Manchester City have been quite a mystery this season. While at times their attacking play has mesmerized the opposition and spectators alike, at other times, especially on the road, they have been considerably lacklustre. With the tag of one of the most expensive teams to have ever fielded on the pitch, the expectations have been sky high for the last couple of seasons. The appointment of a far more subdued but tactically genius coach in the form of Manuel Pellegrini appears to have signalled the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle. Debojyoti Chakraborty takes you with him on a journey to explore the club under its latest manager  


Manuel Engineer Pellegrini
Manuel Engineer Pellegrini

Manchester City’s season so far has been a story of two teams. One team plays at home, where they have won everything except one UEFA Champions League group stage match against, well, the reigning champions (and arguably the best European club team currently) Bayern Munich. But their amazing form goes for a nosedive when they travel. In the English Premier League, they have lost four times out of 6 matches – they have been beaten even by the bottom-most team in the league table, Sunderland. While they have racked up all possible 18 points from six home matches so far in the league, their tally of 4 points from six away matches is better than only 4 teams in the competition. Let us try to see what the reason behind this stark contrast is.

Jesús Navas flying high
Jesús Navas flying high

Last year, Manchester City suffered a lot, especially in Europe, from lack of width. They did not have any natural winger and things were worsened by Roberto Mancini’s apathy towards Samir Nasri. It seems both of these are problems of the past. Jesús Navas may not have been the most talked about coup during the summer, but he certainly has added a new dimension to City’s attacking threat down the flank with his directness. A rejuvenated Samir Nasri is a treat to watch. Deployed mostly as an inverted winger / inside left player who would cut inside at his will – a role he made his own in Arsenal – Nasri has so far the most number of assists for Manchester City in Champions League. With David Silva soon returning from injury, it will be an intricate decision for Pellegrini to slot him back in the team which looks well settled now. This is going to be interesting as Silva, along with Yaya Touré, have been the foundation based on which the success of City is built.

At home, Pellegrini is quite comfortable fielding a very attacking 4-4-2. Sergio Agüero generally plays slightly off the line and his movement into pockets is a nightmare for defenders. He is ably supported by the strong and burly Álvaro Negredo. However, the fluidity in the system and growing understanding between the striking duo has allowed Pellegrini to alter their roles with smooth transition, both between and within matches. Central midfield is shepherded by Yaya Touré with licence to venture forward at every possible opportunity. He is partnered more often than not by the box-to-box midfielder Fernandinho in preference to Javi Gracia who feels at home in a more conservative anchorman role. When defending, Negredo generally slots back to make the centre of the park more compact. This paves way for the speedy Agüero to remain the furthest forward and be the focal point of any counter-attack.

City at home - emphasis on attack
City at home – emphasis on attack

But surprisingly, even with such plethora of attacking options available, off late, Manchester City are adopting a defensive strategy while playing away from home. Their problem started with the fact that neither of their central midfielders are out-and-out blockers or anchormen. Hence teams having three in the middle can easily overrun them and expose City’s fragile backline (more on that later). To address this issue, Pellegrini has looked to shift to a more compact 4-2-3-1 system – crowding the midfield with an additional holding midfielder in expense of a frontman. While the holding midfielder, usually Garcia, ensures that City retains possession much better and dominates the passing owing to an extra man in the midfield, it becomes easier for the opposition defenders to mark one frontman instead of two. The partnership with Negredo allows Agüero to interchange positions and drift into dangerous area inside the opponent back-line, but playing as a sole striker he has to look for attacking midfielders to join him from the deep, often providing time for defenders to regroup and cut down all the angles. This certainly makes a difference.

City away – indecisive
City away – indecisive

Manchester City have been struggling to stretch the game wide in away games. This is no coincidence that Navas has had more than 45 minutes of field time only once in away matches so far. Pellegrini has been opting for a congested middle third where the midfielders would provide through balls from central areas, keeping their shape intact. So the blueprint for defending teams has been to deny any space in the middle and force the play out wide. With City lacking in any natural width from the attacking players, this augments well for the opposition.

Let us look at the following numbers to understand their attacking problems on road.



