City failed to secure their first back-to-back league victories since October when they twice had to come from behind to draw away at West Ham on Saturday evening.
Arsenal’s defeat at home to Chelsea on Sunday means the solitary point gained at Upton Park leaves the Blues three points behind table topping interlopers Leicester City and still well in the hunt for the Premier League, but it was another weekend which only served to remind us that City’s title challenge is being made to look far more difficult than perhaps it should be this season.
Not for the first time, Manuel Pellegrini picked a team which didn’t look right on paper and looked even wronger on grass. Getting your team selection and formation right for each particular match is the most fundamental managerial task and the Chilean’s tenure at the club is in serious danger of being remembered for a litany of mistakes in that department.
City got proceedings off to the worst possible start by conceding a goal inside the first minute. Cheikhou Kouyaté breezed past the flat-footed Yaya Touré and crossed for Enner Valencia who beat Joe Hart from close range with just 56 seconds on the clock.
The Blues responded well to the setback, however, and came close to levelling the scores when Sergio Agüero’s exquisite lob over Hammers’ ‘keeper Adrián somehow bounced back off the post. Then, in the 9th minute, Agüero did grab an equaliser from the penalty spot after he himself had been bundled over in the box by Carl Jenkinson.
West Ham would have retaken the lead had Joe Hart not been on hand to make a phenomenal save to keep out a Dimitri Payet free-kick but the scoreline stayed level for the remainder of the first half, during which time City were mostly wasteful, frustrating and uninspiring in possession.
The hosts did get their noses back in front in rather farcical circumstances ten minutes into the second half, however. Nicolás Otamendi was caught in no man’s land by a long Michail Antonio throw-in and Valencia nipped behind him to grab his second goal of the game.
Another City equaliser looked extremely unlikely until youngster Kelechi Iheanacho was introduced from the bench for the last 15 minutes. The 19-year-old’s mere presence seemed to give City’s attack an extra dimension and it was his combination play with Agüero which lead to a loose ball falling to the Argentine’s feet in the 81st minute, who made no mistake from eight yards out.
Both sides could have grabbed a winner in the dying moments when Agüero’s shot was struck straight at the goalkeeper and Kouyate’s header hit the crossbar at the other end but it wasn’t to be and the spoils were shared.
For City, it’s not necessarily the result that was the most disappointing aspect of the night but the manner of the performance. Far too many games have fallen into that category this season already, and we won’t be champions in May if many more of those that remain go the same way.
Joe Hart comes to City’s rescue again – or does he?
First things first, that save from Payet’s free-kick was absolutely incredible. Taking into the account the power of the shot, the cleanness of the strike and the area of the goal it was heading towards, Hart had no right to make that save and the majority of goalkeepers in world football wouldn’t have been able to do so. It might just be his best ever – even better than the one he made at Swansea last season and better than any of the ones he made against Messi.
That said, he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory when it came to the goals he did concede on Saturday night. On both occasions he was left horribly exposed by the defenders in front of him but could perhaps have done more to keep the ball out of his net.
Enner Valencia’s first goal was a well struck shot from close range but it went through the gap between the inside of Hart’s right arm and his rib-cage rather than past him. Unfortunate maybe, but definitely preventable.
The ‘keeper was clearly not solely at fault for West Ham’s second goal but he could see what was happening perfectly from his vantage point and in that situation, a goalkeeper should be verbally guiding his blind-spotted defender until they’re able to clear the danger whilst simultaneously coming out towards the ball in case they aren’t able to. Hart might well have done all he could in terms of the first part, but he didn’t move from his six-yard box and by the time the ball had found its way to Valencia, he was already as good as beaten.
Many rival fans seem to resent England’s number 1 for what is perceived to be an arrogant personality but he in fact comes across as somebody who strives for high standards and is modestly self-critical when those standards aren’t met. When he looks back at the goals he conceded on Saturday, I suspect he’ll feel he could have done better.
