Monday, November 30, 2015

SLAMMING THE DOORS SHUT


Manchester City’s major failing so far this season has been an inability to keep key defenders fit. The lack of stability and consistency at the centre of the defence has been the overriding factor in the team making a stumbling half-success of their title quest so far.

It is easy to criticize anything that moves these days and City at the top of the table and already through to the knock-out stage of the Champions League is, of course, a qualified success. However, the loss to Juventus and defeats to West Ham and in particular Spurs and Liverpool, where Pellegrini’s side was casually undressed one garment at a time, have set alarm bells ringing in some quarters.

City could and perhaps should be clear at the top of the Premier League and about to proceed in Europe as the top club in Group D. Given the paucity of proper challengers at the top of the Premier League, it is an indictment of City’s somewhat frail challenge so far that they are merely "in among the runners and riders" with a frisky but limited Leicester, a wholly uninspiring Manchester United and an Arsenal side unable to shake off any of its traditional ailments. Even Tottenham, annual deception artists, appear to be in with a shout in a season that has not yet thrown up an outstanding side.

Much of City’s problems can be put down to defensive frailties and the constant chopping and changing of personnel in this vital part of the team. 
Up to now, twenty games into the season, City have had five different centre back partnerships already. It is no coincidence that any that have featured Vincent Kompany also feature good results, but it must be said that contrary to popular belief Eliaquim Mangala’s stats are also pretty persuasive.

City’s five game opening streak, where they managed consecutive wins and conceded no goals, saw Kompany paired with Mangala. Whilst the Frenchman has spent much of his City career being heavily criticized, his darting, muscular approach actually dovetails pretty well alongside the calmer, more domineering Kompany. It is by far the best partnership City have tried out so far this season. In fact it even remained unbeaten in the sixth game, at home to Juventus, as the score was still 1-1 when the pairing was broken up by Kompany’s 75th minute injury.

City's most successful centre back pairing
Kompany’s partnership with new boy Otamendi has also showed promise, with three games played: the tight draw at Old Trafford, the superb win in Seville and the laboured home defeat of Norwich. 
On paper it looks like Otamendi has also produced the goods in partnership with Mangala: but of the three games, two wins were the thrashings of Newcastle and Bournemouth, hardly taxing for the defence, and four goals were conceded. In the four games shared by Kompany and Otamendi, only two goals were conceded. Plus the Otamendi-Mangala duo also have a bizarrely out of synch first half against West Ham to their names.The real problems arise when the lumbering shadow of Martin Demichelis appears. A lot has been said about the Argentinean’s loss of form, speed and awareness after his sterling efforts over the last two seasons. Whether he has been kept on a season too long or not is open to discussion, but the figures are certainly not sympathetic. He has been paired with Mangala twice and Otamendi five times. The partnership with Mangala includes the debacle against Liverpool.

In his latest outing this weekend, Demichelis had coped reasonably well with the first half efforts of Southampton, but when they went for the jugular at the start of the second period, his game disintegrated towards the lethal moment when he could be seen actually stepping out of the way of the advancing Shane Long. It was a weird attempt at a dummy, but looked a little like a man getting out of the way of an approaching train.

On the other occasions he has been paired with the eager Otamendi, things look patchy, with eight goals conceded in the five games they have shared. This includes the desperate cave-in at White Hart Lane, where City's defence did a passable impersonation of Billy Smart's Christmas Circus when the hooter announces the arrival of the guys in the oversized shoes.

The only combination not yet foisted on Manuel Pellegrini by the God of Hamstrings is Demichelis-Kompany.

Taking City’s worst results so far this season, the two four goal beatings by Spurs and
No circus this Christmas
Liverpool, have both occurred on Demichelis's watch. Strangely there is another link that might also be relevant: Fernando was also picked in defensive midfield in both those games. Clearly, the work done right in front of the back four is essential to its proper functioning too. City have dabbled with a Fernandinho-Fernando axis with Yaya Toure pushed forward and the more frequently seen Fernandinho-Toure pairing with only creative players beyond.

Question marks remain about Touré's continued ability to charge up and down the field as in the days of yore. he attempted two such runs at the weekend and made a mess of both. Fabian Delph's surprisingly sprightly performance alongside Fernandinho against Southampton brought fresh possibility to this area. When Fernando arrived and Tadic took control for Southampton, Delph's energetic presence was immediately missed.

Perhaps what Pellegrini might have learned as we near the half way period is this: City need Kompany back as quickly as possible. Whether he is paired with Otamendi or Mangala, might be less of an issue than the importance of persevering with Fernandinho and Delph as a really combative shield for the defence.

With Silva and Aguero back in the fold to galvanise City's forward options, the Chilean might not be too far away from finding his best team for the busy Christmas period.

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