Manchester City are failing to step up in big matches
Blaming a defeat on officiating is often seen as the last stand of a desperate manager. In his postmatch news conference after Manchester City's 2-1 defeat to Tottenham on Sunday, Manuel Pellegrini aimed his frustration at referee Mark Clattenburg, who had awarded one of the worst penalty decisions of the season that afternoon against the Chilean's team.
Pellegrini repeated constantly that he didn't want to talk about the officiating, yet the topic dominated his discussions with the media -- until he snapped: "I'm finished with the referee!" he shouted angrily when asked for another view on Clattenburg's performance.
There can be no getting away from it; the spot-kick did affect the home side. Up until that point, City seemed uninterested and Tottenham were ever so slightly edging a tight game. Conceding early in the second half gave the hosts a kick in the backside. For the first time in roughly 18 months, fans then saw a team that closely resembled the one that won the title in 2014. That lasted 30 minutes, until Christian Erikson bagged the winner.
In all of the commotion about the refereeing decision that gifted Spurs the opening goal, a line from Pellegrini's news conference went virtually unnoticed. Asked why his side's record against the other big teams has been "very poor", the Chilean was brutal: "I think that they are better teams than our team."
Whether or not the Chilean was being facetious, he's hit upon what is probably City's biggest failing of the last two seasons. If football was played on paper, undoubtedly Pellegrini's team would have performed a lot better in the league than they have done. They have one of the best squads in the country, but they're not working well with each other.
The rest of the top four -- Leicester, Tottenham and Arsenal -- are doing just that. Man for man, none of those clubs has a better squad, but the individuals playing on a weekly basis are performing far better together than City's are, especially in the big games.
It's almost as if in a pursuit of playing lovely, free-flowing, attacking football, Pellegrini's turned City into a team that is far too polite. They don't bully their peers like they did in 2012 or 2014; they don't take into account what their opponents will do, and they don't strike back angrily when they've been hit. The fans dread seeing their side fall behind. They used to regularly come back and win, but now it makes even harder work of an already difficult task.
Together, they're playing at a standard worse than the sum of their parts. While the rest of the Premier League has been beating each other all season, City should, on paper, have walked away with the title. It was looking likely after five matches: five clean sheets and a 100 percent record, but now there's the very real danger that the best squad in the league is going to finish fourth, or worse.
If they don't get their act together soon, the squad could end up with their campaign as good as over in a fortnight, as the Capital One Cup final follows a tricky tie at Chelsea in the FA Cup and a trip to Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League. Three defeats would bring 2015-16 crashing down like a house of cards.
In September, the prospect of a series of inconsequential from mid-March onward would have been seen as a positive. It would have been expected that City were coasting, after they looked head and shoulders the best side in the league. Now it's frightening how mediocre the five months following that time have been; City have been coasting in an entirely different way and the season now hangs in the balance.
There has been little change in the key members of the starting lineup since Roberto Mancini won the title in 2012, and that goes some way to explain City's recent demise. The key players haven't cut it, for one reason or another.
Vincent Kompany has been ravaged by injuries, David Silva has been off-form since before Christmas, Yaya Toure has been on the decline since 2014, with only Joe Hart and Sergio Aguero, when fit, carrying the side for large spells this season.
While it's true that Pellegrini has had to manage a squad that's been decimated by injuries, in all of the fixtures in which they've underperformed, the lineup named has been strong enough to win the game. Yet time and again the players haven't stepped up to the plate when needed.
They've lost four home league games this season, more than any campaign since Mark Hughes was in charge in 2008-09. In each, the visitors taught them a tactical lesson. West Ham, Liverpool, Leicester and now Tottenham have all outplayed Pellegrini's men at the Etihad, showing how to get the best out of their own players while limiting the home side.
How many times have City put on a 90-minute show like that this season?
The reality is that City have the best squad in the league. What they don't have, and what they're far from, is the best team. That's why they're well off the pace when it comes to the Premier League title.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney