It wasn’t quite the lacklustre title defence we were forced to witness two years ago, but it’s not been the barnstorming assault on back to back titles we hoped for back in August either. With the sun set on this years campaign, there’s clarity on where and why it went wrong. Early exits from the domestic cup competitions can’t be countered with another progression from the group stage in Europe. When faced with Barcelona for the second time in as many years, we were found wanting in every department.
It’s been a year without a plan B, and far too often a lack of leadership on either side of the white line. The post mortem begins. Can Manuel Pellegrini take his Manchester City side to the next level? Can this group of players achieve that elevation under the Chilean or any other manager? Is a change in personnel amongst the squad or the management the answer?
Here, one department at a time, player by player, we analyse the season past, and where the players fit in to next years blueprint.
Joe Hart’s omission from the squad stretching over the festive period and beyond last season seems a distant memory now, and Pellegrini highlighted Hart’s lack of real competition as an issue to be addressed in the summer. He recruited Willy Caballero, to join him at a second club, allowing Costel Pantillimon to leave.
The pressure applied by Caballero, despite his opening statement upon arriving at the club, has been feather light. “City already have a great goalkeeper in Joe Hart, but I will try and compete for the number one spot” simply wasn’t backed up with the performances. Hart found it all too easy to cement his place in the side, but did so without any complacency and a new level of maturity we arguably haven’t seen from the England number one.
City’s only concern with Hart should be injury, with the woe’s of the Championship winning season behind him – Caballero deputising would be a concern, in spite of his experience.
Will City part ways with Willy Caballero? It’s unlikely whilst Manuel Pellegrini remans at the helm. There’s more pressing issues further up the field.
It’s unfeasible to think, given four of the seven regular defenders, featured regularly under Roberto Mancini who quickly looked to away with Mark Hughes win by scoring one more than the other team mentality.
The transition was imminent. Sparky departed with a 4-3 win over Sunderland, Mancini put his flag in the ground with a a more routine 2-0 win over Stoke City.
The captain, Vincent Kompany, experienced a loss of form equal to Joe Hart’s a year before, and City fans were left to deal with the harsh reality that Pablo Zabaleta is no longer the 50 game per season guaranteed 7/10 player we’ve grown to love him has.
A front six that served up over 150 goals just a year before papered over the cracks of a deteriorating back line. Gael Clichy the more defence minded of he and attacking Aleks Kolorov couldn’t be combined to make a left back up to scratch.
From Chelsea’s visit to the Etihad in the autumn, City fans left the ground, not just happy with a late equaliser against their title rivals, but with the piece of mind a bedrock pairing between Eliqiuim Mangala and Vincent Kompany was less than half a dozen games away. We’re still waiting.
City’s central defensive pairing, for the most part of the season has featured two of three players; ageing, struggling to adapt, lacking responsibility. Match those up as you will, but it’s easy to identify who is who.
Unfamiliar is that Kompany swagger, when the ball ends up in Joe Hart’s net of his boot, thigh or otherwise – the shoulders swaying, just as Noel Gallagher taught him, a defence mechanism from humiliation, rather than a show of humility and that the game should and will go on. The Anfield debacle raises questions over his command of the squad as the managers on field general.
Disappointingly, alternatives to hand the armband to have been thin on the ground. Zabaleta has come under pressure from an average Bacary Sagna and Toure’s form has been equally as bad.
The spine of the team begins and ends with Joe Hart and Sergio Aguero. It’s in-between that needs addressing.
How and where will City address this? Signed for £4m two years ago, I expect Martin Demichelis to depart, or become the fourth centre half (especially with Dedryk Boyata joining Celtic). Mangala’s displays towards the end of the season give rise to hope, but I’d prefer to see a new partner alongside him. City won’t win the European Cup with Vincent Kompany in the side. If Barca come knocking, he can go with my blessing and gratitude.
A new right back is needed, and opposite side there’s a shining light on the horizon in the shape of Adriano, the EDS full back, but despite City’s title hopes fading, and Champions League football secured the youngster was nowhere to be seen.
After cake-gate, not just the arrival of Fernando, but his debut at St. James Park, dominating a new look Newcastle side, suggested a new pairing in the centre of the park would be born. An alliance with similarly named Fernandinho looked like we may see more of a 4-2-4 shaped system. Pellegrini continued to pick two centre forwards, leaning towards this formation, but none of the central midfield trio; Fernando, Fernandhino or Toure could find any consistent form or dominate oppositions.
City looked much more positive for Frank Lampard’s all too rare selection in the side, and the question remained unanswered; why didn’t he start more games?
David Silva’s away performances were below what we’ve come to expect from the Spaniard, whilst his on field chemistry with Samir Nasri couldn’t be replicated from last year. The combination of the two playmakers in the 4-1 home derby (when Moyes was manager) is a very faint memory now.
Nasri’s only real contribution came in Rome, as City’s progression to the knockout stages hung by a thread – and some goal it was too. Unfortunately for the Frenchman it will go down as a highlight of extreme sorts.
In the wingers department, James Milner saw more game time than the previous year, but not enough to commit his future to the club. The additional minutes weren’t enough to convince the Yorkshire Figo to stay, in fact the lack of opportunity in a more central role, when his team mates struggled for form, is likely to have tipped his mind towards Anfield.
