The inquest into Manchester City’s elimination from the Champions League is unlikely to be brief.
The 3-1 aggregate defeat by Barcelona in the last 16 has ensured there will be no Premier League club in the quarter-finals this season. It will likely lead to hopefully something more than just naval gazing to try to ascertain the reasons for the four English representatives’ failure to make the last eight.
There are certainly collective reasons for the Premier League’s disappointing showing in the Champions League this season. And each club will ultimately locate their own weak spots for an inability to make a lasting impression on the tournament.
But it is City, perhaps, who have the most issues to address following their fourth successive year in the Champions League. After failing to progress beyond the group phase for the first two years, City have run into Barcelona in the last 16 for the last two years.
Here are seven points worth considering when it comes to City’s seemingly lack of progress in Europe.
Manuel Pellegrini is now approaching the end of his second year in charge of City. He is certainly going to find his position under review, especially as it seems likely he will end the season without a trophy. After winning the Premier League and League Cup in his first year, it would be considered a backward step, especially after again failing to progress beyond the last 16 of the Champions League. It’s certainly not as if Pellegrini lacks experience of the latter stages of the competition after taking Villarreal to the semi-finals in 2006 and Malaga to the quarter-finals in 2013. The Chilean has tried to dismiss suggestions that his job is under threat and that he could suffer the same fate as his predecessor Roberto Mancini, who was axed a year after winning the Premier League title. Pellegrini is committed to trying to improve City, just in the same way Mancini was. The problem is that the intensity and verve which was the hallmark of their two title wins has not been replicated in the following season. Is that the fault of the manager? Or, as it has now happened twice under different managers, the sign that there is more of an underlying problem which needs to be addressed? Recent history would indicate that City are likely to be considering whether to retain Pellegrini for next season. Much could depend on the availability of a suitable replacement and it would be no surprise if an eye was being kept on the situation of Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid. Pellegrini certainly needs to use the remaining two months of the season to state a compelling case for why he should be kept on. Failure to qualify for the Champions League and even Pellegrini, with all of his coaching experience, is realistic enough to know he is unlikely to be in charge next season. City are 1/14 with betfair to finish in the top four at the time of writing, but there is only a four-point cushion to fifth-placed Liverpool. The reigning champions are also in the worst form of those top-five clubs after an inconsistent run since the turn of the year. They do only have Manchester United left to play of the top-five teams, but a derby defeat at Old Trafford would be almost unforgivable at this stage.
This is perhaps one area where City seem not to have learned anything in playing Barcelona at the last 16 stage of the Champions League for two seasons in a row. It is a widely held consensus that it is bordering on folly to play two strikers against Barcelona, whether you’re at home or away. Maybe Pellegrini thought it was worth a risk in the first leg at the Etihad Stadium, especially with Yaya Toure suspended, but it did not help City to control the game in any way. For the return leg, City may as well have played with two strikers in the Nou Camp given how ineffective the midfield was despite having extra help. The defence was exposed time and again due to the lack of cover and Joe Hart was forced into making 10 saves. Now, while it could be argued that, if it hadn’t been for Hart, then City could have suffered a humiliating defeat, surely the whole point of having one of the best keepers is for occasions like this. It is the same with David de Gea at Manchester United. The issue to look at is: why is Hart having to make so many saves? Especially when many of those came in one-on-one situations. Pellegrini can point to the need for City to chase the game in order to score the two goals they required, but their defence was exposed from an early stage in the match. There also seemed to be no plan in place to try to contain Lionel Messi. The Argentine produced the sort of awe-inspiring, breath-taking display that makes him box-office material as the best player in the world. But there was no consistent effort to double up on Messi and deprive him of space to run, or no real attempt to prevent him from receiving the ball in the first place. The only exception was when Aleksandar Kolarov was booked in the first half for ramming a forearm across Messi. When you resort to such tactics so early in the game, it’s a sign there was never really a plan in the first place. Messi also embarrassed more than just James Milner with a first-half nutmeg that had former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola smiling and then hiding his face.
