Poor Transfer Dealings And Unneeded Tactical Tinkering: Did Manchester City Even Want To Win The League?
It’s not over yet. I remember last season, but I also remember 1996, when Keegan’s Newcastle United side visited Maine Road 12 points clear at the end of February, played out a 3-all draw that may just be the most thrilling football match I have ever witnessed anywhere, and blew it. Kinkladze was sensational, Rosler inspirational, Philippe Albert scored an exquisite goal, Tino Asprilla an even better one and as the final whistle blew, attempted to knock seven bells out of Keith Curle directly in front of the Kippax. Oh my days. More relevantly, Van Persie could get injured. But in reality, we’re relying on United bottling it more than a Pepsi factory. The odds aren’t favourable.
At Southampton, City threw in a collectively poor performance. It happens. If you’re not a Manchester City fan, ask yourself the last time your lot played like drains. It’s probably a recent memory. They were beaten by the better side. Sometimes performances like this don’t require further analysis. The whole team just underperformed, they should all know it and we move on to the next game and, it is sincerely to be hoped, a dramatic improvement.
Some of the criticisms of the team are, of course, extreme. Given the number of times they have rescued points from losing positions and the fact they’ve won twice away in the Premier League this season despite playing with 10 men for more than half the game, this City side has earned a pass on the questioning of their desire.
But the players look ever so slightly bulky and musclebound rather than lithe and quick this season. Questioning the physical preparation of the squad (and not their professionalism) does seem legitimate.
Of the summer signings, Matija Nastasic is an excellent player and a fine spot, but he’s very young. Javi García has improved after a mediocre start and may be better next season but looks very much like a deluxe squad player. Maicon has spent too much time injured (although he has impressed on occasions), Rodwell needs to go out on loan, play 10 games in succession, get fit and come back next season and Scott Sinclair just isn’t good enough. Danielle De Rossi would have been a player of an entirely different order.
As for player sales, whatever criticism was thrown at Adam Johnson, he looks much more likely to influence a game than Sinclair. Balotelli’s departure deprived us a genius penalty taker, but the biggest loss has been Nigel de Jong – not an especially important player when things are going well, but vital in turning one point into three on an average to so-so day.
In the end Manchester City didn’t have the greatest transfer window last summer – but if Nastasic develops into one of the best defenders in the league, history may judge it more kindly.
Longer term, (and I know this sounds bizarre from a City fan), austerity – at least relative to recent years - is playing a role.
Amazingly, it appears that City have a good chance of evading the clutches of financial fair play. If this statement astonishes you, even the anti-Glazer United blog Andersred agrees with it. The Champions League money, exploding commercial revenues, the Etihad sponsorship deal, the “if you take us down, we’re taking PSG, Chelsea, a load of Russian clubs, and for the hell of it, Real Madrid and Barcelona with us too” argument, some expensive lawyers and clever gaming of the rules will all play a role in this, but the elephant in the room is the new Premier League TV deal that has made what were once highly optimistic revenue forecasts look entirely realistic.
Either City have been incredibly lucky that BT’s entry into the live TV footy market has ridden to the rescue (the Andersred view) or Sheikh Mansour, a man with a history of very astute long term investment decisions, made a bet back in 2008 on the rising value of Premier League broadcast rights that is starting to look good.
This contract, allied to the fact that the Mark Hughes supermarket sweep of 2008-09 is now falling off the calculations and all the points above means that even if Manchester City don’t meet every requirement, they are going to demonstrate clearly that they are heading towards compliance. The worst likely outcome is the sort of slap on the wrist UEFA normally reserves for clubs and federations whose supporters make opposing players run the gauntlet of horrific racist abuse. The morality of that outcome is owned by UEFA and not City.
However, to do this, if nearly 30 million quid can be cleared from the sale of a fourth choice striker and third choice winger (in Johnson’s case, City doubled their money), then it’s difficult to say no. De Jong had to go because he was in the last year of his contract.
But above all, the trophy players simply haven’t played as well this season as last. Hart has veered between brilliant and erratic. A period of solid consistency would be welcome. Kompany started the season below par, improved and then got injured. Aguero has also spent too long injured and when he has been fit, he’s spent too long in areas of the pitch that don’t hurt the opposition. No wonder his goal production has fallen. He needs to play to the width of the penalty area and become a fox in the box once again. David Silva has played close to his potential, but his injury came at exactly the wrong moment for City’s European campaign. When we really needed him, he was sitting in the stand. Yaya Toure has been the biggest disappointment of all, occasionally rising to last season’s standard but more often looking a little laboured. He is a player that tends to peak in the spring, but it looks like it will be too late by then. Hart, Kompany, Aguero, Silva, Yaya – that is the team. By contrast, slightly lesser lights like Barry, Clichy, Tevez and Dzeko have all done OK by their high standards, but no more. Only Pablo Zabaleta can say he’s been at the top of his game all season.
As for the manager, as well as arguably miscalculating the players’ physical preparation, he’s underused James Milner, relied too much on the inconsistent Nasri and could have used Lescott and Kolarov a little more. I don’t criticise him for the three at the back experiment. It has worked as well as failed this season and injury has denied Mancini the chance to use the ideally suited Micah Richards in the system. Of the stars’ travails, only Aguero’s mildly disappointing season can seriously be laid at the manager’s door. Put it this way, there are clubs with longer lists of grievances about their boss.
When our rivals bought the best striker in the Premier League, the short-term result at least seems inevitable.
So it’s the FA Cup now for City. Put it this way, I think it’s unlikely too many players will be rested for the visit of Leeds United next weekend.
Will Mancini still be in Beswick in August? To the intense disappointment and occasional indignant anger of the gentlemen of the press, Sheikh Mansour doesn’t have a particularly itchy trigger finger. It’s just not fair. If only he tweeted, they moan, or gave interviews through the open window of his Range Rover. In essence, he’s a far more boring owner than Abramovich or even the lads at QPR.
But he doesn’t have unlimited patience either. I may be about to be proven an idiot, but a change before the end of the season feels unlikely. At that point, a Cup win will help and allowance will be made for two ridiculously tough Champions League draws, but the man in Abu Dhabi will probably look beyond that. Is there a better candidate out there? Given Mancini’s trophy record (at least in domestic competitions) both before and since he came to Manchester, any alternative will have to be a very special one to justify a change – and there’s no guarantee such a person will be available.
The most likely outcome will be that Mancini will still be there. He and us will hope that the players that will inevitably move on this summer will this time be replaced by better and not worse personnel. Money will be thrown at doing this, but the budget will not be unlimited and the pressure to avoid this season’s domestic disappointments and European underperformance will be intense.