Winter is well and truly upon us, and so is the half-way point of the Premier League season. Manchester City find themselves second after a run of 10 wins and a draw saw them cut Arsenal’s lead from six points at the start of December to just one point as it stands.
City are also into the last 16 of the Champions League for the very first time and have a Capital One Cup semi-final with West Ham to look forward to. A potential Manchester derby at Wembley awaits them if they can beat the Hammers over two legs.
Their main objective this season, however, is to reclaim the Premier League title, and here we look back at the first few months of Manuel Pellegrini's time in the English top flight.
Impressive Summer Transfer Window
It became clear very early on that Pellegrini was sticking to the principles that had defined his nine-year spell in Spain as manager of Villarreal, Real Madrid and Malaga. His attacking philosophy has served him well, and with money at his disposal to add to his squad, he set about giving City a new edge.
In came Jesus Navas to solve the club’s chronic lack of width and pace; Alvaro Negredo, a physical presence they so badly lacked; and Fernandinho, a midfield player with energy and outstanding defensive qualities. He also brought in Stevan Jovetic, one of the most sought-after young players in Europe.
It was a spending spree completed in no time at all, allowing Pellegrini maximum time to work with his new squad. After the debacle of the previous summer’s transfer window, City were suddenly the envy of many other clubs, acting swiftly and decisively in the market, without fuss or rejection.
City’s pre-season was similarly serene. The intensity of their preparations increased gradually, and by the time they were set to face Newcastle in their first match of the new season, they had the look of a cohesive unit, despite the influx of new players.
A Mixed Beginning
The opening match was a masterclass in how to press hard and overwhelm the opposition with attacking intent.
Newcastle were battered.
The final score was 4-0, but that flattered the visitors. Early-season excitement saw City fans dreaming of a second title win in three seasons, but they would soon be brought down to earth by City’s poor away form.
One point from two dour trips to Cardiff and Stoke, as well as a laboured home win over Hull, tempered the optimism. The new style of play would take time to implement, and City fans would have to be patient.
But then came the 4-1 win over Manchester United, the most comprehensive performance against their great rivals in recent memory. Even the 6-1 victory at Old Trafford during their title-winning season under Roberto Mancini wasn’t as overwhelmingly impressive as this. It was total domination from start to finish, and City fans once again started dreaming of going on a good run and establishing themselves at the top of the table.
But a 3-2 defeat at Villa Park followed—easily City’s most frustrating afternoon of the season so far. They dominated the match, and for the first 60 minutes the game was played in the Villa half, but a dodgy free-kick and offside decision—and a mix-up between Joe Hart and Matija Nastasic—saw Villa somehow escape with the points.
Again, though, a disappointing away day was followed up by a comfortable home win, this time against Everton. A pattern was emerging; a pattern that would undoubtedly prevent City from challenging at the top of the table were it to be replicated over the season. Vincent Kompany's injury in the Everton game meant he would miss the next six league games.
Two away matches followed, including City’s first win on the road in the league against West Ham at Upton Park, but then came the defeat at Stamford Bridge. City had controlled the match and looked set to take a well-earned point back to Manchester, but Hart’s latest aberration allowed Fernando Torres to score the winner in the final moments.
Hart had been at fault for goals at Cardiff, Villa and now Chelsea, and Pellegrini dropped him. The manager knew his side’s away form had to improve, and with a ‘keeper so badly out of form it was going to be tough to change.
Other players, though, were beginning to shine. Alvaro Negredo looked like the striker City had needed for many years, with his strength, pace and goalscoring making him incredibly difficult to contain, and Fernandinho, who had struggled initially, was blossoming into the best defensive midfielder in the division.
City Find Their Groove
November saw two huge home wins—a 7-0 win over Norwich and a 6-0 battering of Tottenham—which confirmed that when things click, there is no better side in the division. However, the old away problem reared its head again, as City lost 1-0 away at Sunderland.
One step forward, two steps back.
Then came December. On paper, it looked a tough month. As well as a trip to Bayern in the Champions League and a League Cup quarter-final tie at Leicester, City had seven league games to negotiate, too. They won six and drew one, including the 6-3 win over Arsenal and away wins at West Brom and Fulham. It was title-winning form that cut Arsenal’s lead at the top of the table from six points to one.
The New Year’s Day win over Swansea at the Liberty Stadium was City’s 10th win in 11 matches since the defeat at Sunderland—a run that has seen them put doubts about their away form to bed.
Pellegrini has implemented a new all-out attacking style at City, and it's reaping the rewards. They play the most attractive brand of football in the county—exhilarating when everything comes together. If the spine of their side—Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, Fernandinho, David Silva and Sergio Aguero—can remain fit for the majority of the season, they will be huge favourites to win the title.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @TypicalCity.
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