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Nov 13, 2008

Hughes feeling the burden of City riches

The quintessential Manchester City team has certain characteristics. It has a tendency towards unpredictability and a capacity to veer from outstanding to awful within the space of a few days. It requires the ability to entertain and has an unfortunate habit of self-destructing. It can compete with the best, and capitulate to the worst.

So the current collective, in outclassing Liverpool for 45 minutes, taking the lead against Chelsea and demolishing Portsmouth 6-0 while contriving to lose at Bolton, Wigan and Middlesbrough, can certainly trace their heritage. While Manchester City's identity is supposed to be subject to a transformation into glamorous winners, this is a team entirely in keeping with the club: often baffling and occasionally brilliant, full of flair and flattering to deceive.

That might not provoke comment were City not the wealthiest club on the planet. They spent £77 million in the summer and could conceivably top that in January. With more defeats than victories in the Premier League, Mark Hughes has received the backing of Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the chairman. City's new owners are understood to be less impatient and less ignorant than the unlamented Thaksin Shinawatra, and it is just as well for Hughes.

He is a manager who requires time, and multi-billionaires' generosity is rarely granted in that respect. Money produces expectations and expectations render quiet progress difficult. A rather quicker timescale means flaws are highlighted and need to be rectified rapidly. City are a side struggling to find the balance between attack and defence, between left and right and between the approach at home and the way to play on the road. Factor in the loss of form of some of their more dependable performers - Richard Dunne and Micah Richards, in particular - and Hughes' workload is heavy indeed.

This is a team that has not been allowed to evolve. They have been thrown together, not just by Hughes and his predecessor Sven-Goran Eriksson, but by Stuart Pearce, Kevin Keegan, Shinawatra and umpteen agents and advisors. Is it any wonder that a unit assembled without any coherent thought produces incoherent performances? Even the club's on-pitch figurehead, Robinho, was signed to seal the deal with the men from Abu Dhabi, not because the top priority was for another attacking midfielder or deep-lying forward, no matter how gifted. It is no coincidence seven of his eight goals have been at home; City have been awful away.

Yet the Brazilian is, together with Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Stephen Ireland and Shaun Wright-Phillips, among a quintet of players whose performances have offered encouragement. Nevertheless, Robinho has made it harder for Hughes to construct a team; whereas Martin Petrov provided a permanent and profitable outlet on the left wing, Robinho's roaming tendencies mean City can lose shape. The freeform ensemble only works for the genuinely good and City do not yet belong in that category.

Robinho's addition to a squad that already included Ireland, Wright-Phillips and Elano has made Hughes attempt to shoehorn all four into the same side. That, in turn, has left Kompany overworked as the sole defensive midfielder. The subsequent omission of Elano has upset the man who was City's creative hub last season.

The emphasis on the attacking midfielders has been necessary, meanwhile, because of the failings in attack. Ched Evans and Daniel Sturridge have promise in abundance, but operating as a solitary striker in the Premier League appears beyond either. Jo, given his £19 million price tag, should be altogether more accomplished, but the Brazilian has been both anaemic and profligate and, recently, absent. His form suggests Shinawatra wasn't the best judge of a striker; foisting players upon a manager with an excellent record in the transfer market made little sense.

Were the transfer window to reopen tomorrow, Hughes' targets (some of whom could be found at his former employers, Blackburn) would presumably include a centre-forward, a left winger, a box-to-box midfielder to complement Kompany and compensate for Michael Johnson's absence, and a left-back.

When January arrives, the recruitment process provides a different pressure: to entice supposed superstars to a club who may well be in the lower half of the Premier League. Money may be no object, but the more discerning player may still prefer a team whose short-term prospects may offer European football.

City, in contrast, are a disparate group who can be defeated by the concession of the first goal. They contain a sprinkling of dreamers and entertainers, whereas their manager is both a competitor and a pragmatist. This is not yet his team. At least the support from the Middle East suggests he will get the opportunity to mould them into his side.

In the meantime, City's struggles have served to underline the permanence of the top four, let alone the difficulty of a club vaulting from mid-table to become title contenders. Such an injection of money lends an artificial element to the project and may jar with a manager who has long seemed the epitome of gritty realism.

Hughes merited his chance at a bigger club but thus far he and City seem an imperfect fit, just as his side show little inclination to gel in defence as well as attack, and on their travels as well as at home. For Hughes, accustomed to life at a lower-profile club, with a supportive but comparatively impoverished board, a unique situation has unique problems when ambitions mushroom, overseas investors crave galacticos and the talk is of the Champions League. The status of the world's richest club can be a burden, not least for their manager.

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