Monday August 30th, 2010

Ahsan Ali Syed's recent announcement that he planned to buy Blackburn Rovers was notable for two reasons. First, as he promised a transfer kitty of $150 million, he sounded a little like Dr. Evil holding the world to ransom for $1 million. It was a sum so disproportionately small for a club that, in his own words, wants to become a new Real Madrid, that it was hard to suppress a giggle.

Then there was the response of Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce to the news. It's difficult, he insisted, to spend that sort of money wisely: easy to splurge on a batch of players touted by the first plausible agent, but rather harder to construct a squad that will actually function.

The general reaction was to laugh off his comments and regard them as the self-justification of a manager whose job was about to get immensely easier -- and perhaps his statements were exactly that. But whether he meant it or not, Allardyce was right. Success in football these days is all but impossible without money. But as countless sides have proved, it's very possible to have money without success.

Nobody, of course, has more money these days than Manchester City, and that creates pressures and expectations. So far this season it remains a team, to use the most popular euphemisms, that is in transition and is struggling to jell. After a shaky start at Tottenham Hotspur when it was saved by Joe Hart, City recovered in the second half to stifle the game. The poor first-half passing had raised understandable questions about the wisdom of playing three holding midfielders, but it can take time to settle at the start of the season and in the end a 0-0 draw and a point at a Champions League side is creditable.

When City then beat Liverpool 3-0 at home, dominating possession, squeezing its opponent back and allowing the inverted wingers, James Milner and Adam Johnson, and the false nine, Carlos Tevez, to interchange with bewildering speed as Yaya Toure pushed on from the center, the doubts began to fade.

At Sunderland on Sunday, though, those questions re-emerged, and starkly, in City's 1-0 loss. Yes, City can point to Tevez's extraordinary first-half miss, when he spooned over an open goal, and the breathtaking reflex save Simon Mignolet made from substitute Emmanuel Adebayor. On another day City might have won, but Sunderland had much the better of the second half and while it lacked penetration, there was no sense the late penalty that led to the game-winning goal was in any way freakish. On the contrary, it was the culmination of a string of balls into the box that had already produced a half-chance for Danny Wellbeck.

It's true that Sunderland has historically had a fine home record -- only Chelsea, Aston Villa and Manchester United won there in the league last season -- and a draw would not have been a bad result. Neither does defeat rule City out of the title race. But there are a number of sides of roughly Sunderland's level in the Premier League, and if City plays against them all away from home as it played at the Stadium of Light, it will struggle even to finish in the top four.

What was most striking was how City in the second half suffered the same problems it had in the first at Tottenham. Unable to dominate possession -- against a central midfield three (Lee Cattermole, Steed Malbranque and the increasingly impressive Jordan Henderson) as opposed to the two Spurs and Liverpool had fielded -- City's front three became dislocated from the midfield. Toure is seemingly supposed to fill that space, but he is far from a natural playmaker and it's hard not to think that a club of the stature to which City aspires should have more finesse in central areas.

There are issues, though, beyond the tactical. If, as former Scotland striker Steve Archibald said, team spirit is an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory, those problems will be brought into sharper relief by an indifferent start to the season. Stephen Ireland's comments after his move from City to Aston Villa were perhaps colored by frustration at how he had lost his place in the side under Roberto Mancini, but they still spoke of wider truths. Ireland said he had worked hard in training, spent his afternoons in the gym. His form was as good, he believed, as it had been when he'd been a first-team regular, but he felt as if he was "banging my head against a brick wall." He looked at an expensively assembled squad and couldn't see how he would ever get back into the team.

As a player who had come through City's academy, he perhaps felt particular irritation, and spoke of the "high-profile" players who had usurped him, suspecting that they were being favored because their high price tags had to be justified. "Sitting on the bench, I didn't feel part of the team," Ireland said. "I was neither happy or sad if we lost."

If a player who had spent his entire career at the club could feel like that, then how must Emmanuel Adebayor, Wayne Bridge, Roque Santa Cruz or Shay Given feel? Why would they care when a club they joined in the last couple of years stops picking them? Given has a reputation as one of football's calmer, more amenable characters, but as soon as it became apparent he was going to be No. 2 behind Hart this season, he made it clear he wanted to leave. Most players in the same situation would do the same.

Most clubs have a core of, say, 16-18 first-team players who accept they will each play about 70 percent of games, with the squad supplemented by young players on the way up and old players on the way down. At City, though, there are probably 25 players who would see themselves in the category of first-team regular, which is impossible.

Many have been newly brought to the club and lack any sense of residual loyalty. The result can only be bruised egos and dissatisfaction, which is one of the few defenses football has against absolute domination by the rich. For Mancini, coping with that will be almost as important as bridging the divide between midfield and attack.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.