Manchester City's issues stem from downfall of core four
The Manchester City engine is long past sputtering. The more dramatic struggles of Chelsea and Manchester United have masked the fact that City have, themselves, failed to fire. Given both the talent and resources at City's disposal, it's impossible not to look at their fourth place position in the table as a massive disappointment. There's still time to turn it around, of course. There are 13 games left to play, and Manuel Pellegrini's team sit only one point behind Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, and six behind surprise leaders Leicester City. Even after getting drubbed by Leicester last weekend, Manchester City still have every opportunity to remain in contention. But, with 25 games gone, and as the flat, uninspiring performances continue to pile up, it's getting increasingly harder to believe that this team is ever going to fire on all cylinders, no matter how many times their manager turns the ignition key.
Manchester City's fundamental problem is that they remain a team built around four uniquely talented players. Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva, and Sergio Aguero, from back to front, make up the spine of this team, and they have since before Pellegrini arrived. Under previous manager Roberto Mancini those players were slotted into the Italian's disciplined, often defensive-minded system. The team constantly produced results, but often felt uninspiring, even when they had rafts of attacking talent on the field at the same time. It also meant they were able to handle a player's inevitable absence.
Under Pellegrini though, the team became constructed to maximize the talents of its core group. If Mancini was criticized for not getting enough out of his stars, Pellegrini seemed hired to do the opposite. Almost from day one the Chilean manager deployed his team to get the most out of the spine of his team. That meant several specific tactical choices. Aguero was installed as the most advanced forward. Even when he paired with a bigger partner like Edin Dzeko or Alvaro Negredo, or more recently Wilfried Bony, it was Aguero who tested opposing backlines while his partner was more likely to drop deep.
It meant playing Silva functionally as a classic No. 10 while nominally starting him on the left wing -- making it harder for him to be marked out of games and giving him the freedom to find all sorts of pockets of space from which to work his magic. It meant playing Yaya Toure as part of a two-man midfield pairing, allowing him to conduct play from deeper areas and also crash forward at will, trusting in the team's firepower to pin opponents back to keep them from exploiting the space that Toure's roaming would leave. And it meant leaning on Kompany's amazing range as a central defender to cover all that space in behind.
When it worked, it won Manchester City the Premier League. The dynamism of Silva and Toure meant that the team was effectively able to control the center of the field with fewer players than their opponents. That left Aguero and a strike partner free to attack the box, and full-backs free to press forward all while City had very little fear of losing control of the ball. They'd inevitably, inexorably bottle up opponents until either Aguero popped on the end of a cutback, or a drilled cross. Or sometimes the mere threat of a ball to Aguero would cause defenses to sag so deep in their own penalty area that they left room for Toure to pounce on the space they opened up.
That doesn't mean they were predictable; there was still room for variation within the system. Sometimes Jesus Navas was deployed to add width on the right, sometimes Samir Nasri (remember him?), played in order to exert even more control over the central areas. Occasionally Aguero would play as a lone striker so that both those things happened at once. But, in general, the tweaks and fine tuning of the system happened specifically in order to get the best out of the stars.
It's also meant that the bulk of City's spending has been to put a team around that group that complements them. Fernandinho was a rangy, skilled, box-to-box midfielder before arriving at City. His speed and skill on the ball made him the perfect candidate to cover for all of Toure's attacking involvement. Aguero's partners were picked for their combination of hold-up play, and skill with their feet -- the two things they'd need to do while dropping deeper to allow Aguero the freedom to score all the goals all the time.
For some, like Dzeko, it worked. For others, like Bony, it's proven a challenge. Similarly that core allowed positions like left-back to remain filled by the likes of Alexander Kolarov, who, for all his faults when it comes to things like running, and defending, things that even backup Gael Clichy can do better, Kolarov can kick the ball really hard with his left foot. And, because of City's spine, he was often given acres of space in which to do it.
The challenge of team-building this way is that it leaves Manchester City particularly vulnerable if that core struggles. And for stretches of last year, and almost the entirety of this season, that has been the case. Between Kompany's long-term injury, Aguero and Silva's combination of injuries and form and Toure's fatigue, all four of City's supporting legs have been kneecapped.
It's simply impossible to ignore the degree to which Toure has declined. The lack of defensive contribution has quietly been an issue for several years now. Last year, City's midfield was incredibly open to counterattacks. Kompany was often criticized for failing to deal with those attacks. This season, his absence makes incredibly clear that he has been instrumental in rescuing his midfielders from defensive mistakes, far more frequently than he committed his own. Kompany specialized in turning bad situations into winning outcomes for his team. His replacement, big ticket purchase Nicolas Otamendi, hasn't come close.
And for all that, if Toure was still producing at the same level in attack, the complete lack of defensive contributions might be excusable. But he isn't. Not even close. He's no longer conducting City's attack, he's a designated kicker, hanging around waiting to finish them, with an ever-shrinking influence in the middle of the field. Here's where Toure played his passes from just two years ago:
And this year.
It's data that backs up what's obvious to the eye. Toure still has the ability to drop the hammer (and he's shooting more than ever), but everything else is fading away.
The warning signs should have been there last season for Manchester City. They struggled mightily through the middle-third of the year while Toure was at the African Nations' Cup and Aguero was hurt. Quietly, after dropping way out of the race for the title, City finished the season on a six-game winning streak. They did it because they changed their system. They went to three central midfielders, relieving the burden on Toure and shoring up the center of the field.
And it seemed like the plan was to continue to move away from the notion that the old guard was the center the rest of the team revolved around. The additions of star talents Raheem Sterling, and (now injured) Kevin De Bruyne indicated that some changes were coming. And early on at least City seemed more inclined to adjust. In their statement win over Chelsea during the second week of the season, Aguero played as a lone striker with Navas and Sterling both taking up authentic winger roles either side of Silva in a traditional 4-2-3-1.
But, as the season has worn on, the team has fallen back into its old patterns. Before his injury De Bruyne was increasingly deployed as a latter day Nasri, and Sterling has been used as the second striker next to Aguero as much as he's played on the wing. Even active midfielder Fabian Delph is more often shunted out to the left than adding support for Toure in the center. Pellegrini and Manchester City remain committed to their system, even while missing Kompany, their lynch pin.
It's natural that any team would be vulnerable while losing the talent at the top of its roster. Manchester City, with all of their resources, and all of their spending, should be less vulnerable to that than most. They aren't. Instead they've crafted a team which amplifies the talent of those stars, and depends on those talents to paper over holes in the rest of the squad. Building that way can work, but suffer the wrong couple of injuries, or declines in form and everything comes apart at the seams.
Manchester City are still within striking distance of the title this year. It's possible that with Kompany on the mend and Aguero finding form, the four horsemen of Manchester City might have one more run left in them. It's possible that Pellegrini's faith in his stars will be justified. But, if they don't, if Toure's legs just don't have it, and Aguero remains isolated up front; if Kompany can't get back from injury and Silva's run of form without the other three continues to be below is usual lofty standards; if the trends over the first 25 games continue over the last 13, then City fans will be left wondering what a different approach could have achieved.
Could making a more concerted effort to protect the back line have made a difference? Would a three-man midfield with more bite have stabilized their season as it did last year? Why keep doing the same old thing, when every time the team changes to something different, they improve? City's core stars have had a tremendous amount of success together, but right now it looks like Pellegrini and Manchester City let the team revolve around them one year too long. They have 13 games left to change that.
Mike L. Goodman is a Washington, D.C.-based soccer writer and analyst covering European soccer, the U.S. Men's National Team and more. Follow him on Twitter @TheM_L_G.