A consideration of Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City reign by the man who transcribed him best
It was a quiet Monday at the Etihad Campus. Manchester City’s cavernous press-conference room was sparsely populated. It was transfer deadline day and some of the regulars were standing in a field outside Carrington in case Manchester United panicked and bought in the dying hours of the window. Others were simply absent. One had gone to Stoke, deeming Mark Hughes of greater interest.
Perhaps Manuel Pellegrini had simply bored everyone into submission. Certainly it was a rare press conference when no one asked about his position or Pep Guardiola. With a few minutes remaining, a senior figure at the Etihad Stadium emailed Martin Blackburn, the Sun’s City correspondent, and suggested he asked Pellegrini about his future. Blackburn’s phone was in his pocket. He was sitting in the front row, in Pellegrini’s eye line, and did not want to check his inbox ostentatiously. He did not get the message in time. Instead, he asked the Chilean about the importance of getting back-to-back league wins, something City had not managed for three months.
Pellegrini duly answered, in unmemorable fashion. Then, unusually, he decided to add something: “Before we finish, I tell you that I talked with the club and I will finish my contract on the original date, in June," he said. "We could extend the contract by one year more, but we have a clause that one of us - me - can not extend that contract. So I finish here on the original date, the 30th of June.”
After two and a half years of speculation, Pellegrini had achieved something that has eluded most of his peers. He announced the timing of his own departure, apparently on his own terms. It was quite a coup for the quiet man.
Or so it seemed. A few minutes later, City’s press officers were handing out a prepared statement announcing that Guardiola would take over as Pellegrini’s replacement. In the process, they rebutted Pellegrini’s suggestion the decision was his by referring to talks with the Catalan. They stated that “these negotiations were a re-commencement of discussions that were curtailed in 2012” which underlined that Pellegrini was only ever their second choice.
City had attracted the world’s most coveted manager, one they were convinced that Chelsea and Manchester United had attempted to hire. It was far and away the most dramatic signing of deadline day. In an instant, Pellegrini was relegated to a subplot.
He was no Pep Guardiola.
Go back to July 2013. There was a heatwave. Temperatures in Manchester reached 30 degrees. Journalists were sweating in a crowded hut on the edge of City’s old Carrington training complex as Pellegrini was unveiled. Often a new manager is paraded at the stadium, as Roberto Mancini was, or in a larger room at the training ground. Not this time. It was a deliberately low-key affair, as though City did not want much attention.
Mancini had ended his reign as a loose cannon. In his final interview, after the FA Cup final defeat to Wigan Athletic, he had launched an attack on the club’s press officers and the director of communications, Vicky Kloss, for refusing to deny stories that Pellegrini, then Malaga’s manager, was being lined up as his successor. His final few months had been marked by outbursts. Some were directed at his players, some at the club for the failure to sign his preferred transfer targets the previous summer. Pellegrini announced himself with an extended exercise in saying nothing very interesting.
He was no Roberto Mancini.
At the end of it, the football correspondent of one national newspaper turned to his counterpart at another and suggested they wouldn’t be bothering to attend too many of Pellegrini’s pre-match press conferences. This was the first summer in the history of English football when the top three finishers in the previous season had all changed manager. Manchester United had appointed David Moyes, offering the intriguing prospect of seeing if anyone could follow Sir Alex Ferguson. Chelsea had reappointed José Mourinho, who was box office. City had plumped for Pellegrini.
He was no José Mourinho.
Pellegrini refused to create an image for himself and, in the process, became a man with little identity. He talked of an attacking style of play and defended his managerial record after concluding a nine-year spell in Spain without winning a major trophy but, asked what sort of manager he was, replied, “I don’t want to describe myself.”
In a country in which the notion of managerial masterminds is entrenched and in which big personalities are deemed required to manage major clubs, Pellegrini shied away from the billing. He was reluctant to reveal much about himself.
In reality, he took over at a difficult time. His father had died a few months earlier, days before Malaga’s controversial Champions League exit to an injury-time offside Borussia Dortmund goal. His mother passed away during City’s pre-season tour, necessitating a return to his native Chile.