Per Match


Per Match

Shots on target

Per Match




















Attacking record

City are League’s top scorer with 34 goals but their scoring rate drops alarmingly (a difference of three goals on an average) when they travel. As discussed earlier in the piece, home teams are forcing them to play wider which is vindicated by high number of crosses in away matches. But lack of a true winger is hurting them. There is clear indication that number of clear cut opportunities is far less in away matches – shots on target are 60% lower and the most striking aspect of them all, conversion rates are 50% of that in home matches. Simply put, open chances are not being created, forcing to shoot from less obvious positions and those are very seldom getting converted. At home, City enjoys far better outcomes. For instance, in the last match against Tottenham Hotspurs, City had only three attempts on target in the second half. And all of them were turned into goals – attributed to their precise positional play which led to those clear cut chances.

Worrying for Hart, City & England
Worrying for Hart, City & England

Defence has been an area of concern for Manchester City. With emphasis on attack, the defensive unit has been unable to cope with less number of holding midfielders supporting them. To be honest, too much tinkering has not helped either – so much so that the entire defensive unit of five (back four plus goalkeeper) had been changed after the loss against Chelsea. Pablo Zabaleta has been the only constant feature for City at the right-back position and his partnership with Navas is flourishing day by day. On the other side, it has been a toss-up between Gaël Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov – but neither of them has looked convincing while defending. The injury of Vincent Kompany has meant he has been able to start only four matches this season. His absence has been a crucial one as City have not been able to field the same centre-half pairing in two consecutive matches in his absence. Joleon Lescott has gone down the pecking order, Matija Nastasić is too young to take up the leadership role at the heart of defence, and Martin Demichelis, 33, is still finding his feet at the Sky Blues and may at best be termed as patchy, so far. The problem has been so severe that Javi Garcia had to start as a makeshift centre-back in more than one occasion. But the biggest problem has been the form of Joe Hart. Last year, he was regarded as the best shot-stopper in the League. But his free fall in form – which includes this howler against Chelsea – has forced Pellegirini to bench him in recent matches. This is not an ideal situation for England’s ‘number one’ in the backdrop of the World Cup 2014. This is far from comfortable for the club as well, where Hart, in spite of being only 26, is one of the senior players and an inspirational one at that.

Let us look at how Manchester City is faring home and away as a defensive unit through some numbers.


Goal Against

Per Match

Clean Sheet


Per Match


Per Match



















Defensive record

Well, nothing to explain really. Number of goals conceded has been far too many, only one clean sheet kept in 6 matches; blocks and clearances have gone down too – constant tinkering with the defensive personnel has cost Manchester City dearly in away matches.

To be fair to Pellegrini, it is not only his tactics which has led to a dismal result away from home. At Etihad stadium, the same team looks more charged up, more passionate, more hard-working. The entire team, right from the defence to the frontman, starts pressing the opponent at every inch. The home supporters believe that the home ground is a fortress, and rightly so. If only they can translate the same killer instinct during travel, Manchester City would be looking forward to a terrific season.

English Premier League 2013-14: Season Preview

EPL 2013-14 season is all set to roll. The top three clubs from last season are starting with a new coach. Debojyoti Chakraborty takes a sneak peek and explores the possibilities

Any EPL preview this season would bring David Moyes in the limelight. Essentially for two reasons: the man he is replacing and that his future will pave the way to determining how young and aspiring British managers are to be promoted in the coming years.

Not everyone is expecting him to deliver right away and the cynics would be boosted by his lacklustre performance (statements) during the ongoing transfer window. Moyes has a couple of problems already with the ongoing Wayne Rooney saga and lack of quality wingers leading the chart. He has a six-year contract and one would assume the men in charge in The Red Devils‘ camp would give him a fair go. It would be interesting to see whether Moyes retains United’s wing play in a 4-4-2 style or uses his own more direct attack-through-outlets style of 4-4-1-1. That said, the Old Trafford faithful would still like to see another success. But they might have to settle for a podium finish, in more realistic terms.


The Special One returns as The Happy One. He has a settled squad, with a plethora of talent at his disposal, especially in the attacking midfield option. The man credited with the advancement of the 4-2-3-1 system, will however have to decide whether to start with the misfiring Fernando Torres or the misfit Demba Ba, or groom Romelu Lukaku should he fail to bring in any marquee striker before the transfer window closes. This season could be the most competitive of them all at the top of the table, and José Mourinho’s been-there-done-that experience might just win him the race.

Manuel Pellegrini is the latest occupant of the revolving chair of hot seats at Manchester City. He is not as collaborated as his predecessor – but for a season at the Santiago Bernabéu – but brings with him a brand of football that made Malaga a European darling last year. A tactical genius; be rest assured to see him experiment a lot with tinkering formations, even through the course of a match. Pellegrini would dearly like to take a dig at his old friend who replaced him at Real Madrid.

