Given the 15-point gap that separates Manchester United and the current English Premier League champions with just nine league games to go, Manchester City look to lose the title this year with the FA Cup as their only realistic chance of silverware for the season.
From scoring a mere 51 goals to date (compared to last season’s 93) to conceding 26 already (29), many things have gone wrong for Roberto Mancini’s side as they enter the final months of an underwhelming season.
But all should not be gloomy at the Etihad Stadium, as this season will and should be used as a valuable lesson for City in their gradual but determined rise to the top of European football.
Here are five ways City can put this season behind them and challenge for top honors once again in 2013-2014.
It’s common knowledge that Roberto Mancini hasn’t been pleased with the work that Samir Nasri has put in this season. He’s made it clear in public (Daily Mail).
But looking at the season as a whole, it’s not just Nasri who has underperformed—a whole host of City players who set the bar high last season have, for various reasons, dropped their levels this term. Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero have been struggling with injury and poor form, and Yaya Toure was absent due to his commitments at the African Cup of Nations, among others.
That’s not to say the aforementioned players should be let go; rather, those who are dispensable should be moved on.
Whether this includes the disappointing Nasri, the usurped Joleon Lescott, the simply not-good-enough Kolo Toure or even the reportedly want-away Edin Dzeko (BBC Sport), there is dead wood to be cleared at City, and this summer should be an opportunity to reshape the squad.
For a club that has aspirations to be included in Europe’s footballing elite but still find themselves a fair distance away from a most illustrious tag, City fans will enjoy the signing of renowned players from established clubs over the next few years but will also agonize at the prospect of losing them to powerhouse clubs.
There’s Yaya Toure, who has been linked with a move away following his agent’s high-profile wage demands (Goal.com). There’s Sergio Aguero, who has reportedly attracted admiring glances from Barcelona (Express). And there’s Carlos Tevez, who is rumored to return to former club Boca Juniors (Express).
It seems strange that a club of City’s standing might be considered a selling club. But if they let go of players so important to their spine, they would be well on their way to living up to that label.
City must simply keep players like Toure and Aguero, who were big-name coups themselves when they signed and played such an important part in getting the Citizens their first Premier League title.
But most importantly, when it comes to transfers, the Manchester City hierarchy must learn from an opportunity lost.
Last summer’s transfer failings were highlighted by Roberto Mancini in the media as he directed comments towards sporting director Brian Marwood (Daily Mail), but the overall transfer policy seemed to be misplaced.
Names like Daniele De Rossi (Metro), Daniel Agger (Daily Mail) and Javi Martinez (Daily Mail) were linked as big-name signings to augment Mancini’s squad, but curiously City settled on the likes of Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair, none of whom have impressed in a City shirt.
With the exception of the precociously impressive Matija Nastasic, who has taken Joleon Lescott’s place as City’s starting left-sided center-back, City failed to acquire any top-class players to build on an encouraging title-winning season.
By this summer, they will likely not be looking at prospective signings as reigning Premier League champions. That makes it an even more pivotal transfer window in the context of City’s rise.
Whether it is Manchester United’s famous winning mentality, Chelsea’s ruthless “professional” wins or Arsenal’s eye-catching, swashbuckling style, there is something about title winners that separate them from the rest.
Last season, City boasted impressive scoring numbers and an admirable defensive record. But in Mancini’s time at the Etihad, there has been a noticeable lack of team identity and style amongst the City ranks. Too often, it feels as if matches are won due to individual performance rather than exceptional team play.
This has at least some parts to do with the squad. An often-reminisced tactical switch that Mancini could rely on was the pushing up of Yaya Toure after Nigel De Jong was summoned from the bench. No longer. This season, with Aguero off form and injured, City have looked toothless and even too predictable at times. David Silva’s form has noticeably dropped off.
Of course, it takes time to build such an identity, but with the talents at his disposal and the financial support that he enjoys, Mancini should surely have enough resources to truly develop a “Manchester City” brand.
Or not. Is time up for Roberto Mancini?
First, some much-needed recognition for the current manager amidst a seeming tendency to criticize him for his public outbursts: Since he took up the City reins from Mark Hughes, City have ascended to a whole new level. Whether it is in terms of players brought in or trophies won, it is apparent that City have risen from ambitious players to one of the big boys.
But is this the highest Mancini could have taken this City team?
For all of his pedigree, Mancini has not enjoyed sustained success in Europe, while the aforementioned failure to truly develop a City identity has become apparent.
There’s a reason managers like Manuel Pellegrini, who has worked wonders with such unfancied clubs as Villarreal and now Malaga, are being linked with the City job (ESPN). Presumably, Pellegrini’s record in both domestic and European competition and in building teams with an exceptional work ethic and an attractive playing style makes him an exciting candidate for a club that wants to become great.
A supportive and seemingly sensible City hierarchy have shown the leniency and patience that is required to build a footballing dynasty. Now, they have to decide this summer whether Mancini is the best person to helm the ship.