No Time To Leave It Late For City

“I swear you’ll never see anything like this ever again.”

Those words, spoken by the peerless Martin Tyler, have become immortalised in Premier League folklore. The moments they described made them seem even more hyperbolic than perhaps even the great commentator had intended. That exclamation, however, was no overstatement of just how improbable replication of that historic moment would be. Two years later, though, albeit in less dramatic fashion, Manchester City would leave clinching the title until the last day yet again.

City don’t fear leaving it late. Given that their two Premier League titles have both been won at the eleventh hours of the respective triumphant seasons, it would appear that they embrace it – and revel in it. For years, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were revered for their capacity to score late goals, picking up vital points and on a certain night in May 1999, they won Europe’s greatest prize in the dying moments of a tie with Bayern Munich. These days, it’s the “noisy neighbours” who are renowned for their industrious desire and theatrical tendency to win during the final act.

That winning spirit, histrionic or otherwise, has not been in evidence just recently. City’s last two results in the league have been nothing short of unacceptable by their standards and by those set by Chelsea, who now lead the division by five points – the widest margin between the top two since the morning of December 6, just before Mourinho’s men succumbed to their first league defeat of the campaign.

Last year, a draw at Goodison Park would have represented a good result. This term, with the Toffees floundering, the Premier League champions will view a 1-1 draw as two points dropped. Subsequent back-to-back 0-2 defeats at home to Arsenal and Middlesbrough, more significantly, have seen Man City swept under by a torrent of widespread criticism and doubt. Quite seriously, the last fortnight has placed a great deal of pressure on Manuel Pellegrini and his players.

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The key question is: can City salvage their season? In a word: yes. It is likely that they will be in contention for at least one title come the end of the season but they must harness the quality they produced in the latter stages of previous successful campaigns right now if they are to do so.

Exit from the FA Cup is bound to sting the club’s pride but could in fact represent a blessing in disguise, given the emphasis that will surely be placed on progression in the Champions League next month. What’s more, much of the media scrutiny has been aimed at Chelsea following defeat to Bradford City and with Mourinho branding his team’s shock exodus a “disgrace”, City are set to face the title favourites on Saturday with a chance to capitalise on disharmony in the Blues’ dressing room.

In order to do so, however, City will have to improve their game in the most integral of areas: their scoring of goals. Although the Citizens’ 45 goals already notched this season hardly represents a meagre return, placing them as the second highest scorers in the league behind just Chelsea, who have netted 51, their two title-winning seasons were successful simply because City fans witnessed far more goals contributed by a greater variety of players. If they are to once again catch Chelsea in this campaign fraught with fluctuations in form, they must see the ever-clinical Sergio Aguero’s striking efforts supplemented by others. Recent history reveals why.

In the 2011/12 season, Aguero’s outstanding haul of 23 goals was complemented by the impressive tallies of Edin Dzeko (14) and Mario Balotelli (13), as City banged in 93 goals to win the title on goal difference. Last year, 2013/14, City out-scored their opponents to the title with a staggering 102 goals. Yaya Toure, with 20, Aguero, with 17, Dzeko, with 16, and Alvaro Negredo, with nine, all played their parts. Indeed, the only year in the last three that City haven’t lifted the Premier League trophy was 2012/13, during which they managed only 66 goals.

This season, Aguero has 14 goals already but the form he found before the New Year appears to be drying up, as he contends with niggling injuries that quite plainly reduce his sharpness and decisive involvement in City’s attack. Such is the importance of the player that without him at peak performance, City will get nowhere near last season’s goals record.

The relative lack of support afforded to the Argentine this term in that regard is cause for concern in itself. Toure and Silva are the next highest scorers, with seven and six goals respectively. Given that the two of them, with these fairly unspectacular returns, have been involved in 36% of City’s goals and Aguero 38% on his own, it is clear that City need extra hands (or feet) to help them carry the team’s necessity for more. Enter, Wilfried Bony.

