For Manchester City, there were worrying signs in Monday’s 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace. Ostensibly, the Premier League champion was unlucky. It had 69% possession and 22 shots to Palace’s five. It hit the post and should have had a penalty. Palace’s first goal was probably a fraction offside. Fundamentally, though, City lost because it was lazy–and it is that, more than anything else, that raises doubts about the future of Manuel Pellegrini. Defeat to United in the Manchester derby on Sunday would magnify them perhaps to a breaking point.
Palace always looked to have more edge than City: it was tougher, more decisive, more determined, more ruthless. City controlled the ball, passed it about neatly, but until Frank Lampard came on after 66 minutes, it lacked urgency in forward areas and was culpably sloppy at the back. Regardless of whether Scott Dann was offside in the build-up to the opening goal is less relevant than the fact that City had three chances to cut off the attack before Glenn Murray poked the ball over the line, and took none of them.
Similarly the second goal resulted from a free kick awarded after a needless foul from Fernandinho, who apparently chopped Murray down largely because he was frustrated with the ease with which the forward had been allowed to run away from Martin Demichelis and David Silva.
Of course, it can happen. Sometimes, for whatever reason, things just don’t click. And on a run like that, a goal that looks offside–although replays subsequently showed Murray’s opener to be borderline in real time, it felt offside, which explains why City felt quite so aggrieved–becomes hugely destabilizing. A sharper, more confident City would have shaken off the setback and might already have been 2-0 up.
But this is a sluggish and vulnerable City, one that lets itself be destabilized, one that has won only four of its last 14 games in all competitions.
Who is to blame is less clear. In Roberto Mancini’s final season, City showed many of the same flaws, as though its hunger had gone having won the Premier League title the previous season. The side now is very little different to the side then–an indication of the failures of recruitment–and that same sense of weariness has returned under a different manager following a Premier League-winning season.
Pellegrini, it seems, has lost the capacity to motivate a bunch of players who seem to lose their motivation very easily. The sense of staleness is not his fault: of the players brought in over the past four seasons at a cost of £327 million, only Fernandinho and Demichelis have really established themselves. But perhaps there’s more he could have done.
The persistence with 4-4-2 is baffling given the loss of form of Edin Dzeko, who has scored only twice in his last 22 games. Given the squad includes Yaya Toure, Fernandinho, Fernando, Frank Lampard and James Milner, was there never a case for playing 4-3-3? Might a slight change of role not have sparked new life into Silva, Jesus Navas or Samir Nasri? Or even coaxed Stevan Jovetic, the forgotten man, into life?
Blame Pellegrini, or blame the players? The correct answer is probably both and when that is the case, clubs understandably tend to get rid of the manager as the cheaper and easier option. The word out of City at the moment, though, is that Pellegrini’s position is not in doubt. Pellegrini himself insists that he doesn’t feel under any pressure. Then again, that was how it was with Mancini as well, before he was dumped shortly after a lethargic performance in the FA Cup final against Wigan. A City collapse might force Pellegrini out.
The suggestion is that City would rather not make a change this summer because of which potential replacements the club would target and when they would be available. Pep Guardiola is understood to be the preferred choice of CEO Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain, who worked with him at Barcelona, but he has made clear he intends to see out his contract at Bayern Munich, which expires in the summer of 2016.
Jurgen Klopp’s struggles at Borussia Dortmund this season may accelerate his departure, but again 2016 seems more likely. Diego Simeone has just signed a new contract at Atletico Madrid, and his style of football may not be a fit anyway. Carlo Ancelotti, should he leave Real Madrid, may be an option.
But there must also be a recognition that this is a squad that has twice failed a manager. No squad in the Premier League has a greater average age. It needs renewing and refreshing and that may save Pellegrini. He is, after all, 61. It may be that he ends up being given one more season, almost as a caretaker to oversee the reconstruction of the squad before a younger manager comes in next June. But if he is even to be given that chance, he has to stop the sense of irrevocable decay.