On New Year’s Day, Manchester City fans were looking on towards the rest of the season with increasing levels of optimism. After a tense win over Sunderland, City drew level with Chelsea at the top of the Premier League after the Blues lost 5-3 to a Harry Kane-inspired Tottenham Hotspur. A second straight title, then, was starting to look like a distinct possibility.
However, since drawing level at the top, the Citizens have experienced the type of collapse that is normally associated with Arsenal at this time of the season. A disappointing run of results has left City six points behind leaders Chelsea (who have a game in hand), out of the FA Cup at the hand of Championship club Middlesbrough and staring down the barrel of a Champions League exit to Barcelona.
Their challenge for trophies seems has all but vanished by mid-March, but that is not the only problem for City. My previous column assessed the race for the top 4, which Manchester City were excluded from on account of their seemingly comfortable position in 2nd in the table. However, due to the good form of teams behind them, as well as a significant downturn in their own results, City now face a battle to retain their place in the top 4 and another crack at the Champions League. Is this poor form just a blip, or could Manchester City’s collapse continue and leave them in 5th place or below?
The greatest challenge facing City is their form. Since going joint-top, they have managed just three wins in nine Premier League matches; also clocking up the same number of draws and defeats. Over the same period of time, the rest of the top 7 have all accumulated significantly more points than Manchester City, most notably Liverpool and Arsenal, who have claimed 25 and 24 points in the nine games it has taken City to gain 12, just the tenth highest in the league over this period. This run has left Arsenal within a point of City, local rivals Manchester United just two behind, and the country’s most in-form team Liverpool just four back from the Champions. Should City’s poor run continue, all of these teams could realistically overtake them before the end of the season, leaving them out of the Champions League places.
Their poor run, though, is a strange mixture of thumping victories and abject draws and defeats. City’s three wins since New Year’s Day have yielded eleven goals, for the loss of just one, defeating Newcastle United 5-0, Stoke City 4-1 at the Britannia Stadium and Leicester City 2-0. However, they have dropped points at home to struggling Hull and Everton, and suffered defeats by Arsenal, Liverpool and struggling Burnley. They have clearly shown that they have the talent to win games with complete domination, but are also vulnerable to defeat by both top 4 rivals and also relegation strugglers. Clearly, City are not suddenly a bad team, but they must develop a level of consistency in order to cement their place in the top 4.
Should their consistency improve, City’s run-in is favourable enough to allow them to remain in second place. However, they do still face some tough fixtures, most notably the Manchester derby on April 12th. United are now just two points behind City, and defeat in the derby could potentially break their season. The Champions will face further challenges from resurgent Aston Villa, a trip to Tottenham and a visit from surprise package Southampton, who they appear to be out of reach of. These games are still tough, but should City recover their form, they will win most of these games.
Fixtures may be in their favour, but form is not, so what can Pellegrini do to change this? The first place to start is the formation. Whilst there is nothing wrong with 4-4-2 as a formation, it doesn’t really suit the personnel available to Pellegrini. City looked best earlier in the season when they only had one fit striker, which allowed David Silva to play behind the striker and influence the game. The 4-4-2 formation tends to see Silva and Samir Nasri isolated out wide, unable to influence the game. Furthermore, the lack of presence in the centre restricts Yaya Toure’s ability to get forward and charge at defences, limiting City’s ability to score goals. Manchester City have some of the best players in the league, but they are currently being restricted by their formation, contributing to their inconsistency.
There is no doubt that Manchester City have fallen from title contention to a top 4 scrap. Whilst they have the players to comfortably gain enough points to seal their Champions League place, they are currently being restricted by the system that must change in order to regain some confidence and fluidity into their game. On current form, Manchester City will be easily overtaken by Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, who City will face in a pivotal tie in their fairly favourable run-in. However, their recent slump has left them back in a tough race for the top 4 and a failure to improve will see them miss out completely. They may not be title contenders any more, but Manchester City have plenty to play for, otherwise they may be playing on Thursday nights in the Europa League next season.