In defence of Otamendi
Make no mistake about it, Nicolás Otamendi’s part in West Ham’s second goal on Saturday evening wasn’t great. His starting position was far from ideal, he wasn’t alive to the threat that Michail Antonio’s long throw-in posed and he didn’t read the flight of the ball until it had already gone past him. There’s even reason to believe he didn’t realise Enner Valencia was behind him and thought all he had to do was shepherd the ball back to his goalkeeper. Criminal stuff.
But all things considered, I don’t think we should be throwing the bearded Argentine under a bus just yet. The long throw-in is a device which has bewitched and beguiled Premier League defenders since Rory Delap first instructed Stoke City’s kit man to modify his shirt with its very own towel. It can be incredibly troublesome to defend against, especially when it’s deployed with such quick-thinking precision as Antonio’s was on Saturday night, and any watching defenders won’t have envied Otamendi one bit for the difficult position he found himself in. Moreover, if that ball had been played with Antonio’s foot instead of his hands we’d all be applauding an ingenious pass rather than castigating the defender for struggling to deal with it.
Could Otamendi have done better with the goal? Yes, of course. Does he need to iron out mistakes like this one? Yes again. Does his part in that goal make him a useless waste of money? No, it does not.
Pellegrini picked the wrong midfield…again
After last weekend’s win over Crystal Palace, I alluded to the idea that Fabian Delph’s good performance in that match had provided his manager with a serious selection problem. Yaya Touré will pretty much always play if he’s fit and available and it seems obvious (to me at least) that he and Delph are too similarly attack-minded to be ever be considered suitable midfield partners.
As if on a personal quest to prove me right, Pellegrini named Touré and Delph as his only starting central midfielders at West Ham, thus allowing his team to be dominated in that part of the pitch for most of the evening.
Delph is the sort of hard-working, honest player fans will always appreciate despite the fact he can often be quite brainless. Touré, on the other hand, has one of the finest minds in the game but can sometimes be accused of lacking the required level of application and desire.
I’m going to stop short of saying the Ivorian wasn’t trying hard enough on Saturday night because that’s a lazy stereotype which is already way out of control, but he was irresponsible defensively, got caught square-on for the opening goal and seemed to struggle whenever the ball was played even a centimetre out of his reach. His detractors will point to games like this as evidence of his supposed bone-idleness, and you can hardly blame them.
Pellegrini should have learned by now that if you’re going to pick Touré you’re also going to have to pick someone who will clean up after him. Fernandinho is the perfect man for this role and Fernando is an able deputy when he wants to be.
Arguably the Chilean’s tactical high point of the season so far was the 4-3-3 formation he opted for when City won away at Sevilla in the Champions League. Why this system isn’t deployed more often, particularly away from home, is a mystery.
City’s creative players are suffering from writer’s block
Remember the heady days when we all thought everything would click into place if we could just get David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne onto a pitch together?
Silva has been uncharacteristically poor in recent weeks and was so bad against West Ham that, for the first time ever, I actually found myself getting angry with him. Perhaps he’s dealing with some sort of existential crisis after he turned 30 earlier this month but he might well be in the poorest vein of form of his career at the moment and it has to be cause for concern.
It also seems like it’s been a long time since we last saw a thoroughly good performance from De Bruyne. His poor pass completion and ball retention statistics are comfortably trumped by his impressive goals and assists record, but the longer he goes without adding more goals or assists to his tally, the less impressive that record looks and the more his flaws come to the fore.
When you consider that neither Raheem Sterling nor Jesús Navas have set the world alight of late either, it’s nothing short of miraculous that City somehow find themselves second in the league at the moment.
The curse of the Blue Moon kit
Including pre-season friendlies, I now make that six occasions on which City have worn their navy blue second strip, five of which have ended in defeat and one of which was a draw.
I’d probably perform badly if I was made to go to work in such a naff piece of clobber too, to be fair.
Viva ghost green!
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Written by Dan Burke