Half Term Report – CDZ008

Pellegrini keeps it cool in the dugout
Pellegrini keeps it cool in the dugout

Just past the midway point in the season, it’s a fine time to compile the half-term report for what’s been an eventful season so far for City, and the maiden campaign for Manuel Pellegrini. City have been hoping to step out of their own shadows in the Champions League, reclaim the domestic Championship and head to back to Wembley for more cup glory. Manuel Pellegrini has been tasked with winning five trophies in five years, and City are still fighting on four fronts; home and abroad.

Barclays Premier League

In Pellegrini’s programme notes back in early December, the manager set a target of being within three points of the leaders to give us any chance of reclaiming the Premier League title. In December alone City have dropped just two pints, away to Southampton, on our way to amassing 41 points as the New Year came in – we trail Arsenal by just the one point. During those 19 games City have set the new record for goals scored in the opening half of the season, netting no less than 54 times. Games such as Norwich, Tottenham and Arsenal have done no harm on that score.

Pellegrini hardly appears to be a cut throat manager; he’s polite and courteous in interviews, despite being asked the same questions over and over; but there’s no arrogance when he plants City’s flag in the ground and says “we’ll keep trying to score”.

Pellegrini dealing with the press
Pellegrini dealing with the press

At home, the Etihad has remained a fortress under the Engineer, winning every game domestically, but on the road there has been the fair share of teething problems. First stop was Cardiff, which was always going to played in a stadium at boiling point. The newly promoted side exposed City in the air and after going top on the first day of the season, we were displaced, and would remain so until December 28th.

Jesus Navas was included in the Welsh capital to ill effect, then left out at Stoke a fortnight later. Was Pellegrini perhaps being too cautious post defeat, and at a ground that had a reputation for being stingy in giving our points to big sides.

City then suffered defeat at Villa Park, partly due to a superb freekick from Leandro Bacuna, partly due to more material worthy of Joe Hart’s Christmas blooper video.

Then came Chelsea, where City really needed all three points to make up for those dropped in Cardiff and Birmingham. We were worthy of the draw until a mix-up between Hart and Matija Nastasic gifted Chelsea the points.

Sunderland became the fourth defeat, where Pellegrini changed three of the back four (although Nastasic was forced out through injury), and perhaps the hardest of them all, having lost 1-0 on the three previous occasions at the Stadium of Light.

A bad day at the office for Joe Hart
A bad day at the office for Joe Hart

But December is often the key month; City have won six of their seven games in the league (whilst spinning Carling Cup and Champions League plates). This included wins over top of the league, not once, but twice. First Arsenal visited in the wake of their own European exploits and City dismantled them in the second half finishing the game 6-3. Next Liverpool traipsed down the M62 and although Lee Mason’s performance in the middle still remains under the microscope, City managed to come from behind and win 2-1.

Sergio breaks the deadlock in an unforgettable derby
Sergio breaks the deadlock in an unforgettable derby

2013 was closed out with an ugly win, to use football’s technical term. Crystal Palace very much still under transformation to their new look 4-6-0 under Tony Pulis put a wall between ball and goal, and it took Joe Hart to keep us in the game, making his third appearance since returning away at Fulham, and an Edin Dzeko strike to separate the sides.

Certainly in home, league games, the Etihad has been spoilt rotten this season; 38 goals, scoring at least four on five different occasions including a heavy derby win. Pellegrini has got the crowd lifted, but fans need to be patient in games like the Palace one. Granted, there is no game you can make six changes for in the Premier League; or rather you can’t expect a four or five nil after doing so, but its demonstration that this is a squad game, and all of them are capable of getting the points.

Most teams will look to collect more points in the second half of the season, but City’s first aim should be taking 12 from 12 when we visit Old Trafford, Anfield, The Emirates and hold Chelsea (nine from those games in the opening half of the season isn’t a bad platform to start from).

Premier League Grade: A

UEFA Champions League

Overall the English clubs endured underachievement last year; United made it one stage past the groups, Chelsea were demoted to the Europa League, whilst city amassed a meagre three points, just three draws. However this year, with all competing teams progressing it is Manuel Pellegrini’s side who’ve collected 15 points, finishing a close runner up to European Champions; Bayern Munich. City have also secured more points in the group stage than any of their English counterparts, as well as the two years past totals combined. Pellegrini – in fairness hasn’t purely made a team better; he’s convinced the team they are better than what they’ve only managed to deliver in the last two attempts.

