What a difference a week makes. Well, a week and a half, but that’s not a saying. Less than a fortnight ago, Manchester City risked being also-ran’s in the Premier League and were barely-ran’s in the UEFA Champions League. Now, with four straight victories across the two competitions the whole perception of the season is changing.
Defeats against Stoke City and West Ham had created a perception that City’s start had been a bad one. The complete failure to turn up for the first four games in Europe lead to some knee-jerking and calls for Manuel Pellegrini to be replaced, while some supporters offered a more rounded critique of the Chilean and what wasn’t right with his team this season.
Whilst it’s fair to say City have not been at their best in the early part of this campaign, it has also been a concern that Chelsea have been in such imperious form. Optimists have pointed out that the Blues are no worse off this season than they were at the same stage last term. Pessimists – or realists – have countered that by acknowledging that this time round, Chelsea are a more credible challenger than Arsenal. The Gunners were last season’s early pacesetters but fell apart when they started visiting the homes of their nearest rivals. That won’t happen to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, so on the face of it City have a harder task than last year in making up lost ground.
However, wins against Swansea City, Bayern Munich, Southampton and Sunderland have seen a sudden shift in the mood around the club – or amongst the fans at least. You wouldn’t sense any kind of shift from Pellegrini, a man who gives very little away whether he’s plumbing the depths of despair or perched atop cloud nine.
So just why is there this sudden shift? Frankly, four wins in succession isn’t necessarily a huge cause for celebration for a squad of City’s quality. It’s good – well, it’s literally perfect, actually – but it is not in itself out of the ordinary. What has been key has been the improvement in all facets of the performance and the mental change that brings.
In three of those games the Blues trailed by a goal, each time showing the resilience and mental fortitude to hit back and claim three points. Nowhere was this more important than in the Champions League game against Bayern Munich. Having squandered a 1-0 lead to trail 1-2 with five minutes left, the home side appeared to be effectlively bowing out of the competition at The Etihad Stadium. Thanks to a couple of mistakes from the Bavarian men and some typical Sergio Aguero genius, City stole a 3-2 victory that gives them a real chance of rescuing a dismal effort in Europe and progressing to the knockout stages.
That City then went to Southampton, a team unbeaten on their own turf, and won 3-0 seemed to display the clear bounce that the Blues had felt after that last gasp win. That they turned the screw and added the last two goals when down to ten men spoke volumes too.
The ultimate example of this mental shift was Wednesday night’s 4-1 demolition of Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. Despite falling behind again, the Blues played with a fluency, command and freedom that has been lacking up until this point. The last two games have unquestionably been City’s best performances of the season and suggest that Pellegrini and his squad have really got a handle on their early season problems.
Prior to this mini-revival, I’ve found that City have struggled to wrestle momentum back in their favour in a game that is going against them and the wins haven’t been as impressive as we became accustomed to last season. The last week has proven beyond doubt that, when required, City can dig deep and ‘fight ‘til the end’, but that they have also rediscovered their ability to dominate against dogged teams. Let’s not forget, the Sunderland that conceded four breath-taking goals to City are the same Sunderland that just four days previously became the first team to shut out Chelsea this season.
It may also not be a coincidence that this run of form coincides with the same point last year that allowed City to turn around their fortunes, laying the foundations for a title charge. Indeed, the win against Swansea City that kick-started the run came almost a year to the day after City beat Tottenham 6-0 to begin last seasons’ barnstorming run that saw them unbeaten until February.
No longer down-and-out in Europe and just six points behind Chelsea in the league, the coming week is a huge one for City. Wins against Everton and Roma will see the early season struggle forgotten completely and allow everybody to look forward to the rest of the campaign with a real sense of optimism for what lies ahead. The title defence may just begin here.
Written by Richard Burns, who you can follow on Twitter