5 Factors in Manchester City Blowing the Premier League Title
Perennial bogey team Sunderland left the Etihad Stadium with a deserved 2-2 draw on Wednesday night, the hosts only partially spared by a horrible error from Vito Mannone that allowed Samir Nasri to equalise.
Of greater significance was Nasri’s glaring miss when presented with a chance to pilfer the points moments later. Following defeat to leaders Liverpool at Anfield last Sunday, only a win would do.
City retain a game in hand on Brendan Rodgers’ side and Chelsea, but they are six and four points adrift, respectively, of the two remaining, genuine contenders.
So where did it all go wrong for a team who, until last Sunday, and for much of the season, held the fate of the title in their own hands?
City fans certainly seemed reluctant to share in the premature January coronations bestowed upon their team. Defensive frailties never truly went away, and key players struggled for form and fitness under a popular manager of whom questions must now be asked.
Football matches are largely settled by the performance of 22 players on the field and the decisions of managers and officials.
Nevertheless, the phenomenon of home advantage rings true throughout sport, so it is fair to assume those on the terrace have an impact, however negligible.
Via BBC Sport's Ben Smith, Brendan Rodgers pledged to "unleash" the force of the Anfield crowd on Manchester City in last Sunday’s pivotal game.
On an occasion emotionally charged by the 25th anniversary commemorations of the Hillsborough disaster, a fervent atmosphere was a noticeable feature as Liverpool overcame City’s excellent second-half comeback to prevail, 3-2.
When City trooped out at the Etihad Stadium to face Sunderland on Wednesday night, the contrast was staggering. For a club that rightly prides itself on the fierce loyalty shown by a 30,000-strong core during the dark days of Second Division football, the comparison is deeply uncomfortable.
Empty seats peppered the Etihad throughout ,and despite Fernandinho’s early opening goal, support remained tepid at best during a must-win encounter.
Connor Wickham fired Sunderland into a 2-1 lead and a mass exodus followed. This at a club where Division Two salvation and Premier League glory both arrived via improbable last-gasp acts. Samir Nasri almost did it again, and invoking the famous deeds of Paul Dickov and Sergio Aguero would certainly have been one in the eye for this onset of collective amnesia.
Maybe that rise from the depths to the summit of English football gave the City supporters their fill. Can anything stir previous passions when wildest dreams have been realised?
Trips to Wembley are now the norm—the blue half of the national stadium was noticeably more subdued during this season’s Capital One Cup triumph than when their heroes unseated Manchester United in the 2011 FA Cup semi-final.
As a new generation of City fans come to know nothing but top-flight football, their Liverpool contemporaries are somewhat detached from their own club’s trophy-rich years. The collective will to see things through is unquestionably greater at Anfield.
Manuel Pellegrini inherited a number of problematic issues (see David Bond, BBC Sport) when he succeeded Roberto Mancini as Manchester City manager last summer. A poor defence was not one of them.
For the third successive year, England goalkeeper Joe Hart picked up the Golden Glove for the most clean sheets in 2012/13.
Dalliances with 3-5-2 apart, defence was the only area where it could be argued City’s title-winning team of 2011/12 had improved. Matija Nastasic—the lone bright spot from a haphazard 2012 summer transfer window—usurped Joleon Lescott to partner Vincent Kompany at the heart of defence and played with a maturity beyond his years.
But managers are creatures of habit and Pellegrini imposed his favoured man-marking method at the expense of zonal marking for set pieces, while operating with a high defensive line to underpin an expansive approach in open play.
Poor finishing and some sterling individual work from Kompany prevented Newcastle from exploiting this new-look City in an ultimately comfortable 4-0 opening win. Next game at Cardiff, they fell apart at a pair of corners and suffered a shock 3-2 loss.
On Wednesday night, Sunderland found joy via City’s high line and, especially during the first period, from corners. August’s problems remain despite a recent run of five consecutive Premier League clean sheets.
Changes in the collective defensive approach also saw more than one player unravel. Before injuries ravaged his campaign, Nastastic’s assurance deserted him almost entirely. “Second-season syndrome” completely took hold.
Hart and Martin Demichelis have come through the other side of error-strewn spells that saw the former dropped for his own good and the latter inexplicably still on the team.
Attack-minded full-back Aleksandar Kolarov has enjoyed his best season in Manchester under Pellegrini. But untimely lapses remain, and the Serbia international has also benefited from a sharp decline by fellow left-back Gael Clichy—a model of consistency during the past two seasons.
Only Argentina right-back Pablo Zabaleta has the right to be pleased with his overall defensive contribution this term. As the gloom closed in against Sunderland, it was somewhat inevitable that the crowd favourite was the man raging against the dying of the light.
An inspirational captain and a world-class defender, Vincent Kompany is the towering figurehead of the modern Manchester City.
To suggest the brilliant Belgian is anything but a resounding positive for the club feels like madness. To many City fans, it is outright sacrilege.
It should not be forgotten that Kompany has produced arguably his finest performances this season.
You would travel a long way and almost certainly return disappointed in pursuit of a more authoritative display from centre-half than the one Kompany imposed upon Wayne Rooney and Co. as City bludgeoned Manchester United, 4-1, in September’s derby.
As the Blues came up short against Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League, their skipper went toe-to-toe with the world’s best and won deserved rave reviews.
There is another side to the coin. Kompany was certainly at fault for two (probably three) of Liverpool’s Anfield strikes last weekend.