City start to pick up points in Europe
City start to pick up points in Europe

First off, City brushed aides Czech champions Viktoria Plzen. But then we were brought crashing down to Earth; Pep Guadiola’s Bayern came to town and taught City a lesson, one they quickly learnt from, completing the double over CSKA Moscow to secure qualification, defeating Plzen once more, before a show down for top spot in Munich, that no-one saw coming.

We’ve largely completed the campaign without captain Vincent Kompany leading the side, but we’ve seen a combined, united effort to better what has been a disappointing two years on the continent. Yaya Toure has weighed in with the goals when Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo have let him. Samir Nasri, Fernandinho and even Javi Garcia have controlled games with an apparent ease; despite most of the campaign being played with a makeshift defence.

After the master-class at the Etihad, City showed they can be capable of dining at Europe’s top table after toppling Bayern in the Allianz. Despite the German’s being off top song, they deployed a full strength side and failed to capitalise on the 2-0 lead the established after the Blues came out snoozing.

Pellegrini claimed he kept faith for not changing it around in the home tie as Bayern effectively trained around City. He was lambasted for it. In Germany, he maintained that same faith with a side that included a substandard Micah Richards, a deteriorating Joleon Lescott, and the unfavoureds; Javi Garcia and Edin Dzeko.

James Milner bags a famous winner in Germany
James Milner bags a famous winner in Germany

Even so, Pellegrini withdrew the returning David Silva after 70 minutes and City still won the game. Despite the Chilean’s vast back room staff, it’s disappointing there isn’t a GSCE level mathematician amongst them – nor in the berating press who failed to point out “No Manuel, it doesn’t have to be three clear goals, 4-2 even 5-3, would be good enough”. But who goes to the Allianz and wins 4-2?

Regardless, a trip to Camp Nou lies in wait, and it’s clashes like these we’ve pined for, for years. To be the best, we have to beat the best and perhaps Pellegrini has the players believing they might be.

Champions League Grade: A-

The FA Cup

City’s first stop on the road to Wembley is up to Lancashire to play Championship side, fallers from grace, Blackburn Rovers who appear to be festering in the Championship under the Venky’s regime.

Pellegrini appears to take every game seriously, but were yet to see his approach to football’s oldest knockout competition, but I’m convinced he’ll be chomping at the bit to win it.

FA Cup Grade: n/a

Capital One Cup

December’s trip to Leicester marked history for City fans. No, not Sam Bailey’s first live performance after being crowned X-Factor Champion, but City progressing to their fifth semi-final in five years. City have despatched of Wigan, Newcastle and most recently Leicester to advance to a semi final with West Ham across January.

A rare performance versus Wigan for Stevan Jovetic
A rare performance versus Wigan for Stevan Jovetic

If City can overcome the hammers, it will be consecutive trips to Wembley, but this time to face either Sunderland or Manchester United (who we’ve never played in any form of cup final).

Capital One Cup Grade: A*

The Youth Policy

City finally appear to be testing the mettle of City’s youth ranks, at least in first team surroundings. Players such has Karim Rekik, George Evans are all on loan now receiving regular game time.

It’s understood that Pellegrini’s working relationship with Patrick Vieira is going as planned, but with a vast array of talent performing in the first team, nothing has yet come off the Carrington conveyor belt for some time. No Jack Wilshire equivalent. No Rahem Sterling, and so on.

EDS' George Glendon taking on West Brom
EDS’ George Glendon taking on West Brom

The difference with the players mentioned above though, is that they have featured in and around the first team, and they aren’t so much shop window loans anymore.

One player’s situation remains an enigma though; John Guidetti. After scoring three hatticks for Feyenoord, plus many more goals he’s never had his chance, interrupted by injury. City fans are itching to see the Swede get a run of games, if not with City, in the UK.

It will be some time since before we see a breakthrough get established, although there is light at the end of that particular tunnel; with the academy rising from the brown belt land under Alan Turing Way. In the time, after rejuvenating the Etihad careers of Samir Nasri, and to a certain extent Aleks Kolorov, I’d like to see Pellegrini turn some serious to attention to two of England’s former bright burning lights of the next generation; Micah Richards and Jack Rodwell.

With the midfield firing this season, chances have been limited for Rodwell. But for Richards, when he has forged an opportunity for himself, he’s passed it up. Can Pellegrini bring Richards back to life? I don’t think we’ll ever get to find out.

