MANCHESTER CITY - THE BOYS IN ‘BLUES’: THE 19/20 REVIEW SO FAR
“At times, it does feel like the world is against us”
-Micah Richards, Manchester City Right Back (2005 – 2015)
The former City defender’s statement undoubtedly sums up the state-of-mind of a large section, if not the whole of the club’s fan-base this season. It is not the ruthless City the world is so accustomed to witnessing, the same one since the past two seasons. An unexpectedly tough ride for the boys in blue, the burden of on and off-the-pitch factors have largely tamed the golden eagle to 7 league defeats. Problematically, it is more than statistics affecting the usual mental flair, with injuries and squad rotations, controversial VAR calls and the European ban saga playing their part this season. None of this was foreseeable after the boys in blue made it undefeated through August; a major contender of a hat-trick of Premier League honours. The unfortunate arrival of the pandemic gives the almost-former-champions (safe to accept Liverpool’s glory), a breather and plenty of introspection time, as we rewind Manchester City’s 19/20 story so far, presenting a discourse on some factors and takeaways from this season.
As established, Manchester City started the season with their usual surge in August, beating strong competitors Liverpool to the Community Shield on penalties. This was followed by 14 goals in 4 games resulting in staying unbeaten throughout August, with merely a minor blip against Spurs; very much forgettable. Pep Guardiola did claim his side to be better and stronger post their domestic treble winning season, and City looked on course in proving him right. Do mind the context – the team was fresh of the ‘Fourmidables’ tag, nicking the title from the best-performing second placed team in the history of the Premier League. This was preceded by a uniquely dominant 100-point league victory with several records broken along the way. So expectations were high, both from those associated with the sky blues and those who weren’t.
A long-term injury to Leroy Sane early in the Community Shield ruled an important player out of the squad. Following this, on the last day of August, nearing the closing stages of the summer transfer window, centre-back Aymeric Laporte succumbed to a long-term knee injury against Brighton. And as if perspectives open up so suddenly, the lack of Kompany and his replacement left the club feeling vulnerable at the back. Rodri and Joao Cancelo were the hefty summer recruits, but no signs of a Kompany replacement and reinforcements up-front had come, perhaps an unlikely skew in judgement. The very next fixture since the injury presented a warning red sign that City should have paid more heed to, as they fell victim to their first defeat at the hands of Norwich, conceding three. While Liverpool still unbeaten made them a force to be reckoned with, one loss is the last thing to affect Manchester City, as we all know very well indeed.
Confidence was still sky-high, and a patch of amazing form followed, which included smashing 8 goals against helpless Watford and victories in the Champions’ League group stages. The wounds from Norwich more or less healed, for things did seem alright again. All until Wolves re-opened them in very unlikely fashion in City’s own backyard, as Adame Traore took it on himself to hurt City and push them 8 points adrift from Liverpool in early October. Not only were Pep’s army exposed at the back, but the offence unusually ineffective as the sparks never flew. Dismissed as a bad day in the office, quite naturally for it was still early in the season, a recurring pattern made its appearance regularly as the season progressed.
You might predict the next game of discussion to be the boys in blue stumbling rather embarrassingly against Liverpool in an all-important fiery fixture. But the signs of wavering form first appeared noticeably in City’s 3-0 victory against Aston Villa. A dismal first half led to frustrated fans and staff alike, as Pep held it parallel to a ‘relegation-worthy performance’. While they did work hard and win the game, the regular trend became identifiable in the next few games, as there were vulnerabilities both at the front and at the back. A similar pattern against Southampton and Atlanta led up to the Liverpool game, as City couldn’t turn up when it mattered and Liverpool raced 9 points ahead, albeit some dodgy refereeing decisions – another trend City were subject to in recent games. The pressure was intense as Manchester City for the first time in the last 2 years, seemed majorly overexposed to evident problems, and the upward climb to the league title proving steeper for them. While the disappointing record against Liverpool continued, more discouraging stats exposed City’s frailties.
