Manchester City host Chelsea on Sunday in a match that many billed at the beginning of the season as the title decider. Looking over what pundits and football writers were predicting in August it’s odd to think how many had written Manchester United off for the title.
Most went for the holders but some picked Chelsea, the team whose European Cup victory seemed to reinvigorate Roman Abramovich’s spendthrift ways. Something has gone seriously wrong when, by February, the best either side could possible hope for is second place.
If Chelsea beat City and Tottenham beat out-of-form West Ham United the following day then all three clubs will be separated by only two points. It will make for a thrilling finale to the season as they will all be frantically competing for the runners-up position but fans will want to know why their clubs have underperformed so badly this season.
The question that should be asked is how everyone could have overlooked the obvious flaws in these two teams. By winning trophies as prestigious as the Premier League and the European Cup everyone seemed to forget the extraordinary circumstances in which those trophies were won and became blind to the weaknesses in both sides.
There are a number of similarities between these two dysfunctional teams. Leo Tolstoy once wrote that happy families are all alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. These two football clubs seem to be unhappy in the same way.
While the main strength of both these teams comes from the financial backing they receive from their astonishingly wealthy owners, they also share many of the same weaknesses.
How much power does Roberto Mancini actually wield at City? The Italian has looked less secure in his job ever since Ferran Soriano replaced the hapless Garry Cook as chief executive and Txiki Begiristain was appointed the club’s sporting director.
Begiristain’s arrival in particular was the moment Mancini lost control over the club’s transfer policy. The former Barcelona man is in charge of scouting talent and bringing in new players and has his own views on how football should be played.
Last month The Times reported that Begiristain was determined to scrap the much talked about 3-5-2 formation that Mancini has been working on this season in favour of Barcelona’s 4-3-3 system.
The team will suffer if the man who oversees all transfer activity is at odds with those in charge of team selection. City have already had one disappointing summer recruitment and simply cannot afford to make the same mistake again.
At Chelsea the problem is obvious. There have been nine different managers during Abramovich’s nine-year reign and they have spent more on compensation on fired managers than Everton’s entire net spend since the Premier League began.
The Russian oligarch famously fell in love with football when he went to see Manchester United beat Real Madrid 4-3 at Old Trafford in 2003 and has since wanted to replicate in Chelsea the attacking style the two clubs played that day. It is this ambition that every new appointment has to match, which is communicated daily to the manager though Abramovich’s PA Marina Granovskaia.
Appointing managers as mere figureheads while all the real power remains in the boardroom is a policy that will not necessarily spell disaster but will certainly make both clubs less competitive.
Both sides are lacking a proper No. 9. Fernando Torres, who wears the No. 9 for Chelsea, is simply not the same player he was at Liverpool. Abramovich has repeated the mistake he made with Andriy Shevchenko by forcing a striker on a manager who doesn’t want him.
Three managers have been sacked since Chelsea bought Torres and each time the press have reported the reason as a failure to play or get the best out of the £50 million acquisition.
Despite the poor form of Torres, the club have still managed to score a respectable 55 goals in the league so far thanks to Juan Mata having the season of his life and Frank Lampard making his regular double-figures contribution.
City, on the other hand have, struggled to find the net this season and are only the fifth-highest goalscorers in the league. Last season they bagged an impressive 93 goals on their journey to the title but this year their goal rate has dropped dramatically with only 48 goals in 26 games.
Sergio Aguero, their top scorer last season, has only managed nine league goals in 22 appearances. Last year his 23 goals propelled City to the title with David Silva being the primary creative force in the side with 17 assists. Aguero has had to take more responsibility as a creative player due to Silva’s form dipping to such as extent that he has only made five assists in the league this season.
The possible arrival of Edinson Cavani (via The Independent) in the summer will be a huge boost to City (or Chelsea) and they will be hoping that he is a massive improvement on the last player at the club to take the No. 9 shirt, Emmanuel Adebayor.
In a few years Chelsea will almost certainly dominate English football. With players like Oscar (21 years old), Eden Hazard (22), Juan Mata (24), and Lucas Piazon (19) set to mature and reach their peak in a couple of years, Chelsea should, in theory, be unstoppable.
The way they played at the beginning of the season, with Oscar, Hazard and Mata switching positions throughout games and demolishing Premier League defences is surely an indication of what’s to come.
Defensively, though, they still need to find a replacement for John Terry and have looked vulnerable when he has not played. Gary Cahill is capable of replacing him in the short-term but Chelsea need to find someone with the physical presence and intelligence to take on the mantle of leadership in the defence.
Most top sides usually have one centre-back who is capable of bringing the ball out from the back to start attacks. Gerard Pique does this at Barcelona, Rio Ferdinand at Manchester United and David Luiz is capable of doing it for Chelsea.
Rafa Benitez has decided that Luiz does not have the natural defensive instincts to be a top defender and has opted to use him in midfield this season. If this is a permanent positional switch then Chelsea will have the task of finding two world-class defenders in the summer.
City are conceding at a much higher rate than last season but have still only conceded 24 goals this season, making them the meanest defence in the league. Despite the statistics, City don’t look defensively invincible like they did last year and teams know that if they play a high-pressing game they can force mistakes.
City have made twice as many defensive errors as last season and Joe Hart’s blunders in front of goal have only added to the sense of uncertainty in the defence.
There are a number of reasons City are more vulnerable at the back—Vincent Kompany’s injury problems, Mancini’s fondness for switching formations during games, the loss of Nigel de Jon,g who provided extra cover to the back four. The list is endless, but only Mancini knows the real reasons and only he can find the solution.
Both teams will feel they can buy their way out of trouble this summer. The worry is that the structural problems both sides have, where the manager is not considered the most important man at the club, could hinder the rebuilding process.