Going back a few years – to 1972 – the then City captain Mike Doyle did exactly that, bursting into Malcolm Allison’s office to announce that with Colin Bell, Francis Lee, and Mike Summerbee, there was certainly no need to sign the flamboyant Rodney Marsh. But Allison did sign Marsh and City promptly blew the title.
Now, Pellegrini has signed De Bruyne and, for considerably more money, he’s got a much less flamboyant personality. Forty three years ago, it ended in tears. Will it be the same result this time? Let’s go back to March 1972 to set the scene.
Manchester City were four points clear at the top of the table – the old first division – and were odds-on favourites to take the title. Brian Clough’s Derby County, just promoted, Bill Shankly’s Liverpool and Don Revie’s (Damned) Leeds United – going for the Double – were all in the hunt but Allison’s men were playing out of their skins.
Then, on a whim, Allison signed Marsh from QPR for a club record £200,000. He was to be the icing on the cake. If the neighbours across the way had George Best, then City needed Rodney. That at least was Allison’s philosophy.It didn’t work. Marsh was one of England’s most creative talents. No one knew what he would do next, especially his team-mates. City’s majestic play was disrupted by his introduction as he basically replaced Tony Towers, adept at winning the ball in midfield.
This meant that City’s magic trio – Lee, Bell and Summerbee – saw less of the ball. Marsh later said “I hold my hands up. I cost City the title”. It didn’t help that Marsh arrived over weight from second division QPR; Allison later stated that before arriving at Main Road, Marsh had never really trained properly.
City won just four of their last nine matches and with most of the leaders also falling over themselves to lose points, Clough’s Derby County won their first title with City back in fourth place -although just one point behind Derby.
Today, City are at the top of the Premier League – four straight wins and no goals conceded – and they have also bought big with a club record fee of £55 million – or 275 Rodneys – for De Bruyne. Obviously there are differences: the current season has just begun and when City signed Marsh, there were just nine games left, but there are also similarities.
City found it hard to integrate Marsh and there has already been talk of how De Bruyne will fit into a team firing on all cylinders. The biggest problem is that De Bruyne has been brilliant when playing centrally, latterly in his Genk days, then with Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg.
At Wolfsburg, De Bruyne showed that he was the player that Chelsea fancied back in 2012. He needs freedom and he needs to be given a lot of responsibility.It’s not obvious that he will get that and back in 1972, Marsh didn’t get that either. He probably didn’t want the responsibility but he loved the freedom. City’s then keeper Joe Corrigan (in his autobiography) said the “plain truth was that we didn’t need him … some players suspected he was getting more money than anyone else … and there were doubts about his work rate.”
There shouldn’t be too many problems about salaries at the City of Manchester stadium and only José Mourhino has questioned De Bruyne’s work rate. No, it comes down to how De Bruyne can be successfully slotted into a winning team.
Sterling and Silva are two players whose form and reputations mean they have to be in the starting eleven. This means the obvious place for De Bruyne is as a straight replacement for Jesús Navas. The Spanish winger is no mug but as he only cost £15 million, he’s today’s equivalent of a journeyman footballer. But that will mean that City will be playing a £55 million player out of position. What other options does Pellegrini have?
If Allison was in charge of City today he would undoubtedly put Fernandhino on the bench and go 4-2-4 with Touré and Silva in midfield, Sterling alongside Sergio Agüero, and De Bruyne and Navas on the wings. That would almost certainly end in tears.And Pellegrini won’t get any pointers from the Belgium national team. Marc Wilmots has been struggling to get the best out of De Bruyne in a team that also features Eden Hazard. He hasn’t managed it yet.
I remember seeing De Bruyne destroy Anderlecht in his Genk days when he’d just been switched to a central position. He was also used centrally with Werder Bremen and, most spectacularly, with Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga.
Unfortunately in the Premier League, and in the Premier League dominated Belgium national team, it’s hard for one man to be given the keys to the kingdom.
Unless Pellegrini has a trick up his sleeve, there don’t seem to be many other options available. Most likely, in the next few weeks, De Bruyne will get shunted on to the wing in Manchester and 275 Rodneys is an awful lot of money to pay for a winger.