Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Man City: The Brilliant Underachievers

September 1st 2008 was a day the very landscape of English football changed forever. Manchester City, forever the forgotten club in their own city, had been taken over by an Arabian Consortium, the Abu Dhabi United Group with riches that dwarfed those of the Premier League's incumbent 'chief billionaire' Roman Abramovich. The owners made no secret of their ambition. To sign the best players in the world and to blow neighbours United and everyone else, totally out of the water.

Sheik Mansour, a member of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family was the man behind the take over. The new owners plans revolved around recruiting the very best talent available, offering them ludicrous sums of money to drop down from the prestige of the Champions League to the Premier League relegation zone, where City found themselves four months after the buyout. The owners, in light of Cristiano Ronaldo's unrest at United at the time as he ached for a move to Madrid, claimed that should Ronaldo wish to play for the biggest club in the world, he wouldn't even have to move house. Ambitious with more than a touch of ridiculousness were their claims. And even more so were the immediate goals set for Manchester City, crafted by people clearly with no genuine football knowledge.  A top four finish in year one. Premier League title in year two. Champions League winners in year 3. Needless to say they failed on all three fronts. Year three was when they finally achieved Champions League qualification. The league title followed the year after. A Champions League triumph has eluded them and is still a very long way away for this club who seem to have stagnated at their current level.

Mansour: The man who changed Manchester 

The injection of a seemingly endless flow of cash was meant to form a dynasty that would take on and crush the Red empire that had ruled the city for the past two decades. City have certainly become a major force in the English game, two league titles are testament to that, but they haven't hit the heights they should have. Not by a long way.

City have played three seasons in the Champions League so far and progressed beyond the group stage only once. That year they were drawn against Barcelona in the round of sixteen and given a lesson, losing home and away. This year they've secured just one point from their opening two games in the competition, being dominated in Munich by Bayern and being held to a 1-1 draw by Roma in front of a half-full, severely subdued Etihad stadium.

'Lacking European experience' is an excuse that gets bandied about a lot. It doesn't wash at all. In their starting XI vs Roma City had a Champions League winner in Yaya Toure, a runner-up in Martin Demichelis. Edin Dzeko who's been playing in the competition since 2009. Likewise Sergio Aguero. Gael Clichy has over 50 Champions League appearances to his name. Fernandinho something similar. David Silva is a World Cup winner and twice European Champion with Spain. Another former Champions League winner Frank Lampard came off the bench. This team is loaded with experience at the highest level. They aren't still 'finding their feet' in Europe's premier competition.

For the amount of money that's they've spent on building this squad, Manchester City should be winning the competition by now but they aren't even close. Players like Vincent Kompany and Joe Hart know this. They are the only players who look like they yearn to see City's name on the giant trophy. These, along with Pablo Zabaleta are guys that got in on the ground level. Hart has been a Man City player since 2006 and first choice keeper since 2010. Kompany was one of the first arrivals under the new owners. These are about as genuine City players as you can get in what is essentially a team full of mercenaries.

Kompany is a stalwart by City standards. Here he is in 2009 against Stoke.

There are players, like Yaya Toure, who are payed millions and millions of pounds every year to go out and play with other fantastic players in this team. No doubt they enjoy their football and are good enough to win most league and cup games without having to dig deep. But when it comes to the crunch, to games like Bayern Munich or knockout ties with Barcelona, do Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri and the likes really care about the fortunes of Manchester City? A club they don't identify with. Can they truly find the motivation to pull out all the stops, to give their heart and soul for the jersey, to leave everything they have out on the pitch in the pursuit of victory? No. Clearly not. Yaya was seen laughing and joking with Bayern boss Pep Guardiola, seconds after City lost a crucial game in the final moments, seemingly unmoved by his team's failure. He may as well have been playing 5-a-side with his mates for all it was worth to him.

Overall, the Champions League doesn't seem to carry the same appeal to a club like Manchester City as it does to a club with a rich history in the competition like Liverpool, who returned this year. Two weeks prior to City's clash with Roma, Liverpool played their first Champions League game since 2009 against lowly Ludogorets of Bulgaria. Anfield was packed to the rafters and the atmosphere was electric. City's first home game in the competition against Roma left almost 10,000 empty seats in the Etihad. For a club that claims to be the best supported in the city of Manchester, they aren't exactly backing it up. Their rivals drew in 75,000 on a Tuesday night last December for a dead rubber game against Shaktar Donetsk.