Even the briefest of times with his new charges impressed some. Mancini’s belief that conflict was beneficial had alienated some. Edin Džeko, Samir Nasri and Aleksandar Kolarov, three of those who had underperformed in the Italian’s final year in charge, were among the first to find the more conciliatory Pellegrini more to their taste. Not everyone was won over. Gareth Barry was bluntly told he was not in his plans and moved to Everton, where he excelled on loan. The English contingent found their opportunities limited. One took to learning Spanish in a bid to understand what Pellegrini and some of the other players were saying.
City revamped their squad, at a cost of £93 million, reshaping it to suit the newcomer. Two of the additions, Fernandinho and Stevan Jovetić, were players Mancini had admired. The other three, Jesús Navas, Alvaro Negredo and Martin Demichelis, all came from La Liga. Demichelis, who had played for Pellegrini at both River Plate and Malaga, was particularly well known to him. The only confusion came from the fact that he had joined Atlético Madrid on a free transfer, seemingly with no competition from City, a couple of months before the English club paid £4.5 million for him.
City made a decidedly mixed start. They excelled at home and struggled away. Showing a stubbornness which was concealed by the bland demeanour, Pellegrini refused to admit publicly that he had erred in his tactics and team selection until the title was won. “When we finished playing our sixth game away, we had one [actually four] point from eighteen and I told the players we had to make a change,” he eventually admitted. He made a change in goal. Joe Hart was dropped after a series of mistakes. When the goalkeeper returned to the team, after seven league games on the sidelines, Pellegrini declared the rest had been the key to his subsequent revival. Hart disagreed.
Whichever, City allied exceptional home form with a fine record on the road. After November’s defeat at Sunderland, they won 18 of 20 games. They scored 69 goals in those 20 games. The more they scored, the less Pellegrini said. One facetious theory was that the duller he became, the more exciting his team were. Yaya Touré was on his way to becoming only the second central midfielder to score 20 goals in a Premier League season. Nasri and David Silva were exceptional. Negredo had 23 goals by the end of January. Džeko was in form. Sergio Agüero was electric. They demolished elite opponents at the Etihad Stadium. They were four goals ahead after 50 minutes against Manchester United. They scored six against West Ham, in a League Cup semi-final, Arsenal and Tottenham. Indeed, they were a goal to the good after 14 seconds at home against Spurs. When they then won 5-1 at White Hart Lane, it led Tim Sherwood to call City “the best team on the planet”.
They weren’t. Like much else Sherwood said, it proved hyperbolic. Agüero went off injured at Tottenham after scoring his 25th goal in 23 games. Without him, City lost their next game, 1-0 at home to Chelsea. It was a tactical masterclass.
Pellegrini was no Mourinho.
The Portuguese, trying to project an image of Chelsea as underdogs, argued his side were barely title contenders. “The title race is between two horses and a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump," he said. "Maybe next season we can race." Mourinho was not merely making headlines. He was irritating Pellegrini. Their rivalry dated back to their time in Spain, when Mourinho mocked his predecessor at the Bernabéu for taking his next post. “If they get rid of me, I won’t be going to coach Malaga,” he said, in what proved a correct prediction.
If Pellegrini acquired a reputation as the managerial iceman, it was incorrect. Mourinho had a tendency to get him hot under the collar. The Chilean usually tried not to respond. He had a stock answer that he did not talk about other managers. Yet when the Chelsea manager suggested City were benefiting from favourable refereeing decisions, he tried to respond. “There's a famous sentence – ‘lie, lie but some things remain,’” he said. But he lacked Mourinho’s eloquence, his ability to shape a memorable phrase or craft a headline. He seemed to lose the argument and while City beat Chelsea in the FA Cup, provided the first sense Pellegrini was not quite an elite manager.
That impression was underlined soon after. Pellegrini had steered City into the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time. He was no Mancini, whose two campaigns were first underwhelming and then abject.
