Hunger and Humility: Pellegrini's Psychology Key to Man City's Title Defence

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Hunger and Humility: Pellegrini's Psychology Key to Man City's Title Defence
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Ominous, wasn't it? The way Manchester City made a tough opening fixture at Newcastle look like a routine exercise in Premier League domination. And likewise the message manager Manuel Pellegrini imparted afterward, when asked what was required of his players in order to retain the English title.

The "two 'H's," he said. Hunger and humility.

It was, of course, the third "H"—harmony—that City most lacked while failing to remain champions in 2012/13, allowing Manchester United to resume that status in Sir Alex Ferguson's last season; the atmosphere around Roberto Mancini became sour.

But a repetition would be unlikely under the equable Pellegrini, and he has astutely identified a need to avoid any sense of self-satisfaction as the priority for his much-lauded and lavishly remunerated charges.

Ferguson was brilliant at that. He would use all sorts of appetite-stimulating ploys at the beginning of a season, starting with the one in which he would tell his players he had written the names of those who would let him down on a piece of paper and sealed it in a hidden envelope that would be opened the following May.

Alastair Grant/Associated Press

Clearly Ferguson developed subtler ruses than that, but whatever they were, they worked. United retained the title six times under him, which was twice more than even Liverpool in the eras of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley combined.

Shankly, Paisley and Ferguson apart, the only manager who has done it in the past half-century is Jose Mourinho. Armed with a squad built with Roman Abramovich's riches before the advent of Financial Fair Play, the Special One breezed into England and took the game by storm.

Chelsea ruled for two years. And then egos began to erode the spirit at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho became, if not quite as tetchy as Mancini in Manchester, significantly distracted. It was agreed that he should leave.

And who profited? Our old friend, inevitably. Ferguson's United returned to the top and, as if to punish Abramovich for his impudence in knocking them off their perch, went on to complete a hat-trick of titles.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Carlo Ancelotti managed one for Chelsea—a League and FA Cup double indeed—before losing his job as Ferguson struck again.

But the venerable Scot had already identified the next threat as the "noisy neighbours" City, who, with the billions of Abu Dhabi at their disposal, would be exerting Abramovich-style financial muscle in the last years of the free market in European football.

It is etched in Premier League history that City didn't disappoint him. United won their first five matches of the 2011/12 season and lost only once before New Year's Eve. But that defeat was by 6-1, and at home, and inflicted by City, and from then it was a chase.

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United doggedly kept up their pursuit until the final day and thought they had done it until Sergio Aguero famously struck to beat Queens Park Rangers at the Etihad.

That was Aguero's 23rd goal of the season. Edin Dzeko's 14th had been the equaliser. And both those strikers are still around. Looking hungry, without question, in the case of Aguero.

The Argentinian is still not fully fit after a hamstrung World Cup with Argentina but sprang from the bench to seal victory with a late goal against Newcastle that combined the virtue of high class and a low centre of gravity—his first shot parried, he rose to stroke home a second with the other foot.

Humility had been provided earlier by Dzeko. You could call it that, although educated unselfishness would probably be a more accurate description of how he ran on to Yaya Toure's through ball and smoothly reversed the ball into the path of an unerring David Silva.

When the likes of Aguero, Dzeko, Toure and Silva do their stuff, City play football of a quality that no team in England can exceed. Pellegrini knows that as well as anyone. He also knows that his job is to ensure it is not dwelt upon but regularly enforced.

It goes without saying that the Premier League is a hard league to win. But it is even harder to keep winning it. Those players who aver that success only increases your appetite are, while saying the right thing, flying in the face of human nature.

No one eats a wonderful meal and then immediately wants another. Not unless he is very, very hungry—and imbued with enough humility to believe that poverty might be lurking around the corner. This is the tricky feat of psychology that Pellegrini must perform.

 

Patrick Barclay is an award-winning football journalist and best-selling author, whose portfolio includes biographies on Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson.

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