It’s one of the great injustices of football commentary that there is a tendency, after a game like the one at Turf Moor on Saturday evening, to pick apart the bigger team’s lacklustre performance rather than to praise that of the underdog. Despite such a statement – and as much as it would seem right for this article to now concentrate on Burnley’s excellent victory – steering clear of that most typical of analytical pitfalls is entirely fitting here, given the significance of Manchester City’s defeat. With the title all but lost and Manuel Pellegrini’s tenure at the Etihad seemingly in its final act, it is the Premier League champions’ predicament that is of particular interest.
Seven points adrift of Chelsea, who look certain to lift the Premier League trophy in May, if City are eliminated from the Champions League at the Camp Nou on Wednesday they will have nothing left to play for this season. In fact, that’s not strictly true. Current form would suggest they will have to fight their damnedest to secure second place in the league, as the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United maintain pressure just below. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that a runners up medal is hardly likely to satisfy the expectations of the City faithful and more pertinently, the City board.
Patience is a virtue rarely possessed by the Premier League champions’ executives and it is unlikely that Pellegrini will even be afforded until the end of the season to turn his side’s fortunes around. Barcelona may well provide the final nail in that particular coffin, especially with Lionel Messi and his peers in imperious form.
That City are now fighting for survival in the title race and in the Champions League is not only a mark of how far they have regressed in the league since last campaign, but also of how little they have progressed in their European ambitions since becoming a member of football’s elite several years ago. Indeed, it is worth questioning – given their frankly dismal showing in each of their Champions League crusades – whether they can be classed as one of the continent’s strongest outfits. It appears that City have established a system whereby they manage to win the Premier League every other year but are far more consistent in their European disappointment.
Ultimately, with a squad whose average age stands at a relatively advanced 28.9-years-old, all of this underachievement would suggest that City’s current crop of players has peaked and begun making its descent on the other side. The game against Burnley did little to convince doubters otherwise, with an examination of each individual performance highlighting issues throughout the team.
Vincent Kompany, once regarded as captain fantastic, has come under fire quite regularly in recent times for his recklessly poor performances. Leading from the back, the Belgian has been one of the more noticeable underachievers this season with his worst displays seemingly arriving all at once. Defeat at Anfield represented the start of some dire defensive showings, with Kompany at fault for Jordan Henderson’s opening goal and countless other opportunities gifted to Liverpool’s strike force. Just a month away from his 29th birthday, Kompany’s career ought to be in its prime. Injuries might have riddled his recent form but he must improve quickly if he is to keep hold of the armband for a side that should be challenging for every competition in which they enter. Alongside him, Eliaquim Mangala is doing little to justify his astronomical transfer fee and 34-year-old Martin Demichelis’s days are surely numbered.
The full back position for City tells a similar story with Pablo Zabaleta (30), Gael Clichy (29) and Aleksandar Kolarov (29) all struggling for form and not quite as youthful as many of their counterparts playing for rival teams. Ordinarily, the three are quite imperative in City’s attacking play but have only contributed eight assists between them this season. There have been troubling signs for those just ahead of them too. Jesus Navas against Burnley underlined his greatest issue: his inability to clear the front man with crosses, which is quite a considerable problem for a winger.
The only players who can claim, with a straight face, to have performed to anywhere near the required standard this term have been the usual suspects: David Silva, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero. The three have generally been good with flashes of brilliance here and there. The Argentine’s 17 goals are an indication of how magnificent a player he is, in spite of fluctuating form from the rest of his team. Toure’s absence during the Africa Cup of Nations was made rather apparent by City’s poor run of results and Silva is forever involved in anything creative that happens at the Etihad. When the trio don’t perform, as on Saturday, it is rather evident. So is it enough to say that they simply need to improve in those areas around Silva, Toure and Aguero?
Perhaps. The reality is that a number of City’s players are certainly capable of progressing and being part of a side that could challenge for the most coveted trophies. Central midfield needs improvement; of that there is no doubt. Fernando and Fernandinho have made themselves expendable insofar as Pellegrini struggles to know which of the two is better and alternates between them. James Milner, though not particularly fashionable, continues to prove that his brand of skill and endeavour is far more effective than the more expensive, mercurial styles of Navas and Samir Nasri. Speaking of expensive strife, Wilfried Bony has started poorly and seems immobile in comparison to the devastating Aguero – who, despite his own class, requires service. The Ivorian’s arrival is becoming ever more questionable but Edin Dzeko is also stuck in a rut. Half a dozen of those players could have few complaints if they were to leave this summer with their (surely) incumbent Chilean boss.
The Premier League’s representation in the Champions League this season has been nothing short of embarrassing, with all of the English teams seemingly destined for elimination before the quarter-finals. A team of City’s perceived quality ought to be doing much better but perhaps the problem is that their quality is wrongly perceived. Only a few of their players are world class and therefore capable of carrying them forwards, which is where they must go now that they are established as one of the Premier League’s elite clubs. They will not become one of Europe’s unless they revitalise what has become a stale squad of decent, but over-valued, players. Pellegrini will become yet another casualty in the incessant pursuit for a mastermind who is able to draw the best out of player past their peak. Perhaps, in the harsh light of truth, he has also started to make his way down from the Premier League summit that was reached in May last year.