There’s still plenty for Manchester City to play for this season, but, so far, it’s been somewhat underwhelming.
A five-match winning run at the start of the season was the first and last time they have displayed anything close to title-winning consistency.
It’s easy to forget just how good City were in those first five games. They didn’t just win them all; they destroyed West Bromwich Albion, Chelsea, Everton, Watford and Crystal Palace without conceding a goal. It was total domination, and some pundits were ready to hand them the title.
But since then, it’s been a season riddled with setbacks. You can count City’s good performances on one hand. Sevilla away was exceptional; the second half of the Capital One Cup semi-final second leg against Everton was superb. Very little else has reached the level we expect from this talented group of players.
Joe Hart and Fernandinho have excelled and would surely top the list of the fans’ best players so far this season. And not far behind them would be Bacary Sagna, a player whose improvement this season has been one of the more encouraging subplots to a frustrating campaign.
He moved to City in the summer of 2014, a free transfer from Arsenal, in a deal that was seen as a no-brainer for City. Here was a vastly experienced right-back with proven Premier League pedigree available for no fee. City, who had pretty much given up on Micah Richards ever recovering form and fitness, needed additional cover in that area, and Sagna was identified as the man.
The theory was to bring him in and allow Pablo Zabaleta, who had been horribly overworked during the two previous years, regular rests.
It didn’t quite work out. Zabaleta was fully fit and in fine form, meaning Sagna’s chances were at a premium. He started just 14 times in all competitions and struggled to establish any rhythm.
It’s difficult for a player who is playing so infrequently to find anything like their best form, particularly one trying to adapt to a new side after spending nine years at one club.
Yet, still he was criticised. There was a feeling he was nowhere near Zabaleta’s level, and City would have been better off using a young player. A waste of wages and, at 31, too old.
This season, though, opinions have, quite rightly, changed. He’s been superb and is the most improved player in the City squad.
With Zabaleta, previously indestructible, suffering two significant knee injuries, Sagna has been relied upon this season to hold down the right-back spot. It’s a role in modern-day football that requires a high level of energy expenditure, with rotation seen by most managers as key.
Yet, Sagna has played 33 times already this season. His total of 1,980 minutes of league action is the highest of any outfield player in the City squad. His performance level, despite those demands, has remained high throughout the campaign.
Defensively, he rarely lets the side down. He’s intelligent, solid in the tackle and understands how to play as part of a unit. There have been plenty of times this season when the rest of the back four have been completely disorganised, yet he has managed to offer some sanity among the chaos.
Going forward, he lacks Zabaleta’s brilliance, but he has offered plenty of quality. His overlapping run and cross in the dying moments of the game away at Watford in January that brilliantly set up Sergio Aguero for the winner was superb. With Jesus Navas, in particular, he shares an excellent understanding, with the pair attacking and defending as a unit.
The City fans who doubted him during his first season at the club couldn’t have seen him much during his time at Arsenal. The Sagna we have seen since August is much more like the one who spent nine years at the Emirates and impressed throughout.
In an interview with David Anderson of the Mirror earlier in the season, Sagna said:
It’s funny because people have been saying that since I had my haircut in the summer, I’ve been playing better.
But I’ve twice been voted the right back of the season—in 2007 and 2008—and I had my old haircut then so I don’t think the haircut has anything to do with it.
It’s just down to having more playing time this season and learning every day.
When there’s a player of the quality of Pablo Zabaleta in the right-back position, I know I have to keep pushing myself. I’m lucky because it’s good for Pablo, good for me and good for City.
I came here because I wanted to play for City—one of the best teams in Europe—so it’s really nice to hear the fans appreciate me.
If I can enjoy a fantastic season with France in the Euros, as well as with City, this could be my best and most successful year. That’s what I’m hoping for and I believe it can happen.
However, at 33, he is a player who will need replacing sooner rather than later. Pep Guardiola’s arrival this summer will see seismic changes to City’s squad, with the Spaniard favouring a high-intensity style of play that demands every last drop of energy from his players.
Full-backs, in particular, are under severe pressure. They are expected to contribute to the attacking side of the game whenever the side go forward, while always being defensively sound. It's a young man's position, and Guardiola may look to bring players in to revolutionise his options.
There were serious concerns last season that City's squad was too old. Recent recruits—Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling—represent an attempt to bring the average age down. That policy is likely to be extended this summer.
But Sagna deserves huge praise for the way he has negotiated this season. It hasn't been easy. City's defending has been poor, and he has been overused. His performances, in that context, have been excellent.
It's fair to say that in a season where most of City's players have struggled for consistency, he has been one of the exceptions to the rule.
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_.