Thursday, April 5, 2012

What Mancini can learn from Sir Alex

Early in the season, Roberto Mancini looked ideally equipped for the challenge: unflustered, superior, endlessly cool in his natty woollen scarf.

During the game against Sunderland last weekend, however, he appeared anything but the master of his emotions.

He refused to join in the celebration of a spirited comeback, sitting alone in his managerial recliner, shaking his head. He was all too visibly frustrated, distant, unhappy.

Then, in his post-match press conference, he said that if Manchester United were to win this Sunday after picking up three points at Blackburn, the Premier League title was theirs. Which, given that there are still seven games to play, including a home derby, seemed the most premature surrender.

Coming on top of revelations that he did not trust some of his players, or the club medical staff, it did not present the image of unity required as the season enters its business end.

The fact is, this is the point of the playing cycle where the manager becomes the most critical employee at a championship-chasing club.

At Old Trafford, much is made of the continuity of success in the dressing room, of the long-serving, medal-accumulating players passing on winning habits to new recruits. But the manager’s conduct is easily as important.

Sir Alex Ferguson has undoubtedly had to learn how to be a title-winning boss. In his early days in Manchester he was publicly nervy, acting all too visibly as a lightning rod for collective tension.

These days he conditions his every statement, his every bit of body language, to the need to exude total confidence. We in the media may wilfully overplay the role of managerial mind games, but nobody has won the title by appearing to give up.

The most significant thing Ferguson has understood in his years of title-winning, however, is how to husband his resources. When City were bulldozing all before them in their autumnal pomp, it was Silva and Yaya Toure who provided the spark. They looked unstoppable.

Mancini was clearly aware of their importance and played them in every game. With the result both now look spent. And no wonder.

Silva has made 12 more Premier League starts than Valencia, who, on Monday, as Paul Scholes passed the ball out to him time after time, zipped with energy as he provided almost all of United’s attacking threat.

While Ferguson has rested Wayne Rooney and relied in his stead on Nani or Young, Mancini has seemed reluctant to turn similarly to Samir Nasri or Adam Johnson.

Maybe if he had earlier in the season, now things really matter he would not have Silva both exhausted and clearly slowed by nagging injury.

This has been the real genius of Ferguson over the years: if football awards were given to the players who have most influence on final stages of a title race, one of his would win every season.
Instead, with the voting necessarily closed well before trophies have been accounted for, those who sparkle in midwinter pick up the gongs.

Who would have thought, in January, that Valencia might be the most critical player in the championship run-in and not Silva? Probably only Ferguson.

Mancini has won titles before, in Italy. He knows the course, he knows how to run a marathon.

The difference this time is largely in the nature of his adversary. He cannot have been up against one as astute, one who makes as few mistakes, as the rival he now faces across town.

And whatever happens in a title race which still has the potential to go to the wire, he will have now seen how it should be done.

A perceptive, inquiring mind, looking back in the future, Mancini will understand from this experience what, both in his use of his squad and his personal approach, is required to win. He will be the better manager for it.

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