With Tottenham now basking in the warm glow of the utopian ‘Promised Land’ that is fourth spot, and with the post-match hyperbolic dust now firmly settled following last weeks ‘fourth place play-off’, it seems appropriate to consider Manchester City’s season and close-season prospects. In terms of last week’s fixture itself, City certainly squandered a great opportunity to firmly thrust themselves into the final Champions League spot with Spurs claiming an impressive and deserved victory.
However, on a more general level, how can we summarise City’s season; did this defeat symbolise a deeper season-long failure or, indeed, hint at signs of competitive progress.
Even as an Everton fan who has seen City ruthlessly fast-track themselves beyond our long-running concerted efforts, there is still a somewhat sadistic side to me which wanted to see Man City clinch fourth; watching on in voyeuristic horror (or jealousy) at just how powerful they could become in such a short space of time and how many world-class stars they could entice to the Eastlands.
It is reasonable to suggest that the most significant cost to Manchester City missing out on Champions League football is not financial incentives – there is hardly a scarcity in the City coffers – but rather pulling-power, that competitive edge. Thus, it seems they may have to wait a little longer to attract the Kaka-esque calibre of players.
However, this may not be such a bad thing. City have already made a couple of astute signings, particularly in the form of Adam Johnson, and this form of sustained growth with a firm focus on nurturing talent is perhaps more prudent than throwing millions at marquee names just for the sake of marquee names. Hence, the season’s lessons and eventual outcome should allow for a steadier maturing process and a building of team foundations rather than being thrown straight into the Champions League arena. Certainly, the side should only improve and one feels it won’t be too long until they reach those heights anyway. In the meantime, a Europa League run and more steady growth could be advantageous.
Nevertheless, the ambitious Sheikh Mansour et al certainly did want to see their outlay turned into Champion’s League football – with all the marketing and brand commoditisation potential this would engender – hence the rather hasty and harsh replacement of Mark Hughes in December. So does this suggest a season of failure and an uncertain future for Roberto Mancini?
Well, according to Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak, Mancini’s job was safe regardless of the outcome against Spurs and he stuck by this assertion following the defeat; ensuring Mancini during a relatively open interview on Manchester City’s official website that he had done a ‘excellent job’ and would continue to do so ‘for many years’.
However, Mancini’s bedside table should perhaps display a framed photo of the forlorn figure of Mark Hughes staring blankly into the abyss, a solitary tear adorning his cheek, just to ensure he doesn’t sleep too easy after Mubarak’s words of assurance. Indeed, it is largely understood Guus Hiddink was the first choice to replace Hughes and Mubarak did admit ‘fifth is not where we would have liked (to be)’ before stressing Mancini’s qualities and positive contributions. So, even if he is superficially safe for now, a bad – or mediocre – start to next season would likely see Roberto next for the guillotine.
Although fifth is not where they ‘would have liked’ it can’t be seen as a season of failure. As I’ve stated, it’s a good and possibly beneficial foundation to continue to grow. However, it is also a good position in its own terms. To jump from finishing tenth to finishing fifth in the Premier League is not easy, however much money you throw at it, and so it must represent competitive progress; particularly as they were still in the hunt for fourth at this late stage of the season, eclipsing their previous highest premiership points total and holding off challenges from the likes of Liverpool and Aston Villa. A League Cup final was also only just thwarted by their city rivals over two thrilling legs and, although it must leave a bitter a taste in the mouth, this can again be seen as signs of improvement and ‘closing the gap’ rather than ‘nearly men’ failure.
Changes are certainly needed, most notably in a defence which has looked fragile; shipping substantially more goals than Tottenham, Liverpool and Villa (who needs Richard Dunne anyway?). This is unquestionably the area which requires improvement and investment most. If this is addressed adequately then many of the pieces for continued and consistent success are there; talented youth, enviable attacking options, an experienced and meticulous manager and, of course, lots and lots of pretty green.
Keeping some of that old cliché ‘stability’, and thus keeping faith with Mancini (and, unfortunately, the seemingly ‘ever so suave’, but now increasingly unnecessary and irritating, scarf he refuses to dislodge from around his neck), is the best way forward having laid these foundations.
A season of substantial steps, which has been good if not spectacular (a B- school report), can shake away the circus surrounding Manchester City and leave an extremely strong side for years to come; sustained growth is key, don’t blow your load too early.
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