In a nutshell, Barcelona’s players are better than City’s. When you looked at the two line-ups in the Nou Camp, it was a struggle to name a City player who would replace a Barcelona one. Certainly, Sergio Aguero would command a place in Barcelona’s squad, but would you leave out Neymar or Luis Suarez for him? At his peak, Vincent Kompany would easily be selected ahead of Jeremy Mathieu, but the City captain is enduring a difficult season. His failed attempt to play the offside trap in the first half almost saw Suarez score as his lob over Hart came back off the post. He was sucked out of position several times and he seems to have lost the commanding authority and presence that was especially to the fore in City’s first Premier League title success. Yaya Toure was another player whose presence and authority was missing. He is unfairly targeted at times for the way he ambles around the pitch, yet he does provide Pellegrini and City with an end-of-season conundrum. Do they sell him, while they can still get decent money for him, or do they reconsider how to use Toure? Looking at the way he failed to track Ivan Rakitic’s run from inside the Barcelona half for the only goal of the game, it is patently obvious that Toure cannot be used as part of a midfield two at the highest level. He needs to either have a job as a sitting midfielder or as playing in the role behind the main striker, as trying to use him as a box-to-box player does not work.
Pellegrini pointed to Financial Fair Play restrictions as one of the reasons why City did not make it to the quarter-finals again. True, City were only allowed to select a squad of 21 players for the Champions League and it was why Alvaro Negredo joined Sevilla before the close of the summer transfer window, and why Stevan Jovetic was left out of the squad for the knockout phase following the signing of Wilfried Bony. Pellegrini also feels FFP prevented City from spending the required money on the squad last summer to improve it sufficiently to challenge in Europe. But sometimes it is not about how much you spend, but how you spend it. City have still spent in the region of £80million this season, in addition to bringing in Bacary Sagna on a free transfer and Frank Lampard. You can make the case that Barcelona and Real Madrid, in particular, can spend that sum on one player, but the former also reportedly paid around £12.5million for Rakitic and the latter around £20million for Toni Kroos. City spent that much on Eliaquim Mangala.
The mention of Mangala brings us on to the quality of signings in general at City, and not just those of the last season. But, to start with this season, it is fair to suggest that City’s most recent transfers haven’t actually improved the team. Fernando, Sagna, Mangala, Lampard and Willy Caballero all joined last summer before Bony arrived from Swansea in the January transfer window. City’s business has echoes of when they won the title before and failed to improve the team. In 2012, after winning the title, City signed Jack Rodwell, Scott Sinclair, Richard Wright, Maicon, Javi Garcia and Matija Nastasic. Only Wright is still at the club. It ties in with FFP in the sense that, while City have spent lots of money, there have been restrictions on the total amount. However, they have just not invested it wisely enough. Sergio Aguero was the last City signing which really excited you, and that will be four years ago this summer. Back in 2010, City signed Toure and David Silva, players of genuine quality who raised the standard at both City and in the Premier League. But it would be wrong to solely blame Pellegrini for the signings that have been made given the structure at the club which has several people involved in the acquisition of new players. If City want to make progress in Europe, they need to make better signings. There are plenty of players out there who can improve City, and there are also bargains to be found as well without spending £30million and more on the likes of Mangala and Fernandinho.
Another reason Pellegrini used for why City have gone out of the Champions League is the crowded fixture list. There is no denying the fact that other European clubs have a winter break and do not have the hectic Christmas schedule to contend with that the Premier League teams have. Yet it would be too simplistic to say that the fixture list is having a major impact on how English clubs fare in Europe, given Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012, the Europa League in 2013 and Premier League teams had been regular finalists and semi-finalists up to the last couple of seasons. There has been no change in the fixture schedules across Europe during those years. It would certainly be worth trying to adjust the schedule, if only for one season, to see if it would have any positive or negative impact on performances and results in Europe. But perhaps more pertinently it is the competitive nature of the fixtures themselves, rather than how they are ordered, which has a bigger bearing. There is an intensity, in both competitiveness and tempo, in the Premier League which is not matched across other European leagues, and this is bound to leave its mark on squads.
City’s first foray into the Champions League saw them pitted against Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villarreal, which was followed a year later by Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax. Upon finally getting out of the group, City have come across Barcelona twice. It’s certainly fair to say that you wouldn’t have put them as favourites to progress over two legs against Barcelona on either occasion and there is an element of harshness to the draw for City. Yet a favourable draw is no guarantee of progress either. Liverpool failed to get beyond a group containing Basel and Ludogorets, in addition to Real Madrid, while Arsenal would have been strong favourites to knock out Monaco in the last 16. Playing the best teams should be viewed as a challenge to overcome, a chance to test yourself against the best and show you can learn from them. Unfortunately, City have been unable to do that.
But, ultimately, does it just come down to the fact that other clubs currently have better players than those in the Premier League?