There’s nothing like the final pre-season friendly ahead of an important campaign to point out nearly all of the major flaws that still exist in the side with a mere nine days until the proper fixtures get underway. Just in case there wasn’t any panicking going on about the beginning of the Premier League next weekend, Manchester City went and put in one of the biggest horror shows they could have done in their final warm-up match, losing in the end 4-2 to Stuttgart.
Stuttgart who are week behind the Blues in their preparation for the new season. Stuttgart who won a total of nine times in the league in 2014-15. Stuttgart who only just avoided relegation from the Bundesliga last year. Stuttgart who were 4-0 up within 37 minutes.
As the official website match report put it:
“The result is never the most important thing at this stage of the campaign, but the score and performance will throw up plenty of talking points ahead of the Premier League opener against West Brom on Monday 10 August.”
That’s probably the most diplomatic way of saying that defensively City were a shambles, with a back-four that could be a regular combination throughout the coming season taking their frailties from 2014-15 to a new extreme and looking like they were all still on their summer holidays. More worrying was that on numerous occasions there were still no signs that Eliaquim Mangala and Vincent Kompany – the pair you’d expect to be the club’s first choice centre-backs for this year – could form a coherent partnership.
Throw in a lack of awareness positionally for Aleksandar Kolarov and Bacary Sagna and the alarming frequency that both of the fullbacks were beaten for the German side to get the ball into the box, and there are major concerns for City in their pursuit of reclaiming the title from Chelsea. The writing looked on the wall for the performance when, just 13 seconds into the match, Kompany played a very short back-pass to his goalkeeper and Joe Hart was very sluggish to get out and clear, almost letting Daniel Ginczek in to score.
A word of caution: What happened in Stuttgart can’t be seen as the ultimate disaster. It’s easy to write off the chances ahead of the coming campaign because of a terrible first half performance from the back-four and a lack of support from midfield and equally it’s just as easy to write off the display as unimportant because it was a friendly. Neither of these positions are quite the right one to take, though, because however unimportant the fixture was and no matter how much it was simply an exercise in fitness than about the result, it’s very hard to ignore just how lacklustre a team a week away from beginning their domestic campaign were.
Though it would be worth remembering a number of senior players were still absent ahead of the league starting – as Sergio Aguero, Martin Demichelis, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernandinho, Fernando and Yaya Toure all didn’t make the trip to Germany. Equally, it was still a very strong side named by the manager.
It must be a little disconcerting for supporters to witness, given the lack of options (other than Zabaleta) at full back and a real weakness in the middle of the defence were two aspects of City’s game that were exploited more than a couple of times last year. That the best partnership the Blues could muster came in the final six games – providing four clean sheets – and was between a veteran not likely to be a key man in 2015-16 in Demichelis and the new signing in Mangala, it suggested problems with Kompany’s form were not going away.
Indeed, the skipper’s been a little off for some time. He’s had far more poor games than good; diving in to challenges, missing the ball, leaving his colleagues exposed, making rash decisions, putting himself and others under pressure… the list goes on. It’s important for the club to be doing everything they possibly can to calm him down and get him playing with a clear head again if the back-four is going to settle ahead of the game with West Brom on Monday week. If they can’t, then it might even be for the best that he doesn’t play – and that’s a huge decision to make, given Demichelis has had no pre-season and that leaves the inexperienced Jason Denayer to go ahead of him.
Though can you honestly say at this moment in time that the idea of the youngster starting against the Baggies fills you with any less confidence than the thought of seeing a Kompany-Mangala partnership flap and get flustered?
Stuttgart did a very good job of showing the rest of the Premier League just exactly what it is they need to do in order to take the Blues to the cleaners – put them under pressure high up the pitch and the chances are they’ll make a mistake; give away possession or boot the ball into touch or give away a needless corner.
This isn’t a Manuel Pellegrini issue, either, but it is one he’s never sorted out. It’s been a common theme running through the Chilean and his predecessor Roberto Mancini’s teams that they can struggle when put under pressure. It was always a gamble for opposing teams to take, given the striking talent that City have got on show – to press the ball high up and allow the likes of David Silva, Aguero or Toure space at the other end of the pitch could be a disaster if it went wrong. However, a number of times over the last three-and-a-bit seasons it’s been a successful way to stop the Blues.
On top of that, the ease at which the midfield was by-passed throughout the first half has to be a major concern. This was an issue for large spells of 2014-15, certainly in the springtime when Pellegrini found himself under pressure for a terrible run of form the side experienced. Without a coherent midfield, there were too many matches where the side just couldn’t keep possession – and that was on display again in the final friendly.
Perhaps it was intended for Fabien Delph to be the answer to that and his injury against Real Madrid is of course a set back, though you do have to wonder how much of the chase involving Paul Pogba was down to shoring up the centre of the pitch. Is there another plan to address the issue should the too-ing and fro-ing over the Frenchman end up with him staying at Juventus?
After a summer of drawn-out and protracted transfers – some of which have been successful and others that are yet to be decided – the focus appears to have been on bolstering the attack, knowing that Stevan Jovetic and Edin Dzeko were likely to be moved on.
In all that time, it looks like City have been sleepwalking into a defensive problem. It looks like both the manager and the director of football Txiki Begiristain have been burying their heads in the sand, hoping that the problems with form and partnerships would go away in time. Maybe the most crucial question is: Should the defensive shambles in Germany now force the club’s hand into looking at someone to give a kick up the backside to the centre halves or fullbacks?
Two late goals against Stuttgart gave the fans that had made the trip to Germany something to cheer and it made the damage look a hell of a lot better than it had done previously. But the bright sparks that were the emergence of Denayer and Bruno Zuculini in the first team, combined with the performance of Raheem Sterling, are very heavily outweighed by the concession of four goals in 37 minutes.
As preparations go, this game has to go down as one of the worst.
Written by David Mooney.