As it seems increasingly likely that the Premier League title race is fizzling out to a predictable conclusion, the inevitable recriminations will begin as to how it all went wrong for Manchester City. There’ll be plenty of clichéd nonsense in there – the mind games of Alex Ferguson, City “bottling it”, the bad team morale that saw brawls over the morning porridge on a daily basis.
The title race isn’t over just yet of course, but City face a tough task to turn things around, and it is now out of their hands. So what were the reasons for City falling away? Here’s a list of suggestions in a vaguely decreasing order of importance:
The Away Form
This alone could be used as explaining how City have lost their lead in the league. Since a nervy 3-2 win at QPR many,many months ago, City have been utterly underwhelming away from home. Even wins at Wigan and Aston Villa were nothing more than workmanlike, but what characterises their away form over the past five months is how chances have dried up. City haven’t scored many, and haven’t looked like doing. Tied to this seems to be a lack of Plan B – pretty passing with a reluctance to shoot is reminiscent of Arsenal during the last few years, and opposition teams seem to have sussed City out. The team needs more width and pace away from home, and to return to the days of full backs bombing forward and putting in plenty of crosses.
Or you could just use this reason instead. If he wasn’t United manager, City would have probably sealed the title by now. But no one can squeeze more out of a squad than this man, helped by being in charge for a quarter of a century, and being rather good at his job – extra reason for Mancini to be given more time to try and build his own little “empire”. And this ties into experience. That’s the experience of the managers – many United players have no experience of title campaigns, but they are led by a manager who must be getting almost tired of them by now. The constant drivel in the media about mind games and the utterances of players and ex-players every day about experience has been tedious beyond belief, but experience must play a factor (though everyone has to win a title for the first time), and Ferguson collects trophies like I collect take-away menus.
The fact is that he has made mistakes, which is to be expected in someone trying to win the Premiership for the first time. The early season form away from home may have frittered away because Mancini couldn’t resist returning to his cautious ways when the heat was turned up. Then there’s the strict style of management and the freezing out of players. I’ve been all for it personally, but others will point at his approach to certain players as being counter-productive. Mancini has appeared ice-cool over the past two years, but he has the look of a troubled man recently, and has become more surly with it. On this week’s Guardian Football Weekly podcast, special guest Pedro Pinto commented that all his colleagues in Italy mentioned how Mancini struggles to motivate players, to elevate them. Having said that, he also said one of the reasons that City had let the league lead slip was that City’s defence wasn’t up to scratch (the meanest defence in the Premier League), so he clearly isn’t as clever as he seems to think.
Manchester United’s form
If I had a penny for every City fan that had said what United do is irrelevant, it’s “in our hands”, then I wouldn’t be writing this blog, I’d be relaxing on a beach in Antigua. Of course it matters, it’s how league tables work. If United had hit a rough patch, or performed as some feared they might with a less than vintage squad, City could be cruising to a league title, and probably playing a more relaxed style of football too. After all, their much-criticised away form is still probably going to be their best in premiership history (not saying much, admittedly), their home form could be one of the greatest ever, and they have the tightest defence and had outscored everyone until recently. But United haven’t let up, so the bar has been raised this season, and it has needed a huge points total to take the title. Last season United won five away games and won the league at a canter. City have so far won seven, and have Top Three form for 2012.
David Silva’s ankle
David Silva’s form has fallen away, less surprising when you consider he is carrying an injury, and has been for months. But tied to the faults of Mancini has come the decision to play him almost relentlessly. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but perhaps City would have gained more in resting him for a month or so.
Can this be mentioned? Are these poor souls allowed to get tired? Well of course they are, it doesn’t matter if they are paid ten or a hundred thousand pounds a week, they are still human beings. That said, this is not a major factor. City’s recent fall in form has come with little else to distract them. They may have suffered from fatigue in a disappointing January period, but it certainly can’t be blamed for the lethargic showing against Sunderland, or the previous draw to Stoke. But it is worth mentioning that perhaps one of Alex Ferguson’s greatest strengths is running a team that rarely appears tired. Their run of injuries may now (perversely) be benefitting them, as they continued to pick up points throughout and now have players soming back that have not been worn down by a full season.
The African Cup of Nations
If this is a factor, it doesn’t bode well for City, as there’s one next season too. Not an excuse, as we all know the rules, and all teams suffer to some extent usually, but it seems to have affected City more than most. They had a difficult January, when it bacame crystal clear just how integral Yaya Toure was to City’s team, and what’s more the returnung Toures have had no break, and Yaya Toure hasn’t hit the heights since. In all, United dealt with absences better – losses of Kompany, Yaya Toure and Balotelli affected performances. Drug bans, suspensions, international competitions and players on strike – just your average season at City, and all a distraction from the football.
Hard to pin a title failure on him as Sergio Aguero was essentially a replacement anyway, and every fan would rather he had been sold in the summer or January, but he could have made the difference in the succession of away games where City struggled to score.
The Busby Babes Looking Down On United
Not my words, but Martin Tyler’s. What chance did City have?