Manchester City's ill-thought recruitment means Chelsea can keep them at arm's length
DRINK IT IN
Etihad Stadium, May 13, 2012. “It’s finished at Sunderland. Manchester United have done all they can; that Rooney goal was enough for the three points. Manchester City are still alive here. Balotelli... Agueroooooooooo!”
An unforgettable goal, an unforgettable day, an unforgettable moment of commentary. Raw, emotional and encased in disbelief, Martin Tyler’s famous description of that title-winning strike captured the unique drama of the situation perfectly.
Yet just seconds after bellowing the name of City’s Argentine hero, Tyler delivered a rather pertinent statement that has largely been forgotten: “It might just be the start of a dynasty.” Forty four years of living in the shadows were over. This was City’s time, not just in the present but also the future. It was time for the blue half of Manchester to build on their achievement and establish themselves as regular winners.
But has that happened? Well, since lifting that silverware in May 2012, City have recorded another Premier League triumph and victory in the League Cup. They have reached an FA Cup final and advanced to the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time.
Domestically, they have finished 1st, 2nd and 1st in the league over the last three seasons, and currently sit second behind Chelsea. On paper, it is going a fair way to building the dynasty Tyler mentioned.
The reality, however, is considerably different. The feeling that has enveloped the Etihad Stadium for much of the season is one of staleness. Performances have been insipid, atmospheres flat and resignation to failure among the fans widespread.
The thrill of a Champions League clash with Barcelona offers the opportunity for European sparkle, but frustration with the timidity of the title defence has led to growing criticism of Manuel Pellegrini.
In the space of just a few months, the Blues have gone from thrilling to turgid. The quality of football on display for large parts of last season was sensational, with waves of inventive attacks. It didn’t matter if the opposition scored three, as Arsenal did at the Etihad in one of the games of the season, because City had enough flair and enterprise to score more. That was the style, and fans lapped it up.
The contrast this time around couldn’t be more marked. City's season so far has been characterised by predictable football, one-paced sterile domination and an alarming vulnerability in defence. Individual mistakes have been frequent; moments of creative brilliance rare.
Pellegrini’s dour public persona, while effective in providing the calm antidote to Roberto Mancini’s provocative reign, has engendered little warmth with the fans. Concerns about his rigid tactics, stubborn lack of pragmatism and an inability to influence proceedings from the bench have made many supporters question whether the Chilean is the right man to take City forward.
Money for nothing
And yet the big problem at City is undoubtedly broader than Mancini upsetting a few players, or Pellegrini's lack of Plan B. It boils down to recruitment.
Since securing the Premier League title in such memorable circumstances in 2012, City have signed 18 players. Those arrivals have come at a cost of around £240 million, and it would logically be assumed, therefore, that those signings improved the team, pushed the club to another level and laid the foundations for a longstanding reign. Not quite.
Of those additions, two damning statistics jump out. First, just three of those players (Martin Demichelis, Fernandinho and Jesus Navas) are regular starters under Pellegrini.
Second, seven of them are no longer contracted to City. Another, Richard Wright, has yet to play a game for the club in two-and-a-half seasons and has only kept his place in the squad on account of his nationality.
Frank Lampard was not even an intended target and will leave to join his New York City team-mates at the end of the season. Wilfried Bony has been parachuted in midway through the season for an initial £25m to add some physical presence to the attack. That leaves five players (Willy Caballero, Bacary Sagna, Eliaquim Mangala, Fernando and Stevan Jovetic) who spend more time on the bench than they do the pitch.
It's hardly impressive for a club that has already been burned by Financial Fair Play regulations. The time for City to strengthen was when they were on top; when others sides were forced to spend just to catch up.
Had more quality arrived in the summer after the QPR game, City would have been far better placed to push for successive titles. Instead, a quick glance at the incomings during that transfer window reveals a sea of mediocrity: Wright, Maicon, Matija Nastasic, Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair.
It was a similar story last summer. Rather than reinforcing the squad with world-class talent after reclaiming the title, the Blues added a backup goalkeeper, a backup right-back, an inexperienced centre-back, a backup holding midfielder and another who had planned on taking early retirement in the USA.
That is not to say City haven't been aiming high. Admiring looks have been cast in the directions of Edinson Cavani, Robin van Persie, Eden Hazard and Angel Di Maria, but for a variety of reasons – whether hesitance in closing deals, the introduction of FFP or simply the lure of other clubs – the Premier League champions have been forced to settled for second-rate signings who clutter the squad without improving it.
Together it means that over the past three seasons, the improvements have been marginal. It could feasibly be argued that the likes of David Silva, Pablo Zabaleta and Yaya Toure, at 29, 30 and 31 respectively, have all seen their best days. Vincent Kompany too, perhaps. Of those who find their way into City’s best XI, Sergio Aguero is the youngest at 26. The average age of the most recent five summer arrivals was a shade under 30. What is crystal clear is that the squad is ageing and in need of youthful dynamism.
Come pre-season, Txiki Begiristain, the director of football, should have a clear strategy in place. Those who have repeatedly caught the eye at youth team level under the stewardship of Patrick Vieira – see the likes of Angelino, Brandon Barker, Olivier Ntcham and Thierry Ambrose – should be given a chance to show whether they are ready to make the considerable step up. If not, then the best young players around the world need to be identified and targeted.
For three years now, the squad has been growing stale and tired. Pellegrini may be the public face and thus bear the brunt of criticism, but those working behind the scenes need to start planning wisely for the summer. Another window of mediocrity and that dynasty will look a long way off.