Youth Policy Grade: B

Transfers

It’s hard to argue that The Engineer has got any of them wrong. Fernandinho, Alvaro Negredo have made themselves impossible to leave out of the side. We’re seeing the attacking side of the Brazilian now, and The Beast just can’t stop. They’ve changed the way we play, for the better. I thought Jesus Navas would allow us to have Plan B, as Pellegrini got Mancini’s faltering side back on track. He’s ripped up the Italian’s blueprint and replaced it with his own.

Ferna adds something that Nigel De Jong or Gareth Barry never quite had, and it’s become, over time, easy to see what Pellegrini saw in him.

Negredo has brought something extra from Sergio Aguero I’m not sure we’ve ever witnessed before. It’s a world class partnership, and fortunately for City, Negredo isn’t the one that did get away from Pellegrini, after selling him from Real Madrid during his short tenure.

Stevan Jovetic’ life in Manchester has been blighted by injury, but with the Eastlands crowd growing increasingly frustrated with Edin Dzeko’s inconsistency, they’re itching to see the Serb lead the line and compete for some of Aguero and Negredo’s limelight.

Martin Demichelis experience has allowed him to keep together the City defence, despite injuries all over the back line. But that’s what he was bought for, and he’s been worth his weight in gold after such long absences from the captain. Demichelis will throw his 34 year old body in to every challenge regardless and despite sometimes being careless with the ball, he’s proven pretty solid when without it.

Jesus Navas didn’t quite have the start he was looking for, although I believe he was selected for the wrong games. Chosen ahead of Milner when the side were embarrassed in Cardiff, left out at Stoke, Navas has had to wait for David Silva’s injury to get a lengthy run in the side. He’ll feel his brace in the shellacking of Spurs marked his best performance in blue, and he’s been unlucky not to hold down the shirt, so is the class of Silva and Nasri.

Despite only seeing two of the five signings play week in week out, for the £98m paid for them it’s returned better value than the £50m Brian Marewood and Roberto Mancini blew last summer.

It feels like we’ve had two new signings in Aleks Kolorov and Samir Nasri too. There we have two men re-born under the Chilean. Kolorov has become as bigger threat down the left as Zabaleta down the right. And I don’t mean tornado pace balls flashing across goals, I mean assists that are finding their way in to the back of the net; the ball for Aguer’s first in the Derby, winning the penalty at West Brom, to give just two examples. I think City will strengthen in January (see my separate transfer piece below) but I’d like to see Pellegrini have the same effect on Jack Rodwell, and Micah Richards, if he can stay fit.

Transfer Grade: A*

Player of the Season (So Far)

This really is a tough one. With Fernandinho growing with each game, Alvaro Negredo and Sergio Aguero netting the majority of City’s fifty plus goals there’s one player I’m not sure if Manuel Pellegrini’s could live without; Samir Nasri.

The Frenchman is a man reborn. A man possessed. Sitting in the North Stand, often I see him dribble the ball in to the box and players daren’t touch him. He can be mesmerising but lethal in the same moments of play, Nasri is giving City the return they were seeking after shelling out in excess of £20m for him, with just a year remaining on his Arsenal contract.

With a player like David Silva in a side, how can a Nasri fit in? Pellegrini has found a way.

Manny has the Frenchman firing after a dismal show last year
Manny has the Frenchman firing after a dismal show last year

Man Management

It never felt that big of a deal, did it? Players pull on the kit, and play. But temperamental these footballers can be nowadays. But there was a clear divide in the latter days of the Mancini regime.  Vincent Kompany attempted the bridge the gap between management and players, but it only alienated the parties further.

You can imagine in footballer dressing rooms not every player is best mates with each other, despite being at the elite level, but it’s the manager’s job to unite them. And when there is friction between core players such as captain and manager players on the fringe go missing; such as Samir Nasri.

As mentioned in the ‘transfer’ section, he and Kolorov are players reborn. They’ve clearly been given the carrot where as Micah Richards, Jack Rodwell and for a period Joe Hart, have been given the stick.

The handling of Hart’s form appears to have worked well, given his return to form since regaining his spot, but at the expense of a more than adequate number two. Costel Pantillimon has deputised well, and I think he’s improved game on game.

Perhaps the advance of Nasri and Kolorov is a good measure of Richards’ regression though. The hard work clearly pays off if you put it in, but Richards couldn’t get near the first XI, despite Pablo Zabaleta being off the boil in the early part of the season.

