Manchester City's defeat to Aston Villa on Saturday could be written off as a freak. Aston Villa didn't particularly look like troubling Manuel Pellegrini's side—until they actually did trouble them, that is, with two late goals to sneak the win.
City dominated the game, enjoying 67 percent possession. They had 21 shots to Villa's eight, seven on target to Villa's four, 13 corners to Villa's two. That the final score was 3-2 could almost be described as a statistical anomaly, if that statistic wasn't quite an important one.
Almost an anomaly, if it didn't fit with a pattern, particularly with City's away form. As Rob Pollard pointed out on Bleacher Report this week, City have taken just 15 from a possible 36 in 2013, while at home they have taken 31 from 36.
Perhaps more alarming than the disparity between their home and away form is how violent the swing is between performances game-to-game. They went from destroying Newcastle 4-0 to losing at Cardiff, from humiliating Manchester United to this Villa setback.
Pellegrini could point to the absence of Sergio Aguero and David Silva at Villa Park, but while their creativity was of course missed, there should really have been enough in the City side to beat a Villa whose last home game had ended in defeat to Newcastle. In any case, if a side with title ambitions relies so much on one or two players for invention, then something is amiss.
The question that must be asked is whether City have the consistency to mount a significant title challenge this season. They simply cannot afford to throw points away at places like Villa, particularly after such an impressive derby win. The Villa game was a little like a tennis player holding serve after breaking a tough opponent—the break itself wouldn't be an especially worthwhile achievement unless it's backed up with a hold. Likewise, the good work of the 4-1 slaughter of United was almost undone with the weekend's capitulation.
It's too early to panic, of course, and Pellegrini is doing nothing of the sort.
"I think the Premier League is very regular," he was quoted as saying by Sky Sports.com after the game. "I don't know how many teams will be fighting for the title because we are just starting.
"It is a very tough league and the differences between teams are not too much. We are just starting working, and we hope that we will improve in the future so we can win the games we must win.”
That's all very well, but City need to eradicate their problems on the road and find consistency soon. One might argue that, in a season when many of the other title contenders are in flux, this isn't such a problem. Jose Mourinho seems to be creating problems for himself at Chelsea, David Moyes looks out of his depth in replacing Sir Alex Ferguson, Tottenham are a work in progress and while Arsenal are playing well at the moment, their injury problems mean nothing can be certain at the Emirates.
However, that the rest are inconsistent actually makes it more important that City find a steady groove. This is a golden chance for City to take advantage of their rivals—particularly United, in whose shadow they no longer sit.
There was a constant sense that the "old," pre-money City would somehow make a mess of things no matter how good a situation looked—indeed, it was something their fans would regularly joke about. The "new" City cannot do this—they should be one of the strongest forces in Europe by now, and they must be ruthless.