Yet their European venture became noted for Pellegrini’s words as much as his team’s deeds. City’s final group game was in the Allianz Arena. They beat Guardiola’s weakened Bayern Munich team 3-2. He substituted Agüero in the closing minutes without realising that a 4-2 victory would have meant his side topped the group, something that was still lost on him as he conducted post-match interviews. “I recognise absolutely my mistake,” Pellegrini accepted subsequently, even if he had a point when he said, “I didn't continue thinking about what happened if we scored four goals because not many teams score four goals against Bayern Munich.”
Mathematical mix-ups were not unknown from a manager with an imprecise grasp of the figures. This one proved crucial. City’s reward for second place was a tie with Barcelona, the team Guardiola built. They held out for 53 minutes. Then Demichelis, perceived as benefiting from favouritism after keeping his place following a series of errors, fouled Lionel Messi, conceding a penalty and incurring a red card. They lost 2-0.
Pellegrini, proving he is more emotional than he prefers to pretend, was furious – with the referee Jonas Eriksson, not Demichelis. “The referee was not impartial to both teams,” he said. “He did not have any control of the game. He decided for Barcelona from the beginning to the end. I think it was not a good idea to put a referee from Sweden in such an important match.”
A few days later, he made a remarkable apology to, among others, the people of Sweden. It was not enough to spare him a two-game touchline ban from Uefa; his comments after Malaga’s defeat the previous year hardly helped his cause. City duly lost at the Nou Camp as well. Guardiola’s old team were better than Pellegrini’s new one. With an FA Cup defeat to Wigan, they exited two competitions in four days. At least they had one trophy – Pellegrini’s first of note since River Plate’s 2002-03 Primera Division – after beating Sunderland in the Capital One Cup final.
But the Premier League title bid was going awry. Liverpool embarked on a run of 11 successive wins. Their 3-2 victory over City put them seven points ahead of Pellegrini’s team. A semi-fit Vincent Kompany erred for all three goals. Touré limped off. Agüero was only fit enough to be a substitute. Negredo, who had not scored since January, remained on the bench. Pellegrini’s ally Navas was ineffective and James Milner, who should have started, exerted more of an impact from the bench.
Salvation came from an unlikely source: Mourinho. Liverpool’s destiny was in their own hands until the Portuguese took a below-strength team to Anfield, replicated his tactical triumph at the Etihad Stadium and won 2-0.
City were resurgent. Nasri, who scored a series of important goals, delivered a vital late equaliser against Sunderland. They then reeled off five successive victories to become champions. Mourinho’s Chelsea were third. City had two trophies and 156 goals in the season, a record for any English club. They had won, and in the style Pellegrini promised.
Pellegrini’s players gave him the bumps on the pitch after the final-day win against West Ham. Supporters who, at the FA Cup final 12 months earlier, had chorused “you can shove your Pellegrini up your arse” were now singing a more flattering, and slightly surreal, song: “Sheikh Mansour went to Spain in a Lamborghini, brought us back a manager, Manuel Pellegrini.” There was a banner in the stands, with an image of Pellegrini and borrowing the title of a song by the Mancunian band The Smiths that pronounced him “This Charming Man”.
And yet it didn’t really catch on. Mancini, the charismatic, quotable, good-looking Italian who had staged touchline rows with other managers and transformed City from pretenders to contenders, was the real cult hero. Pellegrini, the diplomat who tried to keep his personality hidden and even shrugged off Alan Pardew’s insults when the Newcastle manager, as he was, called him a “fucking old cunt”, had revealed too little of himself for many to identify with him.
