Manchester City are not the first side in Premier League history to have reached the holy grail of snatching the title away from Manchester United’s possession, only to then have a hard time holding on to it, and they most certainly will not be the last either.
This time last year, after 30 games of the top-flight season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side led their city rivals by only three points. What is more relevant is just how many points the team from the blue half of Manchester had accrued at the same stage of the last campaign compared to this time around, with City on 70 points, eight more than they have now.
So something, or perhaps more accurately, some things, must have changed drastically over the course of the two seasons, a fact even acknowledged on the weekend by the champions’ captain Vincent Kompany, who said, "In football, ultimately, you always have to have a winner and a loser so I think that we'll learn from what happened there and we'll grow stronger again.”
Well, it does not take an Einstein to trace the seeds of City’s decline this season back to last summer. Those in charge of transfers at the Ethiad Stadium rather unwisely decided that the best way to build on the club’s first top-flight title for 34 years was by standing still in the transfer market.
In a scenario similar to that so famously experienced by then-Valencia head coach Rafa Benitez when he claimed in 2004, "I was hoping for a sofa and they've brought me a lamp," sporting director Brian Marwoord did not secure any of City manager Roberto Mancini’s three main transfer targets, much to the Italian’s well-publicised annoyance.
Mancini had been expecting City to defend their league title with Liverpool centre-back Daniel Agger, Athletic Bilbao defensive midfield player Javi Martinez and Arsenal striker Robin van Persie amongst their ranks. Instead, he was left with the likes of Matija Nastasic, Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair to call upon.
Now, although the Italian had no doubts about where the blame for this botched transfer strategy lay, and Marwood’s subsequent replacement by the more experienced and savvy operator Txiki Begiristain shows that those in Abu Dhabi also agreed with him, there were also legitimate reasons why none of the three players joined the club.
Van Persie was offered more money by City, but thought he had a better chance of winning silverware at Old Trafford than at Eastlands. City refused to meet Liverpool’s exorbitant £30m asking price for Agger, having already had a £20 million bid for the Dane rejected by the Merseysiders. And similarly, Marwood and Co. felt that paying £34 million for Martinez, which Bayern Munch ultimately did, was not a sensible piece of transfer business.
As a result, rather than shelling out a combined £86.5 million on three top-level recruits, City ended up paying £54.3 million on five middle-ranking players (including £3.3 million on Maicon from Inter Milan), none of who have had any kind of positive impact on their season.
You can certainly understand Mancini’s frustrations, which have only since been exacerbated by the effect Van Persie has had on United’s charge to the title.
Nineteen goals in just 30 Premier League matches to date for United, including some crucial game-changing strikes, as well as 13 assists for the team’s cause, tell their own story. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that had the Netherlands international been lining up for City this season, they would now be sitting pretty at the top of the standings rather than United.
However, once that summer transfer window slams shut, a manager has to make do with the tools he has at his disposal. To be fair to Mancini, up until the turn of the year, City were very much hanging in there with a rampant, and at times rather fortunate, United.
In fact, only as recently as January 26, City trailed United by just four points. That is no great lead if last season is anything to go by, when Mancini and Co clawed back from an eight-point gap as late as April.
So why else have the champions fallen so far behind the Red Devils?
Well, their badly handled summer recruitment policy has been coupled with a drop in form; namely from goalkeeper Joe Hart, captain and centre-back Kompany, the driving force in midfield, Yaya Toure, creative spark David Silva and last season’s top scorer and the man who ultimately won them the title, Sergio Aguero.
England international No. 1 Hart has simply performed at a lower level, although Mancini’s constant sniping at the 25-year-old has not helped his confidence. Kompany has endured an injury-affected campaign, while his focus has often appeared elsewhere at times. That has caused damaging public spats with his boss.
Toure has also seemed distracted at times in this campaign, while his absence during Africa Cup of Nations duty with Ivory Coast at the turn of the year could not have come at a worse time for City. Silva has been plagued by his long-running ankle injury that first surfaced last season. Aguero has dealt with a combination of niggling injuries at the wrong times and the well-publicised breakup of his marriage to Diego Maradona’s daughter.
Mancini’s rather suspect man-management skills have often exacerbated rather than helped these situations. Furthermore, the combination of not strengthening the team at the outset followed by star performers from last season not reaching the same heights this year have really made the Italian’s chances of retaining the title so much lower.
Who is to blame for City's failed title defence?
The relentless form of the team from the red half of Manchester has not made Mancini's life any easier. He surely must have been expecting that after what happened at the climax to the last campaign. And if he was not, then he damn well should have been.
Anyone who knows just a smidgeon of what drives Ferguson on so relentlessly year after year would not be at all surprised by just how motivated and focused his side have been this season in their march to regain what they consider to be their own, as well as a 20th top-flight crown.
At present, were United to win six and draw one of their remaining eight games of the season, they would beat the previous record for the highest number of points in a campaign set by Chelsea in 2005 (95). They only need another 13 more points to overhaul City’s title-winning total from last May (89).
And so, on some occasions, like at the end of a match which you have lost, a manager simply has to hold his hand up and admit that the better team won, which Mancini finally did recently.
However, he will also be nagged by the thought that he, his players and those behind the scenes at Eastlands did not give the club the best chance to fight a rampant United on an even keel this season. That could've made a significant difference in the final standings.