A knee problem nursed admirably through the game provided mitigating circumstances. It did not for a horrible misjudgement that saw him sent off at Hull. Or the lapse that helped Sunderland into an early Capital One Cup final lead. Or a hacked own goal at Fulham.
Kompany has played this season like a high-performance racing car with the needle in the red. He is capable of powerful dominance but appears at risk of flying off the track at any moment.
Pellegrini’s reshaped defensive system has something to answer for here, but Kompany’s general demeanour over the past year suggests his malaise runs deeper.
When Mark Hughes was unceremoniously sacked to make way for Roberto Mancini midway through the 2009/10 season, Craig Bellamy led a potential mutiny among the ranks.
Kompany, a Hughes signing, was not one of them and used an interview on City’s official website to position himself unswervingly behind the new boss.
Under Mancini, Kompany was transformed from midfield and defence utility man into one of the world’s leading centre-backs, captaining City to Premier League glory.
And yet, as things unravelled last term, Kompany was reported to be among the players disillusioned by Mancini’s authoritarian methods, according to The Daily Mirror.
Events turning full circle in such an unpalatable manner would be an ordeal for many. Yet Kompany must continue, leading the finest Belgium side for generations at Brazil 2014.
From a selfishly City point of view, he doesn’t need a World Cup—he needs a holiday.
Sportingintelligence revealed this week that Manchester City pay the highest average wage of any sports team on the planet.
Sympathy for a few injuries within this motley assortment of multimillionaires is likely to be in short supply.
Nevertheless, it would be churlish to ignore the amount of setbacks to key players that have undermined City a pivotal times of the season.
Sergio Aguero, having recovered from a calf complaint in December, was back in the form of his life against Tottenham at White Hart Lane in January. The waspish forward opened the scoring in a 5-1 mauling and boarded on unplayable before sustaining a hamstring strain.
Since that night, Aguero is scoreless in five appearances, having suffered a recurrence at the Nou Camp last month. He still has 26 goals in 30 appearances this term.
If Aguero played a full season, it is highly likely articles regarding City’s failure to win the Premier League would not exist.
Fernandinho joined the Argentina striker on the sidelines for the visit of Chelsea, stripping City’s midfield bare to the extent that Martin Demichelis provided a make-shift partner for Yaya Toure.
Pellegrini deemed unused substitutes, and specialist midfielders, James Milner and Jack Rodwell short of match fitness. City lost, 1-0, and have never regained momentum.
Groin problems restricted Vincent Kompany to six appearances before December, as early-season points were shelled. Fellow centre-back Matija Nastasic has not featured since Feb. 3.
Kompany dragged a battered knee through defeat at Anfield, where Toure injured his groin and David Silva unfurled a stellar display despite his nagging ankle complaint. The latter two missed out against Sunderland.
Alvaro Negredo’s free-scoring form completely evaporated after a shoulder injury picked up at West Ham. The fact City held a 9-0 aggregate lead during those closing stages of the Capital One Cup semi-final makes the Spain targetman's decline all the more galling.
Each balletic touch produced in substitute appearances by forward Stevan Jovetic is a tantalising annotation on a debut Premier League campaign decimated by fitness woes.
Any money in the world would struggle to cover such losses. Perhaps City should direct their next wage hike towards the club’s medical department.
As Manchester City brought up 20 games unbeaten in all competitions either side of the New Year, four trophies lay on their horizon, and Manuel Pellegrini was understandably lauded.
Now that the sparklingly panoramic view has faded, in all probability, to the Capital One Cup, it is only right that questions should be asked.
City thrilled the world with a swashbuckling, free-flowing style midway through the season. Early teething problems under Pellegrini were forgotten, and everything clicked gloriously.
But problems arose against teams with a clear plan to stop City having things their own way and the tools to make this a reality.
Chelsea demonstrated supreme tactical organisation in their 1-0 win at the Etihad Stadium in February, while Liverpool tore at their title rivals with irresistible verve in the opening stages last weekend.
On both occasions, Pellegrini demonstrated a naive inflexibility to deviate from his chosen path.
Martin Demichelis passes the ball nicely but was a terrible call at the base of the midfield against Chelsea, irrespective of injury problems in the position. At Anfield, James Milner’s intelligent robustness turned the game in City’s favour—if only he had started in place of first-half passengers Samir Nasri and Jesus Navas.
This lack of cold calculation points toward the root of all reservations over Pellegrini: His teams play wonderful football, but he is not a winner.
He could not realistically be expected to pick up stacks of silverware while doing fine jobs at Villarreal and Malaga. But Pellegrini’s season at Real Madrid, examined here by fourfourtwo.com, in 2009/10 is uncomfortably instructive.
Numerous wins were chalked up and records broken, but both games against champions Barcelona were lost, Lyon upstaged Real in the Champions League and lower-league Alcorcon humiliated them in the Copa Del Rey.
This term, City lost twice to Chelsea in league meetings, surrendered an inviting punt at the FA Cup at the hands of Championship team Wigan and passed up countless opportunities to take a firm grip on the title race—the last two away games at Arsenal and Liverpool the latest and most frustrating examples.
Pellegrini’s job should certainly not come under question at this stage. He won the Capital One Cup and deserves the chance to rekindle the magic of December and January. As debut seasons in Premier League management go, his stacks up well.
But City fans should prepare for Pellegrini to align himself with Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger, the league’s other great dugout artist. While Wenger’s and Pellegrini’s team paint pretty pictures across the turf, the calculating, pragmatic managers among English football’s elite might be busy picking up league titles.