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Pellegrini would be right fit at City

Manuel Pellegrini (Photo credit should read Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images)
Manuel Pellegrini would be a perfect fit to take over at Manchester City.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The writing, as they say, was on the wall. Not to mention on Roberto Mancini's face, as the fiery Italian manager could scarcely muster any emotion during his final games along the sidelines as Manchester City manager. Other than bemusement at his bad fortune, or so it seemed.

And thus on Monday, a year to the day after City's miraculous last-shot-in-the-last-second capture of their first Premier League title in 44 years, and less than a year since signing a new five year, $53 million contract, Mancini was fired by City.

All managerial firings can be second-guessed, but few will question this one, as it stands firmly up to logic. Where City had zipped impressively through the 2011-12 season, this one was a slog — fanciful soccer become suddenly fraught — wherein they never looked likely to prolong their title once the business end of the season dawned. Paired with a second consecutive disastrously premature exit in the UEFA Champions League group stage and  Saturday's loss in the FA Cup final to lowly Wigan Athletic, it was clear that City's men and their manager had no future together. One or the other would have to go, and the players had been far too expensively assembled to be off-loaded en masse.

The king is dead, long live the king. That's how it works in football. Just as David Moyes awaits his coronation across town to take over from the retiring Sir Alex Ferguson as Manchester United manager, so too does City appear to have its heir lined up. Manuel Pellegrini, Malaga's Chilean manager, is said to have been all but appointed to succeed Mancini.

And as the managerial carousel whirls on, it's that time to assess the successor and forget the predecessor. But it's exactly within the context of the predecessor that the purported choice of successor makes so much sense.

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Mancini had little skill for man management. Dating back to his days with Inter Milan, he's had too many conflicts with players to count — both reported and not. A memoir by one of his players at Inter — Dutch winger Andy van der Meyde — makes mention of a handful of occasions on which players physically confronted Mancini after straining under his soulless treatment of them as if they were merely pieces on a chess board. At City, there was a much-photographed altercation with Mario Balotelli, the incorrigible enfant terrible, and Carlos Tevez's famous refusal to warm up for a very late substitution and subsequent banning from the club (and later, a reconciliation).

Pellegrini forged the world's most expensive ever outfit at Real Madrid into a cohesive collective — something his successor Jose Mourinho, a noted man manager, couldn't even pull off — and had smaller clubs like Villareal and Malaga punching well above their weight on the strength of their unity. When Malaga players hadn't been paid in months earlier this season, he kept the peace, and kept winning. That's partly because the Chilean has the gift for communication, which Mancini so obviously lacks. But it's also because he considers character an important component in the recruitment equation, whereas Mancini simply pursued the best players available to him, to ultimately disastrous effect.

What sets Pellegrini apart is his tactical acumen, another weakness of Mancini's. The latter has failed in Europe throughout his managerial career in spite of overseeing spectacularly expensive sides, because continentally, games aren't won by sheer talent but by commanding the space. Pellegrini, on the other hand, brought unfancied Champions League debutants Villareal to within a missed penalty of the final and might well have made the semifinals with Malaga this year but for a blown offside call.

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Pellegrini will adopt the Spanish style Manchester City sporting director Txiki Begiristain — who previously held the same role at Barcelona from 2003 through 2010 — has coveted since his appointment last October. He'll create overload situations in the center of the field that will benefit some of his most gifted players — strikers Tevez and Sergio Aguero and playmaker David Silva, who were weaned on that style.

And if the presumed new manager has, as his critics quickly point out, never won anything in Europe, his club record points-tally with Real Madrid of 96 during the 2008-09 season would have won them the league in any other season ever played. It's just that his one-year tenure in the Spanish capital — he was sacked when Mourinho, who in turn succeeded Mancini at Inter, became available — coincided with the very apex of Barca's dynasty. And Pellegrini's immense work for modest clubs surely exceeds the winning of silverware with mega clubs in degree of difficulty.

Stylistically, Pellegrini is much more befitting of the élan the new City hopes to exude. His English is perfect. And he is elegant and honest where Mancini could come across brash and two-faced as he gasped for air in the suffocating pressure cooker of the English media landscape. Through Pellegrini's well-elocuted affinity for a "project" he should much more readily fit City and the "holistic" ways it proclaimed to seek in the announcement of Mancini's dismissal. Pellegrini is gifted at implementing a house style and fostering a culture, the very elements so conspicuously missing from City under Mancini's, whose formations and mindsets meandered as sharply as his lineups. Pellegrini will bring up young players from the academy, rather than throw money at every positional problem by bringing in yet more players.

These are all stated objectives of City's that Mancini never heeded. Or grasped. Either way, if the heir apparent is indeed the new king, he should make for a good one.

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