Not that there weren’t attempts to get to know him better. Pellegrini admitted he had made a conscious effort to be calmer in management than he was in his playing days. It prompted a question if he had been something of a mad dog in his playing days and, to his inquisitor’s delight, Pellegrini’s answer incorporated the same phrase. Sadly, there is scant YouTube footage of Mad Dog Pellegrini scything down opponents or kicking, fighting and head-butting his way through the Chilean league in the 1980s, but it made for a headline and an entertaining image anyway. More recent pictures of him were less spectacular. The Daily Mail’s website, illustrating celebrity culture at its worst, developed a fondness for publishing photographs of famous people doing everyday things. They found proof of Pellegrini taking some money out, prompting predictable clichéd lines about a big-spending club. They amounted to pictures of a man with a reputation for being boring looking bored while he did something boring. There was a sequel when Pellegrini visited the cashpoint again. Unlike The Godfather, however, there was no trilogy. Their interest in Pellegrini was presumably abandoned.
Pellegrini’s persona counted against him. Recognition was elusive. It irritated him that Brendan Rodgers scooped the individual honours for transforming Liverpool – temporarily, it proved – into potential champions. “Maybe if you win two trophies you can be the manager of the year but not always,” he pointed out ten months later and in a pointed reply to a rather different question. A garrulous self-publicist had trumpeted his own triumphs. A more understated figure had not embarked on a similar PR campaign.
He had too few cheerleaders. Perhaps, to the outside world anyway, he created too little cheer. When City launched their women’s team, Patrick Vieira, the eloquent manager of the Under-21 team, was roped in to give a speech in which he talked persuasively of the importance of having one. Pellegrini posed awkwardly for a few photos but was not asked to discuss the wider aims of the City Football Group. While he seemed a dignified elder statesman to many, there were times he could be obstinate and needlessly unhelpful, refusing to answer questions that were not designed to trip him up and when more positive answers could scarcely have harmed the club.
He was annoyed by any repeated line of questioning, the more determined to say absolutely nothing of note when previewing the bigger games and he refuted any transfer talk with a curt reply of: “I don’t talk about rumours.” Otherwise, however, he was generally just a man fulfilling his obligations. He lacked Mancini’s charisma or his penchant for controversy. He did not develop his counterparts’ alliances. Many managers say they don’t read the papers. Pellegrini probably didn’t. Nor did he appear to know the names of any of the journalists he encountered on a weekly basis.
Pellegrini opened up a little more with Sunday newspapers, probably because those briefings were not filmed but a fondness for stock answers hardly helped. One was “I am not a doctor,” which meant inquiries about the fitness of City’s players went unanswered until Pellegrini was eventually persuaded to give team news. Thereafter, he did that dutifully, if occasionally forgetfully, sometimes interrupting a subsequent answer when he remembered that a pivotal player such as Touré was also sidelined. Sometimes he simply seemed out of the loop. Asked about the young winger Marcos Lopes in August 2015, he said: “I am sure in the future he will be part of our club. It is better for him to go out on loan.” Half an hour later, the club website confirmed Lopes had been sold to Monaco. Incidents of such harmless haplessness hardly suggested an all-seeing, all-knowing manager in the manner of his dictatorial predecessor Mancini or his sharp rival Mourinho. Rather, things seemed to happen around Pellegrini and to him. Successes attributed to his super-talented players, setbacks to a manager with a tendency towards vagueness that made it harder to brand him a mastermind.
Reverses occurred more often after what was, by most standards, a stunning debut year. The first came within a week of Pellegrini’s Premier League title. Uefa announced City had failed their Financial Fair Play tests. Mourinho, ever the provocateur, once suggested City should be docked points. Instead, they were hit with a £49 million fine and limited to a £49 million net spend in the 2014-15 financial year. It became a regular complaint of Pellegrini’s, with his arguments ranging from the valid grievance that the game’s governing bodies did not punish clubs in debt, to a regular insistence it was unfair. The greater issue was how City spent their reduced budget, even if it was less restricting than initially imagined: they were permitted to buy Wilfried Bony in the January transfer window using funds they would receive from Negredo’s transfer to Sevilla, which was arranged but would not be officially completed until the summer of 2015.
City’s obfuscation about their spending led to suggestions of financial chicanery. Eliaquim Mangala was initially thought to be a £30 million signing until documents from Portugal proved he cost £42 million, rendering him the costliest defender in the history of British football. His arrival was delayed and confused – the Frenchman went on holiday after taking his medical – and inadvertently announced by Pellegrini on the Wembley pitch before the Community Shield. It set the tone for an uneasy spell. Mangala was recruited by the director of football Txiki Begiristain. Pellegrini preferred to pick Demichelis.
