“Mark Hughes specialises in sh*te.”
Those were the words of Typical City’s own Rob Pollard, speaking on the Blue Moon Podcast ahead of Manchester City’s trip to the Britannia Stadium – and, getting one thing straight from the off in this piece, he’s not wrong. Mark Hughes is not a great manager, yet it was the sh*te that he produced on Saturday lunchtime that ran rings around a City side that categorically should not have been that bad.
It wasn’t as if the defeat was any surprise, either. Being entirely fair to Rob, he also said on the show that he thought City would drop points against Stoke. As did the vast majority of fans who have followed the Blues for some time; yet it must still be said that Stoke are not a good team.
Of course, City’s record at the Britannia Stadium is poor – staggeringly so. That the win in the 2014-15 campaign was the Blues’ first there in the league since 1999 and that it had been a regular Premier League fixture since 2008-09 does enough to explain that the club doesn’t find it an easy place to go. But previous draws (because the majority of the games were draws) and defeats there were nothing in comparison to what Manuel Pellegrini’s team served up on Saturday lunchtime.
The excuses do not stack up for that sort of performance. There have been some gutting injuries. The conditions were horrible. Neither of those two factors make 11 players look like they’d rather be anywhere else than on a football pitch that afternoon. There was only Joe Hart – who wasn’t blameless for the first goal, but was pretty much blameless for everything else that happened – could leave the pitch with any sense of dignity from the starting line-up.
The defensive line was all over the place at the Britannia Stadium. All too often did the home side get in behind the visitors’ with one simple through pass or ball over the top – thanks to one player stepping up and another dropping deep to cover the attacker’s run. The pairing of Martin Demichelis and Nicolas Otamendi isn’t blessed with pace, so it would perhaps have made more sense to drop deeper to begin with.
In front of those two, however, was Fernando. His remit for the game was tiny and yet he didn’t fulfil a single part of it as, time and again, he dived in on Xherdan Shaqiri. The Stoke man loved it; as the Brazilian flew past him for the fifth or sixth time in an attempt to win the ball, the Kosovan waltzed past and had a free run at an under pressure defence.
It’s long been known to the fans and to Pellegrini that Fernando struggles in a midfield two, yet here he was named in a pairing that had David Silva ahead of him. For all of his good points, the Spaniard isn’t the most defensive minded forward player and isn’t the type of midfielder who can add a third body – so throw in a two month injury layoff ahead of this match and it begins to boggle the mind why the manager persisted with that set-up for so long.
That City finished with ten men and that Fernando was the missing man at the end said a lot. He was unfortunate to pick up an injury; but the team didn’t play any worse without him. Whether it was possible for them to play any worse I’m not so sure.
Fernandinho – and later Fabian Delph – did their best to help out in the middle, but they were battling through a river of treacle as they were outnumbered in the centre. Delph added spark and dynamism to the midfield that was sorely lacking in the first hour, but it was too late by then for his introduction to change the match. The tone had been set.
The offensive players don’t get off lightly, either. Wilfried Bony is struggling – and badly – to find any sort of form in a City shirt. He’s been harshly criticised by the fans for some time, often unfairly, but he was woefully bad at the Britannia Stadium. His first touch deserted him, his hold-up play was dire and his movement was limited – though it has to be said he was thrown to the lions by a complete lack of service from any of his teammates.
Raheem Sterling had a number of opportunities to put a good ball into the box and didn’t manage it. Aleksandar Kolarov was the same down that flank, twice hitting the side netting with a low drive into the box.
Across the pitch, Kevin De Bruyne was out of sorts; he tried to make it work, but he couldn’t find a navy blue shirt more often than not. Silva couldn’t slip a pass through and couldn’t find space to get on the ball. Even the much-improved Jesús Navas was more use running sideways and backwards.
The fluidity of movement between the front players that was seen at the start of the season is no longer a regular occurrence. City’s attacks were predictable and rigid – two criticisms from 2014-15 – and for all of the away side’s possession, Jack Butland barely had to make a save. Only De Bruyne troubled him, with the score at 1-0.
If this were one week where City didn’t perform, it would be fine. A one-off. A blip. But it’s getting to the stage now where one must wonder if Pellegrini can see any of the issues his side are facing, because the lessons that this team have been taught by Arsenal (h), Middlesbrough (h), Burnley (a), Crystal Palace (a), Manchester United (a), Tottenham Hotspur (a), Liverpool (h) and now Stoke City (a) in the calendar year of 2015 have still not been acted upon.
That’s eight matches where City have been spineless. Gutless. Eight matches where the game could have continued for another ten hours after the final whistle and the Blues wouldn’t have even come close to getting themselves back into the tie. From a team that looked like it might be able to defend a top-flight title at the end of 2014, they look like a team that would struggle to finish inside the top four by the end of 2015.
That they were top of the table heading into the fixture at Stoke probably says so much about the rest of the division. City are on course for a points tally far below what they earned last season and they have racked up four defeats in their first 15 matches – no team has won the Premier League with more than seven losses, and even then that’s at the high end of the allowed-defeats-spectrum.
The start to the campaign, where City won five without conceding, is looking a long time ago and it’s the anomaly of what’s been an awful 2015 so far.
The bright side is that this team could still win the title. One defeat to Stoke hasn’t knocked them out of the race – but it’s the defeats that are likely to come on a similar level to the one at Stoke that will do it.
Pellegrini must now be on very thin ice once again.
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Written by David Mooney.