Manchester City started the season wonderfully, but their old foe defensive instability is back. If Manuel Pellegrini doesn’t sort it out, it’ll be their undoing in a bid to win the title back…
Out of tranquillity comes the storm. Manchester City were serenely proceeding towards a healthy lead at the top of the Premier League a fortnight ago, but Manuel Pellegrini’s side have stumbled over themselves incessantly since. It’s now three defeats in four matches, the only bright light coming against Sunderland in the Capital One Cup. Victory for neighbours United against the same club sees City slip from top spot. The sunshine didn’t last long over Ashton New Road.
After half an hour at White Hart Lane, few could have predicted the eventual outcome. The visitors had scored 27 goals in their previous seven matches against Tottenham, and Kevin de Bruyne’s third in three games gave them a deserved lead.
For that first 30 minutes, the City swagger was back. They pressed Spurs’ defenders high up the pitch, forcing them to knock the ball long by starving Dele Alli and Eric Dier of possession in central midfield. When Spurs did venture forward in numbers, City hit them on the counter.
It would be remiss not to offer meaningful praise for Mauricio Pochettino’s side’s comeback, for Spurs were wonderful following their equaliser. With Erik Lamela finally showing signs of settling in and Harry Kane off the mark to end the domestic goal drought, supporters will be confident that a corner has been turned after a difficult August. Alli and Dier look an impressive, if slightly unlikely, central midfield partnership. Pochettino deserves credit for the innovative solution.
However, City’s enthusiasm was again curbed by their own inexplicably poor defending. It has become a familiar tale, the albatross hung around the neck of both Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini. It’s damn difficult to walk forwards when you insist on shooting yourself in the feet after every three steps.
Against Spurs, City offered their latest example of how title challengers can defend like relegation certainties, taking the baton from Chelsea. Pellegrini’s side retain an odd ability to let one mistake breed a second, and the concession of one goal to another in quick succession; it’s as if heads too easily drop. This defeat felt very similar to the Manchester derby in April in that respect, when a 1-0 lead became a 4-1 deficit over the course of the match.
City’s bad habit is particularly odd given that only one of their back five from that April defeat started the game at White Hart Lane. Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany and Gael Clichy were all absent, replaced by Aleksandar Kolarov, Bacary Sagna, Willy Caballero and Nicolas Otamendi. While injuries to Kompany and Hart could form a decent excuse for Pellegrini (and David Silva’s absence will always cause a drop in performance), it’s worth remembering that those four replacements cost a combined £55m.
If Eliaquim Mangala struggled to settle in the Premier League last season, Otamendi has started in the same vein. The Argentinean twice allowed Spurs to have shots following individual errors, with Harry Kane guilty of shooting when Christian Eriksen was better placed during the first half. Otamendi was also beaten to a header for Spurs’ second, with Caballero exposed. The goalkeeper’s positioning was somewhere between ‘no man’s land’ and ‘what in the shuddering f**k are you doing?’.
One of the most remarkable aspects of City’s steamroller start to the season was their defensive miserliness. Not only were no goals being conceded, but their defence allowed just eight shots on target during the first five matches. That figure was matched in 90 minutes against Tottenham. In their last two games they have conceded more goals than in their previous 11 combined.
The elephant in the room is that it is Pellegrini’s own mentality which allows these inadequacies to fester. “I think it is important for the Premier League and it is important for the fans to play attractive football,” the manager said after congratulating Chelsea for their title win in May. “This team continues as the highest scoring team. That side is important, to continue winning in that sense.” It really isn’t, Manuel. Points are the only meaningful judge, and defensive solidity is a much-missed asset at the Etihad. That August run acts as the obvious exception, not rule.
The Chilean will hope that this is just another bad day at the office, but the effects may be more far-reaching. This was City’s first three-goal margin of defeat in the Premier League since April 2011, and only the second time they have conceded four times in a league game for over six years. If the wheels haven’t yet come off their early-season excellence, the nuts have certainly been loosened.