The Perpetual Problems with post-title Manchester City

A good idea is a good idea forever.

The wise words of David Brent there. Words that you wouldn’t be surprised to find out resonate with a certain Txiki Begiristain. Don’t get me wrong, he’s done an awful lot of good for the club, so this isn’t going to be a piece solely berating the man. But as our main transfer executive, it’s his job to call a lot of the shots when representing Manchester City in the market.

Has he done this effectively? Yes, at times. Ederson, Leroy Sane, Bernardo Silva, Gabriel Jesus – all under fifty million. Then the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, who’s value has tripled since joining the club. He’s a more than adequate recruiter who has certainly helped provide Pep Guardiola with the tools necessary to get a century of points in a Premier League season.

But he does get it wrong. Time and time again. It’s not Txiki’s fault that there’s a club blueprint that needs to be strictly complied with – it’s there for a reason, but how many times has it been now where our transfer strategy has come back to bite us on the arse? The token economy system adopted by the club makes perfect sense; it creates a hierarchy of payment based on performance and has been very fruitful for us. Having said that, it’s looking more and more like Txiki should’ve perhaps pulled his finger out and tried to go the extra mile by paying slightly over the odds for a Frenkie De Jong or a Jorginho. 

Chelsea’s Italian midfielder Jorginho (L) shields the ball from Manchester City’s Brazilian midfielder Fernandinho during the English FA Community Shield football match between Chelsea and Manchester City at Wembley Stadium in north London on August 5, 2018. (Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP) / NOT FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING USE / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE (Photo credit should read GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

Poor Fernandinho… the guys an absolute machine, but at the age of 33 he should really be playing less games per season than years he’s spent alive, especially as a Pep Guardiola number six. It’s glaringly obvious that, despite still being in the title race (just); we’ve fallen short at points this season due to the substandard cover provided for the Brazilian. He tried John Stones there; that says it all; move that immediately extracted one of our two best centre halves from the backline and shoehorned him into a role that was out of his depth. Mobility is everything with Fernandinho; the ability to move about the pitch with or without the ball, turning defence into attack in an instant. Does that sound like John Stones to you?

And yes, it is true, I probably wouldn’t be writing this had we beat Newcastle the other night. But after that performance, particularly by Fernandinho, it felt to me like a host of problems that’d been looming all season culminated at once. I put Fernandinho’s bad performances down to fitness more so than just off-days, and when he’s not at the races, it tends to rub off on the rest of the team.

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND – JANUARY 29: Sean Longstaff of Newcastle United is fouled by Fernandinho of Manchester City and a penalty is awarded during the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Manchester City at St. James Park on January 29, 2019 in Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

So, it’s a problem that hasn’t been addressed, again. The January transfer window has passed us by and we’re still reliant on a ticking timebomb of a defensive midfielder. Will we sign his cover in the next summer window? Almost certainly. Has our decision to not sign his cover this season contributed to Liverpool being clear at the top? Almost certainly.

And history tells us this; cast your mind back to the summer of 2012. We’d just won the league for the first time ever, some fans pondering at the possible start of a dynasty at the club. We knew Manchester United would be back, especially after getting the same number of points as us, and they responded. Robin Van Persie, arguably the best out and out striker in the world at that point, joined their ranks. Who joined ours? Scott Sinclair, Jack Rodwell, Maicon, Javi Garcia and Matija Nastasic. I’m not even going to comment; utterly shambolic. Consequently; United won the league.

Skip to summer 2014, luckily for us Luis Suarez decided to reprise his role as a connoisseur of the human arm, thus leaving Liverpool and making their title bid futile. However, Chelsea were firmly contenders the season before. After falling short, the hunger they gained from that was fuelled by the additions of Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and the highly anticipated return of Didier Drogba. Surely a wake-up call to City that perhaps an 86-point season with an ageing squad was something that could be improved on?

Absolutely! Txiki wasn’t messing about; £42 million on a defender sounds promising… until Eliaquim Mangala is the defender in question. In fairness, at the time he was highly rated – such is the arbitrary pool of players who make it out of Portugal into the big leagues. They’re either phenomenal or fraudulent. ‘Quim’ was the latter, but City’s Portuguese nightmare didn’t end there; Fernando joined the club. A player with an ostentatious nickname like ‘The Octopus’ – surely that carries some credibility and weight? Sort of. He actually played how a literal Octopus would – horrendously. The Mediterranean Chuckle Brothers were supplemented by the additions of Willy Caballero, Frank Lampard and Bacary Sagna – a strikingly youthful trio.

