How we would have laughed in November if we’d been told that, just a few months later, Brendan Rodgers would be breezily having to quash rumours linking him to the Manchester City managers position. How Manuel Pellegrini would have laughed along with us, back in those breezy, rose-tinted days of late 2014. Today, however, it is no laughing matter for the Chilean. Brendan Rodgers, whose team had been labouring in 11th back in November, is now manning the rudder of the form club in the Premier League. Liverpool’s brazen turnaround has been remarkable; as if suddenly woken from their glazed, congealed slumber, Liverpool have taken 22 points from their last eight matches, and are unbeaten in their last 12. Most impressively, this reversion began before the return of Daniel Sturridge – his reintroduction has merely given it a welcome boost.
Manchester City, on the other hand, have taken a comparatively paltry 12 points from their last eight matches, but, more damagingly, have seen their team crumble apart like a wet cake at some critical moments. 5-0 and 4-1 victories over Newcastle and Stoke cannot adequately disguise the tactically inept loss to Barcelona in the Champions league, or the torpid 2-0 defeat to Arsenal. Yaya Toure’s absence, thanks to the African Cup of Nations, betrayed City’s alarming reliance on the Ivorian, a revelation that has since distilled into a more damning assessment of Pellegrini’s recruitment; Fernando, who once looked a smart, solid pick-up for City, now more resembles a waste of £12 million. Similarly, Eliaquim Mangala, an expensive £32 million addition, has also developed a rather less lustrous patina as the season has progressed, made all the more worse in light of Vincent Kompany’s startling loss of form. All this, and yet City remain second in the league (albeit a rather distant second), and have lost only one of their last six matches, to Liverpool. Pellegrini is suffering through the capricious existence of a Premier League manager, sliding in the opposite direction to Rodgers. Pellegrini ought to glance at the Liverpool manager on his way by, study his beaming face, and take solace in the thought that, in football, things can change for the better just as quickly as they can for the worse.
Momentum can mean everything when it comes to heaving yourself up the table. Liverpool’s fixture list meant that they could begin this unbeaten run playing teams outside the top seven in their first seven matches after the 2-2 draw with Arsenal on the 21st of December. Wins over Burnley, Leicester, Sunderland and Villa gave them a quick and easy jump-start. Once some vital thrust was generated, suddenly the fixtures against Tottenham, Manchester City and Southampton all seemed eminently more winnable. Confidence was creeping in with every win, and the players for whom confidence seems to be key, like Raheem Sterling and, in particular, Phillipe Coutinho, began to flourish, supping at the sweet nectar of success and growing in stature every week. Emre Can, ever more resplendent and glinting as the shadow of Steven Gerrard recedes, seems to have established himself in defensive midfield, in turn restoring some sense of diligence in the back line; no Liverpool defender has made a defensive error since the start of the new year. But perhaps most encouraging is the return of the attacking zest and fizz of last season, the joyful frolicking in and around the opponent’s penalty area, the very reason why we were seduced by Liverpool last season. We had thought, wrongly, that this effervescence had departed with Luis Suarez. Rodgers has overseen its roaring return.
For Pellegrini, the road to redemption is rather more winding, and littered with spikes. His mandate of one cup per season looks a benchmark he’s wholly unlikely to reach now, with the league cup already in Jose Mourinho’s clutches, the FA Cup an impossibility thanks to Middlesbrough, and the Champions League rapidly disappearing over the horizon. A 2-0 victory at the Camp Nou is about as rare as steak tartar, perhaps even less likely than reeling in Chelsea in the league. But, even with an empty trophy cabinet this season, Pellegrini can still save his job, even if only by virtue of there being no outstanding replacements available. Burnley, West Brom and Crystal Palace are City’s next three league opponents. If Pellegrini can muster a decent away performance from his team in Spain, like they managed at Bayern Munich in the Champions League group stages last season, then they can start to build some momentum of their own, momentum that can carry them with high spirits into April’s Manchester derby. A dominant victory over United there will certainly help to change the tone at the Etihad, and might well recast the final cadence of the City’s season. Though it sounds straightforward enough, this will be no mean feat, but if Pellegrini can manage it, his worth as a manager will be there for all to see.
A manager’s daily life is one dominated by the fickle opinions of others, this is a reality to which all the elite contenders must become accustomed. Examples like that of Rodgers and Liverpool annually demonstrate that fortunes, and future prospects, can change at whiplash-inducing speeds. The gap between riding high on the hog and being down in the muck is smaller than you think.