The debate lies in which department needs an overhaul the most, but with Yaya Toure’s abysmal efforts occurring far too regularly his days as City’s talisman are over. Toure, African Player of the Year, passed up on an opportunity to take the mantle globally. The removal of his cancerous presence in the side is priority number one this summer.
Samir Nasri represents the next best opportunity to recoup funds. With these two departures in the offing, James Milner still likely to leave on a free, Frank Lampard finally joining up with New York City, Jesus Navas and Fernando will be given chances to revive their City careers.
John Guidetti still not making the grade, Alvaro Negredo loaned back to La Liga, the front line wasn’t much of a pressing issue back in the summer after a campaign that generated over 150 goals. The Spaniard weighed in with 19 of those, but failed to find the back of the net since City’s League Cup semi final dismantling of West Ham in January 2014.
Injuries plagued Manuel Pellegrini, left blushing at not replacing Negredo. People stack their mortgage on Sergio Aguero picking up a knock or two during the course of the year. That doesn’t seem to stop Kun though, who still finished the season as the divisions top scorer. His 26 strikes and 9 assists made him the player most involved with goals this campaign.
Comparisons were drawn between the reliance both City and Arsenal place on Aguero and Sanchez when the teams met in January. At the time, fellow South American Sanchez was in a purple patch, but as the curtain falls on the season, it’s City who prevailed over their North London rivals, and still provide a home for the finest forward in the League.
Wilfried Bony joined the ranks in January, after James Milner’s spell as makeshift centre forward provided a short terms solution to City’s goal drought. Bony, the calendar year of 2014’s top scorer lacked the impact City needed to maintain either their Champions League ambitions or hopes of retaining the title.
Negredo’s return to Manchester seems unlikely, but there is definitely need for change in this department as much as the others. Bony, a recent addition, is unlikely to make way, and contemplating Aguero’s departure is a non-starter. The marmite of Manchester City, Edin Dzeko, may well have played his last game for the club.
This last season saw a handful of political manoeuvres from Manuel Pellegrini. Damaged by a poor transfer policy, he refused to bite the hand that feeds him and instead pointed to the fact he was being let down by a former managers squad, nonetheless he’d still managed to guide that squad to a Premier League title.
Unfortunately it doesn’t detract from the failures of Eliaquim Mangala, Fernando, Bacary Sagna and to a point; Wilfried Bony. The only saving grace as far as City’s dealings in the market are concerned is; Alvaro Negerdo’s repeat post Christmas decline may have proved Pellegrini’s decision to loan him out as the correct one.
A persistence to play two forwards, when allowed to by injuries, was stubborn and ill conceived at times, restricting City from ever detouring to a plan B. Three subs could only ever be used to haul off embarrassments rather than kill off games.
In too many instances, being Champions and the team to beat was an excuse that wouldn’t wash. Burnley, for example, didn’t make the short trip from the foot of the East Ridings to be worn down in a 1-0 defeat.
When City found themselves underdogs, they passed up the opportunity to capitalise at home to Barcelona, instead dancing to their beat, and flying to Catalunya with only faint hopes of progression.
When the inevitable finally happened and Chelsea won the title, it was a blank canvas with which Pellegrini could leave a lasting impression on how next season would look.
Instead, it’s been more middle of the road stuff. Yaya Toure still the lynch pin of the side with his agent spouting the usual in the press. No real delivery from Bony. No pressure relieved Vincent Kompany.
Although, no more instigated press exclusives with The Guardian and the like. The Charming Man, unveiled why such a nickname would have been strange to apply to him previously; a feisty, tempestuous centre half, who believes in calmness personified when standing on the touchline.
10 players and 48,000 fans lost a leader in the heart of defence this season, and couldn’t find a replacement on the touchline. The days of Bellamy and Tevez et al, controversial but match deciding, are gone. So be it. But when City lacked the fight, there was nowhere to turn.
Pellegrini has engineered two trophies in as many seasons. He should stay on and finish the job (his contract) at least. Investment in the squad has to come, but Pellegrini should be driving his attacking vision that we saw come to life in his maiden season. His acquisitions should reflect this, and identifying Paul Pogba as a replacement for Toure is a step in the right direction.
The Signings, In Focus
Only Frank Lampard can be pointed to as a success, and that represents unacceptable business for a club with the war chest City boast, and for a Champion side.
The transfer policy perhaps wasn’t as weak as the Bryan Marwood and Roberto Mancini effort that brought Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell to the club – but Fernando and Bony aside, it’s the arrival of Mangala that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
Contrast his move with Fernandinho’s – a player who waived £4m in signing fees to move to Manchester. Mangala had been coveted for 18 months, then struggled.
Back To The Drawing Board
With every day the close season passes, moral sapping stories fill the content of the Sky Sports homepage, as one player to the next is linked with various moves around Europe. Typically, talk of City’s targets are harder to find. Off around the States, followed by a visit to their partner Down Under, commercial tours are in full swing, and the boardroom are left to play the transfer market back home.
City fans will point Chelsea’s efforts lasting 10 years to conquer Europe. But that’s not good enough. In four attempts City can’t get past the last 16. cannibalising the Premier League under Mark Hughes is a plan that should be replicated around the continent, but with homegrown restrictions to focus on, this could be too tall an order.
An ageing side, in transition, Pellegrini (or whoever may replace him) has a task on his hands. For a side so far away from European success, let alone domestic, the Chilean has a mammoth task on his hands during these next 12 months.