City achieved the lowest points tally in the first 12 games in Guardiola’s reign, and also found themselves more than three points behind the leaders for the first time in his dominant reign. Moreover, they conceded 3 for the second time in the league this season, very unusual for City throughout the whole of 38 games in preceding leagues, and it was just October. The lasting impact of that game followed suit in a bumpy one month, as City drew against Shakhtar and Newcastle before a crushing home loss in the derby. What seemed tough now seemed increasingly impossible as Liverpool extended their lead to 14-points before the first half of the season concluded. Despite performing well, chances weren’t taken up front and gaping holes were left by a vulnerable defensive cover. This recurring pattern affected City and their fans, who felt like being subjected to a morbid dream as the clutches from a third consecutive premier league title loosened before 2020.
2020 was a rollercoaster, albeit this included an unexpected descend in City’s fate, striking a major blow in the form of a severe Champions league ban by the UEFA for two seasons, accompanied with a fine due to breaches in Financial Fair Play rules and moreover misleading the governing body about sponsorship revenues exposed through leaked chats. As if suddenly, the thought of the repercussions of such a heavy decision sent bundling nerves all around, with not just the champions league ban but the additional impact it would have on the club’s reputation, management, players and fans alike. Before this decision, City regained some respite in 2020 with a derby victory, advancement to the Carabao Cup finals and some impressive individual and overall performances, albeit a reckless performance against Spurs.
The club affirmed their attempt to defend and prove themselves innocent, a fight which would go until the very end. But one, which had the potential to mentally make or break City’s season, with diverted motivation towards the UEFA Champions League. A bittersweet run of games before the indefinite suspension of football welcomed City; an impressive 2-1 victory in the first leg of the last 16 against Real Madrid was followed by another disheartening derby defeat (the third one against Manchester United this season), which proved to be the concluding game before the suspension, leaving fans sullen.
Indeed a rollercoaster ride mostly descending from City’s ultra-high standards, let’s understand some takeaways from the season so far, analyzing what went wrong, the positives amidst the disappointments and the road ahead.
WHAT’S GONE WRONG?
● ON-PITCH PERFORMANCES
The aforementioned issue of identifiable and recurring trends on the pitch has often affected the results despite good performances, while being a catalyst for the negative ones.
1. Vulnerable Defense
As previously stated, City’s weakened defensive foundation is a major talking point. Kompany’s long term presence leaving a void and Laporte’s absence due to injury have led us to being dependant on Fernandinho’s unnatural position, an aging Otamendi and an error-prone John Stones in defense. With Rodri still adjusting, Gundogan and Mendy inconsistent (the latter often injured), Zinhenko’s injury and Cancelo’s lack of playing time, what seems the only reasonable explanation to defend this, is City’s luck turning face, in a phase of transition to hopefully better days in the future. Still, for the sake of bringing forth issues to identify and work upon, we shall look at the defensive statistics. Manchester City are ranked second-lowest in terms of tackling in the Premier League, with only Bournemouth worse off. They are ranked the lowest in terms of clearances and the second lowest in terms of interceptions. Ederson too has been responsible for 3 direct errors leading to goals in the league, adding to his red card against Wolves. It’s often the lack of resilience and restructuring, leading to panicky and unorganized defensive structures during games, especially when it comes to coping with chances and goals conceded. Aeriel duels also pose a problem, with City’s shortest average height in the league perhaps a reason for this, but also a lack of defensive structure and awareness while defending set pieces. Aymeric Laporte has been missed, with City not having lost a single game in the 8 games he featured in this season. The good news is that the centre-back is finally fit and can hopefully play a pivotal role in City’s route to Champions League and FA Cup success.
2. Chances Unclaimed
While the goals scored might show a true but misleading façade (68 goals the highest in the league), it’s often the crucial games which witnessed astray chances. Manchester City had 24 shots with 18 on target yet scored none against Wolves, who scored 2 in 10 chances. Against Liverpool, Manchester City amassed 18 shots with merely 3 on target, while Liverpool scored 3 with lesser number of shots. In the 2-1 derby loss, Manchester City had double the shots Manchester United had, yet converted just 1 to United’s 2 goals. The Citizens have missed a whopping 62 big chances in the league this season. These statistics prove Pep’s men haven't been clinical in crucial games they have lost this season.
