Fringe benefits key for Mancini

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the world and his dog have been tipping Manchester City to secure a top-four finish this season. City have spent heavily on players of a considerable pedigree this summer, with no suggestion the splurging is to cease before the transfer window shuts at the start of September.

However the key to their success could lie not with those same recently-signed superstars expected to feature every week, rather with players waiting on the fringes of the first team.

Tottenham proved last season that a key factor in maintaining a consistent push against the Premier League’s established elite is to keep your fringe players driven and contented.

By luck or by judgement, Gareth Bale, Roman Pavlyuchenko and David Bentley all contributed heavily to Spurs’ fourth-place finish, despite all being heavily linked with moves away in January, having barely featured in the first half of the league campaign.

Perhaps, then, Curtis Davies’ revelation earlier this week that several of Aston Villa’s back-up players were unhappy and felt disenfranchised under Martin O‘Neill, goes some way to explaining why Villa have ultimately fallen short in the last two campaigns – tailing off twice in the second half of the season.

Davies claimed a group of Villa players felt they were not being given a fair crack of the whip by the Ulsterman, and there have also been suggestions that Nigel Reo-Coker and Luke Young may have also been unhappy with their now former manager’s selection policy.

The notion that O'Neill regularly stuck with the same XI is backed to an extent by the statistics. Eleven members of the Villa squad played in 30 or more Premier League matches in 2009/10.

Stiliyan Petrov, Carlos Cuellar and goalkeeper Brad Friedel all played in every league match, with Ashley Young playing in all but one, and Gabriel Agbonlahor, James Milner missing just two apiece. Richard Dunne (35), John Carew (33), Emile Heskey (31), Stephen Warnock (31) and James Collins (30) make up the list of Villans involved in the vast majority of league matches. Only four other players featured in more than 10 the course of the campaign.

"So... very... tired..."

Conversely, Peter Crouch was the only Spurs player to feature in every league outing, with 17 of those appearances coming as a substitute. Only Heurelho Gomes (31), Jermain Defoe (34) Benoit Assou-Ekotto (30), Wilson Palacios (33) and Tom Huddlestone (33) joined Crouch in playing in 30 or more Premier League matches.

Twenty of Harry Redknapp’s squad played in 10 or more Premier League matches, whereas only 15 of Martin O’Neill’s men played as regularly.

Villa's chances of maintaining another push for a top four finish will depend on the West Midlands club appointing a manager who knows when the time is right to tinker. A coach who can see the possible benefits in April or May that could come from occasionally resting Ashley Young or Gabriel Agbonlahor in December or January. But also a man who can convince those players not starting matches on a regular basis that there is something to fight for, that if they continue to apply themselves they will get their chance.

Redknapp may find performing last season's balancing act a tad harder second time round, with essentially the same squad as last term, all of whom are naturally a year older and will be even more desperate to play on a regular basis. The Spurs manager will hope to have the carrot of Champions League football to keep his squad players fighting on, and in any case, the additional games taking part in Europe's premier competition entails would also leave scope for a spot of squad rotation.

Roberto Mancini is one of a very small number of  managers in the Premier League who will have to leave senior players out of his 25-man Premier League squad, and will have to be careful to ensure that those members of his squad beyond his first choice XI have the focus and desire to keep plugging away rather than kicking up a stink.

This could explain the Italian's supposed desire to retain the likes of Micah Richards, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Jo, rather than Stephen Ireland and Craig Bellamy - both arguably more impressive performers in recent seasons, but potentially more difficult characters to manage when dissatisfied, on the basis of their past antics.

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