Title-race analysis: tremors in the table raise questions over City's league credentials
17:15, 11 Mar 2012
Manchester City have almost everything in place to win a title except the necessary experience that defines their rivals... but there are still questions to be asked of Roberto Mancini's in-game management, writes Miguel Delaney
Over the last year or so, there’s been a lot of clichéd talk about the “Premier League landscape shifting”. But Sunday saw an afternoon in which it felt like the table was shuddered by a tremor in the opposite direction.
Manchester United didn’t just return to the top of the league. They finally converted a seven-point deficit into a one-point lead, with Alex Ferguson making sure to publicly mention that after the win over West Brom in order to gain maximum psychological advantage.
Because, after an early-season in which City simply seemed overwhelming, their aura has evaporated with a lot of doubts and questions suddenly becoming very concrete.
Are they feeling the pressure? Why are they suddenly struggling to score goals? Why is their away form so poor now?
To answer, first of all, there’s an important point which we’ve repeated here before and feel is more relevant now than ever.
No matter how much the landscapes shifts and no matter how many global superstars you sign, it takes a lot more time and integration to alter mindsets and get a team to properly know each other.
Essentially, unless you have a manager like Jose Mourinho – who has proven very adept at radically altering teams in the short term – it’s extremely difficult to win a title race at the first time of asking. Really, teams have to learn to win a league together; to get a knowledge for each other’s nuances, to adjust to the alternating rhythms of a proper push for the championship.
And City are undeniably going through that process at the minute. Having remarkably won 11 of their first 12 games, they’ve now lost three of their last 10. Not actually a huge difference given that they’ve won seven of those last 10, but enough to start having a tangible effect on the top of the table – particularly with Manchester United doing the exact opposite.
But, while City are – to a certain extent – slaves to the football world’s major truths, there is no doubt that some of Roberto Mancini’s micro-management has exacerbated the situation.
Throughout his career – and particularly in Europe with Inter – the Italian has been criticised for his game-management; in other words, the more minor alterations to a side’s overall shape in order to tailor it to individual opponents.
And, when you take a broader view of City’s season, this has undoubtedly been a factor.
A massive 18 of City’s 21 wins have come when they’ve scored the game’s opening goal before the 63rd minute. And – as Ferguson made clear in his thoughts about the 1999 Champions League final – that is generally around the time that managers start to think about making real changes to personnel and formation if things aren’t going their way.
And the other three City wins are interesting.
One of them, away against QPR, eventually came in the 74th minute after a topsy-turvy game in which Mancini didn’t actually make any alterations.
The only game in which the manager actually affected a match-winning change was Everton away, when Mario Balotelli was brought on after an hour as the teams drew 0-0.
And the only game so far in the league that City have actually won with the kind of characteristic champions’ late winner was the 3-2 victory over Spurs that saw a 95th-minute Balotelli penalty.
Tellingly, that is the only actual game-changing goal City have scored after 80 minutes this season.
By contrast, they’ve conceded three of them: away to Sunderland, away to Chelsea and, now, away to Swansea.
Clearly, if a game isn’t going exactly according to Mancini’s pre-game plan, he struggles to manufacture a result.
Today was a case in point. With Swansea’s intense pressing deep in their own half, there was little space for City to move.
It'salso been said here before Christmas that City lack a classic midfield trio of destroyer-passer-creator and, as such, might struggle in such games. For example, they previously lacked a deep-lying playmaker in the mould of Andrea Pirlo, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Daniele De Rossi and even Michael Carrick to pick unseen openings.
And that makes it all the more incredible that Mancini didn’t bring on David Pizarro. Instead, he introduced Sergio Aguero early on. This might have seemed logical but all it did was congest the space even more near Swansea’s goal.
Moreover, the manner in which City chase games in such situations seems to leave them unusually susceptible to late openings. That very stat of 3-1 against in terms of game-changing goals is very uncharacteristic of title winners.
By contrast, you don’t have to go back too far for United’s: two weeks ago against Norwich. For the champions, that stat is 6-0. And that, of course, is the consequence of two decades of in-built and self-perpetuating experience of such races.
In truth, United don’t have a squad that’s near the depth or quality of City’s. But they do have a number of players who exactly know their roles, who can draw on all that experience, who have been fortified by the manager’s fierce mentality.
Ultimately, with United, we know exactly what to expect at this point of this season – as proven against West Brom.
With City, we simply don’t. We’ve never seen this collection of players so competitive so far into a season together.
If they are to win a first title in 43 years, though, it seems that Mancini is going to have to make more changes than just those to the landscape.
Miguel Delaney is a European football writer with the Irish Examiner, ESPN, the London Independent and ourselves. In 2011, he was nominated for Irish Sports Journalist of the Year
Follow him @migueldelaney