Monday, 26 March 2012

City Talk: No. 1

Is a lack of width City's problem?

By Matt Funge

Something has definitely changed for the blue half of Manchester of late, and it simply couldn’t have come at a worse time. Various media outlets have already started drawing comparisons to the ill-fated Newcastle team of the 1995-96 season, and the feeling that the wheels are coming off City’s title challenge seems to be gathering momentum with every passing day. For some inexplicable reason, the free-flowing Manchester City of pre-Christmas is no longer on show when Mancini’s men travel away from the fortress that is the Etihad Stadium. While the results at home do remain consistently perfect, it must be said that the performances have definitely been of a lower quality in the second half of the campaign than they were in the opening months.

Away from Manchester, the story is the same – only without the saving grace of scrappily won points – and it is this that has captured the attention of football fans and journalists across the country. A record of just two wins in our last nine away matches has seen rivals Manchester United edge ahead in the race for the Premier League title, and the reason for the shift in results is somewhat difficult to pinpoint. The players are the same (barring the arrival of David Pizzaro and departures of unimportant fringe-players during January), the manager is the same, and there have been no new off-the-field distractions that could have disrupted the club in any way whatsoever. The only other possible explanation, therefore, is a change in tactics used – be they intentional or unintentional.
The major criticism of City since their slump in form has been that the way in which they play is far too narrow to unlock defences in the ultra-competitive Premier League. One consistent feature of top teams in the division is their quality wide-players: Manchester United have Nani and Ashley Young, Tottenham Hotspur have Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale, Chelsea have Daniel Sturrridge and Juan Mata – I could go on. City, however, have only one genuine winger in their first team squad, Adam Johnson, and while he is a good player, he just isn’t good enough to be a regular starter. Earlier on in the season Mancini and City were seemingly “getting away with” this lack of width thanks to the unbelievable form of their special Spaniard, David Silva. City’s number 21 was playing the best football of his career thus far, picking the perfect pass week after week to lay goals on a plate for each member of the Blues’ fearsome attack, and the plan of going through the middle was working to great effect. Mario Balotelli, Edin Džeko and, most notably, Sergio Agüero were also in very good form at this time, making absolutely no mistake in converting the former Valencia man’s various assists, and City were scoring for fun almost every game as a result.
Silva and Aguero are starting to feel the strain of the league
Photo: Scott Heavey/Getty Images Europe
The pinnacle of this came on October 23rd, a date which City fans will almost certainly never forget, when a trip to Old Trafford resulted in a 6-1 demolition of the reigning champions in their own back yard. The football world looked on in disbelief. How could anyone stop the world’s richest club? Could they keep this level up until May?
Sadly, the answer to the latter was no. The likes of Silva and Samir Nasri have gradually drifted inside, the area of the pitch most natural to them, and this has created an over reliance on the full-backs to create the width. There is a big problem with this though, and that is that Micah Richards and Gael Clichy are simply not wingers – they are defenders. While they can offer something in the attacking department, they are not replacements for genuine wide midfielders, and cannot provide the same level of attacking prowess as players naturally suited to taking on the opposition’s full-back. The aforementioned Johnson has been given opportunities to show what he can do, but after a good start to his City career, it is fair to say that he has faded away a little bit, and is now often hit-or-miss when it comes to producing a performance worthy of a place in a team vying for the title. This, coupled with the decisions to allow both Craig Bellamy and Shaun Wright-Phillips to leave the club in recent times mean that it would seem that Mancini must look outside of the club for the answer to this problem. The only question is – where?
The obvious big-names are well-known and advertised almost daily in the press, but with financial fair play coming into the equation very shortly it would perhaps be unrealistic to target the Cristiano Ronaldo’s or Gareth Bale’s of this world.
Is Hazard the answer for City?
Photo: Claudio Villa/Getty Images Europe
One player heavily linked with City since he stated his intentions to change his employer during the summer is Lille’s Belgian winger Eden Hazard. At just 21 years of age, he is one of football’s current wonder kids. A very exciting player who is sure to get the crowd on the edge of their seat, however such is the interest in him, any potential suitor would have to pay a somewhat inflated fee of around €40m (£33.5m) in order to gain his services – something which Sheikh Mansour may be reluctant to agree to following his vast investment into the club already.
Nicolás Gaitán is another name which has been linked with the Blues for some time now, and the Benfica winger has certainly been showing the form to back up the speculation for his club this season. The Argentinian has been a stalwart performer for the Portuguese outfit this term, and has helped his team to 2nd position in their domestic league, Liga Zon Sagres, as well as to a Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea. The price for the 24-year-old is reportedly less than that of Hazard, at a mere £25m, and a summer move away from the Estádio da Luz is definitely not out of the question, with many of Europe’s big names already interested.
Instead, Mancini could choose a completely different route to go down, as was the case when he signed Adam Johnson from Middlesbrough in 2010. With prices as they are at the moment, and with the impending financial restrictions due to be implemented by UEFA and FIFA coming into effect shortly, it may be a better option to look for an “under-the-radar” option in order to save money and find a potential star. The only real target if the Italian does choose to do this, however, is Matt Jarvis of Wolverhampton Wanderers. A proven Premier League performer, Jarvis could well be the next Johnson-type signing for City – especially as Wolves increasingly look as if they will be playing in the Championship next season. Another thing that could force City to take this option is the price, a reported £7m. Clearly Jarvis would cost considerably less than those mentioned above, and that could well be the deciding factor as City look to introduce width back into their game. One thing is for sure – Mancini and City must do something over the summer in order to avoid a repeat of this season’s slump next year, and solve the problem that threatens to ruin their season.
The Premier League title is still undecided and there are eight games yet to be played, however, regardless of where the trophy ends up, they must find the reason behind their dip in form and address it as soon as possible, as it may well be the thing that hands the title to that team from Salford from an almost impossible position a few months back. On a personal level, I still believe City will be champions come May – but should that happen it must not cover up what is a big problem, and more width must be added to the squad in order to make us stronger next season.
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