Manchester United’s ongoing search for basic competence had been nothing but hilarious for City fans until earlier this week.
Then the Telegraph reported Roberto Mancini is a “wildcard” possibility to be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s long-term successor after Ralf Rangnick’s temporary spell in charge.
Mancini? “ Bobby Manc ”? The man who tore down the banner, the guy who absolutely got “it” – whatever “it” is – in the Manchester rivalry?
Nope, not for me. Perish the thought. Admittedly, the “Agent Mancini” jibes after every defeat would be very funny, but it would be a grim spectacle overall.
Whether or not Mancini has been keeping an eye on developments at Old Trafford – perhaps only to distract him from Jorginho’s penalties for Italy – he was also a keen observer of one of City’s finest earlier this year.
Azzurri – Road to Wembley premiered on Netflix in the UK last week, a behind-the-scenes documentary charting how Mancini masterminded Italy’s run to Euro 2020 glory earlier this year.
The pre-match team talk sections are particularly enlightening, as Mancini maps out how he expects the games to develop with clear and concise precision. These instructions are then interspersed with action from the games in question, which basically follow Roberto’s playbook to the letter.
Of course, the editing suite will have done a sterling job here. There was undoubtedly footage of Mancini calling a few things wildly wrong (“Don’t worry about Luke Shaw smashing one in at the back post, lads…”), but it is still a wonderful insight into an evidently shrewd tactician.
Italy’s unexpected Euro 2020 triumph has made Roberto Mancini a coach in demand once more
(Image: GES-Sportfoto/Getty Images)
Before Italy’s blockbuster quarter-final showdown with Belgium in Munich, where the Azzurri prevailed 2-1 in a gripping contest, one man was the focus of Mancini’s attention.
“[Kevin] De Bruyne will start dribbling because he’s fast, powerful, technical, so keep tight and pressure him when he’s got the ball because he can put it anywhere,” he said.
“He put the ball [anywhere] at 60 metres, he can put the ball past the defence.
“Wherever he is, he can put the ball wherever he wants.”
What Mancini didn’t know at the time was De Bruyne needed a course of painkilling injections in his ankle to even get on the field at the Allianz Arena.
“I knew immediately that my ankle was bad after that tackle against Portugal [in the last 16],” he told HLN in October.
“I played against Italy with two injections. If I had known beforehand what my ankle would have been like afterwards, I would not have played.”
Kevin De Bruyne played through the pain barrier for Belgium against Italy
(Image: Andreas Geber – Pool/Getty Images)
The additional damage De Bruyne sustained that night in Munich contributed to him not starting a Premier League game until the victory at Chelsea in late September.
Goals followed in his next two league appearances against Liverpool and Burnley but De Bruyne has only hit the heights fleetingly this term – his brilliant best flashing by in moments rather than bending entire games to his will.
A tally of three goals in 10 starts is not to be sniffed at for a player fumbling to reach top gear but De Bruyne’s normal creative mastery that Mancini was so keen to highlight is what has been missing.
De Bruyne missed Wednesday’s impressive 2-1 win over Aston Villa as he had not returned to training following a bout of coronavirus and he has a solitary assist to his name – an average of 0.1 every 90 minutes.
Remarkable hauls of 18 and 22 assists in each of the previous two seasons saw him hitting averages of 0.53 and 0.52. Put simply, for a two year period, De Bruyne was setting up one goal every two games.
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In terms of what FBref class as “goal-creating actions” – the two offensive actions leading directly to a goal, including passes, dribbles or fouls drawn leading to a goal, De Bruyne fared even better, with an average of 0.88 per 90 last season bettered by 1.04 in 2019-20.
The gap between that De Bruyne, the one Mancini feared so much, and the 2021/22 version is vast.
And yet, City are well placed in the Premier League title race, have already secured top spot in their Champions League group and outplayed Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain in the opening third of the campaign.
Adding a De Bruyne somewhere closer to his peak into this side is a frightening prospect for anyone. Before long, he is sure to be a staple of team talks up and down the land once more.