The Argentinian was City’s best centre-back in the 2014-15 season, their worst in the 2015-16 campaign. Pellegrini’s cronies did not always endorse his judgment. Another of his old allies, Willy Caballero, arrived in 2014 from Malaga. He debuted in the Community Shield, conceded three goals to Arsenal and rather than becoming a bona fide challenger to Hart, immediately looked a liability. His appearances thereafter smacked of favouritism until Caballero helped secure the 2016 Capital One Cup.
But his previous Wembley outing, in defeat to Arsenal, set the tone for a mixed start to the season. By early November, City were eight points behind Chelsea. On New Year’s Day, they drew level. Thereafter, they regressed again and a 4-2 derby defeat to United in April left them 12 points adrift. This time, there was no comeback. Mourinho’s “little horse”, which Pellegrini understandably regarded as a moneyed challenger, won the league by eight points.
Like Mancini, Pellegrini failed to retain the title. Like him he found his second Champions League campaign tougher than his first. The Italian only took three points from six games in his second campaign in the competition. Pellegrini had two from four when City lost 2-1 at home to CSKA Moscow’s notoriously poor travellers. Fernandinho, who was suffering an extended hangover from Brazil’s 7-1 World Cup defeat to Germany, and Touré were both sent off. City’s image as the great European underachievers seemed cemented, especially when they trailed Bayern Munich’s 10 men 2-1 with six minutes remaining. But unlike Mancini, he plucked progress from the jaws of ignominy. Agüero intervened, completing a brilliant hat-trick to secure victory over Bayern. Minus the injured Argentinian and the banned Touré, City played with great tactical nous to win at Roma and clinch an unlikely qualification.
It seemed a template for European excellence. Pellegrini promptly ripped it up. City had the misfortune to draw Barcelona for a second successive season. Pellegrini played 4-4-2, leaving the summer signing Fernando and Milner outnumbered in the centre of the pitch against most admired passers of their generation. For the third consecutive game against Barcelona, City had a defender sent off – Gaël Clichy this time – and lost.
They went to Liverpool five days later. Pellegrini played 4-4-2 again. City lost again. It reeked of a refusal to learn lessons. As he was outmanoeuvred by more enterprising tacticians, it rubberstamped the impression that, unlike Mourinho and Guardiola, he lacked the personality, adaptability and motivational qualities to win enough defining encounters.
That defeat came during a run of six defeats in eight games. Džeko, selected alongside Agüero against both Barcelona and Liverpool, scored at Anfield but frustrated nonetheless. It felt as though City sold him to Roma simply to stop Pellegrini picking him and playing 4-4-2. Systemic issues were compounded by Džeko’s decline. After his best season at City came his worst. He finished it with two goals in his last 23 games.
He was part of a wider pattern. Pellegrini had an initial impact on the Bosnian, his friend Kolarov and Nasri, the three moody Blues. Then each regressed in his second season. He made Touré vice-captain, afforded him the freedom to roam forward and saw him become more prolific. Yet no sooner had City won the title in 2014 than his outspoken agent Dimitri Seluk made the bizarre, and incorrect, allegation that the club had failed to mark his client’s birthday with a cake. It appeared another of the Russian’s odd outbursts but, as Touré voiced his unhappiness and flirted with Paris Saint-Germain, it led to a wider breakdown in the relationship between player and club. Pellegrini downplayed everything in public, looking to smooth the situation, but never conjured such form on a consistent basis from Touré again. The midfielder had been one of the few Mancini did not alienate, a player so laid back City thought nothing could rile him but for his final two years Pellegrini had to field questions about his attitude.
