BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
Manchester is the final destination in the Premier League previews on Fan Fuel. First up – Manchester City who will hope for a successful season under the different approach of new manager Manuel Pelligrini.
Roberto Mancini’s last season in charge at the Etihad Stadium was riddled with conflict on several fronts, alienating the players in the dressing room and disagreeing with senior figures on the board especially in regards to transfers. The shenanigans of last summer have been rectified as Manuel Pellegrini’s arrival has been backed by decisive moves to bolster the playing squad.
Fans and pundits alike are looking forward to seeing City in a new guise this season. Pellegrini will select the right players to gel with a more fluid approach on the pitch, and as far as tactical acumen is concerned, he certainly is an upgrade on his predecessor. There is optimism about the blue moon rising again this season, though I am not certain that the new signings are of the very best calibre that City should be aiming for. Pellegrini comes with a glowing reputation, but has yet to win a domestic league campaign in Europe, and despite the positivity around City’s prospects at the current moment, it could be that City’s improvement this season might be on the continent rather than on the home front.
On defence: After a great season during City’s title winning campaign, Joe Hart made too many errors in the last campaign. It’s a safe bet to say if Hart wasn’t a media darling, there would be greater scrutiny of his performances. It’s a harsh fact of life for goalkeepers that they are often defined by their errors, and Hart will look to cut down on them this season. Pelligrini will not hesitate to drop Hart if he doesn’t maintain high standards. Costel Pantilimon will be waiting in the wings for his chance, and the Romanian isn’t necessarily a downgrade on England’s number one, as he is solid when dealing with crosses, and adept at shot-stopping as well.
Matija Nastasic was City’s sole success in the transfer market last season. Arriving at the Etihad only aged 19 the Serb equipped himself really well in the Premier League, forming an outstanding partnership with captain Vincent Kompany. Nastasic will miss the start of City’s season after suffering an injury in pre-season, so Kompany will be reunited with Joleon Lescott in central defence. Kompany is the inspirational leader of the team, and the Belgian will be the first to admit he didn’t have a great season by his exceptional standards. Amongst the centre-backs in today’s game Kompany is probably the best timer of tackles in the box, though he can be unfairly penalised for them at times. He also keeps things ticking from the back with his comfortable movement and passing. Lescott was frozen out for large swathes of last season, and there will certainly be a period of adjustment after not playing next to his captain for almost a year. Pellegrini has been linked with a move for Real Madrid’s Pepe to add more cover to the centre-back position. If that fails, the Chilean manager won’t hesitate to express his tactical nous by playing Yaya Toure at the back if need be, at least until Nastasic returns.
City don’t necessarily possess the same quality in fullbacks as some of their rivals. Gael Clichy has cut down on the errors that were frequent during his later years at Arsenal, but unbelievably still cedes possession with some of the worst throw-ins seen in the league. Clichy’s tendency to get lost further up the field is still a significant weakness and Pelligrini will not have much time for any player who doesn’t take his positional responsibilities seriously. Unfortunately Alexander Koralov isn’t a better option either, so unless there is a late addition in the transfer window, Pellegrini could play Gareth Barry in a position he was adept at during his younger days.
On the opposite flank, Pablo Zabaleta was probably the Citizen’s best player last season. Zabaleta is full-blooded in his commitment and possesses an engine that simply doesn’t stop. Excellent defensively due to his diligent tracking and superb tackling ability, Zabaleta contributes to the attack with his ability to retain possession and untracked runs into the box culminating in goals. Micah Richards faces a battle to get back into the first team, and at the age of 25, the former youth product will have to get his act together to succeed under Pelligrini.
The midfield: The combination of Yaya Toure and new signing Fernandinho has the potential to be a great midfield partnership in the Premier League. The Ivorian, who had a pivotal role in City’s title winning campaign, wasn’t at his best last season, often suffering physically and not showing the commitment levels that made him a star in 2012. The arrival of Fernandinho can reduce the burden on Toure. When Toure moves forward, he can rest easy knowing Fernandinho is covering behind him and vice versa. The only potential downside to the pairing is that at times they might be too similar, resulting in an adverse effect on the attack when City need to chase games.
