Thursday March 19th, 2015

Manchester City sits second in the Premier League table. Manchester United is in fourth. Neither is likely to win the title this season but both are in what looks to be a four-way scrap for the final three Champions League qualification places. For United in particular, finishing in the top four would probably mean this is regarded as having been a reasonable season. And yet such are the standards Manchester has set that, barring an extraordinary conclusion to the Premier League season, this will be the first season without any silverware for a Manchester club in a decade.

Manchester’s domination of English football, during an era in which the sense has been of success in football following major financial centers, has been remarkable. It’s true that London football is stronger now than it probably has ever been (it’s bewildering now to reflect that the league was in its 39th season before it had a champion from the capital, Arsenal finally lifting the title in 1931), and yet City and United have passed the Premier League between them for the last four years. Chelsea won it in 2009-10–when United beat Aston Villa to claim the League Cup–before which United won three in a row.

The season before that, Chelsea were champions and United beat Wigan in the League Cup final, taking us back to 2004-05 as the last year without Mancunian success, with Chelsea winning the Premier League and the League Cup as Arsenal beat United in the FA Cup final. This season, there hasn’t even been a cup final (unless you include the Community Shield, which City promptly lost to Arsenal 3-0). So what’s gone wrong? United, perhaps, can point to an on-going process of transition, but City’s defense of its title has been just as disappointing as it was in 2012-13.

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Both titles were won with a combination of brilliant football, skittishness and in the end, staying power as rivals fell away, and in both follow-up seasons, City has seemed strangely insipid, lacking appetite and desire. Only in November and December when it won nine and drew two of 11 games has City found any sort of consistency this season, the result of which is that a stuttering Chelsea retains a six-point lead with a game in hand.

Perhaps the pattern is not surprising: after all, these are largely the same players, which hints at the problems of recruitment City has had.

The spine is still Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero; seven of the team that was well-beaten 1-0 by Barcelona on Wednesday played in City’s first Champions League game in September 2011 (it would have been eight had Pablo Zabaleta not been suspended, and could have been nine had Edin Dzeko been selected).

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In that period, City has spent £327 million on players, but of the arrivals, only Fernandinho, signed from Shakhtar Donetsk for £30 million, has definitively improved the squad. A case could be made for Martin Demichelis, a £3.5 million stop-gap signing from Malaga who has made himself a first-team regular, but his presence only highlights the struggles of Eliaquim Mangala, bought from Porto for £32 million.

There are doubts, too, over the coach, Manuel Pellegrini, who insisted this week he does not fear for his future despite persistent rumors that the board is considering replacements (and it may be that with Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone all possibly available in 2016, City defers its decision). After the turbulence of Roberto Mancini’s reign, the calm he had projected has been a welcome change of tone, but two major doubts have emerged in recent weeks. Most obviously, there was Pellegrini’s decision to start the first leg of the Champions League tie against Barcelona with a 4-4-2, leaving James Milner and Fernando exposed in the center.

Barcelona took full advantage and it was only when Fernandinho came on to create a central midfield three that City fought its way back into the game. But more worrying is the growing sense that City’s players have stopped playing for Pellegrini.

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The lethargy of Toure and David Silva was perhaps most obvious against Liverpool, when Philippe Coutinho frolicked in wide expanses of space in front of the back four, but they aren’t the only two players culpable and that wasn’t the only game in which City has lacked urgency and intensity. There us a sense that a shake-up is needed in the summer, but whether that is a change of manager or playing personnel–in which City must beware Financial Fair Play regulations–remains to be seen. 

United’s has been a strange season, full of indifferent performances, and yet it has lost just twice in the league since November and in Sunday’s 3-0 win over Tottenham there was a real sense of a corner having been turned.

Van Gaal initially said it would take three weeks for his philosophy to be accepted, then adjusted that time frame to three months and now says his team cannot fully be judged until next season. That is probably realistic, particularly given the difficulties he has faced that have been beyond his control: the injury crisis of the early part of the season, Angel Di Maria’s loss of confidence after his house was burgled, the loss of form and fitness of two strikers until recently considered among the world’s best.

Recruitment has been an issue for United as well–too much spent on too many players who play in similar positions–but there is at least a vague sense of the confusion beginning to clear (although the clouds may come down again after a run of fixtures that sees the Red Devils play Liverpool, City and Chelsea in its next four games). For City, though, there is a sense of stagnation, and the bleak possibility that it could end up finishing behind United in this trophy-less season.

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