Ferguson and Mancini go head-to-head in the title race for the second year running
Ever since the Barclay's Premier League crown was won in the final seconds of last season—Manchester City claiming the title in the manner that had long been synonymous with their neighbours, Manchester United—the rivalry between the two clubs has reached an unprecedented intensity.
As was widely expected, halfway through this year's campaign, the Manchester clubs occupy the top two spots, with United holding a seven-point advantage over their blue counterparts. Yet, despite third- and forth-placed teams, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea respectively, being barely within touching distance of the pace-setters, both United and City have taken volleys of criticism from the media and pundits alike.
United's defence, in particular, has taken a battering.
Much has been made of their inability to keep a clean sheet, and while the susceptibility of young goalkeeper David de Gea has often shouldered the blame, many critics—including experienced United centre-back Rio Ferdinand—say that the lack of solidity at the back could cost them heavily at the end of the season. It's a similar fate from last year when United surrendered the title to City on goal difference.
It is true, and rather unsurprising, that the growing frailties coincided with almost a 10-month layoff for club-captain and defensive marshal Nemanja Vidic with a cruciate knee ligament injury. A club of United's stature and resources should have two or three other backup players capable of delivering the same quality of service.
Additionally, injuries have also hindered the development of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. They are the back pairing often cited as the long-term replacements for Vidic and Ferdinand, and the injuries they sustained earlier on in the season forced United to give midfielder Michael Carrick a run at centre-back.
Is Mancini the right man for City?
United have conceded 28 times in the league so far. When you take into account that only nine other teams have shipped more goals, it is not the kind of statistic that Alex Ferguson will enjoy reading, though the brilliance of Robin van Persie means that they still have the best goal difference standing at 26, four more than City.
Given the goal difference, you could be forgiven for thinking that the reason City are below United is perhaps that their defence is even more porous than United's. However, the Etihad outfit have let in only 19 goals this season, tied at the top with Chelsea, yet are somehow still trailing their Red rivals on goal difference.
Could it simply be that they are not clinical in front of the goal? Hardly, seeing as City's goals for record is second only to United's. While the Reds have a relatively straight-forward problem to iron out, City's issues lie deeper within the club.
I have never rated Roberto Mancini as a manager; even while he was in Italy winning consecutive Serie A titles with Inter Milan, his failure to make any real progress in the Champions League left me unconvinced, an opinion which has recently been compounded by City's back-to-back exits from the Champions League group stage.
It is not his tactics, as last season many were impressed by the slick, rhythmic football Mancini's team displayed en route to the title. For me, it is an issue of man-management. As illustrated by the almost constant media storms surrounding fallouts between the Italian and various players since he joined City, Mancini is clearly struggling to keep all parties on side.
Obviously, the situation is not as grave as it was predicted to be, with the widespread assumption upon Sheikh Mansour's takeover that the "Project" would descend into an ego-Battle Royale. Though, with yet another dispute between Mancini and Mario Balotelli making the pages this week, the manager's control over some of his players is again open for scrutiny.
There have been instances of Carlos Tevez, Samir Nasri and of course Balotelli all proving difficult for their managers, both past and present. Therefore, the man charged with guiding them to success needs to have shown his ability to command absolute respect in the dressing room, which unfortunately Mancini has not done.
You can laud his FA Cup success in 2011 and congratulate the capture of the league title last year—especially the manner in which it was won—but the nagging detail is that in both triumphs, City were somewhat unconvincing, particularly for a team that was assembled for around £300 million.
Three years ago, this would have been quickly remedied by a summer splurge on another £100 million worth of stars, but with Financial Fair Play supposedly arriving to halt that kind of spending, City will have to hope their helmsman has another card to play.
The fact that in the summer Mancini, the manager with the biggest transfer budget in world football, aired his belief that the board did not provide him with the funds and support necessary to land targeted players during the transfer window, will not sit well with his superiors, whose primary objective is to win the Champions League—a goal achievable only within the guidelines of FFP.
No one can predict this year's Barclay's Premier League winners, but we can look at the current stats for a helping hand.
United's major problem is their leaky defence. Secondly, there is an over-reliance on Robin van Persie, an issue that can be solved on the training ground using players that are already on the books. Naturally, the stability of having a manager who gets the absolute say in everything at the club and knows it inside out (after all, he created what Manchester United is today) gives United the better platform from which to launch their campaign. The United players know who is going to be in charge of training tomorrow, and that familiarity breeds success.
City, as Alan Hansen put it on BBC's Match of the Day, are better than United man-for-man but are not on par as a team. To build that team mentality, the players need someone who they know will be working with them for the next few years and can look up to as a figure of authority. With Mancini's open criticism of the board and the unpredictability of weekly life in east Manchester with the media and in private added to the failure in the Champion's League, the City players are not on such sure footing as their city rivals.
It may seem harsh, but the truth is that only in a few blissful moments last season did the City players look like a cohesive team—a peak that has not yet been revisited this year.
In the worst possible situation for each team, United need a new defence, while City need a new manager. Then again, look at the league table. If these two need improvements, where does that leave everyone else? It's going to be a two-horse race again, and the winners will be the team with the better manager—that is what's most important.