Touré had been recruited by Mancini, a fact the Italian was not slow to mention. So were Agüero and Silva. Hart became first-choice goalkeeper during his reign, Kompany captain. In March 2015, his predecessor took a pot-shot at Pellegrini, claiming some of the credit for his achievements. “I built the team that now is in second position, because I think that they play the same players and I’m very proud of this,” Mancini said. Pellegrini, being Pellegrini, did not respond in kind. He was no Mancini. Nor was he able to mount much of a retort. Even the signing of Fernandinho, the one signing to become essential to the spine of the side, was set up before Mancini’s sacking. Whereas Pellegrini refused to discuss transfer targets at other clubs, Mancini publicly courted many a City player for Inter. The only one he actually signed was Jovetić, a disenchanted figured after being omitted from City’s Champions League squad in February 2015.
And, while the Montenegrin was marginalised, March 2015 was a bleak time for Pellegrini. Defeat to Barcelona, thus falling short of the club’s target of reaching the Champions League quarter-finals, prompted talk of a clear-out and suggestions he would be sacked. Pellegrini battened down the hatches, cited his contract, which lasted until 2016, and the lack of suggestions from anyone at the club that his position was in peril in a series of scripted, forgettable answers. The only hint he was concerned came after the final game of the season. City had ruled themselves out of the reckoning for Carlo Ancelotti and Jürgen Klopp, who were leaving Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund respectively. Pellegrini’s team finished with six straight wins to secure second place. “See you next season, Manuel,” said the man from the Independent. “I hope,” replied Pellegrini on his way out. As it was, he outlasted the Independent, at least in its print incarnation.
So Pellegrini returned for a third season and was soon given a contract for a fourth. Typically, however, he was overshadowed. As he signed a two-year deal, José Mourinho put pen to paper on a four-year one. There was talk of the Portuguese building a dynasty, none of the Chilean doing so. The Chelsea manager topped the agenda. Pellegrini did not. He was no Mourinho.
It was, in part, why he was hired. It became more of an advantage as Mourinho’s Chelsea imploded. City accelerated their decline. Pellegrini secured his most emphatic win over his tormentor, 3-0 in August, with Mourinho calling it a “fake result”. It was part of an immaculate start from City – five wins, five clean sheets – that suggested they may dominate the division. “For a dead man walking, not bad,” said Pellegrini, in a rare soundbite.
That start was all the more impressive as it was achieved with comparatively little input from City’s latest signings. Freed from their Financial Fair Play punishment, they invested £158 million. Kevin De Bruyne, at £54.5 million, was the biggest of the buys. Nicolas Otamendi, at £31.5 million, had the stamp of Pellegrini, who was notably more effusive about the Argentinian than Mangala, calling him the best defender in La Liga. Raheem Sterling, a £49 million addition, and Fabian Delph, an £8 million squad player, were more club signings, required because there had been an exodus of the English during Pellegrini’s reign. City’s quota of 17 non-homegrown players was full. The locals had been exiled and alienated. One by one, they left: Barry, Joleon Lescott, Micah Richards and, most significantly, Milner.
Pellegrini had become an admirer of the Yorkshireman during his second season in charge, deploying him everywhere from left-back to striker, and describing him, in more expressive terms in an interview in Spanish, as “a phenomenon, a guy with big balls and a heart this big.” But the damage was done in his first season, when Milner only started 12 league games and when he first rejected a new contract. Pellegrini’s instinctive fondness for the increasingly unproductive Navas came at a cost. Milner decamped for Liverpool.
The English problem was compounded by an issue of age. City became one of the oldest teams in England under Pellegrini, their average age topping 30 at times. They had been mocked for saying they needed to become more “holistic” in their explanation for Mancini’s sacking. It was assumed that implied selecting their own products. Yet while they reached the Youth Cup final in 2015, that 11 were only granted 23 minutes of Premier League football the following season by Pellegrini. The one youngster he did favour was Kelechi Iheanacho: even then, and to the frustration of fans, he remained lodged behind the lumpen Bony in the pecking order until Pellegrini’s final few weeks. His thinking was linear with seniority prioritised. He was no Guardiola.
