The last month seems to have passed City by, and most are still spinning from a turbulent time at home and abroad. City’s exodus from Europe was confirmed after defeat at Camp Nou. It’s the fourth loss against Barcelona across the last two years in as many games. Joe Hart’s heroics in both legs spared blushes in the City camp and has bought Manuel Pellegrini precious time to continue as Manchester City manager.
We talked last month of the disparity between the two sides off the field, but on it the gap appears to have widened, when it should be closing, even if at a gradual pace. City crashing out of Europe at the same stage as last year can’t be marked as progress – facing Barcelona once more can’t be trotted out as a reason either.
Up until the second leg, City were applying increasing pressure on the self-destruct button. Be it against top four rivals, Liverpool, or relegation fodder, Burnley the only momentum that was building was negative. Before heading to Catalunya City had won 5 of their 13 games since New Year.
In amongst that was the 5-0 shellacking of Newcastle, with the wins over Leicester and West Brom being classed as routine at best, for a squad of City’s calibre.
City will draw the curtain down on the Easter weekend programme away at Crystal Palace, sitting a lowly fourth after Arsenal and Manchester United both leapfrogged them in earlier games. Victory in South London shouldn’t pose the biggest challenge of the season, but the dropping of points isn’t incomprehensible either.
Little over 12 months ago fingers were being pointed at Joe Hart, in the press at least. Debate at the time was testament to the stock of both England’s first choice, and Pellegrini himself. In retrospect, Hart’s sabbatical in the dugout didn’t do him, or the team any harm. Granted it divided opinion, but lack of faith in Hart on the terraces was met with an air of sympathy almost. Rumored to be heading away from Manchester in the summer, there were chants of support away at Leicester in the League Cup (the goalkeeping berth often reserved for the understudy) for City’s number one, and a parody of Billy Ray Cyrus’ country and western hit ‘Don’t Break My Heart’ was born.
A season later, and fingers are being wagged and pointed once more – this time in two directions. Vincent Kompany has come under serious scrutiny, his form falling in to the abyss, along with the manager. Stocks have fallen, tensions have risen.
The story goes that Kompany, sent off for Belgium in their recent match against Israel, discussed Roberto Mancini’s man-management style with the manager himself towards the end of his tenure. The response? A short, sharp, like it or lump it. On the verge of mutiny, Mancini was to make way.
In contrast, Manuel Pellegrini is much the more measured and calculated man, almost unrecognisible from the robust and animated centre half that graced the fields of his native Chile. Usually diplomacy personified when interacting with the press, the Chilean has taken to participating in exclusive interviews; perhaps in a bid to get his side of the story across.
Mancini divided, and was ultimately conquered, alienating the dressing room. Pellegrini, much the better politician, offers more stability, but must undo some novice errors. In one of his recent interviews (with Sid Lowe, The Guardian) he points to the need to strengthen at the back.
“With the financial fair play restrictions, with those limitations, we strengthened defensively.”
Within, there’s logic. Undeniably so. But to expect an injury plagued forward (Stevan Jovetic), and two strikers returning from the World Cup to weigh in with a significant chunk of another 156 goals in unrealistic. Letting Alvaro Negredo go was hard to contend with, given a non-existent scoring record virtually since the start of calendar year, not replacing him became an irreversible mistake.
The £50m spent on Fernando and Eliquim Mangala is jaw dropping considering the Financial Fair Play restrictions City were up against. Heavy investment on two players that have ultimately flopped.
As the team evolves, those who have been here for five or so years and helped cement City as a domestic force should be making way for a new era of players, as did Craig Bellamy, Shay Given, Emmanuel Adebayor – players who at least got City in the ring to fight toe to toe with the Premier League heavyweights.
Instead, an overhaul is needed. City have three players still good enough to make an assault on Europe; Joe Hart, Sergio Aguero and arguably David Silva. Other than Yaya Toure and perhaps Pablo Zabaleta, we’ve never had more than a handful. That quintet was built upon with Gael Clichy and more recently Bacary Sagna competing with Aleks Kolorov and Pablo Zabaleta. In midfield, regression. Fernando on a par with Javi Garcia, both a downgrade on Gareth Barry and Nigel De Jong.
City cannot win a Champions League with Vincent Kompany in the back four, no longer able to be leader, mentor or foundation for a team that must move on after yet another lackluster title defence, yet another underwhelming campaign on the continent.
The same must now be applied to a still talented, but less mobile and motivated Yaya Toure.
The only responsibility that needs to be taken is from Manuel Pellegrini and his superiors. There’s little point in having strength off the park (as we discussed in last month’s article), if it’s misplaced in a flawed transfer policy, no better than the last which saw expenditure and loss on players such as Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia, Scott Sinclair et al.
His man-management is far removed from that of Roberto Mancini’s often the team looks doomed when faced with failure. After the defeat to Middlesborough, Fernandinho stated “he gave us the silent treatment.”
This isn’t a blame game, it’s just the cold hard facts of football, and there isn’t much room for sentiment. There is no lack of gratitude or respect for the achievements of Kompany and Toure to name but a few, but these players will move on. The reality is, it should be sooner rather than later.
April brings with it five of City’s remaining nine games; amongst them a Manchester Derby. On form, it’s the closest the sides have been in recent years. With a point in it, there’s a dilemma. Will Pellegrini stick to his preferred 4-4-2, or compromise his ethics and play for the draw?
I anticipate a balance between the two. City are reigning Champions, despite what the table says, but gone seem the days our firepower can blow teams away as they did last year – teams are preparing for that, and combatting it successfully. If Pellegrini is to remain in the job, he needs to remind not just the club, but the fans his style is the right one, but that he needs the players to execute it.
This will be the ultimate question; can the club afford to invest in players if Manuel Pellegrini would only leave 12 months later, after another sub-standard season? Otherwise it’s new manager, new squad. A new look Manchester City with a new outlook on Europe.