So, it’s over. As has been expected for many months now, Manchester City’s grip on the Premier League trophy has come to an end.
Even the most optimistic of City fans will tell you that it has been coming for a while now – probably since Robin van Persie’s last minute free-kick nicked all three points for United at the Etihad Stadium in December and left Roberto Mancini’s men feeling utterly dejected.
That result sent United six points clear at the summit of the Premier League, hardly a title winning lead in at that time of the season, but the psychological side of the loss affected the City camp badly and they never really recovered from it.
Up until that point of the season the Blues were keeping up with the impressive pace United were setting, however, since that day they have faltered far too often.
Defeats at Sunderland, Southampton, Everton and Spurs as well as draws against QPR and Liverpool have been City’s downfall in the second half of the season. It is a downfall which has cost them their trophy – a trophy which was won in such dramatic fashion last season.
United have remained consistently efficient in winning matches without necessarily writing headlines. Regardless of their neighbours somewhat regular dropped points, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have been mightily impressive this season. They very rarely failed to win, and when they doid they recover from it strongly – normally notching up a convincing win to get them back on track.
The reasons for the title moving from Blue to Red in Manchester become irrelevant in time though. The only thing that will be remembered of the season in years to come is the name engraved on the trophy.
With that in mind, thoughts must already turn to next season’s battle to become champions and what must be done in order to ensure there are sky blue ribbons, and not red ones, hanging from the handles in a year’s time. So where are the key areas that Roberto Mancini and his staff have to improve upon in the close season? What changes will drag the title back to The Citizens? What has to be done? There are three standout problems as far as I see it, and they are as follows:
Problem 1: Width
A major criticism of City this season has been that the way in which they play is far too narrow to regularly unlock defences in the ultra-competitive Premier League.
One consistent feature of top teams in the division is their quality wide-players: Manchester United have Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, Tottenham Hotspur have Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale, Chelsea have Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Victor Moses – I could go on. City, however, have only one genuine winger in their first team squad, Scott Sinclair, and while he is a good player, his involvement this season has shown he just isn’t good enough to be a regular member of the first team of a club vying for the title.
This lack of width isn’t an entirely new problem. Last season Mancini and City were seemingly “getting away with” this thanks to the unbelievable form of their special Spaniard, David Silva. City’s number 21 was playing the best football of his career thus far, picking the perfect pass week after week to lay goals on a plate for each member of the Blues’ fearsome attack, and the plan of going through the middle was working to great effect.
Mario Balotelli, Edin Džeko and, most notably, Sergio Agüero were also in very good form at this time, making absolutely no mistake in converting the former Valencia man’s various assists, and City were scoring for fun almost every game as a result.
However, as has continued this season, the likes of David Silva and Samir Nasri gradually drifted inside, the area of the pitch most natural to them, and this created an over reliance on the full-backs to create the width.
The big problem with this, though, is that Micah Richards, Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy are simply not wingers – they are defenders. While they can offer something in the attacking department, they are not replacements for genuine wide midfielders, and cannot provide the same level of attacking prowess as players naturally suited to taking on the opposition’s full-back. It would seem that Mancini must look outside of the club for the answer to this problem. The only question is – where?
Problem 2: Goals
Goals have been a great problem for the reigning champions this season, or at least the lack of them has. During their title-winning campaign they couldn’t stop scoring – almost everything they touched went flying into the back of the opposition’s net.
This, however, hasn’t been the case this season. Each of their seemingly formidable strike force has failed to find serious form this season, for reasons ranging from the disruption of injuries to a simple lack of confidence. Whatever the reason, it has affected the defence of their title dramatically.
Take their main man for instance, Sergio Agüero. He flourished in his first season in English football, notching 30 goals in 48 games, whereas this season he has only managed 16 in 37. It is a similar story for their other forwards too; Edin Džeko has five fewer goals this season than last, and Mario Balotelli managed just three goals this season before packing his bags for Italy in January.
The only player to have performed better this year than last is Carlos Tevez – and that is almost certainly down to his 6 month absence more than any upturn in form.
The problem isn’t solely down to the front men though. As much as it is their job to convert chances when they come along, if said chances rarely materialise they will obviously find it hard to find the net. The support cast of David Silva, Samir Nasri and Yaya Touré have all too failed to hit the heights of 2011-12, and that has made a huge difference to the amount of clear-cut chances City are creating.
Whether it is the strikers or midfielders that need changing is up to Roberto Mancini to decide, but one certainly needs some alteration.
Problem 3: Over-confidence
Simply put, winning the title went to their heads. They felt unbeatable. They felt like nobody could touch them. At least, that’s the way it seems now that we can look back on the season.
It’s true, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and in this instance it’s also a very telling thing. Perhaps if you win the title by 10+ points you can afford to let a little complacency creep in when you start again the following August, but not if you win it on goal difference with the last kick of the season.
City have found that out the hard way. Where they were totally focussed and concentrated last season they have, on occasion, slipped up this term. Mistakes were so rare last season that they were never even mentioned, even when the Blues were going through their tough patch in January and fell behind United in the title-race.
It was never suggested that their fall from pole position had been as a result of unforced errors. This season, however, it has been clear for all to see. One player who particularly illustrates this is City and England number 1, Joe Hart.
One of the Europe’s top goalkeepers without doubt, and an integral part of the team assembled at the Etihad Stadium in recent years, he was someone who was remarkably consistent in the championship winning season. He performed so well at times that it is more than fair to say he won points for the team on his own.
He never allowed mistakes to happen, and produced a near perfect season from a personal point of view. This has changed this season though. While he remains one of the best around (proven by his performance against Borussia Dortmund at home in the Champions League), he has let errors occur more often this time around and that has cost City points at crucial points in the season.
It’s very true that “form is temporary, class is permanent”, and Joe Hart will in time return to the level he enjoyed during last season, however his level of performance has undoubtedly been lower this season and that is down to complacency and over-confidence. He, along with other members of City’s well-paid squad, have had a reality check this season. A reality check which will surely spur them on to perform much better come the opening game of next season.
So, with all of that said, it remains to explain the ways City avoid these same problems affecting them in 2013-14. There is not too much that needs to be done in truth, but they will need to act quickly in order to resolve these issues long before their Premier League opener in August.
1. Sign at least one, if not two, genuine wingers of high quality: Financial Fair Play will mean that this is perhaps harder than it seems – even for a club like Manchester City – but this really is essential to their chances of bouncing back next season.
2. Replace Edin Džeko with a more prolific and proven goal scorer: The likes of Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani are the people City should be targeting here. Džeko has never hot the heights he did in Germany at City, and many feel it is now time for him to move on. Again Financial Fair Play will affect this one, but signing someone who is going to score 25+ goals rather than 15+ will make a huge difference to a team chasing the title. Just ask Manchester United…
3.Take nothing for granted: Whether they’re playing Barcelona in the Champions League or Bristol Rovers in the League Cup (no offence intended!) they have to approach every game with the same attitude. They must remain focussed and concentrate on winning at all times, and never let complacency become an issue as it has at times this season. Easier said than done of course, but crack this one and City will be half-way there.
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