It’s pretty safe to say that Manchester City haven’t been in the greatest of form recently. In fact, when it comes to making safe statements, that previous one is right up there with ‘Bruce Forsyth will be on television on Saturday night’ or ‘ITV2 will be showing What Lies Beneath this week’ or even ‘after the FA Cup semi final next month, the Manchester United fans’ trip home won’t take that long’. But it’s true – City have picked up just eight points from a possible twenty-one.
And it gets worse: away from home, City haven’t won in all competitions since the victory at St James’ Park on Boxing Day – drawing at Arsenal, Leicester, Notts County, Birmingham, and Aris, and losing at Aston Villa, Manchester United, Kiev and Chelsea. That defeat on Sunday put Chelsea above City on points and with a game in hand, leaving City looking over their shoulders at Tottenham for fourth place, rather than at Chelsea for third. To top it off, performances haven’t been great and, naturally, it’s all doom and gloom.
Or is it?
Well, it shouldn’t be, any road. There was always going to come a time when Tevez lost his goalscoring touch. Scoring fifty goals in seventy games is an immense record and one that should be celebrated, but since that 50th went in, Tevez has failed to find the net in seven attempts. And, just as Tevez’s goals dried up, so did City’s.
Despite this, though, up until last Sunday, City were clinging on to third place. Fingernails were dug in and Chelsea only snatched it away from a kicking and screaming visiting side at Stamford Bridge; it wasn’t as if Chelsea created a ton a chances, even with so much ball possession and, in the end, the defeat was down to a silly free kick, one moment of poor marking and being hit on the counter attack pushing for an equaliser.
And the reason City were there for so long when they weren’t steamrollering through West Brom or Aston Villa or Fulham is down to three players: Nigel de Jong, Vincent Kompany and Joe Hart. Normally, you’d expect to be unable to rely on City’s defence, but not this season – against last season’s top four (seven games so far), City have four clean sheets. If City shut up shop, it normally takes something special to break through, these days, and that’s a very valuable asset to have if your forwards aren’t amongst the goals.
At the very start of the season, I said that Adam Johnson would be the best value for money signing City have made in the last ten or so years. But that statement now seems foolish given that, Vincent Kompany, the best central defender in the Premier League, cost a paltry £6m and that Joe Hart, one of the country’s top goalkeepers and (hopefully) England’s first choice, cost a meagre £600,000 (potentially rising to £1.5m).
Then, in the last three City matches, Nigel de Jong has received the man of the match award. His role in the team is so understated, yet so vital, that you only really notice what he does and how valuable he is when he isn’t there. He’s not in the team to score goals, in fact he’s never scored for City. Rather, his job is to prevent goals and keep possession of the ball.
His protection of the back four is something that no other player in the league does. He doesn’t operate like other defensive midfielders; he anticipates what his team-mates will do, reads the position where he needs to be and makes a tough, uncompromising tackle. As a prime example, making up for Kompany’s only slip up against Chelsea, he chased Torres back to the City box. Except, Torres was on the opposite side of the pitch from him and the ball was with Kalou.
So many other defensive minded players would try to snuff out the attack with a tackle on Kalou, but de Jong could see that Lescott (another who is having a fine run of form) was holding the Chelsea forward up and that, in the next stage of the attack, it would be Torres with the shooting opportunity. Then he prevented the shot with a crunching, and fair, challenge in the area.
Then, when de Jong wins the ball, he keeps it. His passes are short and unspectacular, but that’s exactly what he’s in the team to do: he gets the ball back for City and gives it to someone else to start the attack. Or he’s always there as an option for a quick pass. And, 90% of the time, his passes reach their destination. For his role in the team, his disciplinary record is top notch, too.
Should the play get past de Jong, though, there’s a centre back pairing of Lescott and Kompany for it to beat. For a long while, Kompany has been receiving the plaudits of City fans for his ability to time a tackle, keep the top players in his back pocket, read the game, pick out a pass, win the aerial challenges and look all round solid, dependable and secure in the back four. He’s that rare breed of centre-back who is comfortable with the ball at his feet and will be integral to any future success.
And since the situation forced it upon him, Lescott has stepped up his game and is starting to show some of the form he did whilst at Everton. He knows what he can and can’t do. He knows he isn’t as comfortable with the ball at his feet as other players, so he keeps his passes short and simple, making sure he finds a blue shirt. If there’s a sniff of danger, he gets the ball safe.
Finally, lurking behind one of the best centre back pairings behind one of the best defensive midfielders in the league, there’s one of the best goalkeepers in the league. And the stats prove it: only yesterday, Opta, the service that supplies hard data for sports, tweeted that Joe Hart has the best saves to shots faced ratio in the Premier League this season, preventing 77% of efforts fired at his goal from going in.
Roberto Mancini had a difficult decision to make at the start of the season and he chose to go with Hart over Given. It’s immaterial now, since Given’s shoulder injury, but up until last month, the young Englishman was regularly turning in performances good enough to keep one of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers out of the team. Naturally, he’s bound to make mistakes – all keepers do. But not all keepers can pull off saves that we’ve seen from Hart this season; the season opener at White Hart Lane was a prime example or what he can do.
Football’s a team game and sometimes City don’t get the attacking part quite right. Perhaps they should be more adventurous on some occasions, but (until Sunday) they had the best defence in the league and that was the main reason why City have been up the right end of the table for so long, despite being in poor form. We’ve had years of the ‘you score four, we’ll score five’ attitude and it was fun for a while, but it never proved to be that successful.
When the defence is tight, one goal can win a game. If that goal doesn’t come, then at least a poor performance can yield a point. It’s the strikers that take all the glory with the goals of the month, but it’s the quality of the defence that makes the difference when it comes to the end of the season.
And, this season, City’s defence is exemplary.