Moreover, against the 2-1 victory against Southampton, City went 70 minutes without a shot on target, the longest they waited since 2016. They also registered none in the first half against Aston Villa. This not only proves a relatively unclinical City side, but also a lack of incentive shooting and game changing drive, qualities Leroy Sane provided. Forward options (backup for an aging Aguero, plus an alternative striker playing Dzeko’s role) is something City should explore to solve these issues.
To add to this, City hold no bragging rights when it comes to penalties, missing 5 out of 11 penalties this season for a 54.5% penalty conversion rate. Upto 5 different players have taken penalties this season, 4 of them missing atleast one each. Confidence in need of urgent restoration!
3. Leadership Amiss
Vincent Kompany’s departure has not only left a gaping hole in the defence, but also in the leadership qualities holding the team together, serving crucial while bouncing back from setbacks during the match. Despite playing well, a chance conceded leads to unsteadiness in the whole framework, resulting in disorganized and chaotic restructuring, followed by more chances conceded and avoidable goals gifted. While there is presence of highly experienced players (soon to leave), City boast a herd of young blood, and it’s important to unleash the most out of them in disciplined fashion not only this season but in the coming seasons too, for which a leader is needed. Captains also prove instrumental in deciding set-piece takers and instilling confidence in them, ever so relevant in City’s case with their below par penalty conversion rate this season. Kevin De Bruyne serves as the likeliest potential to solve this, but whether it is him or through a signing, City need to find that leader they can rely on, and instill necessary leadership qualities.
4. Squad Rotation and Youngsters
While it’s difficult to fault the mastermind tactician in his rigid but successful methods of dealing with his squad, fact remains that City barely have a consistent starting 11 against teams, possibly making them unpredictably lethal and flexible, but also unstructured and panicky with certain restrictions. This was reportedly pointed out in the 2-0 loss to Spurs, when players apparently expressed frustration with Pep’s squad rotation antics. It’s something to think about for the manager, though he will do what he wants to anyway, albeit with utmost effect sooner or later.
With gaping problems in the current squad and the title more or less away from the clutches of the blue side of Manchester, Pep could possibly resort to providing more game time to youngsters in the Premier League. Eric Garcia has been a sturdy presence in the backline, with City winning all games he has completed a full 90 minutes in. Phil Foden is increasingly making his way up the squad, while letting go of Angelino hasn’t been a very good choice, who is now performing very well at RB Leipzig. Youngsters like Taylor-Harwood Bellis and Tommy Doyle are also rising potentials from the youth team.
● OFF-PITCH FACTORS
Quite unexpectedly on Valentine’s Day struck an announcement coming out of nowhere. Manchester City were accused of ‘serious’ breaches in the FFP guidelines between 2012 and 2016. Leaked chats and evidence also revealed City overstating sponsorship revenue in its accounts and the club’s ‘failure to cooperate’ with UEFA in this investigation. Quiet serious allegations resulted in a two year ban from the elite European competition plus a fine of 30m euros. The club’s official website publicly claimed that they were disappointed but not surprised at this decision from a UEFA Disciplinary Body who have been against them throughout the process and were pre-determined to arrive to this conclusion. This news sent shockwaves all around world football.
Serious claims and allegations in a bumpy season is undoubtedly a tough phase to deal with for City’s associations, who have done well to stay positive throughout this process. Ferran Soriano, Sheikh Mansour and even Pep himself have all confidently laid their trust in the system and convinced fans that no rules were breached and that they won’t be giving up on this. With City appealing and ready to go on war in one of the most intense head to head conflicts in world football, there is a lot at stake for the club in the near future.