Big European nights are always special for the big teams. They come to define dynasties in many ways. Think of the great Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 80s, defined by so many memorable nights at Anfield. Manchester United under Ferguson were a similar story. The atmosphere at Old Trafford on European nights was infinitely louder and better than a typical Saturday afternoon routine disposal of West Ham. City do not enjoy such fervent support on midweek evenings.

Domestically, City have enjoyed some success. Two league titles and an FA Cup are the honours they have to show for their success so far. The first league title, won on goal difference was very much deserved despite them seemingly doing their very best to throw it away in the spring. The second was rather more fortunate. City took advantage of the power lapse between the death of Ferguson's United and the second coming of Mourinho's Chelsea to win the 2014 title, almost by default. Now, with Chelsea on the march again, City are looking rather ordinary.

Their performance against Villa on Saturday for me really summed up what this team is about. Classy and great to watch going forward. Exposed at times defensively and relying on Kompany to bail them out a lot. The two full backs like to press forward into the open space created by City's lack of wingers. This, combined with the fact that Yaya Toure does next to nothing defensively makes City really not that difficult at all to play against on the counter attack. If quick wingers can get into the space behind the full backs forcing Kompany or Mangala/Demichelis to cover, it creates a lot of space in the middle for a striker and a late-arriving midfielder in the box matched up with the other centre half and defensive midfielder Fernandinho.

How City are vulnerable on the counter and can be stretched

Easier said than done. Much easier said than done. All of this of course provided you've managed to keep out what is probably the best attack in the league. David Silva is just a fantastic footballer. An absolute genius who always seems to find the right past and can unlock a defence out of nothing. Sergio Aguero has been consistently in the Premier League's top two strikers for the past four years. Edin Dzeko is under-rated and not too far off those standards. James Milner is coming into some really good form. And not even playing on Saturday they have Nasri, Jesus Navas, Jovetic and Lampard. A menacing attack.

Two of the best attacking players in Europe. And a lovely bromance.

And then there's Yaya Toure. In many ways, Yaya symbolises everything that Man City are about. He's immensely talented and so much better than all of the players he plays against but he doesn't have that drive to go on and be the best in the world, the same way that this City are lacking the drive to really go on and really dominate at home and in Europe. His goal on Saturday was brilliant but he just didn't seem interested in the game until that point, particularly in the defensive aspect. 4-4-2 is a dying formation. When a team plays with two central midfielders these days, both have to do a lot of defensive work. Against Villa City were able to handle them but against tougher opposition, Yaya's negligence will be exposed. Villa's best spell of the game came in the eight minutes between Fernandinho leaving the pitch and Fernando coming on for Dzeko. During this time, Yaya was meant to be playing the holding role. Whether he was aware of this or not is unclear.

I get the impression that for Yaya Toure especially, Manchester City is a job rather than a passion. Central midfielders are so pivotal to a team's fortunes and can have such a massive influence on games. Remember Roy Keane in Turin in 1999, Steven Gerrard in Istanbul 05, it's impossible to see Yaya emulating these performances. No doubt he has the technical ability, he's a wonderfully talented footballer, and the physical attributes, just look at the size of him, but he is totally lacking the drive and determination to propel this side to new heights.

They have so much talent in the side that they are good enough to dispatch the likes of Aston Villa with relative ease week in and week out. But when they come up against a real challenge, City will be found out. They lost twice to Chelsea in the league last year and almost did so again two weeks ago. Defeat at Anfield last season nearly cost them the title. Is it a motivation problem? Or defensive weaknesses? A combination of the two I think. City can't seem to find the motivation to raise their game when they need to (evident by their abysmal European record) and are quite susceptible to quick counter attacks.

Make no mistake about it, this City squad has been, pound-for-pound, probably the best in the league for the past four years now.  Their brilliance is such that the don't boast a particular style of play in the way that Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal and Liverpool all have over the years. It's simply show up, be a lot better than the opposition, win. 8/10 times that is the case.

Perhaps this Chelsea revival will be the wake-up call City need. The potential is there, if the pieces are put together correctly. What they seem to lack above all are mental qualities. Hunger, team spirit, togetherness and a drive to win that Ferguson's United and Mourinho's Chelsea displayed so often in big games. It's something that with all their billions and billions of petro-dollars, they can't seem to buy.

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