Man City must cure away form to avoid famous Newcastle repeat
It felt like the last vestige of those desperate for a decent title race. When Manchester City were blinding opponents with a starburst of goals for the first three months of the season, the ever-dwindling number of City sceptics sagely opined that, while it was all well and good excelling while the going was good, their delicate attacking flowers would struggle to bloom when the grim reality of a Premier League winter took hold.
On the face of it, that has certainly happened. The comparison between Man City’s first six away games (16 points, 23 goals) and the next six (5 points, 3 goals) is quite startling. That’s a 69 per cent decrease in points and an 87 per cent decrease in goals scored. They have given new meaning to the idea of a road trip, stumbling continuously on the road. City’s struggles started with a 1-1 draw at Anfield on 27 November. Since that day only Wigan, QPR and Fulham have taken fewer points away from home, and all have played five games to City’s six. No team in the league has scored fewer away goals in that time.
In their dodgy away form – and their flawless record at home – Man City are starting to resemble the Newcastle side that came agonisingly close to the title in 1995-96. Newcastle won 13 home games (City have currently played 12, won 12) and ended up with 52 points from 19 home games at St James’ Park, but after a very good start, their away form faded terribly. From December to mid-April their record was P10 W2 D2 L6. By the time they sorted themselves out it was too late; Manchester United had obliterated Newcastle’s 12-point lead and were in control of the title race.
City are a better team than that Newcastle side, with a manager who has more experience of title races. There is no guarantee they will implode, but their away form will be a significant concern for manager Roberto Mancini. If they fail to win at Aston Villa on Sunday, it can no longer be explained as a blip.
This is all a far cry from the start of the season. Autumn is the happiest time to play football, especially for teams who veer towards the left end of the Pep Guardiola/Charles Hughes scale. The pitches are like bowling greens, the mind and body are fresh, and the leaves and goal nets are rippling. The rest of the season is a much more pragmatic experience, especially on the road, and City’s collection of brilliant footballers may be struggling to come to terms with that mundane reality. They are victims of their own excellence, in that opponents are now seeing City through different eyes. Whereas before they would try to beat them on merit, now they are just happy to try to stop them, nicking a goal if possible, and to hell with merit.
Usually teams raise their game when they face the champions, turning it into their cup final. City, like Newcastle 16 years ago, have found that teams are raising their game significantly for the champions-elect – “cheating their manager”, as Sir Alex Ferguson famously put it. Look how West Brom, Sunderland and Everton celebrated recent results. City’s away season has been a story of boom and bus – all those goals up to December, then nothing, as opponents parked the bus to great effect.
Logic suggests that City are perfectly equipped to surmount a parked bus, such is the technical quality of their attacking play. David Silva, to switch metaphors, could get through the eye of any needle. They have certainly not played badly, dominating possession in most of their recent away games. However, a slight but significant drop off in the confidence of City’s attacking play has compromised the clarity of chances they have created. As a result, they have either been held or, as at Sunderland and Everton, fallen victim to a sucker punch. In those two games, and at West Brom on boxing day, City had more than two thirds of possession yet failed to score. Their away fixtures have become like Groundhog Day.
Much was understandably made of the fact that City had played away to the rest of the top four before Christmas. Their list of away games to come includes some tricky opponents, however – Aston Villa, Swansea, Stoke, Arsenal, Norwich, Wolves and Newcastle. Those seven matches will surely decide where the title ends up. You can win the league without playing well away from home, as Manchester United showed last season, but it’s not an advisable business model.
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Watch Man City live on BT Vision:
Aston Villa v Man City, live 3:30pm, 12 February, Sky Sports 1
Man City v Blackburn, live 5pm, 25 February, Sky Sports 2
Man City v Chelsea, live 7pm, 19 March, Sky Sports 1
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