City and United: hell bent on finishing fifth
It’s been a lean year in Manchester. Whether Red or Sky Blue, struggles abound in England’s North-West. Rivals for more than a century, the Premier League’s two most financially powerful clubs share the common trait of suffering through on-the-field issues that are not easily fixed. For all the money on show neither side seems capable of buying its way up the table, nor capturing fourth place and with it the Champions League.
The Citizens‘ difficulties are all the more confusing as the club seems to have been structured off-the-field to succeed on it, unlike the fierce rivals down the road at Old Trafford. City’s academy is flourishing, Pep Guardiola has been announced as the incoming manager for 2016/17, and the club is heading in a unified direction. It makes the Blues’ fall from grace this season all the more perplexing.
While City’s Champions League success has brought the club goodwill, it has also hidden a disastrous season considering Abu Dhabi’s huge investment. Expectations are sky-high, which means City’s failure this season is increasingly pronounced. And even City’s European campaign hides its own flaws. While making it through the group stage is a must for top clubs, the Blues’ progression contained a series of limp performances in the knockout stages.Meanwhile, club talisman Sergio Aguero failed to register a single shot on target in City’s last five Champions League encounters. Despite his success in the Premier League, the Argentine has struggled on the biggest stage, much like his club.
In truth, none of City’s shiny acquisitions stood up when it mattered most this season. Kevin De Bruyne was a shining light, and represents City’s future, nut the Belgian’s success lies in stark contrast to many of his teammates.
The squad will need to be rebalanced. Besides the promising Kelechi Iheanacho, City’s squad is now a cast of older, expensively assembled talent. In fact, despite the Blues’ growing success at youth level, the first team squad contains only seven players under the age of 28 – and two of them, Aguero and Wilfried Bony, are 27. Meanwhile, the squad has 15 players with contracts that extend beyond 2018.
This will be no easy rebuilding job for Guardiola. Not only will the Spaniard lack a quorum of players he needs to implement his playing style, but he has far too many in the wrong age bracket as well. Then there is club captain, Vincent Kompany, who is both City’s best defender, and an injury-prone liability.
Still, planning is underway behind the scenes. The Blues have already been touted with a move to sign Marc Ter Stegen as Joe Hart’s replacement. The gaffe-prone Englishman does not fulfil the criteria as the sweeper keeper that Guardiola typically prefers. There is also gossip of a move for Aymeric Laporte and Ilkay Gundogan, although the German’s latest injury likely delays a summer transfer by a year. If it happens at all.
"While City’s Champions League success has brought the club goodwill, it has also hidden a disastrous season considering Abu Dhabi’s huge investment. Expectations are sky-high, which means City’s failure this season is increasingly pronounced."
Yet, a clutch of new players will not cure all ills at the Etihad. Guardiola’s mere presence may work wonders, of course, but the version of City delivered this season makes that narrative harder to buy. Not least because City’s failure comes at a time when major rivals are weak. It will be a long summer in which all aim to improve.
Speculation about the future does nothing to hide the team’s ailments, which have become so stark it is as if Manuel Pellegrini’s players are doing everything to sabotage any chance at Champions League qualification. While Manchester United’s defeat in East London on Tuesday hands the initiative back to City, there will be no surprise if the Blues lose at Swansea City on Sunday. The welcome for Pep will be less than warm in the Europa League.
The appointment of a new manager at the beginning of February may well hold the key to the team’s poor form, but some of the problems are season-long and seemingly systemic. Not least because they are underpinned by Pellegrini’s predictable tactical approach.
The season started well though. City won 23 percent of the club’s season points total in the first five games. Crowned Champions in August by foolhardy fans, City fell apart in spectacular fashion, losing 10 games in the league this season. West Ham beat City at the Etihad 2-1 to prove that even the Blues’ home ground is no longer the fortress it once was. Tottenham Hotspur then thrashed City 4-1 at White Hart Lane only a week later. It set a pattern.
The team has proven to be flat-track bullies – terrific at thrashing the minnows, including a 6-1 win over Newcastle United, 5-1 against Bournemouth, 5-1 against Crystal Palace, 4-1 against Sunderland and 4-0 thrashings of Aston Villa, Stoke, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace. The theme is common, but the record against the division’s top teams is shockingly poor:
- Leicester: 3-1 loss at home, 0-0 draw away
- Tottenham: 2-1 loss at home, 4-1 loss away
- Arsenal: 2-2 draw at home, 2-1 loss away
- Manchester United: 1-0 loss at home, 0-0 draw away
- West Ham: 2-1 loss at home, 2-2 draw away
- Southampton: 3-1 win at home, 4-2 loss away
- Liverpool: 4-1 loss at home, 3-0 loss away
One win, four draws and nine losses in 14 games is a stunning return for a team backed by ambitious and hugely generous owners. City’s aura at home is gone, with the Blues only picking up points against Southampton and Arsenal in matches against top teams this season. Opponents are no longer afraid, and tactical predictability is endemic.
Yet, it wasn’t too long ago that Champions League qualification was all but assured. United’s own crisis of confidence under Louis van Gaal ensured only a late-season ‘race’ between the two Manchester sides for fourth place. City has spent much of the season’s end offering United an opening, only for the Reds to do everything possible to destroy their own campaign in turn.
It is a comedy of errors that leaves both clubs facing an important summer. Sunday will decide which one can enjoy the beach with the Champions League in mind.