Five games into the new Premier League season and Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City had made a flawless start. Top of the table with five straight wins and five clean sheets, his team were the team to beat, playing slick and sexy football. With their nearest rivals looking unconvincing, City were threatening to run away with it.
But my how the tables have turned. Along came the Champions League and Juventus: the Italians came from a goal behind to beat City 2-1 at the Etihad, with the Blues missing a hatful of chances to increase their lead and switching off at the back, conceding twice to give the visitors a crucial win.
Next to the Etihad came Slaven Bilic and his rejuvenated, revitalised West Ham. They tore accumulators- and City- apart in a devastating first half that put pay to the home side’s clean sheet record. Kevin De Bruyne pulled one back, but again defensive errors and a second half dominated by missed chances meant it was the same old story for City- and their first League defeat of the season.
Attention then turned to the Capital One Cup and a trip to the Stadium of Light. Adorned in their new ‘Slimer from Ghostbusters meets an all night rave’ kit, it looked like the Chilean’s side had bounced back in unforgivable style, brushing aside a woeful Sunderland 4-1. At the heart of the annihilation was De Bruyne, scoring one and assisting in an inspired performance to boost confidence ahead of a tricky trip to White Hart Lane in the League.
From Wearside to East London and Spurs: City needed the win to put an end to their recent ‘blip’ and Spurs were yet to really click, with last season’s poster boy Harry Kane yet to score. It was the away side who took the lead; who else but De Bruyne to hand the advantage to City. The Blues’ joy was short-lived: goals from Eric Dier, Toby Alderweireld, Erik Lamela and that man Kane left the League leaders devastated.
A 4-1 loss was colossal: it was a cataclysmic second half, with yet another calamity at the back and a lack of accuracy with chances created costing the club dearly. For while City’s form has capitulated, United’s has flourished, with their 3-0 win against Sunderland seeing them replace their neighbours at the top of the League.
Where has it all gone wrong? In the space of a fortnight, City have gone from looking impenetrable to inconsolable and the inquisition into why begins right here.
1) A fractured spine
Consistency is the key to retaining form and keeping momentum going. It’s difficult to maintain that consistency when injuries are sustained. It’s unrealistic to conceive going through a season and injuries not occurring, but you’ve got to rely on the quality in your squad and their ability to cope when such incidents happen.
Captain Vincent Kompany, who looked like a man possessed in the earlier games, was replaced by new signing Nicolas Otamendi during the Juventus game. There’s no denying his ability, but an error on his debut for the Italian’s second goal has been followed by a shaky start for the former Valencia man. Kompany was looking solid with a fine return to form: without the Belgian, City not only lack quality in defence, but the only real leader in the squad. No leader = no organisation or direction.
David Silva has been a big miss too. He’s been out with an ankle injury: although De Bruyne has come in and hit the ground running following his move from Wolfsburg with three goals in consecutive games, Silva is a player who’s both invaluable and irreplaceable. He pulls the strings in midfield: when he plays, almost every move goes through him. Raheem Sterling’s form has also dropped and it’s no coincidence that’s happened just as the 19 year old had forged a creative understanding with Spaniard Silva. Goalkeeper Joe Hart missed the Spurs defeat as a precaution, recovering from a back injury. His deputy, Argentine Willy Caballero, was widely criticised for a catalogue of errors and bad decision-making that led to conceding the four goals.
It’s that spine of Hart, Kompany, Silva and Sergio Aguero (who we’ll discuss later) that has proved to be pivotal to City’s success. Recent results have made it even more apparent the worth of those players who feature so prominently through the core of their team.
2) An inconsistent defence
Of course, this is impossible when injuries occur. But, with Kompany sustaining a calf strain and Eliaqium Mangala out with a muscular injury, the players that have come in just haven’t been able to cope. Together, Kompany and Mangala had formed a solid partnership in the heart of defence. Otamendi and Martin Demichelis have come in, but the disruption has brought confusion- you only had to watch the opening 30 minutes against West Ham for evidence of this. A performance strewn with schoolboy errors, with a squad like City’s you would expect players brought in to be able to cope. Instead, the club’s defence has shown shades of last season- a travesty after such a formidable start.
Bacary Sagna has been sublime and a class above his performances last season. But Aleksandar Kolarov, who started the campaign in such a rich vein of form, has been poor of late. Demichelis can be reliable but lacks pace and Otamendi is new to the League. It’s been a baptism of fire for the 27 year old and the introduction of the Argentines to the back four has disrupted the status quo- and destroyed City’s spotless defensive record. With Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta suffering injuries too, a leaky and unorganised defence cost Pellegrini last season: he’ll be hoping lightning doesn’t strike twice this time round. The first five games proved how vital consistency in defence can be to achieving results.
3) Sergio Aguero missing in action
Normally Aguero needs no introduction. The explosive Argentine is normally dynamite and normally scores goals for fun. Noticed the word normally used a lot there? That’s because this season he has scored one goal. Yes. One goal. The goal against Chelsea is the only time Aguero has scored so far this season in the League.
