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Younger the better for Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini

At first glance, it may appear that Roberto Mancini is blazing a wholly new trail at Manchester City, that nobody in the history of the game has ever been charged with building a contender from scratch with virtually limitless funds.

But, in fact, we’ve seen it before, just a few years ago, when Jose Mourinho blew through several hundred million pounds in delivering two league titles to Chelsea.

And, indeed, Mancini himself has first-hand knowledge of this process.

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Some 15 years ago, at the tail end of his playing career, he joined Lazio, a 
sleeping giant turned nouveau riche transfer market juggernaut under then owner Sergio Cragnotti.

In the space of a few years, Cragnotti would do an early Sheikh Mansour impression, spending some £200m (very serious money back then) to lure an array of stars to the Stadio Olimpico, including Diego Simeone, Christian Vieri, Marcelo Salas, Sebastian Veron, Alen Boksic, Pavel Nedved as well as Mancini. The man at the helm was Sven-Goran Eriksson, just before he took the England job, and Mancini was his de facto assistant on the pitch.

Cragnotti’s mega spending yielded a historic double in 1999-2000 as well as the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1998-99. It also, and this is where the parallels, one hopes, diverge, eventually
landed Cragnotti in prison for fraud and Lazio teetering on the brink of 
bankruptcy, where they remain today.

The latter denouement appears unlikely given Sheikh Mansour’s wealth, but this does not diminish the pressure on Mancini. If anything, he knows that, should he slip up, his employer can rip up the script and start over. So did his Lazio experience teach him the kind of valuable team building skills he can now apply at City?

At first glance, he seems to be doing things slightly differently. Lazio mostly opted for proven stars at the peak of their careers. And that’s pretty much how Mancini’s predecessor, Mark Hughes, operated. Of the 12 big-name signings he made between January and December 2009, when he was relieved of duty, just two, Nigel de Jong (24) and Vincent Kompany (23) were below the age of 25 and half were 27 or older.

With the exception of Patrick Vieira (who, in any case, was supposed to be a quick fix) and Yaya Toure (who, at 27, is far from ancient), Mancini has gone for stars on the rise (or supposedly so): Adam Johnson (22 at the time of signing),
Jerome Boateng (21), Alexander Kolarov and David Silva (both 24).

The players he is reportedly chasing
are equally on the green side – 
Wolfsburg’s Edin Dzeko (24), Aston Villa’s James Milner (24) and Inter’s Mario Balotelli (19). This is no coincidence.
Mancini believes younger players offer several advantages. For a start, they tend to be hungrier and more motivated, with the exception of Balotelli (who, in so many ways, is a bit of a special case) none of his signings have won major silverware at major clubs.

You can also generally get them on cheaper wages (Balotelli is something of an exception) than established veterans who are already on big money. While that may seem like an after-thought in Sheikh Mansour’s cash-rich world, making your employer believe you’re saving him money doesn’t hurt.

Most of all, there’s the fact that Mancini believes he’s at City for the long-term, building a squad to 
challenge for the Premier League and Champions League for years to come.

However, as it stands, his first-choice XI could well include just two players over the age of 26, alongside half a dozen newcomers to the Premier League, with all the risks that entails. Would he not be better served by packing his side with veterans of English football?

The problem is that is pretty much what Hughes did and it backfired. Of the players he signed once the Sheikh’s money truly kicked in (January 2009), just one, De Jong, came from outside the Premier League. Which goes to show that, even with Mansour’s money, you can’t really attract the kind of “proven veterans” that come close to guaranteeing success. Instead, you end up overpaying (Joleon Lescott anyone?) for guys from second-tier clubs or 
hoovering up, often at great expense, players who have probably outstayed their welcome at title contenders (Shaun Wright-Philips, Wayne Bridge, Kolo Toure).

Going abroad and buying young offers more bang for buck and a bigger upside: or so Mancini hopes. But there’s another reason: Mancini believes younger players are more amenable to tactical instruction. When he made a name for himself as a manager back in Serie A, first at Fiorentina, then at Lazio and finally at Inter, it was largely on the strength of his tactics.

This surprised many at first. Mancini, the maverick footballer who had worked primarily under laissez-faire managers such as Eriksson and 
Vujadin Boskov, did not immediately seem like a sophisticated tactician.

But his sides at Lazio and Inter, 
especially in the early years, were 
brimming with enthusiasm and 
attacking spirit, thanks largely to the kind of forward-thinking tactical schemes Mancini dreamed up.

The problem is that playing the kind of aggressive, entertaining pass-oriented football he craves requires tactical sophistication, the kind you build day after day on the training pitch. And, as City players, found out, sometimes twice a day. His preference for having two daily training sessions – one devoted to tactics, the other to fitness and technique – raised eyebrows, with several unnamed players quick to complain to their local tabloids about having to spend “all day” at training and “hitting traffic on the way home”.

But this is how Mancini works. 
Tactical sessions matter to him. During the current tour of the United States, he surprised some onlookers by 
holding scrimmages against “ghost teams”: no opponents, just his XI on the pitch with Mancini barking out 
instructions about how his men should move based on where the ball is.

It’s the kind of thing Milan boss Arrigo Sacchi pioneered in the 1980s and which Germany coach Joachim Löw credits as a secret to his side’s success at the recent World Cup, but it’s a rarity in the Premier League.

Doing all this of course requires a fair dose of “political capital” with the powers that be which, in footballing terms, means delivering results. Beyond the cocksure confidence, Mancini is aware of this.

But equally, he is convinced that, more than challenging for the title, his objective this year is improving upon last year and putting out a side which plays good football, entertains and shows promise for the future. And, if he can do that, he will hold on to his job. Time will tell whether he has read his employer correctly or not.

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