Gareth Bale’s supposed valuation of £100 mn has irked quite a few, pointing out how it has made a mockery of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play. Things can go down to the wire and it seems more and more likely that Bale would be staying at White Hart Lane. With the added steel of Paulinho in the midfield and a clinical finisher in the form of Roberto Soldado, André Villas-Boas would have every reason to believe Tottenham Hotspurs can definitely finish in the top four.

The old story continues at the Emirates. Arsene Wenger does not feel the price tags associated with his potential targets are justified. While clubs finishing above and below Arsenal have been strengthened, Arsenal have been in a state of self-denial. The likes of Gonzalo Higuaín are captured by Napoli and others amidst The Gunners’ speculation. It is very much likely that the pride or self-satisfaction of finishing in the top four will no longer be there, come end of the season.

The Swans are flying high and there seems to be no stopping them. With the acquisition of a proven frontman, Wilfried Bony from Eredivisie and retaining all their core players, Swansea look set for another fine season. Michael Laudrup has added depth to the squad considering they would have extra games to take care of in Europe. And their European participation seems set to continue.

Newcastle’s fifth-place finish in the year before raised the expectations last season and that is why their lowly standing surprised many. People will be wrong again to bank on their past showing and underestimate them. While they did remarkably well in the Europa League – taking out Guus Hiddink’s expensive Anzhi Makhachkala en route – the extra games cost Newcastle dearly. Lesser games this time and a mouth-watering strike force up front in the form of Papiss Cisse, Loic Remy and Bafetimbi Gomis could propel them to another European crack.

The European aspirations can take a back seat as The Toffees look to enter a new era under Roberto Martínez. Martínez likes to experiment with tactics and strategy and we may see quite a few new things tried out at Everton with 3-4-3 being the obvious. A very capable custodian, he should aim for a top half finish as opposed to the survival scrap he was so used to at Wigan.

Liverpool could not have expected a worse start to their campaign. And they are yet to play their first competitive game this season. Want-away striker Luiz Suarez seems their only hope of climbing up the chart, and this is not a good omen for them. A mid-table finish looms large, but a bottom-half standing would be a disaster.

Southampton are perhaps the best team in the league to deploy a 4-2-3-1 counter-attacking system in place with perfection. They would like to consolidate their grand entry to the Premier League last season and hang on to a top 10 finish.

Norwich City will also push hard for a top of the table finish after acquiring two new strikers – Gary Hooper from Celtic and Ricky van Wolfswinkel from Sporting Lisbon. With an already solid defence, they might just upset a few bigger clubs this time round. But if they do well, Norwich might actually lose at least one of the new strikers in the winter transfer window.

West Ham, Fulham and West Bromwich Albion are perfect mediocre sides. They never look like relegation candidates; no one has ever accused them of hunting like champions. They appear to be content at the relaxing mid-table life.

Aston Villa are too much dependent on Christian Benteke. They would do well to avoid a lower mid-table finish.

Sunderland and Stoke are running a risk this season and may find themselves again in the relegation dogfight.

Cardiff City marks their debut in the Premier League after a 51-year absence from the topflight of English football. They should enjoy whilst it lasts.

Crystal Palace is yet to survive a season in the topflight. That too after having a record 49 points in a season (1992-93) and having three teams below them in another (1994-95), when the top division was trimmed down to 20 clubs. Not something to draw inspiration from.

Hull City will fight for sure, after all they are a Steve Bruce side. But that may not be enough.

Among other things, this will be a landmark season in English football as Hawk-Eye will be used as goal-line technology. Let us hope it helps in better decision-making without slowing down the beautiful game too much.

Before I depart, a few words about a true romantic hero who has lived the ragged-to-riches story on the footballing ground. Rickie Lambert neither had the glamour of a Michael Owen, nor was he earmarked for great success like that of a Wayne Rooney. But boy, has he put in the hard hours! Rising through the ranks of lower division football leagues for 12 years, sometimes playing in front of empty stands (if there were any), he netted 15 goals in EPL last season to become the top-scoring Englishman. To round off his Cinderellesque story, earlier this month Lambert got called into Roy Hodgson’s squad, interestingly on the same day his wife gave birth to their third child, and went on to mark his England debut with a winning goal in a thrilling 3-2 victory over Scotland at Wembley. Upon being asked what the goal meant to him, Lambert said: “That’s what I’ve been dreaming of probably all my life. It means so much.” We, at Goalden Times, salute his sheer will to succeed. May he continue to rise to the occasion and do football proud.