Out Of Fashion: Pellegrini, Martinez and Rodgers

The phrase ‘second season syndrome’ is a cliché that is all too easy to resort to, but this Premier League season has had a knack of punishing those teams and managers who were extremely fashionable 12 months ago. Manuel Pellegrini, Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers were strong contenders for the LMA manger of the year award, eventually won by Tony Pulls for the escapology he performed at Crystal Palace. But all have struggled, in relative terms, this season. Were we too quick to praise them last year, are we too quick to condemn them this year, or somewhere between those two stalls? One thing is for sure, the three examples have shown how difficult it is to find consistency over the long term.

Manchester City fans and Manuel Pellegrini will by no means be dismayed at their current position. They sit five points behind leaders Chelsea, are in the last 16 of the Champions League and are still in the FA Cup. They still have the capability to make this a successful season. However, make no mistake, if they don’t retain their title or get to the latter stages of the Champions League, this year will be viewed as a regression.

Pellegrini arrived in England in the summer of 2013 and faced a fair amount of scepticism; the fact he hadn’t won a major European trophy was used as evidence against him. Winning the title and the League Cup in his first season was a superb achievement, though it was widely acknowledged that they had the strongest squad and the best spine in the division; Kompany, Toure, Silva and Aguero. Nevertheless it will go down as a historic season.

This season however, they are facing an improved Chelsea side following the additions of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas. Moreover, perhaps due to Financial Fair Play, City were slightly more reticent in the transfer market. They improved their squad but not necessarily their first XI with the acquisitions of Mangala, Lampard, Fernando, Sagna and reserve keeper Willy Caballero. Lampard has been a useful option from the bench. Mangala has been inconsistent, but is young enough and has the physical attributes to be given more time. Everybody assumed that because of his size, Fernando would be a top class defensive midfielder in the mould of Nigel De Jong, but for my money he hasn’t shown enough positional intelligence to make City more solid.

Were we too quick to praise them last year, too quick to condemn them this year, or somewhere between those two stalls?

There were clear signs however, last season, that Manchester City were not an ‘outstanding’ title winning team. They lost home and away to 3rd place Chelsea for one thing. Like this season they had their struggles in Europe and Pellegrini seemed inflexible and unmoving on the question of playing only two in central midfield. He reminded me slightly of Arsene Wenger at times, capable of providing the environment and tactical structure to let talented offensive players express themselves fully, but not always the quickest to realise that this may not be enough in certain games.

You cannot win two league titles in three years with a poor attitude; but this City squad has carried the bad habit of complacency since its inception. Think back to their two FA Cup defeats to Wigan Athletic, their slack start to League Cup final against Sunderland and letting two goal leads slip against CSKA Moscow and Burnley this season. They remain a high class team and Chelsea’s most likely challenger, but this spectre hangs over them.

Roberto Martinez guided Everton to their highest ever Premier League points total last season, playing an attractive but most importantly effective style of play. Such aesthetics, combined with the departing Everton manager David Moyes’ struggles at Man United, made it seem as if Everton had got the better side of the deal. This season however, they languish in the bottom half of the table. If you follow Richard Keys on twitter, you will know that he has been quick to question whether Martinez has brought progress to Everton. I suspect he has a closer relationship with the Scottish Moyes, than the Spanish Martinez and that this might shape his view.

You cannot win two league titles in three years with a poor attitude; but this City squad has carried the bad habit of complacency since its inception

Martinez has a rather specific method of playing; the two full backs push high up the pitch, the two centre backs split, and Gareth Barry drops between them to initiate attacks from deep. Teams have started to realise that pressing from the front and driving the two full backs, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, back can stifle Everton. I believe Tony Pulis was one of the first to pick up on this, and Everton lost to Crystal Palace near the end of last season much to the detriment of their quest for a Champions League spot.

The basis of Everton’s struggles is the form of Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin and Tim Howard. All three are getting towards the advanced stages of their career and in Jagielka’s case, like his England colleague Steven Gerrard across Stanley Park, he appears to be suffering from a World Cup hangover. The good news for Martinez and Everton is that John Stones has returned, and deserves to displace one of the two senior centre backs. Likewise, Ross Barkley needs to be put in a position (ideally centrally), and fitness permitting, needs to stay there.

Martinez is somewhat a victim of his own success, and his own hubris in promising Bill Kenwright Champions League football. Its admirable to aim for the moon in the hope you might catch a star, but the truth of the matter is Everton have no right to expect a top four finish. I hate to break it to all you romantics, but Premier League positions are largely determined by transfer and wage budgets. Southampton are pushing that maxim to the limit this season, in fairness.

I hate to break it to all you romantics, but Premier League positions are largely determined by transfer and wage budgets.

Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers have failed to pick up from where they left off last season, however the reasons why are fairly obvious; the sale of Luis Suarez and the injuries to Daniel Sturridge. Aside from the goals, these losses robbed Liverpool of their intense pressure high up the pitch and ability to counter attack on teams. Too much of this burden fell upon Raheem Sterling. Teams began to man mark Steven Gerrard and stop him from exerting his influence on matches. They were not solid defensively last season and the capture of Dejan Lovren was supposed to address that, but he has suffered. I personally, thought he would be a very good addition but it hasn’t worked out yet. The signing of Mario Balotelli has been a mis calculation; the reason why he was signed was understandable but the risk has backfired.

However, there have been signs in recent weeks of Rodgers showing the invention and resourcefulness that won him such acclaim. The switch to 3-4-3 has re kindled some of the features of last season’s team; excellent pressing from the front and counter pressing in midfield and a fluidity of movement across the front line. This formulation proves that Rodgers is a talented coach, with a knack of squeezing the best out of players, as he did last season with Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen and appears to be doing at the moment with the likes of Lucas and Lazar Markovic.

There are elements of Brendan Rodgers’ demeanour that lend themselves to parody; the white teeth, that infamous documentary or his seemingly endless effort to re-invent footballing parlance in press conferences. What was that comment about wide players coming inside and breaking the frame of the goal? Nevertheless he possesses enough flair to give Liverpool fans reason to be optimistic. Jumping from 7th to 2nd in one season is almost unprecedented, certainly in the Premier League era. An improvement in recruitment, for which both he and Liverpool’s technical committee are responsible for, is a must though.

Dan Zeqiri

You can follow Dan on Twitter: @ZeqiriDan

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