Manchester City’s French defender Eliaquim Mangala (L) and Manchester City’s Brazilian midfielder Fernando react during the UEFA Champions League quarter final football match between Paris Saint Germain (PSG) and Manchester City on April 6, 2016 at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE / AFP / FRANCK FIFE (Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

For the sake of my own health, I will not be discussing Wilfried Bony.

Last summer; Riyad Mahrez. I can see why we signed him; the added dimension going forward, his adeptness at beating men, the fact it allows proper rotation of wingers and shifts Bernardo to his more proficient central role. Happy Days, no real complaints from me despite his slightly discordant start. But it wasn’t a glaring problem that needed urgent attention; Riyad Mahrez was and is a luxury.

Liverpool pulled off a 10/10 summer and credit to them for that. Their goalkeeper was bad, so they got a good one. Their defensive midfield was bad, so they got a good one. Their attacking and midfield depth was frail, so they signed Shaqiri and Keita to support the squad. With City; “Our defensive midfield is older than god so we can’t solely rely on him for another season, so let’s sign a winger for a club record fee”. That doesn’t make sense to me, regardless of the wage and transfer structure in place at the club – it’s merely an issue of prioritising targets correctly.

Another thing that is persistent with the club in post-title winning seasons is a level of naivety that leads to us overestimating the actual level of some of the players in the squad. In 2012 it was Lescott, in 2014 it was Navas, and this year, for me; it’s Fabian Delph. You could easily broaden this to the whole fullback situation in all honesty, how can we spend £120 million on fullbacks and I still don’t fully trust any of them? Excluding Mendy, the three fit Manchester City ‘left-backs’ are a right-back, a converted attacking midfielder, and a central midfielder – how the club thought they could get away with that I don’t know.

The answer probably does lie with Delph. It becomes more apparent by the game that last season Delph was masquerading as a competent left-back in a squad that were so relentless at keeping pressure high up the pitch, he didn’t have to do an awful lot of defending. It would’ve been extremely dishonourable to sell Fabian in the summer after the season he had, it was never on the cards. But teams this season have sussed us out a bit more, it’d be fair to say any of the games Delph’s featured in he’s looked poor, particularly at Leicester. This accompanied by Mendy’s crocked legs have left us longing for yet another left back, which is rather embarrassing after the amount spent in that position already. It’s the “baaasics” of squad management.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 22: Fabian Delph of Manchester City in action during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Crystal Palace at Etihad Stadium on December 22, 2018 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

So; dodgy transfer windows, overly propitious perceptions of the current squad, and one more, more abstract reason why I think we keep tripping ourselves up as defending champions – general arrogance, or complacency.

I don’t know exactly what it is – I can only speculate. But a certain level of arrogance is healthy, the type that would lead you to bring confetti to a derby out of assurance that you were going to win. However, an excessive level of arrogance could certainly be a symptom of why we keep losing to these mid-table sides, especially after taking the lead in all three. Pep fielded his strongest possible team at St James’ Park, this alone could’ve been what lost us the game from the off, never mind scoring in the first minute. After Aguero poked it in the net before I’d sat down, I too was guilty of thinking it was going to be a bloodbath, that Newcastle would roll over, the players seemed to think this too – and by god they were wrong.

As for complacency, well that was just rife on Tuesday night. Heavy touches by Aguero, Kyle Walker going full Kyle Walker, the usual leaders like Fernandinho and De Bruyne nowhere to be seen, it was evident they couldn’t be bothered. The only practical solution to this that I can think of is Vincent Kompany, the only problem with that is… well, he isn’t very practical himself.

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND – JANUARY 29: The Manchester City team walk off dejcted after the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Manchester City at St. James Park on January 29, 2019 in Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

So I guess it’s just a case of the players realising what’s at stake, they certainly did when Liverpool came to the Etihad. But now we’re back to square one again, if we play like we did against Liverpool for the remainder of the season there’s no doubt in my mind we still win it; whether we actually do is a different question.

Although this may have seemed like a mini-rant that’s simply reactionary, I do see the bigger picture. We are still in four competitions – two of which are there for the taking. The Champions League is still very much a possibility, and may well be what Pep has his sights on after Tuesday. The spring incentive to win that trophy has only grew since Guardiola took charge of the club, he carries that added weight to win the Champions League because of the manner in which he did it with Barcelona. That integrated with the fact this club has never won it before might just be enough to get those Liverpool-esque performances out of us, in which case I’d fancy our chances. 

And let’s face it; we’re lightyears ahead of where we were last time we were defending champions, things have changed. We’ve gone from Navas to Sterling, from Demichelis to Stones, from Fernandinho to… oh, the poor blokes still running.

You can follow Adam on twitter here: @_adammonk

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