It is never easy to get an answer out of Manuel Pellegrini. During his time at Manchester City, there has been more chance of blood gushing from a stone than the manager opening up on transfers, his future (or his past, for that matter), other managers, and often the performances of his own players. But even on the topics that he does want to discuss, there are so many caveats that it can be difficult to know where you stand.
Analysing Pellegrini’s reign in Manchester is hard enough. Analysing Pellegrini’s own take on his reign is no easier.
This is a team who scored 102 goals as they swept to the title in his first season in charge but now sit 15 points behind champions Leicester City. Then again, there is undisputable Champions League progress.
In football, of course, there are shades of grey, but few managers seem to linger in them as much as the amiable Chilean. So much so that it is hard to know exactly how happy he is with his time in England, despite what he has claimed in these last few weeks.
The central point from his final press conference at the Etihad Campus is that he is happy with his work. His era has been a successful one. He provided numbers to back up his stance, too: in the last three seasons City have scored the most goals (true), they’ve won the most points (true), they’ve conceded the second-fewest goals (false). He has won more trophies than any Premier League manager, too, but he bookended his argument with the assertion that “you can always do it better”.
It was also put to him that he has overseen an “obvious deterioration”, that the club has gone backwards. In his first season City won the title with 86 points; last season they were second with 79; and if they beat Swansea City on Saturday it will be 68, enough only for fourth place.
Pellegrini seemed to both agree and disagree.
“Maybe, maybe as you said the first year was the best one and after that we couldn’t do it exactly in the same way in the Premier League,” he said. “I gave you one of the reasons, that we continued further in the Champions League, plus a lot more things. After that you must make a summary of all the three seasons and you can do it, you in the media are fans of statistics, I think you must review how important was this team in the three years.”
He then provided a timely reminder that the way in which he answers questions sometimes says more than the message itself. As the next journalist took the mic, the City boss interjected to finish his analysis: “But I agree with you, of course the first season was the best one.”
“But in the Champions League this season was the best one.”
Has Pellegrini even made up his own mind? Judging by the mass walk-out ahead of his Etihad farewell last Sunday, the fans certainly have. He is the club’s most successful manager of the modern era but only 5000 match-goers stayed after the Arsenal game to wish him the best. They have grown weary of his reign.
Across the last three years he has won more trophies than any other Premier League manager, his team has scored the most goals and won the most points. But at the same time there has been a year-on-year decline. Season upon season his club have won fewer games and lost more, they have scored fewer goals and conceded more. They have been further and further from winning the title.
Numerically, he is on pace to win five trophies in five years, the challenge that he was set by City’s owners when he replaced Roberto Mancini in 2013. But it has been judged not good enough by the majority of fans and it is clearly not enough for his employers, either.
In reality, it is hard to see City getting close to the Premier League title had Pellegrini been given another two years. He has been unable to get the best out of his players on too many occasions, too often selecting a starting line-up that is asking for trouble. The Pep Guardiola announcement may have made it harder to focus his players’ minds but the issues that have kept City so far from the eventual champions were all too evident long before February. They have been evident for the best part of 18 months, in fact.
His squad has got away from him. It is true that players are aware that they will not be kept around under the new regime and that their heads have dropped but there are also players who should have been moved on last summer. There has been little joined-up thinking. Wilfried Bony was a Pellegrini request but he does not fit Pellegrini’s style. There is a backlog of young talents who could have come into the team this season and, at times, done no worse than Martin Demichelis or Aleksandar Kolarov. Kelechi Iheanacho has fared the best of the next generation but he too has been underused to the point of being mistrusted.