Manchester City: 5 Signs That Their Title Defense Is in Trouble
It is hard to believe we are having this conversation.
Just shy of two-thirds of the way through the Premier League schedule, Manchester City has conceded the fewest goals in the league. The club's 19 goals conceded is five better than their nearest competitor, Chelsea, and it represents less than a goal against per match.
City has played 24 matches and lost twice. Every other Premier League club has lost at least three times, table-topping Manchester United included.
Despite all this, City is seven points back of United, and the likelihood of the Citizens defending their Premier League title lessens with each passing punchless draw.
The recent 0-0 failure at Loftus Road against the worst side in the Prem, Queens Park Rangers, dealt another rocking shot to City's championship aspirations.
What in the Colin Bell End is going on here?
You Play to Win the Game
Manchester City is drawing itself into second place.
It is not the two losses (home to Manchester United, away to Sunderland) that have placed City so firmly behind United in the table. The seven draws are the problem.
While United piles up wins like sandbags against oncoming water, City pulls single points from fixtures where a true championship side gets three.
Three scoreless draws (at West Ham United, at Chelsea, at Queens Park Rangers) underlined City's overly passive, almost scared-to-lose manner of play away from the Etihad.
Because the deadlock with QPR is so recent, the sting is fresh. But City's draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge was almost a more damning indictment.
City was lucky enough to take on the Blues two days after the tumultuous firing of Roberto di Matteo and the controversial hiring of Rafa Benitez.
Chelsea was reeling (0-2-2 in their previous four in league play) prior to that match.
City did not take advantage.
When you are chasing a rampant United, winning at home and tying away is a formula for second place.
Mounting Injuries to the Back Line
As noted before, City has yielded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season. But the stalwarts holding the back line for keeper Joe Hart are falling away like the last snowflakes of a winter storm.
Vincent Kompany left the recent FA Cup tie at Stoke City and will not return for at least two weeks, per the Guardian. The same article notes that Matija Nastasic, probably City's best signing from the summer transfer period, is also working through an injury.
Kolo Toure is playing in the African Cup of Nations. Micah Richards, recovering from knee surgery, will not be back until the end of February, according to ESPN.com.
Roberto Mancini was forced to employ midfielder Javi Garcia as a makeshift centre-back alongside Joleon Lescott at Loftus Road this week, with Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy filling out the line.
Less than optimal, to be sure.
Without Kompany and Nastasic, City's defense goes from impenetrable to vulnerable against better competition. The Sky Blues need both men back—and fit—as soon as possible.
Expensive Strikers, Shabby Production
You may have heard that Mario Balotelli was sold to AC Milan.
Talk about punishing one child for the sins of his siblings.
Carlos Tevez has not scored a Premier League goal since converting a spot kick against Everton on December 1, 2012.
Sergio Aguero has not scored a Premier League goal since converting a spot kick against Stoke City on New Year's Day.
While Manchester United gets a brace from Wayne Rooney here and a game winner from Robin van Persie there, City has to rely on the likes of David Silva, Gareth Barry and Pablo Zabaleta to provide offense.
But by all means, sell Balotelli, because it is his fault Tevez and Aguero keep kicking the ball into the grandstand.
The Seven-Point Deficit Could Easily Be Double Digits
Every team steals a result here and there. But Manchester City's repetitive thievery this season has saved the side from trailing the likes of Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur in the table.
It began with the season opener, where City had to come from behind at home against newly-promoted Southampton. It continued with Edin Dzeko's late-game heroics at Fulham, at West Bromwich Albion and against Spurs.
At some point, it becomes less about the way great teams find results when they are not playing well. Sometimes, it is more about a team that has to rely on late-game miracles because they do not play well in the first 80-odd minutes.
City is seven points behind United, but it could easily be in a much deeper hole than that.
The Cavalry Is Not Coming
Like the old joke about why divorce is so expensive ("because it's worth it"), Edinson Cavani boldly declared before the close of the recent transfer period that Manchester City had no reason to balk at the reported £54 million price tag attached to him.
As stated in the article, Cavani, 25, said: “If a club has a clear project and they want to focus on me, they can’t be frightened in front of this figure."
Well, not only did Manchester City fail to pry Cavani from Napoli, City did a whole lot of nothing during the transfer period.
No striker to fill the hole Balotelli left. No defender to plug the gaps occasioned by the absences of Kompany, Micah Richards and Kolo Toure.
City's ownership, by buying no one and saying nothing, actually stated clearly and forcefully its belief that the expensively assembled side already training and playing at the Etihad is enough to contend for the title.
United Might Just Be Better
A sixth slide, not so much a sixth "sign," because what United is doing is out of City's control. It is worth noting, however, that this is not a vintage Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United side, not by a damn sight.
United has conceded 31 goals in 24 Premier League matches, worse than eight other teams in the league.
Helter-skelter 4-3 victories over the likes of Reading and Newcastle United—far from class outfits this season—are not the stuff of sheer excellence.
United's midfield is iffy, and David de Gea between the sticks continues to make United partisans nervous and/or angry, depending on the moment. When, per the Daily Mail, lowly Southampton's manager is calling de Gea out, well, that is quite an indictment.
Here is the thing, though: Robin van Persie has 18 Premier League goals, and all United seems to do is win.
Posting 19 victories out of 24 matches means never having to apologize.
United will have to slip a few times to let City back into this race.
Oddsmaker William Hill does not much fancy that happening, setting United as a 1/6 favorite to win the Premier League as of this writing. City is next...at 7/2.
United might just be better this year.