The Ivorian, currently representing his country alongside Toure in Equitorial Guinea, must hit the ground running upon arrival at the Etihad after the Africa Cup of Nations. As the most prolific striker in the Premier League for 2014, scoring 20 goals in the calendar year, there is little question that Bony is a good investment. Capable of finding the net from any range and with either foot or his head, the former Swan will offer good cover for Aguero and may well force Stevan Jovetic – who started the season well but has since faded – and Dzeko to seek first-team football elsewhere.

Still, whilst establishing City’s reduced goal-scoring as the issue is one thing, the identification of why they are scoring fewer than in previous years is far more essential. Undoubtedly, this question regards the creation of goal-scoring opportunities so far this season, the main provider of which has been Jesus Navas.

The Arsenal game, though not ideal as a microcosmic demonstration of City’s season as a whole, highlighted just how much of an impact this particular shortcoming has cost them on certain occasions. Navas, who has created more chances and assisted more goals (six) than any other City player this season, was consistently able to find space on the right wing to deliver crosses against the Gunners. Almost every attempt he made to find a teammate in the area was poorly executed, often failing to beat the first man, and the isolated figure of Aguero was left frustrated. Milner’s efforts on the other wing were equally fruitless. This is a grave problem for a team that sends over 70% of its attacking play down the wings. It is a part of City’s play that must be ameliorated if they are to set up a suitably tense finale.

That said, 47% of City’s possession comes in the central areas of the pitch and a key element in that territorial domination and chance creation is Silva. The Spaniard, though he has performed reasonably well throughout the season (7.42 according toWhoscored.com), has just two assists to his name. Compare that with Silva’s assist haul for 2011/12 (15 assists) and 2013/14 (nine assists). If much of City’s possession comes through the middle and Silva has only assisted a couple of goals, there is something quite wrong, especially given that Toure has only assisted one. Specifically, the issue seems to lie at the feet of those players just behind him, Fernando and Fernandinho.

The Brazilian duo have been fairly lacklustre in their performances this year, which is troubling after Fernandinho’s highly successful debut season. Although both are designed to destroy more than they are to attack, one of the ingredients that worked so well last term was the seamless link between the defensive and attacking midfielders. Last season, Fernandinho made 1.2 key passes per game – equalling Toure’s average – whereas this season he is making just 0.9 and Fernando a mere 0.5. On top of that, Fernandinho, having been dispossessed just 0.8 times per game last year, has a much higher tendency to lose the ball now, with an average of 1.3 instances of surrendering possession every match. Meanwhile, Fernando loses it 0.9 times a game. As suggested above, however, when he does have the ball, he rarely uses it effectively. For a team that controls most games with an average possession rating of 60%, this malaise in central midfield must be arrested if City are to score more goals and achieve something this season.

Of course, maintaining a solid defensive record is equally important to any effective side and City have benefitted consistently from a strong backline over the last few years. It is no wonder they won the titles they did, with goal differences of +64 and +65 respectively, having found the magic formula of scoring lots and conceding very few. Eliaquim Mangala, some £32 million of investment, has proven unreliable and captain, Vincent Kompany, appears perpetually uncertain of what’s going on behind him just recently. Though they’ve only conceded 22 goals this season, their goal scoring is far less extraordinary than it was in previous campaigns in which they shipped 29 (2011/12) and 37 (2013/14). The truth is that the Premier League champions appear to be missing a certain steel that in those seasons defined their ability to win, no matter how late or how improbable.

A five point deficit does not represent an unsurmountable challenge for City, particularly given their inclination to reserve victory for the final hour. However, they must improve in the areas discussed above if they are to catch a Chelsea side that is –Bradford-shaped blip aside – a veritable winning machine.

In reality, Man City cannot afford to leave it late this season because their very next match, against Mourinho’s side, could all but decide the direction of the Premier League trophy. The absence of Toure is a significant one but that does not mean City cannot grasp the game and disallow the likes of Fabregas and Hazard the time to play. Their available players must take responsibility and though it is important to avoid being overly cavalier in their approach, this game must be seen as a definitive one in their season. It may not be the one that will see them lift the trophy in dramatic fashion if Aguero once again displays heroics, but it is the one in which they must all exhibit something more if they are to have anything to show for this season come the end.

All statistics are courtesy of Whoscored.com.

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