Mancini following Mourinho path
A master of mind games still occupies the imagination. Long gone but still not forgotten, Jose Mourinho continues to be a reference point in the Premier League. If anything, his influence has increased during a season when the spotlight has fallen on one of his successors. Andre Villas-Boas is scrutinised to see if managerial DNA was inherited, to determine if he really is the special son to the Special One.
Chelsea's current travails suggest not, but Mourinho has made an impact on another. In some respects, his heir is his predecessor. Not at Stamford Bridge - though Claudio Ranieri is among the many men to attempt to manage Inter since Mourinho decamped to Real Madrid - but the man sacked at the San Siro to make way for him.
Roberto Mancini is another who scarcely qualifies as a bosom buddy of Mourinho's. Nevertheless, he appears to have learned from Chelsea's charismatic controversialist. These are two men who were given a similar challenge: piloting a club of expensive acquisitions to heights they had not reached for decades and towards the title. Indeed, each has broken a glass ceiling in his previous post; Mourinho ended Porto's 17-year wait to win the Champions League, while Mancini earned Inter's first Scudetto in, coincidentally, 17 years.
In England, each has recognised the importance of stripping his club of its old mentality - to borrow one of Mancini's favourite words - and implementing another altogether. Before Mourinho, Chelsea were regarded as contenders in the cups, but rather too flaky to win the league. Pre-Mancini, Manchester City earned affection by being accident prone.
Each has looked to reinvent the team as ruthless, relentless winners. There is one significant difference - Mourinho's Chelsea rarely conceded while Mancini's City can't stop scoring - but each made tactical tweaks to harness the team's potential.
While Mourinho is associated with the 4-3-3 that remains Chelsea's default formation to this day, he actually started with the diamond midfield he deployed with Porto. Mancini, too, put the initial emphasis on defence but, if the gameplan last season seemed to be to win 1-0, City's difficulties in either taking or protecting a lead led to the pragmatic decision to embrace attack. For most matches, one more progressive player is deployed than was the case this time last year. Neither is an idealist; theirs was a quest for a winning formula.
For Mourinho, the catalyst was Arjen Robben, for Mancini, it is David Silva, but each likes his nominal wingers to be angled infield, to the extent that a left-footer often starts on the right. Each, too, has diagnosed a programme of tough love to improve an English inventor, whether Joe Cole or Adam Johnson.
Both have looked to harness maverick talents. Mancini is often described as a father figure to Mario Balotelli, while Mourinho, who gave up on the Italian forward at Inter, adopted the same role to Didier Drogba, who troubled some of his successors.
Equally, both were willing to banish strikers who they deemed disruptive. Adrian Mutu was sacked by Chelsea, while Carlos Tevez's City future may be as bleak. In each case, it has been a show of strength that has enhanced the manager's reputation. In twin cultures of excessive earnings, player power has thus been curtailed. They have a shared notion that, however many big names they possess, the team is the star.
Yet whatever they do to their own charges, these managers' major impact was on their rivals. Clubs with reasonable starts to the season find themselves a dozen points behind City just as, at this stage six and seven years ago, Chelsea were fast becoming a dot on the horizon for supposed title challengers.
Manchester United's tradition of staging comebacks allows them to intimidate when trailing others. Newer challengers do not have that advantage. In a title race, Mourinho and Mancini are natural frontrunners, whereas United's habit is of finding an extra gear on the final lap to take them over the finishing line. Chelsea negated that by putting such distance between themselves and the rest that a sprint finish was unnecessary.
City's approach is similar. The combination of almost unlimited financing and a winning team demoralises their peers. Chelsea's reputation preceded them; now City's is starting to as well. It made both Mourinho - more willingly, perhaps, given his Machiavellian tendencies and fondness for verbal warfare - and now Mancini, practitioners of mental disintegration.
Both stand apart in another respect. Employment with the nouveau riche can be lucrative but short-lived. By lasting three years and four months at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho showed a staying power that none of Roman Abramovich's subsequent appointments has threatened to surpass. Carlo Ancelotti, who managed two seasons, came closest.
The second anniversary of Mancini's arrival in Manchester falls in December and his immediate future is secure. Win the Premier League and he can plan for the longer term. By then, of course, Villas-Boas may have collected the latest in a long line of large pay-offs authorised by Abramovich. If that is the case, he will no longer look like Mourinho Mark II. But Mancini, the manager Inter elbowed aside, just might.