After 18 months in charge and over £200m spent, Mark Hughes has been sacked by Manchester City despite the club sitting sixth in the Premier League table. Rumours had dogged the Welshman ever since City were taken over by the Abu Dhabi United group, but the timing of the Hughes’ departure was still something of a surprise.
It was said earlier this year by City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak that the target for the Sky Blues this term was to finish in the top six – and Saturday’s 4-3 victory over Sunderland took City back into sixth place, four points behind Tottenham Hotspur in fifth, and two clear of seventh-placed Liverpool, with a game in hand on each. City’s recent form had begun to show signs of improvement until the hammering Spurs handed down at White Hart Lane. If Hughes thought beating Chelsea gave him some breathing room, he was wrong. That defeat of Carlo Ancelotti’s side was possibly City’s best performance under Hughes, narrowly edging out the 4-2 conquest of Arsenal in September. It was another win over the Gunners that sent City into a Carling Cup semi-final against Manchester United, and with the Red Devils’ injury problems, City have an excellent chance of reaching a final for the first time in a generation. It is 28 years since the Citizens have been to Wembley for a cup final, as Hughes’ policy of selecting a strong team reaps dividends the ex-Blackburn Rovers boss will not get to enjoy.
It was at Ewood Park that Hughes made his name, taking charge in September 2004 following Graeme Souness’ switch to Newcastle United. With an original brief of keeping Rovers in the league, Hughes achieved that and then some by reaching an FA Cup semi-final to go with Rovers’ 15th place in the final Premier League table. While the signs in Lancashire were bright, Rovers exceeded all expectations the following year by finishing sixth and reaching another FA Cup semi-final. A third consecutive last four spot followed a year later, with a league placing of 10th, before Hughes guided Rovers to seventh in his final season. Not since the glory days of Kenny Dalglish had Blackburn boasted such high league finishes. Hughes’ time at Blackburn was also characterised by his success in the transfer market. Names including Benni McCarthy, Ryan Nelson and Christopher Samba were brought to the club for bargain prices and have gone on to be integral parts of the Rovers team, while David Bentley, Stephen Warnock and Roque Santa Cruz proved so successful under Hughes they were sold on for a far greater price than they were originally bought for. It is in stark contrast to Hughes’ time at Eastlands, however, where his only truly successful signings have been Shay Given and Craig Bellamy.
Bellamy, a former Blackburn player under Hughes, has enjoyed the form of his life this season, putting his more famous teammates, including Robinho and Emmanuel Adebayor, to shame. The City defence is also packed with big names – former Arsenal centre-back Kolo Toure, and England internationals Joleon Lescott and Wayne Bridge, but thus far their performances have been someway short of their own high standards. The balance of the team has looked uneven and that is where Hughes shoulders the blame for some of City’s poorer results, but his players have been performing woefully at times. But in football, it is the manager who carries the can. City were often an irresistible force going forward, sweeping up the pitch with style and verve. But their rampaging nature led to holes opening up in dangerous positions as opposition runs were not tracked and crosses not adequately dealt with. That is without mentioning City’s struggle to cope with set-pieces. Hughes may have felt that given the money at his disposal and the exotic names in his forward line, City should be producing champagne football. But first your defensive base needs to be in order and City’s was at times shambolic.
With the appointment of Roberto Mancini, no doubt some ill-informed pundits will talk of the catenaccio the Italian will bring with him to Manchester in an effort to shore up City’s defence. But Mancini is not of that ilk. The former Inter Milan Coach may give City a more solid look but he will not revert to such a stereotype to do so. Instead, Mancini will stress the importance of possession, while still retaining City’s explosive forward power. It seems certain Mancio will dip into the transfer market next month, but as the sacking of Hughes shows, predicting anything at the City of Manchester stadium is done at your own peril.