Manchester City produced a complete no-show against Stoke City, losing 2-0 at the Britannia Stadium and relinquishing top spot on the Barclays Premier League table once again.
For City observers and staunch supporters alike, this was not the first time, at least in the last month, that Manuel Pellegrini‘s men were insipid and got played off the park. The ignominious 1-4 defeat to Liverpool not-so-long ago and 1-0 defeat to Juventus in the UEFA Champions League were a result of City not producing enough in attack and being too easy to unlock at the back, for opposition teams.
Mark Hughes’ side, with all due credit, played like a ‘big team’ yesterday, when they mixed precision attacking with clinical defending to completely nullify City, who were bereft of Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany. Also, blustery winds made it difficult for City to get into a passing rhythm and force the home side to retreat.
In this article, we investigate the reasons why Manchester City fans have every reason to be angry at their team and the manager.
Manchester City could be given the benefit of the doubt for going into the game without three of their influential players, who have brought them success over the last 5 years. Not only did it mean that Pellegrini had to field a weakened side, but his side lacked the tools to unsettle Stoke. David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne featured for City, expecting to create chances and retain possession for the visitors. However, to their disadvantage, Silva and de Bruyne – both of whom had forgettable games, to be honest – did not have another player to complement their subtlety and give them passing options. When out of possession, the Potters had everything in front of them and under control, consequently indicating how comfortable they were during their 2-0 victory against the Cityzens.
In his first couple of seasons as City’s manager, Pellegrini got frustrated when coming up against teams like Stoke, who would defend with 8 or 9 men in front of their own box and just be clinical on the counter attack. City would be under pressure to not only unlock packed defences but also make sure that they were not sloppy in possession. In his first season at the Etihad Stadium, Pellegrini tasted defeats against the likes of Cardiff City, Aston Villa and Sunderland – which you would call mid and lower-mid-table sides – with little dissimilarity from one defeat to another.
Last season, when City were the defending Premier League champions, they experienced similar tactics employed by opposition teams and managers. Incidentally, Stoke, under Hughes, employed the counter-attacking tactic to great effect. They won 0-1 at the home of the then defending champions, scoring the winner from one swift counter-attack which culminated in Mame Biram Diouf finding the back of the net. In those games, Pellegrini’s explanations were understandable. Though City had to overcome the challenge posed by their opponents, they were always in a catch-22 situation of having to commit players forward in a bid to make an opening, leaving themselves, more often than not, vulnerable to counter attacks. This season, however, they can have no such complaints.
West Ham United were clinical going forward, which ultimately saw them score two goals before City could respond, only once. Tottenham Hotspur harnessed the shift in momentum, which was a result of a refereeing gaffe. Defeat to Liverpool, at home, only a fortnight ago, was also down to City being too easy to score against and offering little going forward. Last evening’s defeat was not at all different, either. Hughes’ side was just so clinical when in possession, while City were flimsy when they had the ball.
Pellegrini, therefore, can have no complaints regarding the way City were made to look inept in games against the aforementioned quartet. It is just that City either took too long to get going and were punished, ruthlessly, for their lack of urgency. Or, they just were not able to stand up to the competitiveness of the opposition. And ‘big teams’, as Pellegrini often puts it, are not prone to such elementary errors, with such consistency, as well.
Secondly, City and Pellegrini cannot cite the Financial Fair Play (FFP) restrictions as the reason for not being able to play with flair and incision, as often as they have so far this season. And I mention it after taking into account the injuries that have plagued City’s squad. The likes of de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling were brought in the summer to not only reinforce the City squad but also give it another dimension. Whenever City lacked the killer instinct or cutting edge last season, you could sympathise with them since their squad did not have a Sterling-type player, who can complete take-ons and provide better passing options to the likes of Toure and Silva because of his fleet-footedness, or de Bruyne, someone who can deliver dangerous crosses on his right and left-foot, consistently come up with a better end-product and share the goal-scoring responsibilities too.
Both de Bruyne and Sterling have been at City for only a little more than three months, but, with the likes of Aguero and Toure missing in attack, yesterday’s game was just the sort they needed to deliver in. As much as you can point to City’s depleted starting XI against the Potters, who might also have used it to rev themselves up before the game, it is hard to dispute the claim that yesterday’s lineup is capable of overcoming teams such as Stoke.
Ultimately, though Pellegrini wants his team to dominate games and play on the front foot all the time, it is not possible in a league as competitive as the English top-flight is. And City, under Pellegrini, have rarely come from behind to win games or salvage a point, at least. Yes, there have been a handful of domestic and continental games, in which City have come back after going a goal or two down. The 2-3 victory at the Allianz Arena in Pellegrini’s first season in-charge; the 2-3 victory at Goodison Park, which was indispensable in City reclaiming the title from Manchester United in the 2013-14 season, and the 1-1 draws at home and away against Chelsea last season come to mind when talking of City coming from behind to rescue points. But it has not been a common occurrence. It just begs to wonder what City will do when they play as the underdog and fall behind in a European game, if they cannot put things right even in domestic competitions.
City and Pellegrini can have no excuses for their defeat to Stoke, their 4th in the league this season. They just lacked the ‘big team’ qualities in and out of possession, and Stoke exploited them really badly. The City backline had no cohesion to it, allowing Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic to dovetail twice in the game to win it for their side. And in attack, City produced little to breach Jack Butland. And it is because of the lack of valid excuses Pellegrini and his boys could give for yesterday’s defeat, that the Cityzens’ fans can afford to feel angered and let down by their team, and not for the first time this season.