Five home games, five wins. Six away games, one win, one draw, four defeats. Manchester City are the Jekyll and Hyde of the Premier League.
This is a team capable of beating Norwich 7-0 with a performance so devastating that it looked as though only one set of players had ever put foot to ball prior to kickoff. Fast forward one week, images of domination turn to degradation and humiliation as Manuel Pellegrini's men are overturned 1-0 by a Sunderland side that (even after their win) find themselves four places below Norwich in the table.
Despite their ranks being gratuitously overstocked with blue-chip players, there's a problem at Manchester City.
A lack of confidence in front of away crowds, smaller pitches at away games (City have the widest pitch the league) and a degree of complacency have all been blamed for the shocking dissonance between home and away form.
For this team to challenge seriously for the league title this season, the riddle of disparity must be solved quickly and permanently.
Over the past five complete seasons (2008/09 to 2012/13), no team has managed to win the league after losing more than six games—the average number for the eventual champion is 4.8 defeats.
If this season subscribes to that pattern, City can only avoid two more defeats in their next 27 games.
They need to change, and change now.
Like all intriguing riddles, the solution to the problem is not obvious. A cursory look at the statistics across both City's home and away games offer next to no clues regarding the reasons for the failures away from home.
Under a Manchester sun, City enjoy an average of 57 percent possession. Away from home, the number is even greater—an impressive 62 percent.
Passing success rate is 87 percent both at home and away, while shots per game differs by only one (18 at home, 17 away).
Yet, despite the parity between such fundamental statistics, the scoring record makes for depressing reading. 20 goals scored and two conceded in five home games, eight scored and 10 conceded in six away.
Ridiculously, during away games City actually spend more time in the attacking third of the pitch than they do when at home (32 percent of game time, versus 29 percent). Their dominating possession and area-of-the-pitch stats do not change the fact that, when taken out of the comfort of The Etihad Stadium, both goal-scoring and goal-stopping are closer to fabled yarns than definitive realities in City's Blue Moon world.
The damning statistic for the blue-half of Manchester is the shots-to-goals conversion rate. At home the team put away 22.5 percent of all chances, away that number plummets to 7.8 percent.
It seems, then, that the issue surrounding the schizophrenic performances rests in the kinds of chances City are creating.
Samir Nasri and David Silva, the team's primary creative midfielders for this season, are failing to feed the ball successfully to Alvaro Negredo or Sergio Aguero in dangerous positions. This is represented by the fact that only 27 percent of shots are taken from outside of the box when playing at home, but that number jumps to 40 percent when playing away.
Furthermore, shots from central positions account for 76 percent of total attempts when playing at home and just 66 percent when away.
It would seem that Premier League opposition playing at home is more than capable of preventing Nasri and Silva from penetrating the central core of defence. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the game against Sunderland, in which City managed just a single successful pass to a player in a central position within the opposition penalty area (although, it must be pointed out that Milner started in place of Silva for that game).
Simply put, the ballerina-esque precision inherent to the playing styles of Nasri and Silva is not suited to efficiently breaking down teams that play narrow at home—making it difficult to thread passes through the centre.
In addition, the clogging up of central areas City face when playing away means that there's no space for Yaya Toure to exploit on a lung-busting maraud forward. Only one of Toure's five Premier League goals this season has arrived during an away fixture, coming in the 3-2 defeat at Aston Villa in September.
Jesus Navas would appear to be a potential answer to this failing, a player with an incredible directness of play capable of stretching a defence by staying wide. Navas forces opponents to abandon their post up the middle and cover the wing, creating more space between centrally positioned defenders for the likes of Toure to exploit.
Pellegrini, however, seeing how well Nasri and Silva can operate at home is understandably reluctant to abandon the partnership on the basis that the next game is an away game.
And therein lies the problem. The very strengths that are winning City games at home are delivering them defeats away. Pellegrini's tactics represent at once a winning and losing formula—at times devastating, at times completely ineffectual and stinking of tactical vandalism.
In this era of squad rotation, it may well be time for a team to not just change players based on playing time and/or jet lag, but whether they're playing in their own stadium or not.
From the way Manchester City perform at home, there's no doubting that this is a team on the cusp of something very special and potentially unstoppable (at least within the confines of Premier League).
For that to happen, Pellegrini must have the courage to make changes to the away set-up before a lack of self-belief in away dressing rooms spreads back home. He must eliminate the Hyde and encourage the Jekyll, or risk the former eventually taking over completely.
Stats derived from Manchester City's WhoScored.com page.
John Robertson is a freelance journalist, you can follow him on Twitter: @robertson_john
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