But nor was he a Mancini when it came to drilling a defence. Pellegrini stated in August 2015 that City needed to concede a maximum of 31 league goals to retain the title. Their defensive record had depreciated by the year on his watch and, after Kompany was immaculate in those five clean sheets, it did again. City had equalled the best start in their history, but they deteriorated. Demichelis, who had been granted a contract extension, reverted from reliable to disastrous. Mangala and Otamendi, the two most expensive centre-backs signed by English clubs, proved erratic. All four full-backs were in their fourth decade. City seemed an ageing team in need of new ideas whenever they encountered opponents who played at pace and with intensity. Klopp’s Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham beat them home and away.
Pellegrini, it seemed, was no Klopp or Pochettino. His team felt less than the sum of their parts. Only Agüero, Hart, De Bruyne, Bacary Sagna and a revived Fernandinho truly excelled in his last season, their efforts augmented by Iheanacho and Kompany, bit-part players for different reasons. Pellegrini’s particular favourites were especially disappointing. Cabellero was hapless in a 4-1 defeat at Tottenham. City conceded eight goals in Demichelis’s first two starts of the season. Bony did not score a goal after Boxing Day. Navas went 28 months without a league goal, producing identikit performance of running quickly in straight lines and crossing to opponents. He still made the most appearances for a second successive season. Pellegrini appeared obstinate in his thinking. By the time he went, City felt in a state of disrepair, in need of a rebuild and reinvigoration.
Characteristically, however, he mounted a four-pronged attempt at glory; being in four different competitions for longer than anyone else was one of Pellegrini’s regular refrains, even if the significance was dubious. For the third successive year, hopes of a quadruple unravelled at a similar stage. With the club’s approval, and with other competitions assuming more importance, Pellegrini fielded a much-weakened team, featuring six of the teenagers he usually overlooked, in the FA Cup at a post-Mourinho Chelsea. City lost 5-1. “It is not a real game,” complained Pellegrini, blaming the scheduling.
Seven days later, he was partially vindicated with silverware. In the process, he showed he was no Mancini. The Italian had changed his cup keeper at Wembley in 2013, parachuting Hart in for a disgruntled Costel Pantilimon. Many thought Pellegrini should do likewise. Instead, after he said he would rather keep his word and lose the trophy, Caballero secured it. The Argentine saved penalties from Liverpool’s Lucas Leiva, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana to win City the 2016 Capital One Cup final. It was to prove Pellegrini’s last piece of silverware. The chief executive Ferran Soriano had talked before his appointment of winning five trophies in five years. Pellegrini delivered three in three.
If that met his employers’ demands, he exceeded expectations in one respect: Europe. City’s progression was not without alarms, partly because of further instances of Pellegrini’s absent-mindedness. He forgot his passport and nearly missed the flight to Mönchengladbach. Once there, however, City won. They excelled away to Sevilla with a formula, featuring three central midfielders, he had belatedly adopted. For the first time, they topped a group and avoided Barcelona in the last 16.
Dynamo Kyiv were beaten there, Paris Saint-Germain in the quarter-finals. Apart from Hart, who saved a penalty, and Agüero, who missed one, Pellegrini had finally found a spine to a side that was not Mancini’s. In the second leg against the French champions, and minus the perennially injured Silva, Pellegrini lined up with the unusually defiant Mangala and Otamendi in the centre of defence, the industrious Fernando and Fernandinho in midfield and the inspirational De Bruyne as the No. 10.
The semi-final pitted Pellegrini against Real Madrid, the club that had sacked him after he procured a then club record 96 points in 2010 to bring in Mourinho. Irritation still lingered, diplomacy prevented him from airing grievances in public. He had made one aside when Rafa Benítez, with whom he had sympathy, was abruptly dismissed in January. “At least I finished the year,” he remarked.
So Pellegrini was confronted by the managerial rookie Zinedine Zidane instead. The Frenchman was an iconic figure, the Chilean an inconspicuous one. The Manchester Evening News tried to make the home leg a celebration of the City manager by giving out Pellegrini masks. They looked more like the Cheers actor Ted Danson.
