It felt like Manchester City had stepped back in time: the draughty stands ringing with groans, anger in the air, a manager making excuses, players with hands on hips. English football's greatest spenders were supposed to have consigned these moments to the past and yet this was like a return to a dark era; you almost expected Alan Ball to appear, pink in the face, clutching a can of cider.
The three decades without a trophy have bred all sorts of pent-up frustration and there are occasions when it is unleashed like a stream of lava, Saturday being one of those moments when the mood was toxic. It was the first time the supporters – or, at least, a good number of them – have turned on Roberto Mancini, completely in contrast to the vocal support that was offered at West Bromwich Albion the previous weekend.
The allegation, in short, is that he is too negative, his tactics too rigid, and that he does not have the flexibility to know when to go for all-out attack. All that money spent, and yet there are only three clubs – Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic and Birmingham – who have scored fewer home goals than Mancini's team (seven). They have not scored in three successive league matches at Eastlands and there was open hostility when the crowd realised he was replacing the talismanic striker, Carlos Tevez, with a largely defence-minded midfielder, Gareth Barry.
Mancini, to give him his due, has the single-minded belief all great managers need and, after the match, it was an impassioned and occasionally belligerent defence of his strategies. He argued, in essence, that the fans did not properly understand, on the whole, what they were talking about and that he would not change to please them. He was visibly frustrated, far more animated than usual, probably only one more question away from banging his fist on his desk – and seeing him so wound up, so removed from the usual calm, only served to heighten the sense of alarm.
"I think 'hurt' would be the wrong word but there's a frustration in him," his assistant, David Platt, later said. "The crowd come and voice their frustrations. They are frustrated but that only echoes what's inside our dressing room. We're all frustrated but I think it is a very easy line [the negative tag] to throw at him because he comes from Italy and it is easy to level that catenaccio thing at him.
"The philosophy isn't to put 10 players behind the ball and play for a clean sheet. We just have to be better at unlocking games because the fact is we are not scoring enough goals, but if people think you just throw three, four, five strikers on the pitch that is not the answer."
The default setting at Eastlands is to point out that Mancini won three Scudetti by employing these methods, but under his watch they have spent around £135m and their points total after 13 games is exactly the same as it was under Mark Hughes at this stage last season, only with a worse goal difference (plus-five rather than seven).
They have managed fewer goals than all three promoted clubs, Blackpool, West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle, and are the only side in the league not to score a header. Mancini summed it up thus: "If Carlos Tevez does not score a goal, we don't have another player who can score a goal. We have had this problem since the start of the season."
Birmingham were certainly relieved to see him leave the pitch (looking distinctly unimpressed). "I was pleased to see him come off," their manager, Alex McLeish, said, "but at the same time Mancini is an experienced manager and he was maybe trying to win the game another way."
Birmingham, in fairness, defended stoically, though they may have to show a greater sense of adventure if they are to improve a winless away record that stretches back to March. As for Mancini, he has plenty to ponder, with James Milner sulkily running straight down the tunnel after being substituted and fresh reports of an argument between the manager and Emmanuel Adebayor.
Hughes, you suspect, will relish the prospect of turning the screw when Fulham take on his former club at Craven Cottage next Sunday.
Man of the match: Barry Ferguson (Birmingham City)
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