Barely two months ago, it looked like Manchester City would make us all look like giddy idiots for ordaining Chelsea league champions. The Citizens had closed the gap on José Mourinho’s men, and at one point were joint level on points. Since then, it has won only three of nine league matches, been dumped out of the FA Cup by Middlesborough, and now have one foot out of the Champions League thanks to a home loss to Barcelona. Without a semi-miraculous turn around at the Camp Nou on Wednesday, City’s season could effectively be over before the weekend.
After a hilarious and unceremonious exit from European competition last week, league leader Chelsea is as vulnerable as it has been all year. Saturday should have been City’s chance to get one more try at not royally fucking up its title defense. Instead, it went ahead and royally fucked up its title defense anyway, by losing to Championship-bound Burnley. As a result, the defending champion is now just a point ahead of perma-joke Arsenal, and two ahead of a Manchester United team that plumbs new depths of incompetence about twice a month. City played like a team whose players were done trying for the season, and who would rather be playing Call of Duty or whatever it is soccer players do in their spare time. That insipid excuse for a performance against Burnley was really the last bit of evidence for something that we should have known all along – Manchester City is a team in decline.
Both Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola – men who know a thing or two about building winning teams – have said that soccer teams typically have a cycle of about four years before they need to be rebuilt. Despite having two different managers over the course of the last four seasons, the spine of the City team that won the FA Cup in 2011 and the Premier League a year later is still largely intact. And therein lies the problem. With an average age of almost 29, City has the oldest squad in the league. Theirs is a squad built to win now, as few of the current players can be expected to improve in the coming years.
Damningly for Manuel Pellegrini – and even more so for City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain – this decline should have been expected. After all, the whole point of having a recruitment and team-building structure that extends beyond the manager is to avoid precisely these sorts of short-term dead ends. No amount of money or fancy new training centers can stop human beings from getting older, and the attempts to identify the right young players to take over from City’s old guard have largely ended in failure. None of Jack Rodwell, Scott Sinclair, Stevan Jovetić or Matija Nastasić worked out as planned, and the less said about Javi García and Fernando the better.
Sergio Agüero, when he’s not lying on the physio table, is as good a player as there is in England. As is David Silva, at least for the two-thirds of the season when he’s not out-of-sorts. Beyond that, the core of the City team needs replacing sooner rather than later. Yaya Touré can still waltz through any midfield on the planet on his day, but that day is much rarer. Now that Financial Fair Play is becoming a genuine hindrance to City’s ability to piss money away in the transfer market, the Ivorian may be an asset it needs to cash. In defense, Vincent Kompany is another who City may want to move on from while his reputation still outstrips his performances. Whisper it softly, but Martín Demichelis has been City’s best defender for at least a year, which by itself should be enough to set off alarm bells.
All of this is not to say that Pellegrini is completely off the hook for the mess the team is in because he’s not the one that assembled it. In light of the shambles that is this year’s English top flight, City has no excuse to not be challenging for the title, in spite of the squad’s shortcomings. Pellegrini’s tactical stubbornness and failure to motivate his charges have only highlighted the problems in his team. If City do decide to shake things up at the end of the season, don’t be surprised if they start with the man in the dugout.
Manuel Pellegrini is a fine manager, and a fine man. By all accounts, he is still well-liked and highly respected by those in charge at the Etihad – a far cry from the acrimonious final days of Roberto Mancini’s tenure. But it’s important to remember that Pellegrini was never the first choice of the City leadership. After the hirings of Begiristain and Ferran Soriano from Barcelona, as director of football and chief executive officer, respectively, the intent for City’s next managerial appointment was clear. The attempt to seduce Pep Guardiola into replacing Mancini at City couldn’t have been more transparent if Sheikh Mansour bought Guardiola’s favorite cardigan shop and moved it to Trafford Centre.
With a year and change still remaining on his contract, it’s unlikely that Guardiola can be tempted away from Munich this summer. He will almost certainly win the Champions League within the next two years, after which he could well seek a new challenge. The question is whether City feels that it can wait that long. Under the squeeze of new financial constraints, City cannot afford to stagnate for any extended period. The Blues only need to look at the eye-watering sums spent by their city rivals to see what it costs to rejuvenate a decaying squad these days. If Pellegrini is no longer the man to take them forward, waiting around to see whether Pep wants the job could be costly. City will be better off hitting the reset button this summer, before it finds itself in hole too deep to buy its way out of.