Three Games In

Posted by Simon Curtis

'The best way to predict your future is to create it,' Manuel Pellegrini might well be telling his charges in broken English, as they prepare to absent themselves from the hurly burly of Premier League football for two whole weeks.

Many Blues fans are scratching their heads at the surprisingly disjointed football that has followed that opening day dismantling of Newcastle United. In a rocket start to the season, City have played one exceptional game and two bad ones. As a result of this, they sit third in the table, are the division's top scorers (the second best have scored half as many) and have the best goal difference. They have managed this with their central defence in disarray and with the traditional early season perkiness of two promoted sides already out of the way.

Rome wasn't built in a day, nor was Villareal, nor Malaga. Yet already there are dissenters worried by the lack of cohesion, the lumpen football, the simple square balls going astray, the state of the goalkeeper's hair and any number of other salient points that might be the root cause of this less than fluid start to proceedings. The truth is, at this stage, it is anybody's guess what will become of Manchester City's class of 2013-14, but one thing is for certain: if this is a poor start, it will do most of us nicely.

They say first impressions can be misleading, so it may be sensible to revisit these words in four or five months time, when the season's patterns and enigmas are beginning to unravel and develop before our quietly disbelieving eyes.

1) Manuel Pellegrini: a quiet man of few words and deliberate deeds, his team looked at times brilliant in pre-season and at others muddled. This has continued into the first three games of the season proper. A devastating, mouth-watering start against Newcastle and two slipshod ones against Cardiff and Hull City. His history of open attacking football looked rubber-stamped after the Newcastle game. This, we all nodded, would be a season to remember, with goals flying in from all angles. We reserve little images of those glory nights in Europe for Villareal and Malaga and nudge the idea tentatively to the front of our minds that this too can happen to us. It will happen. It should happen!

But first Cardiff and then Hull exposed a wonky defence, a fretful midfield and an attack waiting desperately to be fed. They exposed how rocky City's defensive cover was, how we would miss Vincent Kompany's stout defending and captaincy and how sluggish City can be made to look by teams set up to be hungry and insistent, those who close down space and niggle, who themselves pass out of defence with speed and accuracy.

Pellegrini has dealt with these blockages with the calm authority of the man, who has seen it all a thousand times. His use of Alvaro Negredo as a high impact replacement has, in particular, attracted the attention. Three times he has been used thus. Three times he has hit the back of the net. Pellegrini has not been afraid to replace the likes of Dzeko and Silva in order to give the side's flagging fortunes a boost. He has calmly gone about his business without the gesticulating, the pacing of the technical area and the lambasting that other managers opt for. Softly softly catchee monkey, it works every time.

2) The new boys: Clearly, City did good early business in the transfer market. Whether the late business will be seen in the same light one wonders (City have never had a player with a pony tail before, so we'll have to wait and see what this signifies re. Martín Demichelis). Fernandinho had snapped into a couple of juicy tackles within seconds of the Newcastle kick-off and provided evidence of a nippy and athletic link between defence and attack. However, his appearances against the lesser lights of Cardiff and Hull caused some consternation as simple passes went astray and yellow cards started to appear instead. His partnership with Yaya Touré is in its infancy, but is clearly not yet how Pellegrini wants it. Further forward, the early form of the rapier fast Navas and the goal hungry Negredo have produced much more applause from the faithful, whilst Jovetic waits impatiently in the wings for his chance to present itself and Demichelis prepares his flowing locks for the big call-up.

3) The tactics: Is it a 4-4-2, or a 4-4-1-1? Or is it trying to be a 4-2-3-1? At this stage it is still unclear. Pellegrini's chosen defence was depleted by Vincent Kompany's early injury and the already missing Matija Nastasic, crippled in the pre-season quagmire of Hong Kong. The enforced changes revealed City's main Achilles heel: poor quality defensive back-up. It is likely that Pellegrini's mind has already been partially made up by the difficulties Lescott and Garcia had containing Cardiff's attackers and how Lescott's attempt at being the right sided centre back failed again due to his over-reliance on his left in the home game with Hull. Nastasic, easing his way back, can be forgiven some of his mistakes in this game, but Lescott's and to a greater extent, Garcia's cards must already be marked. Whilst the midfield distribution has not been of a high quality, the possession has been overwhelming in each game and the goals have been going in, suggesting a restocked defence is the manager's one major priority as he builds the team's unity and coherence.

4) Joe Hart: Questions are once again being asked about the England goalkeeper. His over-confidence, his decision-making, his nights out. Some will say he gained possession of the City and England gloves too early, that fame has gone to his well-coiffed locks and that this is the first period of negative introspection that all 'keepers have to cross at some point or another. How will he come out of this criticism? Evidence on Saturday, where he executed an extravagantly risky dummy on an onrushing Hull forward, seems to point to all of this being like water off a duck's back. If it is, one hopes that this is the cockiness needed to keep goal at the top level and not more of the misguided arrogance that some have witnessed creeping into Hart's game over the last twelve months. The man who single-handedly kept Borussia Dortmund at bay in last season's Champions league can be one of City's biggest assets in that kind of form.

As Pellegrini continues to bed down his squad for the long slog towards winter, he will be reassuring them that the future can be as bright as they want it to be.


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