At Etihad Stadium, United’s Premier League title and a season of discontent have finally woken up the noisy neighbors.
by Jack Pitt-Brooke
The difficulty for Manchester City, for the first time in years, is figuring out how to climb back to the top. Wondering how to regain a title is an uncommon concern, one that few clubs ever have to face. It is a problem that, for nearly 40 years, City would have considered a distant fantasy, like the dilemma of how to spend a lottery fortune.
But almost five years after the Abu Dhabi takeover that transformed the club, they find themselves in a new position. They spent almost $145 million on four international players this summer. The fear now, as they begin their fourth full season under Arab ownership—their first under manager Manuel Pellegrini—is that they have peaked. Winning the 2011 F.A. Cup was good, and the semifinal defeat of Manchester United gave them local bragging rights that they still maintain. Seizing the 2011–12 Premier League title was the greatest moment in the club’s history.
After the glory of 2012 and the subsequent step down, City need to regain their footing and fight their way back up. When you are used to fast forward, consolidation is difficult to abide.
The issue at City, the test of whether they can do this or will drift and fade, lies with their players. At first glance, this might not seem to be a problem. In terms of ability, depth, and aggregate talent, City have the strongest squad in the league. Manchester United have a strong stable of defenders and variety in attack but lack steel in midfield. Chelsea have fantastic creative options but need a passing heart and two more goal scorers.
City, though, especially after this summer’s recruiting, have the whole set. They have, providing Matija Nastasi´c gets fit, a pair of excellent center backs with solid support. They have two good fullbacks on either side and a good set of midfield options, even after the rather negligent decision to let Gareth Barry go to Everton. Jack Rodwell, Fernandinho, Yaya Touré and Javi García cover everything they might want in the middle of the pitch, while Samir Nasri, David Silva, James Milner, and Jesus Navas bring skill, guile, craft, and pace, respectively, between the midfield and the front line. There, City have four forwards, the fourth of which is Edin Džeko, which shows how strong that bunch is.
It is the best squad in the league. But sometimes when you watch them play, you see a softness at the heart of Manchester City, a spirit deficit that cost them last year.
It might seem perverse to root for signs of weakness among success. By any measure, the 2011–12 season was one of the best in City’s history, returning their first title since 1968 as well as 5-1 and 6-1 wins at White Hart Lane and Old Trafford. The quality of play, for the first half and the final stretch of the season, were excellent—Vincent Kompany, Touré, Silva and Sergio Agüero playing up to their reputations as the league’s best in their roles.
Despite a strong start to the season, City collapsed after Christmas. They lost at Sunderland and Everton in January, at Swansea in March, and at Arsenal in April—the sort of crucial away games United win as a matter of course.
At almost no point did City look like they believed they could retain the title. Their squad had not improved much, contrary to Roberto Mancini’s requests, and United had signed Robin van Persie. The inner fire that seems to sustain Chelsea and United was lacking.
The title race was over remarkably quickly. City stumbled to soft away draws at Liverpool and Stoke, lost at Sunderland as they always do, and then managed to draw at QPR. And then, once the game was up, the rot became clear. The 3-1 defeat at Southampton on Feb. 9 was the worst performance online casino under Mancini, the worst by any City team since the 3-0 embarrassment at White Hart Lane of Christmas 2009, which cost Mark Hughes his job.
The players looked as if they knew the league was gone and so was Mancini. They were right on both counts. The 2-0 defeat at Everton in March was just as dismal.
There was still one chance of success—an F.A. Cup final against Wigan Athletic. But they went down to a far more spirited side. These failures could all be pinned on Mancini, whose dismissal became public on the eve of the final. He failed to rally the players, but a final at Wembley should have been motivation enough and City flubbed it.
All of which makes you wonder what exactly it is they are lacking, and where they could find it. The defensive base of their title-winning side, Joe Hart and Kompany, both started last season poorly.
The big attacking players, those meant to deliver the goals, seemed to be on sabbatical.
Touré, City’s most reliable clutch player, was unable to re-create his past feats. A dominant figure in all of City’s past games at Wembley, he was outmaneuvered by little James McCarthy in the Cup Final. Silva, the brain of City for the past three seasons, looked worn down by his relentless schedule with City and the Spanish national team, which took him to the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. Already this season, Silva has struggled with muscle injuries, and you wonder if he will ever find his old rhythm again.
Then there is Kun Agüero, arguably the most decisive player in City’s history. It is hard to think of an area of Agüero’s game he could improve—he is fast, strong, perfectly balanced, two-footed, and the rest. But when you see Luis Suárez play, you are tempted to wonder just how good Agüero would be if he had the same intensity.
None of which is to say that City are poor or even flawed, just that there is a flame some teams have that does not burn as brightly as it might at the Etihad Stadium. The four summer recruits—all excellent players—might give them enough power and quality to roll the rest of the league over. The new manager might find the right combinations, handle his transition better than José Mourinho or David Moyes, and get what is required out of his players.
They say a team’s away performances are the truest sign of its competitive character, and this season has not been a triumph in that regard yet. City were overwhelmed by a ferocious—but newly promoted—Cardiff City and beaten 3-2 before limping to a soft 0-0 draw at Stoke City, neither time showing the courage or focus needed in that type of match.
The title and a return to the summit are still well within City’s grasp, since football matches are, more often than not, won by the team with the best players. But if they do not, you will wonder if City quite have that required fire to guide them back to the top.
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