Psychologically, this undoubtedly impacts the staff and most importantly the players, some of whom would be considering a move away from the club due to a lack of Champions League action in the near future. Accompanying this are several claims, accusations, arguments and criticism from other clubs and football associations, even wishing for the club to be docked points in the Premier League and other severe punishments, plus a massive dent in reputation and morals of the club. A critical battle for times ahead, the impact of this announcement will stay at the back of the mind for many of those who perform on the pitch, affecting their morale, focus and decision making skills. It becomes all the more important for Manchester City to prove their worth this season, especially in the Champions League to earn the respite and respect the club desperately needs in a phase like this.
WHAT’S BEEN RIGHT?
A turbulent season for Manchester City undoubtedly, it’s the positive which uplifts and helps get through even the most uncooperative situations in life. And City serve as the quintessential example of bouncing back from setbacks and using the positive elements to turn tides and rise despite falling. Amidst the disappointing, there is always some cheer.
Overall Performance So Far
Despite the speed bumps and the burden of sky-high expectations, Manchester City are still second in the league. It is just a matter of how good Liverpool have performed this season, rather than how bad City have. This includes one of the club’s highest victory margins in a game, running riot against Watford 8-0.
Moreover, in a seemingly disappointing season, the Citizens have managed to secure silverware two times this season, and are in contention for two more, including the elite Champions League trophy. They already have a good foothold in a huge knockout tie against Real Madrid. If the Champions League resumes, rest assured City are giving it their all to reach the end.
Sergio Aguero affirmed his legendary status with utmost style as he re-wrote the record books with a 6-0 victory against Aston Villa, not once but twice! Surpassing Theirry Henry, the Argentine became the Premier League’s all-time leading overseas goalscorer taking his tally to 177 Premier League goals in that game. Starting the game with 174 goals, Aguero’s hattrick against Villa also meant that he surpassed Alan Shearer to set the new Premier League hattrick record of 12 hattricks. Currently, Sergio Aguero sits on 254 goals for Manchester City, 180 of them in the Premier League and just 7 shy of Andy Cole’s goalscoring record. A statue’s on the cards!
De Bruyne – A sublime superstar
The standout performer in an inconsistent City squad – by a country mile. Kevin De Bruyne has stepped levels this season and is exponentially proving his identity as one of the best midfielders in the world. A record-breaking season saw him reach 50 assists faster than any other player in the Premier League. He has notched 20 assists this season and 9 goals, approaching his personal best. But what stands out isn’t represented through statistics, but the intangible performances he displays on the pitch in every game. His sublime vision and pin-point passes have given City the killer instinct in most games. Even when the team doesn’t turn up, he still manages to make an impact, leaving the pitch with praises and chants all around, noticeably catching attention from even the most critical critiques of the game. A season which has witnessed De Bruyne’s spellbinding skills on the ball and intelligent gameplay, he is a contender for the absolute top honours and a force to be reckoned with in coming times.
Tough phase and plenty of allegations; if the club and those associated with it emerge victorious in the appeal, safe to say it would be rewarding on a grand scale. The owners have been uber cool about the situation, instilling a sense of confidence and calmness amongst the fans and members of the City family. The coaches and even some players have vouched to not give up so easy. As Micah said, “it is us against the world”, and it is all on City to translate this energy into their performances in the rest of this season, stay confident throughout the process of the appeal an believe, for the reward in the end would be absolutely worth it!
What’s been a torrid season could very easily be a monumental one when the season concludes. The lockdown has put a break on the club’s intense schedules, offering time to introspect, think, and re-gather to have a go at it again and improve on the setbacks. Manchester City, undoubtedly are one of the most talented and hard-working teams put together as they have often proved. There is much to look out for, with a clash against Arsenal to kickstart the remainder of the Premier League for some increased momentum in the league. The Champions League and FA Cup awaits as City look determined to make an impact and a potential 4 trophies until the end of the season, including the holy grail of the Champions League. This would not only be the club’s most notable achievement in recent years, but also a perfect statement against UEFA and this breaching episode, for they have proved they are worthy of the big stage, if they perform well. Focus on rebuilding the squad and strengthening the dents would follow immediately after regardless, for them to have a go at it again, and then again!
“City - Manchester City We are the lads who are playing to win City - the Boys in Blue will never give in”