A broken relationship with his star player, issues with the medical department, cracks in team morale and the loss of a commanding lead at the top of the table.
By Mark Ogden
Four years after taking Inter Milan to the brink of capitulation in the 2007-08 Serie A title race, history is repeating itself for Roberto Mancini at Manchester City.
The only silver lining for City is that, four years ago, a dramatic final day victory secured a third successive Scudetto for Mancini’s team, so his current club can still live in hope, even if their diminishing reserves are finally extinguished with defeat at Arsenal on Sunday.
When he arrived at the Etihad Stadium in December 2009, the blue-and-white City scarf Mancini adopted on his arrival was the Italian’s cool fashion statement, yet with every damaging result, negative headline and Manchester United victory, the knot appears to be tightening around his neck and increasing the pressure.
There are doubts over his ability, or willingness, to cajole the best out of confidence-shorn players and senior figures within the dressing room have become frustrated by Mancini’s apparent soft treatment of Mario Balotelli, while the likes of Adam Johnson are treated with the big stick.
Mancini’s engagement with Sir Alex Ferguson in so-called ‘mind games,’ has also led to bemusement, with the Italian’s clumsy attempts at landing blows — insisting last Saturday that United would draw at Blackburn, only to see them win — prompting raised eyebrows.
Recent performances in front of the cameras and with the microphones turned on have suggested that Mancini is not handling it all very well. The players may be struggling on the pitch, but their manager is hardly tearing it up either.
Yet in Italy, mind games are overlooked by the media and supporters in favour of tactical observations.
When Inter were locked in a battle for the title with Roma in 2008, Mancini and Roma coach Luciano Spalletti did not waste energies on psychological warfare, so the theatre of battle he now occupies is a new environment.
In truth, Mancini has never been the calm, unflappable figure he is often portrayed to be.
His touchline spat with Everton manager David Moyes in March 2010 emphasised the winning mentality wrapped around his volatile personality.
But the cracks which are now beginning to show in the Mancini façade at City have surfaced before, when Inter blew an 11-point lead in February 2008 to go into the final game of the campaign just a point clear of Roma.
Mancini’s doubts and concerns as results tailed off transmitted themselves to the players and, as forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic recalled, the jitters spread.
“I heard Mancini and the other coaches talking,” Ibrahimovic said.
“They were worried. The nervousness had spread through the squad and confidence had disappeared. From having been a winning machine, we now didn’t even feel confident against the bottom teams.
“The atmosphere in the team was awful. It was like a switch had been flicked. The harmony and optimism had gone.”
An injury suffered by Ibrahimovic, which led to the tempestuous Swede returning to Scandinavia for treatment, caused a fallout between player and manager, with Mancini urging him to help the team through their slump.
A more damaging rift with Luis Figo, during which the pair barely spoke for six months, has similarities to the five-month stand-off with Carlos Tévez, which has now been resolved to the extent that the Argentine is now back in the first-team squad.
During the Mancini-Figo rift, sparked by the manager’s reluctance to select the Portuguese forward, questions were raised over his ability to handle star players.
“He has certainly not learned how to handle a fuoriclasse [star] from me,” claimed Vujadin Boskov, Mancini’s coach during his playing days with Sampdoria. “In that sense he has to be a little bit more flexible.
“After all, Roberto was not an easy player to deal with himself.”
Senior figures at City have spoken of Mancini constantly ‘challenging’ his superiors — a trait regarded as a positive element rather than a negative one — in terms of improving the squad, the club and its mentality.
But his frustration with what he regards as City’s lack of a winning mentality, forged by years of decline and failure prior to Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan’s arrival in September 2008, has prompted Mancini to voice fears of the “arm becoming short” — a sense that something will hold the club back when within reach of success.
Joe Royle, the former City manager, described the innate pessimism and paranoia as ‘City-itis,’ but while Abu Dhabi ownership has eradicated much of those old failings, recent weeks have shown that it lingers on.
Mancini is a man who wants control. A long-term failure in his relationship with the Inter club doctor, Franco Combi, led to Mancini’s assistant, Sinisa Mihajlovic, acting as an intermediary between the two men.
The situation was not helped by Mancini’s unswerving trust in Sergio Vigano, a physio he worked with at Sampdoria.
At City, Mancini delivered a thinly-veiled attack on the club’s medical staff just last week when he spoke of the “stupid” injury suffered by Sergio Agüero, triggered by the application of a medical spray to his foot which led to severe blistering.
There is a train of thought, however, that Mancini’s demands of his players and staff have proved successful and have injected belief and desire into the club.
Last season’s FA Cup triumph was the club’s first trophy in 35 years and sources at City admit that, from the directors’ box to the kit-men, the taste of success has generated a determination to experience more and leave the wilderness years firmly in the past.
As things stand, it only requires United to draw one game for City to be in control of their title destiny again and Patrick Vieira, the club’s football development executive and a member of Mancini’s title-winning team at Inter, insists that the manager remains in control of players and his emotions.
“He has been through all of this with Inter,” Vieira said. “At Inter, the team was winning and we were strong because Roberto believed in himself and what he was doing.
“Roberto gives the club that belief. It comes from the manager.”