Manchester City returned to form on Boxing Day, running over a feeble Sunderland side at The Etihad. It may have already been accepted that Manuel Pellegrini will be pushed aside to make room for Pep Guardiola at season’s end, but it was still a win that the Chilean needed. City’s future might have been pre-determined, but they still retain short-term ambitions in both the Premier League and Europe.
So if Pellegrini is to depart with a flourish – or a middle-finger – then he needs to start regathering the momentum which was lost to Arsenal prior to Christmas and, meagre opponent though Sunderland were, it was the conclusive win which the club needed.
The Arsenal game was strange. City were periodically excellent and managed to book-end an underwhelming hour with two fifteen-minute periods which showed them to be the superior team. Had Kevin De Bruyne not dragged a good opportunity wide in the opening quarter and had their late, Yaya Toure-led renaissance begun ten minutes earlier, they might well have taken a point away from North London.
But if the pattern of that game was slightly irregular, then the response to it in certain places was irritatingly familiar. As is so often the case with Manchester City’s defeats, it was concluded that this was about character, team-spirit and all those other elusive intangibles which betray super wealthy clubs for the soulless enterprises which they so obviously are. City lost because – pause for breath – they played like individuals rather than as a team.
Chime as that explanation does with many of the assumptions about rich-club life, it’s inconveniently empty – it’s nonsense.
City were flawed at The Emirates. The defensive vulnerability which has afflicted them during Vincent Kompany’s absence made an unwelcome reappearance and their midfield was fatally porous. Arsenal are a good side who are in the throes of an attacking purple-patch and this was a fixture which came at exactly the wrong time for Pellegrini. Beating Arsene Wenger’s side away from home typically requires a balance of rigidity, discipline and expression and City boarded the train to the capital with only one of those things.
Yet, brief explanation though that might be, it’s still wholly more convincing than the “individuals” theory with which certain clubs of City’s stature continue to be flogged.
The football world has changed. Certain sides may now be fuelled by unimaginable resources, but the Premier League’s member clubs are each reflective of this decadent era. Millionaire players pocketing wages in the high five figures reside in every corner of the division and, while there may still be a visible disparity, the age of the haves and have nots is coming to an end.
That makes for a better competition, as evidenced by the rise of Leicester City and the increasingly competitive seasons being enjoyed by Bournemouth and Watford, but it also demands a reworking of some of the established cliches. Norwich’s recent win at Manchester United was surprising without being much of a shock and Liverpool’s pre-Christmas humbling at Vicarage Road wasn’t even slightly fortuitous; those results weren’t a 2015/16 anomaly, but a symptom of the comparative levelling of the competitive balance. These teams might not be stocked with an army of £20m players, but they are hardly cobbled together in the way that also-rans once were.
But, just as giant-killings are an outmoded Premier League concept, so too is the notion that the super wealthy can only fail because of a lack of application.
It’s a troubling accusation because it’s so very selective. At the beginning of their current eras, Manchester City may only have been able to attract a certain type of player. Without Champions League football or a realistic chance to win a championship, footballers may have assuaged their ambitions with the size of their pay-cheques and may – possibly – have played only for themselves. But those times are gone – or, at least, the point at which that kind of player could only be found at that sort of club is gone.
Manchester City are not a special case anymore. Their players may be wealthier than the average and may have an extra sportscar in their garages, but top-level football is now an affluent fantasy land in which teams up and down the league are all vulnerable to the ills of entitlement. The Sunderland side who lost at The Etihad two days ago were appalling inept, they played like a group of individuals. Some of Swansea’s performances between August and December exhibited no sign of cohesion whatsoever and yet they too are spared the sneery superiority reserved only for the nouveau riche.
It’s lazy criticism – and, worse, it seems only to be used either as a weapon of jealousy or as a means of explaining defeat without having to understand it. There have been cases in past when players have noticeably disengaged from their duties, but those examples are fairly rare and so to keep attacking entire squads with such reflexive – and derisory – analysis seems increasingly hollow. Carlos Tevez famously put himself ahead of his teammates in the middle of a season and, on occasion, Edin Dzeko’s focus may have been questionable, but there have been very few instances in which a Manchester City player – let alone the entire side – has exhibited the sort of disinterest which is so commonly assumed to pulse through the club.
Their players perform badly, their current manager is tactically quite limited, and their recruitment over the past five years has been flawed. Those are real problems and fair criticisms – and they are each more pertinent than the millionaires’ ennui theory which is so regularly deployed and yet so contextually redundant.
“You wouldn’t catch our players performing like that, they only earn a couple of million a year.”