“...I remain restless and dissatisfied; what I knot with my right hand, I undo with my left, what my left hand creates, my right fist shatters” ― Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum
Spending a game of this importance being given the runaround by the one team they could not afford to allow that pleasure was not a particularly sound move by Manuel Pellegrini, whose swiftly diminishing box of tricks showed no lustre, no shiny surprises and not a single idea on how to pull the Blues back into a game speeding frantically away from his team from the tenth minute onwards.
A mauling at the hands of your nearest and dearest is not something owners and boards usually take kindly to and the money spent on City means Sheikh Mansour, Kaldoon al-Mubarak and the boys might just be in a slightly touchy mood right now. Being shown up by Manchester United is not, after all, something that has featured regularly during his watch so far.
As for the increasingly frayed-looking Manuel Pellegrini, specualtion will now -- if it had not already done so -- go into overdrive. Will he last until the end of today? The end of the week? Before or after the West Ham match? Or the end of the season? It all seems now to be just a matter of time.
As it became painfully clear which way the dice had fallen, Sky's coverage of the game gave us several uncomfortable close-ups of City's Charred Man and the closer they got, the redder his eyes seemed to be. Pellegrini has in recent times become a rather sad image of his team: tired, pasty and slightly bewildered-looking, forlorn, drawn and confused. The blood-shot eyes suggest a man deeper into the pressure game than he likes to let on. His "the buck stops here" quotes will weigh heavily on judgement day.
"It is my responsibility and the only way we can change this is by winning games..."
EMPTY WORDS EMPTY GESTURES
Winning games is precisely what City are not doing of course. This was the 8th defeat in 14 matches since January 18th. As Bacary Sagna said after the limp showing at Palace, "there are seven cup finals left for City". Well, there had been eight before that game and now there are six. It smacks a little of the Tiny Tim announcing there are only five sleeps till Christmas. And then what, exactly?
City, needing a big performance after all the recent desperate ones - were out-played, out-thought and out-manouevred by a mobile, aggressive United side, playing simple, effective football. Passing back to their keeper rather a lot, utilizing fast, robust long balls rather frequently, it still worked famously. Van Gaal's gameplan came unstuck initially with Aguero's opener but was vindicated by half time with United turning it all around and positively celebrated thereafter.
With Aguero notching his 99th and 100th City goals and the corner count (not that City's corners have produced a single item of interest in the last six months) heavily in City's favour, the attack carried a temporary threat. If you were a United fan after ten minutes, you might have been hoping to restrict the score to below recente drubbings, but there was a pleasant surprise in store for all prepared to keep the faith. City were about to go back into hibernation.
MAKING ASHLEY YOUNG LOOK GOOD
At the back there was carnage and much of it, it has to be said, was caused by yet another pedestrian
|Pass the towel|
On one early occasion, lightly fouled in midfield, Touré, a big man, went to ground, producing the usual high armed theatrical protest from a prone position. Referee Clattenburg refused to play ball and let the game run on. As the resultant United possession morphed quickly into a proper attack, you looked for the fast back tracking bulk of Touré, but it never appeared. Jogging back, he made no attempt to catch up with play, contenting himself with a watching brief just inside his own half.
Touré's performance by the end amounted to a dereliction of duty, an abdication of sorts, a sad footnote to what has been a magnificent innings in Manchester. Who will now want to buy a player of his age (31) on his wages is anybody's guess, but the last two months have seen him join a lengthening list of players many City supporters will want out this Summer. Touré, the man who lit the blue touch paper against the same desperate foe in 2011's FA Cup semi-final, is one of the reasons City are where they are today: double Premier League champions, FA and League Cup winners. He will live long in the annals of City folk heroes, but his wonderful contribution is being tarnished by these late days of empire.
For those, who do not want to see blackness in the blurred and subjective terms of player and team performance, there are other more scientific ways of measuring just how grim it was out there: City's 4th consecutive defeat was the first time they had managed such an inglorious run since the Alan Ball masterminded relegation season of 1995-96.
City's pass accuracy in this game was an almost entirely alien 71%, a full seven points below the next worst for this season. So often were the targets of City players' passing missed that it looked like Alan Ball had had an influence on that too.
Similarites are being drawn between this fall-off of form and how Roberto Mancini's last season in charge finished, but this time two years ago City were producing a magnificent FA Cup semi-final performance to sweep Chelsea aside and book a place at Wembley. That "downing of tools" by Mancini's team looks magnificently celebratory in comparison to Pellegrini's late term offering in 2014-15.
UNTYING THE KNOTS
Questions must be asked: Who has the final say on buying and selling? Are they being held accountable for the state of City's squad today? How have the powers that be let a brilliant squad age en masse? What input does Pellegrini have in player acquisition? Why was the decision taken to roll over and take UEFA's FFP edict with legs in the air and tummy waiting to be scratched? What has happened to the form of the side's bulwarks, Zabaleta, Kompany and Touré? Why was Lampard kept on then not played? Why was Bony bought and not played earlier (despite a month of action in Africa)? Why has nobody in the management team come up with a cure to City's ills when rattled out of possession by aggressive high-marking opponents? How come there is such a marked difference between City in confident possession of the ball and City (half-)trying to win it back again? Why has the club gone for a severe hike in season ticket prices when they needed to keep the hardcore support onside?
A mephistophelian knot of intrigue awaits City's manager this summer. If it is to be Manuel Pellegrini, a miracle of biblical proportions must now make itself apparent. If not, the faithful await news on who, how and when. Wheover steps into the breach will have a job akin to peeling the layers off an onion. Layer upon layer needs that man's immediate and undivided attention.
The runners and riders must wait for another day. The mainstream press is already tying itself in knots with different permutations. City now prepare to chase or be chased. A home win over West Ham will reignite the run-in for a club that has two in-form teams ahead of them in the pecking order for the 2nd and 3rd places that will grant straight qualification to the Champions League. Miss that and prepare for an uncomfortable mix-up with Lazio, Sporting or some mysterious invaders from the dusty east.
Clinging to small mercies used to be an occupational hazard for fans of this great old bastion of the slapstick and the colourful, but there are precious few to cling onto after Sunday's game.