The biggest mystery in the stands though, is Jack Rodwell’s sabbatical as a tester for car seat comfort; namely those plonked in the Eastlands dug out. Rodwell must have more patience than all City fans combined to be waiting in the wings for so long, especially as he continues to get overlooked by Javi Garcia.

We don’t know what talent we have in Jack Rodwell, as we’ve not seen enough of him due to injury. But this is an English talent we’re keen to see impress in World Cup year. Let’s see what 2014 brings…..

With major injuries affecting City’s season, one could be forgiven for mistaking Doctor Nick Riviera as the clubs physio. Vincent Kompany has had more spells on the sidelines than a Quiditch linesman. Does Quiditch have linesman? Who cares?

David Silva and Fernandinho have also had long period of absence, in addition to long term problems for Micah Richards and the inherited injuries of Steven Jovetic and Jack Rodwell. Newcomer Martin Demichelis early lay off caused an issue at the back, where most of City’s problems have originated from, not to mention Matija Nastasic who has also missed game time.

Transfer Talk

With January uon us, City could look to strengthen following a record year in European prize money. The question is where? Manuel Pellegrini has never felt at ease with Joe Hart although a return to the side suggest there will be no imminent chang there, despite host of goalkeepers have been linked with a move to City, and City face injury problems in attack.

At the back, Manuel Pellegrini has been forced to make changes, and the defence has less consistency than the Sugababes line-up. The absence of Vincent Kompany has passed the mantle, perhaps too big for the young Serbian, Nastasic to carry. In truth, Nastasic has played with more partners than a death row domino player, but he doesn’t yet have the experience to lead City’s back line, often undisciplined, and showing poor distribution.

The front six have looked slick, quick and lethal, certainly at home, with glimpses of it on the road too. With City now pressing ahead in Europe can we seriously contend for the Champions League with Javi Garcia and Edin Dzeko?

Stevan Jovetic has struggled to find match fitness since his more from Fiorentina in the summer, and with Edin Dzeko ego outgrowing the pram from which he’s been chucking toys can City rely on Sergio Aguero, whose season last year was blighted by injury, and Alvaro Negredo?

Where City definitely have two quality players for each position is in both full back berths. Aleks Kolorov needs a couple of games, granted, to find any sort of form – his derby display being a case in point and he’s been in fine form over the holiday period. Gael Clichy though is perhaps having a below par season since joining City. Pablo Zabaleta has had a rough patch but like he’s now back to top form arguably , and Micah Richards would return to his best if fitness didn’t restrict him from getting ten consecutive games under his belt. In these positions, it is form, not ability.

Samir Nasri and David Silva aren’t allowing Milner or Jesus Navas a sniff at getting a run of games for Pellegrini to even consider dropping them, but defeats at Sunderland, Villa and Cardiff, plus a far from inspiring draw at Stoke suggests some additional prowess in attack would be welcomed.

BETWEEN THE STICKS – Who’ve been linked with?

It’s now common knowledge, following a less than subtle slip from David Platt that Roberto Mancini was lining up a move for the keeper now known as The Javelin, Mr. Dangerous At Both Ends, Amsir Begovic from Stoke. I think the Bosnian isn’t hugely better than what we have, and I’m less than impressed with his making public the story as Joe Hart was dropped. Pellegrini has been monitoring his former number one also; Willy Caballero, currently plying his trade with Malaga. The Argentine though has been quoted as saying he’s not currently seeking a move. Joe Hart, despite his dip in form, is still revered by the Eastlands faithful and withdrawing him from the side whilst gaining the home crowd support is an uphill task for the manager. My preferred choice, if we did move,  would be Iker Cassillas, usurped as Bernabeu number one by Diego Lopez,under the regime of Jose Mourinho.

Who do we have, and will we move?

Joe Hart gaffs more than Danniella Westbrook did in her Eastenders days, but he’s 26 years old. I don’t think we are looking at a raw talented Nicky Weaver here, with a lack of coaching, injury problems and an uncontrollable gambling addition (we’ll save Hart’s X-Factor casino party for another time though). Hart has delivered at the top level for a number of years now, and needs time to recoup from a bad loss of form. In the main, the keepers City are linked with are cup tied, so Pantillimon, who’s stepped in seamlessly well, will allow Pelegrini until the summer to make an assessment on Hart after working a full year with England’s first choice keeper.

