No crisis, but Manchester City must cure Premier League travel sickness
The gulf in City’s displays home and away is startling
Somewhere near the Sea of Marmara, Roberto Mancini could afford himself a self-satisfied smile on Sunday. The new Galatasaray manager said after his Manchester City side lost for the second successive time at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light last Boxing Day that he never wanted to visit the place again. Though he should have been careful what he wished for, a fourth league away defeat in six for City is the kind of record that belongs to the relegation-threatened ranks of the Premier League, not the richest.
It would be easy to conclude that City are not moving on from the Mancini era, if the initial 11 games of this Premier League season provided any evidence of infallibility from one or two of the other challengers. A win for Arsenal at Manchester United on Sunday would have delivered the leaders a nine-point lead over City – and the beginnings of something unassailable from an Etihad perspective. But United’s victory created a more level picture: a six-point gap between first and eighth, which in the current landscape really is nothing. Six of those eight teams are divided by three points.
Do not expect any club to pull clear immediately when domestic business resumes next week, either. The United manager, David Moyes, was talking once again on Sunday night of expecting another “bloody nose” or two and success amid such a group of flawed contenders may be a matter of digging out little pockets of consistency. The fundamental point is that City possess the best squad, man for man. The title is by no means beyond them.
The gulf in their performances home and way is startling for all that. A reputation for vulnerability can quickly take hold and opponents are certainly pumped up with belief when it comes to playing at home to Manuel Pellegrini’s players, even though City’s latest opponents were deeply unambitious on Sunday. It was like the Alamo at the Stadium of Light after Sunderland had taken the lead.
City’s flaw – and all eight of those top eight sides have one – is the lack of depth when Pellegrini’s first choices are injured. Their laments about injuries did bear scrutiny on Wearside. Absent were their first-choice centre-backs, Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasic, and midfielders David Silva and Fernandinho, whose understanding with Yaya Touré has been developing. They lack elite replacements, too. Martin Demichelis, with his lack of pace, has been a poor alternative to Pellegrini’s first choice for defensive cover in the summer – Real Madrid’s Pepe . Though Stevan Jovetic and Jesus Navas (left) seemed to offer an embarrassment of options when they came through the door in the close season, the pair have barely played – just one Premier League start each.
Injuries have plagued Jovetic but Navas – who was anticipated as the player to give City the width they have hitherto lacked – has not yet looked capable of commanding the field in the Premier League. A study by EPL Index has highlighted Navas’s failure to take men on. He has only attempted two dribbles this season and has a crossing accuracy of 33 per cent, while Alvaro Negredo, City’s other signing from Seville, has figures which show how quickly he has prospered in England: 10 attempted dribbles and a crossing accuracy of 40 per cent.
This is curious. It was Negredo, a similar striker to Edin Dzeko, who had seemed more destined to struggle. The data also suggests Navas has not been given the ball in advanced wide positions. In this transition period, it looks as though City are struggling to change from Mancini’s narrower style – with Silva and Samir Nasri wanting to come inside. Navas has certainly been signed to create not score. He did not find the net once in La Liga for Seville last season and has scored only 35 goals in his 401 career appearances. Pellegrini needs service for him.
The Chilean manager does seem to have the capacity that Mancini lacked to make players want to run through walls for him. Micah Richards provided a sense of that last week when, in an enlightening interview, he observed that his team-mate and friend Joe Hart was unhappy to be out of the team but respected Pellegrini’s straightforward way of delivering the decision to him.
The progress towards the Champions League knockout stage – so far beyond Mancini for so long – also matters more than anything in the scheme of things to City’s Abu Dhabi owners, with their pursuit of global profile. It would also be wrong to characterise City as defensively more deficient under Pellegrini: they have conceded five goals fewer than at the same stage last season.
We can expect them – still supreme at home – to beat Tottenham Hotspur and Swansea City in their next Premier League games. And we can then anticipate anything when they face West Bromwich and Southampton away. This eighth place is not a crisis, though. City are comfortably in the picture and as equipped as anyone to make their move.
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