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Man City pays price for poor attitude
There have been two competing impulses in Manchester City this season.
On the one hand it scraps, battling on from poor starts to games to salvage draws and wins; individuals – Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko in particular – have repeatedly dragged it out of difficulty, demonstrating a refusal to yield what has led many to speak of the great spirit at the club.
But on the other, it plays with little semblance of tactical coherence, repeatedly let down by individuals who fail to take responsibility. The commitment of perhaps half a dozen players, in other words, frequently masks the pouting and blustering of the rest.
Given that, after an abject defeat at Arsenal last season, City found itself eight points behind Manchester United with six games to play but still came back to win the league, it would be unwise to declare the title race over now. United’s lead stands at six points but there are still 22 games to play, and there were clear positives for City in Sunday’s 3-2 defeat to United, not least the way it fought back from 2-0 down to level with three minutes remaining.
But the question must be why City keeps finding itself in positions from which it must fight back. In part, on Sunday, of course, it was down to United’s excellence on the break, but there have already been 11 games this season – seven in the Premier League – in which City has had to fight back from behind to either draw or win games.
It remains a mystery what Joleon Lescott has done wrong. Last season he and Vincent Kompany formed what was probably the best central defensive partnership in the league, but this season he has started just seven games. Roberto Mancini has brought in Matija Nastasic, seemingly in the belief that he will improve City’s passing from the back – and the stats do show a slight improvement - but at the cost of solidity. It’s no coincidence that Kompany hasn’t looked at his best this season, or that just more than half of all the goals City has let in have come from set-plays. Even more baffling was that when Kompany was forced off with a groin injury, he was replaced not by Lescott but by Kolo Toure. The logic presumably was that Lescott is better on the left of the pairing rather than the right, but even on the wrong side he would surely be a more secure option than the perennially jittery Toure.
Then there is the issue of width, which has dogged City all season. Mancini, as is the Italian way, likes to pack the center of the pitch and that can leave his team short in wide areas. Given the number of gifted technicians City has in central areas, that’s not a huge problem going forward, but the games against Real Madrid showed how vulnerable it can be to attacking full-backs. David Silva was probably City’s most creative player on Sunday, but it was his failure to pick up the run of Rafael that allowed the Brazilian right-back to cross for Wayne Rooney to notch the second.
The biggest issue, though, is probably the hardest to define. It’s a question of attitude, a lack of what Brian Clough called “moral courage”; that willingness to take action when required, to make bold decisions, to stay calm under pressure, to risk physical pain for the team. It was seen most obviously in Samir Nasri, backing away from Robin van Persie’s late free-kick, almost cowering behind Edin Dzeko in the wall, and wagging an ineffectual leg that ended up wrong-footing Joe Hart. If teammates accused him of cowardice they could hardly be blamed. “In the wall if you put the face, you should put the face,” as Mancini put it, enigmatically but with feeling.
That lack of team ethic was apparent also in Mario Balotelli’s reaction to being substituted, storming off down the tunnel rather than taking his place on the bench to offer at least a visual symbol of support and unity. The Italian had actually begun the game quite well, and much of the criticism of him has been over the top, based largely in what an easy target he makes himself. But by the time a stony-faced Mancini withdrew him, having been nudged into action by a needless and extravagant attempted backheel, Balotelli had long since lapsed into sulky self-indulgence.
The arrival of Carlos Tevez, who for all his other flaws is faultless in his on-pitch commitment, shifted the momentum of the game in City’s favor. Given that Tevez and Aguero forged a fine understanding playing together at youth level for Argentina, they won Olympic gold together in Beijing in 2008 and City has won all 12 Premier League games they have started together, it’s another of Mancini’s odd caprices that he seems not to see them as his first choice.
“I love Mario,” Mancini said, “but he can’t continue to play like today. When a player has his quality you can’t understand that he would throw it out of the window.” His patience, perhaps, is wearing thin – as it did after that Arsenal game last season. But it’s not just Balotelli; there is a dangerous laxity about half this City team.
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