Manchester City's Biggest Weaknesses
Manchester City have had a disastrous December so far. They crashed out of Europe, they lost the Manchester derby and after Boxing Day defeat to Sunderland, they currently reside seven points behind leader Manchester United.
They’re also now only four points ahead of a resurgent Chelsea, having played a game more, and their season is threatening to unravel completely. Roberto Mancini isn’t panicking though and after the loss to Sunderland, he told the press that there are enough games in the league for City to recover and overtake United.
The manager has identified City’s tendency to overplay the ball in the final third as the team’s biggest weakness and has often bemoaned the number of chances his forwards have wasted. This is all true but City’s performances in December have shone a light on some of their other weaknesses; weaknesses that could prevent them from defending the title they fought so hard to win.
Lack of Width
This isn’t a new problem and has persisted throughout Mancini’s reign.
When City play poor teams, the opposition can park the bus and play for a draw as they know they will not be stretched and pulled out of position, e.g. their last couple of games against Reading and Sunderland. When City play good teams, they are susceptible to the counter attack as Nasri and Silva, who are not natural wingers, often fail to track back and support their full backs, e.g. Champions League football this year and last.
There have been a number of attempts to rectify this. Last summer, Mancini made Alexis Sanchez his number one transfer target, but the promise of City’s riches couldn’t compete with the appeal of playing for Barcelona. This summer Eden Hazard was the priority signing, but they were gazumped by Chelsea, and City had to settle for pound shop substitute Scott Sinclair instead.
Sinclair has struggled to get into the team and width is provided solely by the collection of world-class full-backs City have on the books, to which Maicon was added this summer. It might just be enough to see them to another league title but the problem cannot be ignored next season, and Athletic Bilbao’s teenage sensation Iker Muniain could be the solution.
There are players whose reputations have been built on one magnificent season. Then there’s Samir Nasri, who’s built his reputation on three spellbinding months in 2010.
In the first half of the 2010-11 season, Nasri was turning in performances that suggested he’d finally fulfilled his early promise of being the next Zinedine Zidane. The goodwill he earned in those three months finally came to end the moment he hid behind Edin Džeko in the dying moments of the Manchester derby.
What separates him from the other one-season wonders, like Stephen Ireland, is that Nasri is genuinely an exceptionally talented footballer. As a teenager, he was the star of France’s youth teams and, along with Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema, two other players of North African descent, he won the European Under-17 championship. Being of Algerian descent, like Zidane, comparisons to France’s greatest ever player were inevitable and the French press have unfairly been scathing in their criticism of Nasri for not living up to the standards they themselves set.
There’s no shame in not being as good as Zidane, but it is a scandal when a footballer who earns £180,000 a week plays without courage or hunger. At 25 years old, he still has time to go from being a weak link in the side to becoming one of City’s greatest strengths. City will hope that transformation comes soon as they are desperately in need of his creatively to unlock stubborn defences.
The Abu Dhabi United Group, the private equity company that own Manchester City, have been determined to comply with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations ever since the rule was approved in 2009.
This summer, despite Mancini’s protestations, they refused to give the manager a blank cheque like in previous seasons and ended up spending just £50 million on players (£32 million net). Matija Nastasić, a £12 million teenage signing from Fiorentina, has been a revelation, and has even displaced Joleon Lescott as Vincent Kompany’s defensive partner, but the other purchases have struggled.
Javi García, the £17 million defensive midfielder, has been the most disappointing. Last season, when City were struggling to find a breakthrough in games, Mancini’s standard substitution was to take off Nasri and bring on the more defensive Nigel de Jong. This allowed Mancini to push Yaya Touré, City’s most influential player, into a more advanced position to roam free behind the strikers.
It proved to be such a successful tactical deployment that fans were left asking why City didn’t start games with that lineup. García was brought in as the solution, a player who could not only tackle with the ferocity of de Jong, but also pass the ball with the accuracy we have come to expect from Spanish footballers.
So far the experiment has failed and Garcia seems nothing like the de Jong upgrade fans were expecting. García’s passing has been awful, physically he looks completely out of his depth in the Premier League and selling de Jong has made City’s defence much more vulnerable. Overall, with Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell bought more with the future in mind, City’s summer transfer business has not improved the squad. Their rivals, on the other hand, have improved.
Controversial, yes, but true; Mancini is not a great manager. The only comfort Manchester United fans took in Sergio Aguero’s injury-time, title-winning strike last season was that it would keep Mancini in the job for another five years. Just long enough to prevent City from ever establishing a team that dominates English football.
Like Rafa Benitez before him, whose Champions League victory for Liverpool in 2005 bought him enough time to ruin the club, Mancini’s victory looked to have given him complete immunity to remain as manager throughout the crucial period before Financial Fair Play rules really come into effect in 2018. His job doesn’t look so secure now, and the owners have no doubt been totting up the growing list of his failures, which now runs from the Champions League debacle to the handling of the Carlos Tévez affair.
Nothing shows up the paucity of Mancini’s man management skills quite like the manner in which he has handled Mario Balotelli. Mancini spent £25 million on Balotelli, the player José Mourinho once called "unmanageable," promising fans that he knew how to get the best out of him. He never became the horse whisperer capable of taming Balotelli’s wild side and the relationship has more resembled the way Basil Fawlty would bully his bumbling waiter Manuel.
He said he would never play Balotelli after he was sent off against Arsenal last season but has proceeded to use him in important games, including the Manchester derby. He praises him then condemns him, drops him then inexplicably plays him in games he shouldn’t, while barking instructions at him throughout.
Mancini was a fine footballer, blessed with exquisite technique, but even back then he was unpredictable and lacked discipline (he often challenged teammates to fights over trivial matters). The hot-headedness that made him such an exceptional footballer now looks like the fatal flaw that will prevent him from ever becoming a truly great manager.
Other Honourable Mentions
African Cup of Nations
Ivory Coast have just announced their African Cup of Nations squad and, predictably, it features the Toure brothers. They will leave after the FA Cup tie with Watford on January 5 and are likely to miss five games, including a trip to Arsenal and a home game against Liverpool. Kolo Toure will be a bigger loss than was anticipated at the start of the season as, with Micah Richards injured and Vincent Kompany struggling with fitness, City will be left with just two left-footed centre-backs—Joleon Lescott and Matija Nastasić.
Lack of games to keep squad happy
Out of Europe before Christmas and knocked out of the League Cup by Aston Villa in September, City hardly have enough games to keep the squad happy. Edin Džeko has already expressed his frustration at being called a "super-sub" and some of the younger players have hardly played. Of course, this can be seen as a positive as there is no chance of the squad being fatigued towards the end of the season, but Mancini should be aware that the lack of play time could lead to disharmony in the squad.
The form of key men
The poor performances of Joe Hart have been singled out by the press, but all the key players from last season have been disappointing. Sergio Agüero, David Silva, Yaya Touré and Vincent Kompany have all failed to live up to the high standards they set in their title-winning season. Only through a resurgence in form from these players can City have any hope of rescuing their faltering title campaign.