Manchester City were beaten 1-0 by Manchester United in the 171st Manchester derby on Sunday, a result which leaves them in fourth place in the Premier League table and just one point ahead of both Louis van Gaal’s side and West Ham United.
The first real chance of the game fell to City when Jesús Navas forced David de Gea into a smart save with his feet but it was United who took the lead when 18-year-old Marcus Rashford breezed past a flat-footed Martín Demichelis on the edge of the box and slotted past Joe Hart in the 16th minute.
City lost both Raheem Sterling and Joe Hart to injury with Fernando and Willy Caballero coming on in their stead. Manuel Pellegrini then made his third and final substitution with just 53 minutes on the clock when Wilfried Bony replaced the hapless Demichelis and Fernandinho moved into central defence.
The Blues created a number of half-chances in the second period but despite registering 26 shots on goal, they never really looked like getting an equaliser and United were able to close the game out with relative ease.
The defeat was City’s ninth of the season in the league. The last time they finished outside the top four, in 2009/10, they only lost seven times in the whole season. If that statistic isn’t damning enough for you, here are a few more…
Manchester City have played five games in March. Their only goals have come against Aston Villa.
— Richard Jolly (@RichJolly) March 20, 2016
0 – Manchester City have won none of their 9 matches against the other teams in the current top six this season (D3 L6). Fail.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 20, 2016
@MCFC haver lost 17 of the last 18 games where they were losing at half time. There’s something very wrong with this team.
— Jonny Simpson-Bint (@jonnybint) March 20, 2016
Only Aston Villa have won fewer points (4) vs. the Premier League’s top 10 this season than Man City (9). pic.twitter.com/COoqW7fEVV
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 20, 2016
“The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result”
The above statement, which has been attributed to, amongst others, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain, has become something of a football cliché in recent years and is invariably trotted out whenever a manager is seemingly incapable of arresting his team’s decline.
A hackneyed concept though it may be, I can’t think of another set of words which sum up the last 18 months of Manuel Pellegrini’s tenure as perfectly as that one does.
There was a time I’d log on to Twitter to find out the team news an hour before kick-off and be dismayed to find swathes of City fans essentially writing the game off before it had even begun, purely because of the formation Pellegrini had opted for or certain players he’d picked.
However, slowly but surely, I began to realise that Pellegrini’s detractors were being proven right far, far more often than he was when it came to this kind of thing and when the fans are instantly able to spot problems in Pellegrini’s tactics and team selections before they even occur, you have to wonder whether the man himself is naïve, stubborn or just plain stupid (or all three).
When the team news came out at 3pm on Sunday I, like many others, worried immediately that City’s two-man midfield of Yaya Touré and Fernandinho would be overrun, as they are in almost every single match, leaving Eliaquim Mangala and Demichelis horribly exposed in central defence.
I also worried that Demichelis would struggle against the pace and exuberance of Marcus Rashford, especially if he found himself in a one-on-one situation with the youngster, and it therefore came as little surprise to me to see the only goal of the game come from that exact scenario. I’m not Nostradamus, but if I and many other City fans are able to so often foresee the problems that Pellegrini’s team selections create, then why on earth can’t he?
The Chilean’s mantra throughout his time at the club has always been something along the lines of “We just play our own game and don’t worry about the opposition.” When things were going well and City were scoring goals and winning games in Pellegrini’s first season, this seemed like an admirable statement of self-confidence, but his game-plan hasn’t been a successful one for a long time now and to keep persisting with it in the hope that it might start producing positive results again is, well, the definition of insanity.
Expecting to be able simply pick a team who will go out and win a game without giving any consideration to what your opponents might do is a criminal folly at this level and it seems, to the untrained eye at least, that that’s exactly how Pellegrini approaches pretty much every game.