Good movement on and off the ball in midfield is paramount to Pelligrini, and hence it wouldn’t be a surprise if James Milner featured more often this season. Milner has a good engine on him, and the manager will also appreciate his technical ability in midfield. Meanwhile Gareth Barry and Javi Garcia’s static movement and sideways passing will not convince Pelligrini too easily, and the duo didn’t play much during pre-season as a result. Barry’s experience in the Premier League means that he will inevitably play a role at some point, but Garcia’s prognosis is unclear. If Jack Rodwell can overcome his injury problems, he is the type of midfielder that will get the opportunities to prove himself under the astute manager.
The key attacking presence in City’s midfield is David Silva. When Silva is on the ball it’s hard for fans not to get mesmerized by his grace and fluent movement. With a wand of a left foot allied with exceptional close control, Silva can go past defenders in a blink of an eye and thread the most exquisite passes. However, one qualm with the Spanish magician is that he can go through streaks of matches where he completely goes off the boil. If Pellegrini can inspire Silva to maintain consistency throughout the campaign, then City will certainly be involved in the chase for honours at the business end of the season.
On the attack: Sergio Aguero’s absence for most of the season was a huge factor in City’s poor title defence. Aguero was an instant success in the Premier League, and the Argentine would certainly have added more goals to City’s poor league total if he was fit for the duration of the season. As long as he stays fit, Aguero will have a decisive say in the Citizen’s season. After being marginalized last season, Edin Dzeko has been given a new lease of life at the Etihad under Pellegrini. Dzeko allies the traditional strengths of a big forward with excellent link up play and vision, and the manager certainly appreciates his all-round footballing capability. If the Bosnian can prosper in front of goal, it will ensure that City have different scoring options in the box.
Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic have been bought in at considerable cost. Pellegrini knows the Spanish forward’s game well from his time in Spain. Negredo has impressed in pre-season with his physicality and his finishing, and could either play as a direct replacement for Aguero or even in tandem with the Argentinean. The acquisition of the former Sevilla man gives Pellegrini greater tactical flexibility up front, with Negredo’s penchant for finishing through balls especially handy on the break and counter attacks. While there are doubts whether Negredo can perform in the big games, Jovetic is the forward who adds sufficient quality in the final third. The Montenegrin can perform a variety of roles up front, is excellent at finishing moves with a killer instinct in front of goal, and is also great in setting up opportunities for his teammates in the box. If Jovetic clicks, he could end up being City’s best signing since Aguero arrived at the club in 2011.
Jesus Navas’ arrival provides City with a genuine wide option. The winger has played on the biggest stage for Spain, although he wasn’t consistent during the last La Liga campaign for Sevilla. Navas has pace to burn and has the advantage of a good understanding with Negredo, and hence will be expected to contribute. The closest City have to another wide option is Samir Nasri, who ends up drifting inwards most of the time anyway. Nasri certainly has shown he can perform, and when on song he is a credible attacking threat. However, the Frenchman isn’t always switched on, and tends to sulk when things aren’t going his way on the field. Pellegrini will also not appreciate Nasri shying away from responsibility in big games, and if the playmaker doesn’t step up, Pelligrini won’t hesitate to banish him to the sidelines. If Pelligrini feels a need to incorporate width, he can also play the versatile Milner on the right, doubling up with Zabaleta. Scott Sinclair is surplus to requirements and will probably be loaned out before the transfer window closes.
Conclusion: Manchester City’s prospects for the new season are certainly brighter than a year ago. City have spent the budget of title winners in the offseason. The owners from Abu Dhabi have invested in the squad, and significantly, all the new signings were made keeping Manuel Pellegrini’s approach in mind.
The Etihad will be host to some beautiful flowing football under Pellegrini. The Citizens can also be assured of a more relaxed dressing room under their calm manager. There will be the inevitable boost from the new signings ensuring a good start to the season, and despite Pellegrini’s lack of league success, City should be involved at the top of the table come the end of the season.