It’s been a mixed season for Manchester City.
Their Premier League form has been patchy at best. Given the quality in their squad and the lack of consistency among their expected rivals, City should be in a far stronger position. Their total of 50 points from 28 games is their lowest at this stage of the season since 2009 and underlines their extreme inconsistency.
Some of the statistics make for grim reading. City are without back-to-back league wins for five months and have failed to beat a top-eight side all season. Their recent run of three defeats in succession was their worst sequence since November 2008. Overall, they’ve lost a lamentable eight games already this season.
Manuel Pellegrini, who will leave the club in the summer, must surely accept that City’s performances simply haven’t been good enough. He stands on the brink of history, with the opportunity to leave the club with as many major trophies as Joe Mercer, City’s most successful manager.
If the Chilean fails to do that because of City’s inability to win a league there for the taking, it would be the biggest missed opportunity of his career and a blemish that would haunt him forever.
They won the third major trophy of his tenure just over a week ago, thanks to a victory in the League Cup final against Liverpool, and there have been signs of significant improvement in the Champions League.
City topped their group for the first time and now have one foot firmly in the quarter-finals, having beaten Dynamo Kiev 3-1 in the first leg of their last-16 tie. If they make it to the last eight, it would be new ground for the club—a significant step towards achieving their ultimate ambition of winning Europe’s elite tournament.
In flashes, they’ve looked very good, but those moments have been too few and far between. Frustrating is the word their fans would most often use to describe the season thus far.
They won their first five games of the season without conceding a goal, wiping the floor with each opponent put in front of them and racing to an early lead in the Premier League table. Some pundits were ready to have the trophy engraved there and then.
Their form soon suffered, though, and they could never find that same consistency. Since then, it’s been fleeting brilliance rather than anything more sustained.
They played with pace and urgency, moving the ball quickly and effectively, in the away wins over Sevilla and Dynamo Kiev in Champions League and showed wonderful resolve to beat Everton in the semi-final of the League Cup having suffered a series of poor refereeing decisions over the two legs. Their display in the League Cup final, too, was impressive.
But those games have been interspersed by everything from unconvincing displays to total hammerings. The setbacks have been frequent and dispiriting. The general consensus is that incoming manager Pep Guardiola will need to oversee an overhaul if he wants the side to play in his image and achieve the club’s ambitions.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this season and last has been the side’s tendency to wilt when put under pressure. City weren’t at their best last season, far from it, but they weren’t outplayed too often, either. This year has been different.
The 4-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur back in September saw a spectacular collapse, which was quickly followed by a 4-1 battering at home to Liverpool—the two heaviest defeats City have suffered since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover in 2008.
The same happened against Stoke City, where the 2-0 win the home side managed flattered Pellegrini's side. It could have been five or six.
And then on Wednesday, Liverpool inflicted their second big victory over City in the league, winning 3-0 and totally dominating the game from start to finish.
City mustered one shot on target at Anfield, a pea-roller from the right boot of the hapless Wilfried Bony, in a game that saw them outfought and outclassed by one of the poorest Liverpool sides in recent memory. Not good enough.
Those defeats can be grouped together by virtue of their comprehensive nature. City have lost plenty of games in recent seasons, but not too many in such convincing fashion. They’ve made something of a habit of being totally outplayed this season, a worrying trend, particularly for a club with such an array of talent.
Those defeats are also linked by the style of play the opposition adopted. Each time, a high-intensity game—where the opponents pressed high and hard—unnerved and unsettled City. It wasn’t necessarily tactical genius or superb individual quality that undid them; it was sheer hard work and fighting qualities that saw them unravel.
Is it a lack of desire or mental frailty? Capitulating like they frequently have done certainly won’t be accepted under Guardiola, who is known as one of the most demanding managers in the game. City have a soft centre, and if you go after them—hard and at pace—they crumble in shockingly easy fashion.
City’s 2014/15 season was disappointing, too, but at this stage of the campaign they had scored seven more goals, conceded four less and lost just four of their 28 games. To even be in with a chance of winning the title, which they remarkably still are, is quite unbelievable and indicative of the weird season we’ve had the pleasure of watching unfold.
With more defeats, less goals and a leakier defence, it could be argued City have looked poorer all over the pitch. Defending has been a problem, alleviated somewhat by Vincent Kompany’s recent return, but there’s still clearly an issue.
The money spent on Eliaquim Mangala looks increasingly misguided, and Nicolas Otamendi is yet to settle. It may be at the back that Guardiola’s overhaul is most aggressive in its change.
They have added pace, though. There were times last season when they seriously lacked speed on the break, whereas now—with Raheem Sterling’s arrival and the improved fitness of Sergio Aguero—they look sharper. That, at least, is something on which Guardiola can build.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2015/16 season. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @RobPollard_.