Considering City sold Stevan Jovetic to Inter Milan and have loaned Edin Dzeko to Roma, this is a bit of a problem. Add to that injuries to Wilfried Bony and exciting youngster Kelechi Iheanacho and City’s shortcomings upfront become alarmingly apparent.
A lot of fans point to the injury that Aguero sustained after a challenge by Scott Dann during the Crystal Palace game, but aside from the Chelsea game, last season’s Golden Boot winter has looked remarkably out of sorts. Of course the injury has affected his sharpness, but City rely on him so heavily to score their goals, sometimes without a plan B they are brutally exposed.
Fortunately, the midfield is littered with talent more than capable of finding the net, as proven during those first five games. But they now seem like a distant memory. To challenge for the title City need Sergio to be on song, firing them to the top spot like Anthony Martial has done for United. The world knows what he is capable of. We’ve all watched in bewildered awe. He is a proven goal scorer, an unequivocal talent. But the wasteful Aguero we have seen in front of goal of late needs to start converting his chances before City’s blip turns into a real problem.
4) Inability to kill off a game
This one is the most frustrating for fans of any team who suffer the same failure. The inability to kill off a game: to defend a lead, to shut up shop or to convert chances. It’s something City have struggled with, as demonstrated in all three recent defeats and for the majority of last season. For all that talent, those big name players and supposed strength in depth, they still lack the ruthlessness and the cutting edge required to take a game by the scruff of the neck and grind out a result.
This wasn’t necessarily so during those first five games, but of late it’s been City’s major flaw. Those chances against Juventus- and they had plenty- would’ve given them daylight and almost certainly guaranteed a first game win in the Champions League. Instead, they couldn’t defend a one goal lead and collapsed defensively, gifting the Italians the win. Although West Ham went 2-0 up, once De Bruyne had pulled a goal back just before half time the stage was set for a comeback. City had 27 shots at goal during the second half with 72% possession: kudos must go to the Hammer’s defending but a team at the top of the Premier League should be finding the net with at least half of those chances. To put it bluntly, it’s just not good enough.
It was déjà vu at White Hart Lane. Another lead thrown away, more errors, more inaccuracy. Spectators will point to the questionable offside decisions throughout, with the goals from De Bruyne, Dier (Kyle Walker was off) and Kane all being called into question. Caballero has been made the scapegoat, understandably so with the mistakes he made, but the players need to stand up and be counted. The second half was a disaster all over the pitch for City, a throw back to last season where Chelsea romped away with the League. A team striving to be Champions need a killer instinct, a fear factor to instil into the opposition. Sometimes Pellegrini’s side are too nice, too wasteful in possession and to slow to react when a reaction is needed. It’s not their style to park the bus, but in the title race you’ve got to be able to defend when taking the lead. You’ve got to be able to find the back of the net. All flair and no focus invites mistakes when concentration slips- and that’s been an all too familiar occurrence of late.
5) Does the strength in depth really exist?
Most people thought that City had one of the best transfer windows. They spent big- after last season they had to- and boosted their English quota too, with Fabian Delph, Sterling and Patrick Roberts all coming to the Etihad. Along with proven defender Otamendi and Bundesliga star midfielder De Bruyne, it was looking ominous for their title rivals, notably Arsenal and Chelsea who had failed to secure any real game changers throughout the Summer window.
It’s when the injuries happen that you see the squad for what it really is. The injury list has been substantial of late: Kompany, Silva, Aguero, Hart, Yaya Toure, Mangala, Clichy, Zabaleta, Delph, Iheanacho and Bony have all been seeing the club doctor. With the exceptions of Clichy, Zabaleta and Delph, all the other injuries have been incurred in conjunction to City’s recent demise. It’s been a test of character and the quality of players who have come in- and the Blues have been caught lacking.
Take the Spurs game for example: on the bench City had at their disposal Joe Hart (albeit recovering from a back injury), Jesus Navas, Samir Nasri, Patrick Roberts, George Evans, Zabaleta and Brandon Barker. Three of those are youth players. There is always a case for utilising youngsters, but only when the occasion sees fit. Pellegrini brought on Navas and Nasri during the second half, but decided to introduce Roberts with just four minutes left of the game when City were already 4-1 down. Nothing to lose, some might say. But not necessarily the options needed for the Chilean to change it when a change was so desperately needed.
When the going gets tough it’s time for the players to show their worth. Navas has been scrutinised since he signed from Sevilla, but his performances remain inconsistent. He has the pace; it’s just the end product and quality of his final cross that leaves a lot to be desired. The accuracy isn’t there enough at the level that City operate. Nasri is another that divides opinion: he is capable of match-winning moments, but performs when he wants to.
Caballero isn’t good enough for a substitute goal-keeper- think Chelsea and Asmir Begovic. The defensive shambles has been much documented. Is Bony good enough given the chances he wasted during the Juventus game? Players should be able to come in and perform: after all, it’s their chance to shine and stake their place in the starting line up while others are out. But it just hasn’t happened for City - and it’s flagged up question marks for the rest of the season: particularly when certain players are regulars to the physio room.