What’s more, there seems to be an over-reliance on certain individuals to deliver the goods and a distinct lack of pragmatism or forward-planning from the manager. The system in place may not be enough to yield a sufficient number of chances, but hopefully Sergio Agüero will score an amazing solo goal, or Yaya Touré will bang one in from 25-yards, or if Demichelis inevitably gets skinned on the edge of his own box, Joe Hart will hopefully come to the rescue. If none of those things happen, we’re f*cked, basically. It’s not Pellegrini’s fault though, he’s only the manager after all.
One of the most frustrating things about the past month or so is that City put in two of their best performances of the season – away to Dynamo Kyiv and in the Capital One Cup final – with a three-man midfield consisting of Yaya Touré, Fernando and Fernandinho, the latter of whom doubled-up as a right-midfielder when his team attacked. It seemed Pellegrini had finally hit upon the perfect solution for his problematic midfield yet it hasn’t been deployed since that day at Wembley and it’s impossible to understand why. Has Pellegrini simply forgotten about it, or does he like losing?
On Sunday, City began the game with two in midfield and then, when Raheem Sterling came off injured, Fernando came on to make it a midfield three. Less than 30 minutes later, Wilfried Bony came on and City reverted to a midfield two again. If I didn’t know better, Manuel, I’d think you didn’t have the first clue what you were doing, mate.
Pellegrini asked why City’s points total is so low at this stage compared to other seasons. “Every season is different”.
— Rob (@RobPollard_) March 20, 2016
Is the looming shadow of Pep Guardiola partly to blame for City’s slump?
First and foremost, if you think City’s dreadful form over the past couple of months all came about because the club decided to announce that Pellegrini will be leaving his post at the end of the season mid-way through it, you are wrong (I’m mainly looking at you, Graeme Souness). City were poor last season and have been even worse this year, it’s as simple as that.
That said, I can’t help but wonder whether making the announcement with so much of this season left to go was the most sensible idea in the world. The players no longer seem to be giving their all for their sitting-duck manager and some of them perhaps feel there isn’t much point in doing so given they might not be at the club next season. Meanwhile, the manager seems to be phoning-in his last few months at the helm and it’s hard to really blame him for doing so.
If I were the chairman of a club looking to hire Pellegrini in the summer, I’d be having serious doubts about doing so after what’s gone on lately, but football doesn’t seem to work like that and you can bet he’ll have little trouble finding another job after this one. He’s added another trophy to his CV this season and he’ll be regarded by many as the nice man who did an okay job of minding the shop while Guardiola went to the Oktoberfest. Sure, sales plummeted and customers left in their droves, but at least he didn’t burn it down!
Perhaps keeping Pellegrini in the dark about his future might have meant he and his players would have been a bit more motivated going into the end of the season, but we’ll never know for sure. Sacking him now and giving the job to Brian Kidd until the end of the season suddenly doesn’t seem like such a terrible idea after all.
The worst thing is, I just don’t care
The Manchester derbies have always been the biggest games of the season for me, whatever the stakes. I’m usually a nervous wreck in the days leading up to them and every second of the game is sheer torture. Winning a derby is the best feeling in the world, while losing one makes you want the ground to open up and swallow you.
But this one was different. I didn’t feel nervous at all during the build-up to the game, nor during it, and when United scored, I actually laughed. Afterwards, I didn’t care that we’d lost the game, I was just glad it was over.
City’s future has never seemed brighter yet I’ve never felt so numb. The club seems to be losing touch with the supporters and two years of meek under-achievement under Pellegrini has been embarrassing to witness. I don’t care that we might finish outside the top four this season and I don’t care that we’ve made it to the quarter-final of the Champions League for the first time in our history because we’re obviously not good enough to win the competition, as Paris Saint Germain will no doubt prove when we play them in a couple of weeks.
I’m not being negative or pessimistic, I’m being realistic. City have gone backwards in the last couple of years and it’s inexcusable for a club with such vast resources. Next season cannot come soon enough.
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Written by Dan Burke