City must stay focused
Chelsea’s 1-0 victory at The Etihad Stadium this past week may not quite have derailed Manchester City’s title charge, but it undoubtedly stopped City in their tracks, and served to halt their unchecked march up the Premier League table.
February 5th, 2014
Since defeat away to Sunderland in late November, City had put together an unbeaten run of 20 games, dispatching all and sundry before them to move menacingly to the top of the league. Their appearance at the summit lasted but a single game as Chelsea did what no other side had managed this season in the league by beating City on their own turf and, even more impressively, did so by stopping City from scoring; a feat not achieved since way back in November 2010, some 61 games previous.
Clearly, come the end of May when the Premier League is all shook out Chelsea are going to be in the mix, so such a result should not be greeted with too much surprise; yet for City the game – and performance – illustrated that there could be concern for Manuel Pellegrini in the months that lie ahead.
City’s form in December and January was such that it put them back at the top of the table, recovering from their wretched early season form. February and March were always going to be the crucial months though; the games increasing in importance and with no respite in the fixture list.
It has been plain sailing with City sweeping up the points and plaudits as they brushed all comers aside. The injuries of late though revealed one or two chinks in their make-up that Chelsea clinically exposed.
Post-game, Pellegrini rued the injuries that have hampered his planning of late and in particular hit his selection for the Chelsea game. Samir Nasri has now been missing for a month or so, his excellent form cut short, whilst Sergio Aguero lasted barely two games after returning from injury before heading once again to the sidelines and now Fernandinho, who has become such a lynchpin in this side, has been forced out.
Pellegrini was also unable to call on either Javi Garcia, James Milner or Jack Rodwell for the Chelsea match, whilst Stevan Jovetic has only recently returned from the long term absentee list. Despite possessing depth to his squad, to be without the trio of Nasri, Aguero and Fernandinho left huge holes in the City side that Chelsea took advantage of.
Without Aguero there was a lack of movement in attack, Nasri’s absence made it easier to focus and thwart the threat of David Silva, whilst Fernandinho’s absence meant Yaya Toure had to assume more defensive responsibility; all of which led to a less fluid and cohesive performance being witnessed.
The pace in which this City side operate is one of the thrilling aspects of their play and makes them such a joy to watch, but does it come at a price? Their high-tempo, high-pressing play asks a lot of the players, particularly at a time when the games are coming thick and fast. There appears to be no respite in the crowded fixture list now that the Champions League is resuming, and on the back of the hectic festive slate of games could we be witnessing a slowdown of the City machine?
For all the talk of the quality and depth of squad at Pellegrini’s disposal, he has been reluctant to veer too far away from what he would consider his strongest outfit. Aligned with this have been injuries in certain positions (notably the attack) that have left him unable to perhaps rotate as he may have wished.
In recent weeks, Pellegrini has attempted a rotation of sorts, spelling the likes of Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko early in games in attempt to preserve them for the tasks that lie ahead.
February could prove to be a crucial month for City. Defeated in the Premier League, the form of others around them means they can ill-afford to slip up in their remaining fixtures; yet they go into these games knowing that on the horizon lies Chelsea in the FA Cup and Barcelona in the Champions League – in the space of 72 hours no less – and the Capital One Cup final.
Pellegrini has shown he is adept at moulding his City side into an attacking outfit that can contend with any side they face. The task he now faces himself is being able to manoeuvre and manufacture his squad to such a degree that they can maintain the pace and threat they have the past couple of months over the remainder of what will be a testing finish to the season.