Decisions from the past coming back to haunt Manchester City
First things first, Manchester City are not in crisis. There are 18 other Premier League clubs who would love to be in City’s position. For a club that is putting up their first title defence in 45 years, to be in second place and in an FA Cup semi-final is very good going. The problem is, expectations at the club have risen exponentially with their status as the most cash-rich club in England. Good early season form led us to believe that they would be able to strongly compete with Manchester United in the title battle. However, after a limp Champions League showing, their league form has suffered. So, why is that, and how do they move on from here?
City have lost the exuberant sparkle that saw them score 93 goals last season, including six at Old Trafford and five at White Hart Lane. They have been grinding out results, but without the extra oomph that they had last year they haven’t been able to keep pace with United. The main reason for this is the lack of flair in the team and the absence of form of the flair players that they do possess.
David Silva, their impish creator-in-chief, has been playing a lot of football for six years, and it is starting to show. He still looks elegant and stylish, but he is missing the sharpness and zing of last season. It has bubbled up at times; it’s just the consistency that is lacking. Sergio Aguero hasn’t looked fully fit since his opening day injury. Maybe he was rushed back, maybe he is just a bit hesitant, but like Silva he has lost his X-factor. He has looked amazing at times, but again, the lack of consistency is frustrating. He is the complete package as a forward, the best in the league in full flight, but hasn’t reached those levels enough this season.
Similarly, Carlos Tevez has flickered and started the season in superb form, but hasn’t brought it to every game. Samir Nasri has looked disinterested; perhaps as Roberto Mancini himself alluded to, he has taken his foot off the pedal after wining the league last year. This foursome helped City play free-flowing attacking stuff last year, but for various reasons haven’t clicked this year.
The issue with this is that beyond the famous four, the creative cupboard is bare. Mancini doesn’t have another option to bring on, so when he substitutes one of them, the team’s flair quotient drops every time. James Milner, Edin Dzeko and Gareth Barry are good workers but don’t unlock defences. City were beaten to the punch in the summer on Eden Hazard and Robin van Persie, both of whom would have offered Mancini extra creativity and goal threat. They also would have brought hunger and desire to win their first Premier League title. Mancini was openly critical of the club’s transfer activity, and rightly so.
He was delivered Jack Rodwell, an injury-prone grinding midfielder, Javi Garcia, another grinding midfielder, and the much-maligned Scott Sinclair, a pure winger who doesn’t fit into City’s system. Mancini had already shown that he didn’t use wingers, which is why they sold Adam Johnson. So they sign an inferior version? They already had Yaya Toure, Milner and Barry and at that point Nigel de Jong, as worker midfielders. So they two inferior versions? You see the issue?
The lack of clarity and apparent lack of planning was a surprise considering City seemed to have shed themselves of the money-wasting tag with the buys of Aguero, Silva and Yaya, who formed the core of the championship side. But they’ve had these issues before. The likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, Robinho and Roque Santa Cruz were bought for huge sums then sold at a steep loss to get them out of the building. Joleon Lescott, Milner and Dzeko have been good players for the club but cost just under £90m combined. That £90m would have got them Hazard, van Persie and Thiago Silva.
City can afford to spend that kind of money and it not to come off. Or at least, they could before they got big. They had to pay a premium to get players to come to them in their rush to the top. Now that they are, they have to deal with the impending Financial Fair Play regulations to compete in their new Holy Grail, the Champions League. The bad deals of the past hang around like a bad smell. They show up not just as huge losses but in huge contracts and leave a stain on their FFP sheet.
What this means is that the club has a small squad of very highly paid players. For a lot of this season they’ve had young players that they wouldn’t want to be anywhere near the first team filling up the bench. Having to dump the signings they wasted so much money on means they haven’t built any squad depth. They are perpetually chasing their tails, replacing what they sell rather than adding to the squad.
This summer is an important one for Manchester City. They’ve got an immensely talented team, and a manager who has shown he can win consistently, but they need to find a way to get him more depth and more attacking flair if they are to get back to winning the league. The problem is, they have hamstrung themselves with some poor decision-making and prioritising in their rush to the top. If they re-find their transfer coherence, and there is no reason that they shouldn’t, considering they built a league winner on the market, they have got the financial resources to get back to winning the league.