AT THE BACK – Who’ve we been linked with?

The big defensive summer target at the back was Real Madrid’s Pepe. He’s been targeted as a possible addition again. Truth is, whilst we’ve been frail, there have been no solid links for new personnel. In fact, the strongest links are around one of our own; Micah Richards to Roma or Napoli. Trouble is, any proven Premier League player who is perhaps good enough to come in and solidify City’s defence in the league has a huge price tag slapped on them, certainly home grown talent such as Phil Jagielka, who make an acceptable deputy to Kompany is laid off with yet another injury.

Who do we have, and will we move?

At full back, City aren’t desperate to recruit; it’s at centre back. Vincent Kompany is now officially ‘injury prone’ and if the first third of the season has told us anything, Matija Nastasic can’t lead the back line. Nastasic remains a rough diamond, albeit after just one full Premier League season. Roberto Mancini dismantled the League’s most resilient central duo when bringing in Matija Nastasic to replace Joleon Lescott. But this year Nastasic has partnered Javi Garcia, Dedryk Boyata and Martin Demichelis and each pairing has proven leaky. It’s clear that Pellegrini wasn’t satisfied with the options; pursuing Pepe and falling back on Demichelis eventually, as the transfer window was nearing a close. Even with Kompany in the side City have conceded three on more than one occasion; against Aston Villa and at home Bayern Munich with a lot going down the centre.

To answer the question, we have to.The most likely purchase could be French youngster Kurt Zouma, earning rave reviews over the channel, but City will have to fight hard for the youngsters signature as Chelsea have him in their sights too. Aged just 19, he’s been tipped as a future captain of Les Bleus by Laurent Blanc, and he’s not Champions League cup tied either.

MIDDLE OF THE PARK – Who’ve we been linked with?

A rumour broke in the summer than Marco Reus’s move to City was a done deal, but there was no truth in the story after all. Following Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund revolution, key players have made big moves, or at least been linked with them. The talented Reus is no exception as City are in the hunt alongside United.

Who do we have, and will we move?

The City midfield are perhaps the most productive they’ve been, ever. Samir Nasri in most games is unplayable and Pellegrini’s commitment to an attacking style of play has breathed new life in to David Silva’s game. But the English contingent, James Milner and Jack Rodwell can’t get a game, not even before Javi Garcia. We’ve not got the fifth midfielder for us to adapt to playing in a way that Bayern do if Negredo or Aguero get injured leaving one or the other as a lone striker to feed off. Jesus Navas is growing in stature as deputises for Merlin but I wouldn’t be surprised if Pellegrini looks to strengthen to avoid a summer bidding war. Personally concerned that Yaya Toure has lost a considerable amount of his drive, I’d prefer us to see out the season with a midfield that remains one of the best in Europe still, and reassess in the summer.

MORE GOALS PLEASE – Who’ve we been linked with?

It’s the same names again as we’ve become used to over recent seasons but Edison Cavani, unsettled at Paris St Germain and Robert Lewandowski whose contract is running down at Dortmund are the prominent names that fill the rumour columns. Lewandowski would be my preferred choice and the move would suit Dortmund also, preventing a sale to their biggest rival in Bayern Munich whom are said to be going cold on the Pole, not considered a “Pep Guadiola player”. Plundering Barcelona, former club of Txiki Berigistan and Ferran Soriano, is the direction most fans would like to see us head, for one Lionel Messi, but with a price tag slapped on him bigger than one on a German saloon in Swiss Tony’s car lot, it’s unlikely.

The rumour is Messi’s head has been turned by Zabaleta and Aguero on international duty and the new regime in Catalunya are keen to establish a new dynasty and prove it can be done without Messi. Hopefully one for the summer. Godd things come to those who wait.

Who do we have and will we move?

Only two of the hottest centre forwards in European football at the moment. And they are half decent at football too. Beauty and the Beast have literally scored goals for fun this season. A marquee signing in the attacking ranks really does add some competition. Edin Dzeko has openly discussed his situation in the media, which the manager has refused to humour in the slightest. It’s more than two months since he started a league game for City. But the Bosnian is the first man on the plane for the World Cup, so with Stevan Jovetic injured I think any move we make will be set in motion now, for the summer. Any centre forward we are bringing in has to be of the Aguero/Negredo ilk, and considering such players are Champions League cup tied, the personnel in  attack is unlikely to change.

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