Wheels come off for Pellegrini after City’s Guardiola obsession
Demichelis nightmare is a symptom of plans that ruined a season in which the title was there to win
Manchester City are a club that like to pride themselves on their forward thinking. This, after all, is the organisation that worked tirelessly across three years to secure the services of the finest manager in the game.
But if they are that together, that sorted, that pro-active, how come they went into such an important fixture with Martín Demichelis in the starting line-up? How come, with the opportunity to end their local rivals’ hopes of securing a place in the top four, they played with a centre-back apparently wearing concrete boots?
It would be wrong entirely to blame the Argentine for City’s vertiginous decline since early February, a slip that has seen them collect but four of the last available 18 Premier League points, a tumble that puts Pep Guardiola’s hopes of being involved in the Champions League next season in jeopardy.
After all. this was Demichelis’s first start in seven games. But rarely can City fans have witnessed an individual performance as woeful. And with every leadenfooted stutter, he demonstrated how City’s backroom bureaucrats have failed to provide adequate cover for when the titan Vincent Kompany is injured.
Demichelis suffered as close to an hour of hell as can have been witnessed at the Etihad Stadium. Everything he did turned to defeat. It did not assist his well-being that he was facing a player in Marcus Rashford, whose pace would terrify a fully fit cheetah. The young Mancunian will be returning regularly to haunt the Demichelis sleep patterns, the image of him scooting past as if confronted by a traffic cone to score the game’s only goal etched deep in the defender’s psyche.
And the stand-in centre-back’s next involvement was to bring down the youngster with a woeful penalty box intervention. He then shamefully attempted to claim the striker had dived.
Things did not improve in the second half. He put his own goalkeeper’s health at risk with a hapless pass back. Joe Hart was stretchered off after injuring his calf in the desperate scramble to clear as Anthony Martial bore down on his misdirected ball.
When he was finally substituted, the applause was driven by relief that the mercy killing had finally arrived. And yet this was Manchester United that City were up against, a bunch out-witted by, among others, Sunderland, Norwich, and West Brom. Demichelis’s embarrassment cannot alone be blamed for the way in which this team is slipping into ignominy.
Well as United’s young front three played in the first half, as dogged as Chris Smalling was at the back, as tireless a shift as Juan Mata contributed, the truth is Louis van Gaal’s men should be no match for a side containing Sergio Agüero, David Silva and Yaya Touré. Something is wrong at the heart of the City enterprise. And it is not hard to see what.
The nosedive in form that has been detonated since the announcement that Guardiola will arrive next season cannot be a coincidence. Manuel Pellegrini, the dead manager walking, is now presiding over a shambolic slump. This is a man no longer able to affect anything happening on the pitch. For that, the City hierarchy must take some responsibility. The self-congratulatory forward planning has inadvertently turned a season in which the title was there to be won into something that everyone involved appears to wish was already over.
The selection of Demichelis was but a symptom of that.
On the other side of Manchester, too, this is a result that fits the pattern of the season. Every time it appears things cannot go on, that Van Gaal must be on the brink of dismissal, a result is achieved that keeps him in employment for a little longer. Needing to win to maintain even the fondest of hope of qualifying for the Champions League, his players did just that. This was a cleverly organised win, in which City’s porous heart was ruthlessly targeted.
From his east London redoubt, West Ham’s Slaven Bilic will have watched this game and thought he has a better chance than ever of ensuring that next season neither Manchester club will be competing in the Champions League.