As a thrilling Premier League title race approaches its intriguing final act, Manchester City have some bad habits to shake.
A top four separated by seven points at the start of April is a wonderful prospect for both neutrals and the fans of those clubs involved.
It is also a state of affairs that seemed most unlikely when City were cutting a swathe through all before them around the turn of the year.
Bookended by 6-0 and 5-1 thrashings of Tottenham on November 24 and January 29, Manuel Pellegrini’s team went 20 games unbeaten in all competitions.
They won 18 of those matches and, following the latter dismembering of Spurs at White Hart Lane, the plaudits flowed.
The Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel perhaps hollered loudest amid a chorus of commentators eager to affix blue and white ribbons to the Premier League trophy.
Most significantly, that result took City to the Premier League summit. A haphazard start to life under Pellegrini—including defeats at Cardiff, Aston Villa and Sunderland—meant the primary function of their relentless run was one of catch up.
But after that glorious, sodden night in north London, the 2011-12 champions looked down on the rest. Time to make arrangements—make sure the proverbial Fat Lady has room in her schedule.
Only then, a couple of troubling problems surfaced. Last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Arsenal showed one remains.
The other is in danger of rearing its head when Southampton visit the Etihad Stadium tomorrow, something that could do irreparable damage to City’s title bid.
The first concern is a lack of killer instinct. A feature of the Premier League battle is City’s destiny remaining in their own hands by virtue of games in hand. Jose Mourinho brings this up occasionally, via BBC Sport.
City’s propensity to toy with this destiny, in the manner a kitten paws a ball of yarn, rather than grasping it fiercely serves to give their rivals hope.
Five days after their Tottenham high-water mark, Pellegrini’s men welcomed Chelsea to Manchester.
Boasting 11 home wins from as many league outings in 2013-14 and having last failed to score during a top-flight contest at the Etihad Stadium in November 2010, City froze.
Injuries to Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri and Fernandinho provided mitigating circumstances but, in reality, the 1-0 scoreline in Chelsea’s favour flattered the hosts.
Mourinho’s team pulled level on points after many tipped them to be six back. City comprehensively failed to retain the initiative but another opportunity presented itself five days later.
Pellegrini’s team stepped out at Carrow Road to face Norwich knowing a win would take them to the top after Liverpool dismantled Arsenal 5-1 in the early kick-off. They could only draw 0-0.
In fairness, those results were the start of a general form slump. Maybe a drop-off was understandable considering the rampant form that preceded it.
The last few weeks have seen City regain their mojo. Inspired by irresistible displays from David Silva in a central playmaking role, Hull, Fulham and Manchester United were impressively dispatched in matches featuring 10 unanswered goals.
When Silva opened the scoring at the Emirates Stadium last Saturday, the title favourites were poised to go top again—Crystal Palace having contributed a huge favour by sinking Chelsea 1-0.
Once more, they failed to seal the deal as a rejuvenated Arsenal emerged for the second half and Mathieu Flamini’s goal secured a share of the spoils.
In the context of City’s dismal record at Arsenal (via arsenal-world.co.uk) during the Premier League era, a point against a fine team should not be sniffed at.
Nevertheless, this was an Arsenal side still reeling from a 6-0 thrashing at Chelsea.
City toyed with and dominated a wounded animal before half-time. They did not put it out of its misery, lacking a ruthlessness they will require in the coming weeks.
Problem number two is a propensity to switch off on the eve of significant matches. This should certainly boost Southampton, with the words “title” and “decider” already liberally uttered around City’s April 13 trip to Liverpool.
Let us examine their two biggest games last month: the Capital One Cup final versus Sunderland and UEFA Champions League tie at Barcelona.
Before their date with Sunderland at the national stadium, City laboured horribly against Stoke and might have been behind by the time Yaya Toure netted the only goal.
Seemingly with more than one eye on the midweek Catalonian jaunt, the Blues tossed away their progress to the FA Cup quarter-finals as former crowd hero Uwe Rosler steered his Wigan to a deserved 2-1 win.
There is evidence from earlier in the season too, with the chastening 3-2 loss at Villa coming the weekend before European champions Bayern Munich arrived in town.
Factoring in the periods of dominance Southampton enjoyed during December’s 1-1 draw with City at St. Mary’s—their high-tempo midfield pressing game not dissimilar to the one Rosler and Wigan found so fruitful—and a match against a side fresh from thumping Newcastle 4-0 appears riven with pitfalls.
“Take each game as it comes.” James Milner was the elected cliche peddler on mcfc.co.uk this week. Decisive actions will speak much louder than well-worn words on Saturday.
City’s defensive unit is demonstrably better than Liverpool’s, their attack the envy of Mourinho (via the Daily Telegraph) and Chelsea, while a midfield boasting Fernandinho, Toure and Silva stands comparison with any in the world on paper.
But league titles are won as much in the mind at this stage of the season—a stage famously dubbed “squeaky-bum time” by Sir Alex Ferguson. It is time for City to park mental frailties and let their quality shine through.