Previously cavalier, City played with their newly embraced caution in Europe. They were too cautious, drawing 0-0. They lost 1-0 in Madrid, recording only two shots on target over the 180 minutes. They felt a little intimidated, as though Pellegrini’s passiveness had transmitted itself to his players. He could not join Mourinho and Guardiola in the band of Champions League winners.
He did last 24 hours longer than Guardiola, whose Bayern team had been eliminated the previous day. It at least spared them an awkward meeting. After the quarter-final win over PSG, Pellegrini had been asked if facing Bayern would be interesting. “Interesting for whom?” he replied.
But the days were being counted down. City had announced Guardiola’s appointment on February 1. The thought was that it might galvanise their players, just as Bayern had gone on to win a treble under Jupp Heynckes after Guardiola’s move to Munich had been formalised. It didn’t. City seemed motivated neither by Pellegrini nor the thought of Guardiola. They dropped more points than they won after the 62 year old’s exit was ratified. After his final game, he blamed the timing of the announcement, yet his complaints were nothing like as explosive as his predecessor’s reckless rhetoric when he knew he was on his way out. He was no Mancini.
But it reflected on Pellegrini’s reluctance to accept responsibility. After March’s derby defeat, he was confronted with statistical evidence of City’s year-on-year decline, in points procured and goals scored, during his three league seasons. His replies were snippy, more this charmless man than this charming man.
As time progressed, it became clear he objected to being overshadowed while he was still in situ. “If you read the media it’s ‘Guardiola will not play the next Champions League’. It’s not ‘Manchester City will not play,’” he said. They were already ‘Guardiola’s Manchester City’ in a way they had never been ‘Pellegrini’s Manchester City’.
The danger, though, was that he bequeathed his glamorous replacement a club in the lesser continental competition. A draw with Arsenal in his penultimate game took City’s destiny out of their hands. Manchester United’s subsequent defeat at West Ham ended City’s reliance on others. Pellegrini required a draw in his last game at City. Like a company man fulfilling his obligations to the last, he got one, in rather undistinguished fashion. His reign ended in neither the meltdown Mourinho had at Chelsea nor the glory of Guardiola’s goodbye to Bayern, neither black nor white, but the greyness in between.
The Chilean’s Etihad Stadium farewell had come the previous week. Pellegrini attempted a rare joke in his programme notes, citing the fans’ song for him by saying he arrived “not in a Lamborghini!”, and gave a speech on the pitch but perhaps only 10,000 fans were still there to see it. It highlighted a feeling that many were pleased to see an era ending. There was none of the popular revolt in support of the crowd’s beloved Mancini. Instead, the lap of honour was quickly dubbed a ‘lapathy’.
Seven days later, with fourth place guaranteed, the more vocal away supporters had saluted Pellegrini. Players had thrown their shirts into the stands. Egged on by Touré, Pellegrini did likewise with his jacket, albeit after showing the presence of mind to remove his wallet. Even at the last, emotion was kept in check.
He left with a glowing tribute from chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak. “He has played a style of attacking, entertaining football, that we can all be proud of," he wrote. “He is rightly held in the highest regard by all those who have collaborated with him. His engaging approach, integrity and humility have impacted our organisation for the better and he leaves our club much stronger than he found it.”
Pellegrini departed with a Lowry painting, too, a gift from the owner Sheikh Mansour to a connoisseur of art. It was part of a hinterland he kept obscured. He had visited Caernafon Castle and Cobh and York in international breaks, but an antidote to extroverts elsewhere preferred to camouflage his personality. He rarely defined himself or his legacy. When asked how he wanted to be remembered at City, he replied drily: “I am not dying.”
Mancini or Mourinho might have produced a wittier or more egotistical response. Guardiola tends to be feted in such a way that his reigns are celebrated and commemorated. But then, from first to last, after three years, three trophies, 373 goals, 100 wins and 145 appearances from Navas, Pellegrini was defined, as much as anything else, by not being his predecessor, his nemesis or his successor.