The Season Just Gone
The general consensus on Manchester City’s 2014-15 campaign seemed to be that it was the worst title defence ever. This ignored several important facts: chiefly that football wasn’t invented in 1992, and also that David Moyes’ Manchester United offered a far meeker defence in the season before last. City undeniably had a relatively disappointing campaign: results in big games were poor, several key players performed way below their best for large parts of the season and the defence seemed extremely porous throughout. That said, it was hardly the disaster it’s been described as in parts of the press.
City were a comfortable second in the Premier League, scored at least ten more goals than any other team and got the best out of Sergio Agüero until injury inevitably struck. Most fans would happily take that kind of entertainment if it was offered in August. Of course, with a budget and a squad like City’s, slightly more is required to satisfy supporters but the bottom line is, it’s not like they collapsed so badly that they finished 7th and had to spend £300m+ across the next two summers to save face.
Their European adventure was as short as ever and concerns remain about Manuel Pellegrini’s ability to lead City to Champions League glory, but there’s good reason to think that City’s biggest problem in Europe is not their manager, but their inability to get a favourable draw. Every season they draw a superclub in the group stages and then another one when they qualify for the first knockout round. It’s become fashionable to attack Pellegrini’s lack of tactical understanding at the highest level, but let’s be honest, there aren’t many managers who’d have found a way past Bayern Munich and Barcelona in the last few seasons, even with City’s riches at their disposal.
The Season Ahead
Many have predicted a relatively quiet campaign for Man City – relatively few have tipped them for the title, no-one expects much in Europe and some observers have even suggested a strong Liverpool push could see City’s top-four status endangered. All of these doom-mongers are talking utter rubbish. City will obviously challenge for the title, will probably progress further in Europe than ever before and will almost certainly finish some twenty points ahead of Liverpool.
Sure, their squad is ageing and certain key players have shown signs of decline and waning interest, but this squad can coast through a season in second gear and still finish at least third. More to the point, there’s little reason to believe that they will coast through this season. The modern professional footballer is a proud beast and there is no greater motivation than when the general public writes them off.
Captain Vincent Kompany, who went from being considered the Premier League’s best defender to a walking punchline in a little over a year, has spoken of the squad’s renewed hunger and determination. Last week’s dismantling of West Brom should have surprised no-one – the real surprise will be if there aren’t several more thrashings like that handed out between now and May.
With most observers tipping the reinvigored Arsenal (lol) and Manchester United as Chelsea’s closest title challengers, Manchester City are the dark horse soon to become the elephant in the room.
As ever, City favour an aggressive form of possession football, with quick combinations on the edge of the opposition area creating scoring chances for their avalanche of attacking talent. Under both Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, they have looked to achieve numerical superiority in the centre of the pitch with fluid positioning and overlaps, and it has worked extremely well for them.
Defensively, things have changed in the last couple of years. Under Mancini, the emphasis was often on dropping deep, staying compact and denying the opposition space between the lines, whereas Pellegrini has moved them towards a more modern style, pressing hard and looking to win the ball high up the pitch. At times their attackers haven’t shown the requisite work-rate to make this strategy successful, and opponents have had success building simple, straightforward attacks through the middle.
This has led to City’s increased but somewhat overstated defensive vulnerability, and particularly the apparent demise of Kompany, who simply hasn’t looked comfortable playing in a high line with little conventional protection from his midfield. His tendency to overcommit, consequently getting turned or committing cynical fouls on the halfway line, has become one of the familiar sights in City games. It’s comparable to John Terry’s decline under André Villas-Boas – sometimes a great penalty box defender is just a great penalty box defender.
A switch from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 has been mooted, but the prevailing wisdom seems to say that Pellegrini believes Sergio Agüero needs a strike partner to play at his best. Against West Brom, with Agüero absent, Pellegrini played a 4-4-1-1 and Chelsea should expect something similar.
Wilfried Bony led the line ably, with David Silva playing as the number ten and finding pockets of space in front of the back four at will. City clearly benefitted from having two wide men who stayed wide, stretching the play – at times in the past, Silva and Nasri coming inside has made them too narrow and consequently predictable. The pace and directness of Raheem Sterling and Jesús Navas caused the opposition just as many problems as Silva’s guile in the middle.
City’s greatest strength is still their direct attacking: last season they took the most shots per game and registered the most shots on target, which inevitably produced the highest goals figure too. They also scored twice as many goals as anyone else on the counter-attack. Their attack is a complex and multifaceted machine, which makes stopping it next to impossible. The opposition generally has to commit all of its resources to doing so, and with that in mind, José Mourinho will probably park the bus and play for a point.
Their other great strength is keeping the ball and controlling the game: only one side had more possession last season and with artists like Silva, Nasri and Yaya Touré in their midfield, City boast three of the division’s finest footballing brains. They know how to control the tempo of a match and, in particular, their ability to slow the game down to paradoxically create better attacking circumstances is underrated.
Despite their reputation for defensive haplessness, things are pretty strong at the other end of the pitch. City only gave up 10.2 shots per game last season, the second lowest figure in the league, and Joe Hart was only worked an average of just over three times per game. Those are mightily good numbers.
If Chelsea will win this game, it will be in the same way they nearly took three points at the Etihad last season: sucking City out of their half, making them overcommit in midfield, and springing into the space behind. As previously mentioned, Kompany is vulnerable high up the pitch and centre-back partner Eliaquim Mangala still looks nervy. Additionally, their attacking responsibilities mean there is often ample space behind the full-backs to exploit at transitions.
Indeed, the game will probably be decided by who best manages transitions. If Yaya Touré can up his defensive work-rate and not leave Fernandinho fighting fires all by himself, City have a good chance. If Kompany’s decision-making about when to intervene and when to stand off is better, City have a great chance. If neither of those things happen, Chelsea should take at least a point.
Mourinho will probably sacrifice artistry for robustness as he usually does in these fixtures, with Oscar likely to make way for Ramires and Cesc Fàbregas likely to play in the number ten position. Despite Mourinho’s much-discussed victimisation of his medical department, Chelsea have no major injury worries.
Pellegrini may decide to risk Agüero given the importance of getting three points, but the injury-prone Argentine forward has said he won’t be rushing his way back to full fitness after his late summer break. Assuming that Bony starts, we will probably see the same side and system that demolished West Brom on Monday.
It’s an early season clash between two of the title favourites featuring José Mourinho. When was the last time one of those wasn’t a drab draw?