it dies,’ he said.
Roberto Mancini sees a football team the same way. He believes in constant improvement and regeneration, especially when one of his teams has just won something. Standing still is, in the Italian’s mind, effectively the same as moving backwards.
No wonder, then, that Mancini looked so hollow-eyed as he left the Amsterdam Arena late on Wednesday night. To continue the shark analogy, he had just seen his team chewed up by one of European football’s smaller fish.
The morning after the night before: Mancini emerges from a coffee shop in Alderley Edge on Thursday
Mancini takes defeat badly. There will be much debate about his tactics. Rightly so. As he shuffled players late in the game, he appeared – rarely for him – like a manager who wasn’t totally sure what he was doing.
Micah Richards’ subsequent revelation that City had not practiced certain things they were asked to do left Mancini looking foolish.
In his mind, the tactics are not the major problem. He feels they haven’t changed greatly since last season’s title-winning campaign.
Down and (almost) out: Mancini (below) couldn't bare to watch as his City side slipped to defeat in Holland
His suggestion that defeat was down to his own poor preparation was a clumsy attempt to shield his players from blame. He has tried this before, after City lost at Everton back in January. He didn’t mean it then and he certainly doesn’t mean it now.
What does concern him, and what has done since the closing of the summer trading window, is that he hasn’t been able to move his team forward sufficiently.
In Amsterdam, Mancini’s starting XI contained not a single new player. Injuries deprived him of Javier Garcia – who would have played – and Maicon and Jack Rodwell.
Two other summer arrivals, Scott Sinclair – who hasn’t played a minute since the Capital One Cup defeat to Aston Villa last month – and young defender Matija Nastasic – who was not 100 per cent fit – were on the substitutes’ bench.
Buying expensive players is not necessarily the answer, of course. Nevertheless, Mancini remains irritated that his club didn’t bring him the A-list players he asked for back in May.
Ahead of Saturday’s engagement at home to Swansea, Mancini knows he has some morale to repair.
James Milner’s decision to walk straight past his manager but rather deliberately shake hands with every single player on the bench in Amsterdam may have looked rather petulant but also served to reinforce what we already know, namely that there is no great love between Mancini and his squad.
Off the boil: Lescott and Kompany have failed to emulate their heroics of last season
This does not trouble him. Mancini – as those close to him will tell you – is not in Manchester to make friends. He only has about five really close allies in the world and a confidante once told me: ‘If you are not in his team he will hardly speak to you. You may as well be dead.’
In Wednesday’s post-match press conference, Mancini referred to his players as millionaires. It sounded deliberately disparaging but wasn’t.
Certainly, Mancini is losing faith in Joleon Lescott and knows his captain Vincent Kompany is not at last season’s level. He refuses to blame his new defensive coach Angelo Gregucci – who speaks hardly any English.
Dutch of class: Ajax celebrate their win over the Premier League champions
One thing he does know is that his team must improve at the back very quickly. City have kept just one clean sheet this season. This time last year that figure stood at five. On the back of this, City’s Champions League season is all but over already.
But as long as City keep winning in the Premier League, there will be no threat to Mancini’s position. In Europe there is always next season.
Read the Ian Ladyman’s feature in full in Friday's Daily Mail