Manchester City's Premier League campaign got off to a superb start Sunday. As they seek to defend their league title for a second time in three seasons, their 2-0 road win over Newcastle was the perfect opening act for what looks like another season of success.
However, it wasn't the best performance at St James' Park.
Manuel Pellegrini noted in his post-match interview with City's website that his men "played with two H's: we were humble and were hungry—we need both if we want to keep winning titles." These were certainly true, but a third H is one that should take precedence: health.
As we all know, City's squad was laced with talent that took part at the World Cup. From Yaya Toure and David Silva to Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta, a host of players made the trip to Brazil this summer and thus had preseason preparations cut short.
As such, it was not surprising at all to see a number of them withheld from the starting XI. Zabaleta did not feature at all while Aguero, Fernandinho and James Milner each came on as second-half replacements.
The Argentine paid dividends in his cameo, picking up the second goal of the game in stoppage time to seal the three points.
He looked relatively fresh, though he did play barely 10 minutes. He had been dealing with niggling problems through much of last season and the World Cup, so he will certainly be held back somewhat over the next few weeks as he gets back to his mercurial best.
Luckily, City have great depth in terms of attacking talent with the duo of Stevan Jovetic and Edin Dzeko looking superb against the Magpies. They seem to have good chemistry together, but Pellegrini can easily opt to go with just one and run a triumvirate of attacking midfielders—Silva, Samir Nasri and Jesus Navas being the primary grouping.
They are still a man short in their striking unit, too, as Alvaro Negredo nurses a broken foot. Once "The Beast" is cleared to return, the ability to rotate four upper-echelon attackers can keep players happy and healthy whilst keeping opposing defenses on their toes.
One problem area may come to the fore in the midfield.
Amongst City's biggest stars to play a part in this match, perhaps the most worrisome performance came from Yaya Toure. He certainly displayed his sublime range of passing, as evidenced by his supreme lofted pass that led to Silva's opening goal.
However, overall he looked far off his best. As Goal.com pointed out in their post-match player ratings—in which Toure received just two stars out of five—the Ivorian was "lacking his usual burst in midfield" and "uncharacteristically wasteful" at St James' Park.
He didn't take on too many of his trademark marauding runs, and some of the ones he did ended more abruptly than usual as he was closed down quickly. While his World Cup adventure was among the shorter group and thus got to feature some in preseason, he doesn't look fully up to speed right now.
This is the kind of situation where the addition of Frank Lampard will do wonders.
If Toure continues to put in performances like this, City might not be able to come away victorious every single time without him. Starting Lampard in his place every so often, given the number of fixtures City face this season, will keep their talisman fresh while maintaining a high level of quality in the squad.
If Pellegrini opts not to use the former Chelsea man, his options might be a bit limited. Fernando and Fernandinho both play a more defensive role, with the latter more likely to get forward.
Milner is a forward-thinking former central midfielder, but the tag "former" leaves him as a questionable choice. He hasn't played there much if at all since his arrival, and B/R's Sam Tighe suggested in May he must return to playing his former position to revitalize his career.
Lampard's loan ending midseason could be a crushing blow in this sense, leaving Pellegrini with even fewer options to spell his Ivorian maestro. Plus, there is the loan of preseason revelation Bruno Zuculini to Valencia, which was completed earlier Tuesday, and even the sale of Jack Rodwell to Sunderland weakens depth at the position.
On top of all that, the Africa Cup of Nations returns this winter, meaning Toure could once again be exerting himself fully for his country while his club mates soldier on without him. He may end up running himself into the ground by February if he is not given ample opportunity to rest and regain his top form.
Central defense is also an area that must be rotated adequately to maintain its high level of play.
One of the more surprising developments to arise from Sunday's match was the omission of Matija Nastasic from the 18-man squad in favor of Dedryck Boyata. The Serbia international, one of the few bright spots of the 2012-13 season after signing from Fiorentina, endured a tough follow-up campaign largely due to injury.
And now, to fall from hot prospect to surplus to requirements is discouraging. Stuart Brennan of the Manchester Evening News confirmed the 21-year-old is likely on his way out:
Pellegrini also says Nastasic, Richards, Sinclair and Guidetti are surplus to requirements.— Stuart Brennan (@StuBrennanMEN) August 17, 2014
B/R's Rob Pollard noted a number of reasons why nixing Nastasic from the squad makes little sense, if any at all. Not only is he a quality player with massive potential, but his under-21 status means he is free from the homegrown player requirements placed by the Premier League.
While Boyata showed some good signs during the preseason, Nastasic is a good step up from the Belgium international. He's proven himself at the highest level, shackling Real Madrid's bevy of attackers on his City debut.
Eliaquim Mangala's big-money arrival certainly pushed the youngster down the depth chart, but as with the other positions discussed, having the depth over the long season is an absolute necessity.
The France international is still somewhat of an unknown quantity, meaning he could be subject to rotation of his own. Martin Demichelis' vast experience with both club and country make him indispensable as a partner for captain fantastic Vincent Kompany.
Allowing both to partner the skipper over the course of the season will keep them both fresh and ready to step in when needed. Indeed, Kompany's penchant for tough tackling could see him rack up a hefty booking total, leading to suspensions that will force Pellegrini's hand.
By allowing a top-level option to leave the club, plus loaning out highly rated prospect Karim Rekik to PSV, the Chilean has cut the quality he has to choose from in such situations. To combat this, keeping Mangala and Demichelis rested should be near the top of his to-do list.
In this arduous season that lies ahead of them with four competitions sure to take their toll, keeping the stars healthy will ensure City have the best chance to retain their Premier League crown.
To do so, they must know when to let them rest and allow their supreme depth to take over.
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