Roberto Mancini recently admitted that the reason that his side are struggling to match their blistering early season form during last season so far is because their glittering array of striking talent isn’t quite firing on all cylinders, but is it fair to simply lump all of the blame on them?
The club triumphed last year in the title race marginally ahead of rivals Manchester United because of the sheer weight of their striking talent. They scored 93 goals to United’s 89 across the 38-game season, with Mario Balotelli (13 goals in 23 games), Sergio Aguero (23 goals in 34 games) and Edin Dzeko (14 goals in 31 games) all contributing hugely, more than half of their tally in fact.
Bolstered by the return of a fit, happy and impressive Carlos Tevez, who displayed his importance to the side down the back end of last season, and the team looked well set to steamroller their way to the league crown again this season, yet they sit in second place heading into the Manchester derby at the Etihad stadium on Sunday, three points behind their bitter local rivals having scored nine fewer goals after 15 games. Something is clearly amiss, but is it as simple as blaming the quartet whose job it is to put them away?
Mancini stated after the draw to Everton that : “Our strikers aren’t firing on all cylinders at the moment and not scoring enough goals.” The impact of their goals tally last season clearly had an influence on Manchester United’s recruitment policy this summer, bringing in last season’s top goalscorer in Robin van Persie from Arsenal and the exciting talent of Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund. Meanwhile, Mancini was continually hampered in his efforts to improve his starting eleven by the dithering of Brian Marwood and they missed out on both van Persie and Eden Hazard, instead having to opt to pad out the squad in terms of depth a little more.
By forsaking defensive cohesion in the pursuit of more attacking threat, it was a clear sign that Ferguson refuses to be out-scored and bullied by what is a versatile and frightening attack that City have at their disposal and Gary Neville stated as much last season, revealing that losing the league on goal difference was the 70-year-old manager’s ‘worst nightmare’.
Tevez struck his seventh league goal of the campaign from the penalty spot against David Moyes’ side from 14 appearances, Sergio Aguero, still searching for full fitness and lacking sharpness, has five in 12 games, while super-sub Edin Dzeko has six in 12 games. This still accounts for 18 of their 28 league goals so far, with only Balotelli regularly displaying the sort of ordinary form that has attracted widespread criticism with a pitiful return of a solitary goal from his 12 league outings to date.
The main bone of contention that I have with Mancini’s catch-all statement is that it ignores that the root cause of all of City’s problems is; an over-reliance on David Silva to create the lions’ share of the team’s chance and he simply needs more help in the creativity department.
The diminutive Spaniard hasn’t been at his best during his 16 appearances across all competitions this term, hampered by a niggling hamstring strain he picked up while on international duty back in October, and he remains at the heart of everything that’s good about the team’s attacking play, with his assist late on against Tottenham the sort of ball only he and a few others in Europe would have the vision, let alone the ability to be able to play. He really is a joy to watch.
Elsewhere, though, and Samir Nasri has for long spells failed to catch fire during his stay at the Etihad and he lacks both consistency and end product, often wandering in and out of games to little effect. His tally of five goals in 30 games last term was decent, if unspectacular, yet he has just one goal all campaign so far from 10 appearances.
Before the Everton game, Mancini called upon Nasri to raise his game, arguing: “In my opinion we are talking about a top, top player here. And if he wants he can change every game. But I think he can do better. He has played some good games for us but he can do better because he has everything. I don’t think he has struggled. When I say this, we are talking about a player like Nasri or [Yaya] Toure or [David] Silva, we always think they can change every game they play because they are capable of doing that.”
It was a lesson in diplomacy from the 48-year-old, because the French international simply hasn’t shown anywhere near what he’s capable of this season and he has just one top flight goal and two assists since April. He remains on the periphery, simply choosing to pass it backwards or sideways rather than taking responsibility for creating something, looking a shadow of the £24m player he was purchased to be.
Yaya Toure too struck six times last term, often transferring from a deeper role as the game worn on to a more advanced one in a move that was ignorantly labelled a defensive switch by Mancini, giving in to the very laziest of cultural stereotypes about his Italian heritage in the process. So far this season, Toure has claimed no goals and only one assist in his last 12 Premier League games, creating just 23 chances according to Opta in 15 games and he’s looked strangely lethargic in recent weeks, often wasteful on the ball when put under no undue pressure. You have to worry what sort of state he’ll return in after the African Cup of Nations.
There are plenty of statistical anomalies revolving around the team this season – they have not won any of their last seven games started by Dzeko, yet he is their joint-second top goalscorer with a respectable return given the amount of playing time he has had. Dzeko (40%), Aguero (42%) and Tevez (43%) all have a higher shot accuracy than Luis Suarez (preditcably lower on 31%), with again, only Balotelli (16%) not really at the races. The finishing is clearly there, but it’s where these efforts are coming from, and the lack of goals that are flowing which points to a problem further back.
As a team, City have created 189 chances this season. By comparison, United have created 187, Liverpool 199, Chelsea 155, Arsenal 176, Fulham 147, Swansea 159 and Tottenham 179. So why are they struggling so much? The shooting accuracy of three of their four striker is above the much-vaunted 40% mark, so it must be the positions that the forwards are being put through in that is the main issue. There is clearly a disconnect somewhere.
The club have been linked with moves for both Malaga’s Isco and Real Betis’ Benat in January, two fine players who could both definitely add a spark to their ball retention and impact in the final third, which is what makes it all the more strange that the club didn’t even bother to pursue Arsenal playmaker Santi Cazorla in the summer when the need for someone to supplement Silva was clearly required above all else.
The fact of the matter is that the side simply aren’t moving the ball as quickly in positions where they are dangerous, which when coupled with an over-reliance on a player struggling to find full fitness and rhythm in Silva, and it all adds up to a stop-start attacking threat.
The aforementioned January transfer targets are entirely understandable and just one of them should improve the side on the ball, not only in terms of creation, but the quality of that creation, and you have to wonder why it wasn’t made a priority in the summer, even after the setbacks involving Hazard and van Persie.
Facing an out-of-sorts United back four could not have come at a better, more opportune and morale-boosting time, as the reigning champions seek to kick-start their campaign out of second gear as we head into the busy and potentially decisive festive period.