Monday 25 September 2017

Alan Hansen: City's failure to invest in defence gives rivals a chance in title scrap

‘At least Pellegrini has a team capable of sparing their blushes’
‘At least Pellegrini has a team capable of sparing their blushes’

Alan Hansen

Manchester City proved that they are the best team in the Premier League with their magnificent attacking performance against Arsenal. The title is theirs to lose.

The problem for Manuel Pellegrini is the same was said of City last season when they finished well off the pace, significantly underperforming given the players at their disposal. This will make some suspicious about predicting City's second title in three years but it is plain to see why many expect it.

No other side has the capacity to overpower their rivals in the manner we witnessed on Saturday, but until they resolve lingering defensive issues, their rivals have a chance.

City have become a curious mix of the brilliant and the vulnerable, fluent and creative in attack but susceptible to mistakes at the back. When you see the combination of pace, skill and power -- particularly in midfield -- it is strange they are not well ahead already.

At the Etihad Stadium, they look unstoppable, playing with a swagger that makes you believe they know they are going to win before a ball is kicked.

Never mind the goals they scored against Arsenal in the 6-3 win, it was the build-up play, the creativity, the ability to drag high-quality opponents all across the pitch and run them ragged defensively.

GUILE

They were a joy to watch, playing the most attractive football I have seen this season. I have purred about the Arsenal midfield since August, but they were no match for City's combination of guile and strength.

Few watching the game would bet against City winning the title, and yet when you look at the table, see four away defeats and the fact they still trail Arsenal by three points, caution is understandable. They cannot yet be trusted not to follow a rampant home win with a shocker on their travels.

In replacing Roberto Mancini with Pellegrini, in some respects City have gone from one extreme to the other. The attitude of the manager transmits itself to the team and Pellegrini seems to have released the shackles from his squad, inviting skilful players to express themselves and back their ability to outscore every opponent. There is a reckless abandon which few teams are capable of exploiting at the Etihad.

Mancini's side were also capable of exhilarating attacking football, but he seemed more innately cautious. The ideal is the middle ground and the main flaw in the City side, just as it was a year ago, is their defence. Arsenal had plenty of chances and in normal circumstances scoring three away from home would be enough to win.

For all the money City have invested, they have neglected their back four -- their defensive signings not as successful as their strikers and midfield -- and that is why others will retain hope.

The goalkeeping situation also remains an issue, Joe Hart's demotion a sub-plot in need of a swift resolution. Back-up 'keeper Costel Pantilimon has been okay but is not the long-term answer.

It does not matter if City score six or seven goals every week at home, they need to start embracing the value of a 1-0 away win again, and I wonder whether the early away issues are a product of Pellegrini adapting to the English game.

You can argue as much as you like about whether there is more quality in La Liga, but what is not in dispute is the Premier League is more competitive than Spanish football, more prone to surprise results where the teams at the bottom can upset the big clubs. Any team can be beaten, particularly away from home, on any given weekend, as Pellegrini discovered when his side lost to Sunderland.

The adage in our league is you spend the first half of an away game matching the commitment and energy levels of your opponents and then the class will take over.

City may have been guilty of underestimating too many teams on the road, because they should be outclassing sides in opposing venues as much as they are at home.

The fact they tore apart the league leaders means their latest win is a major statement of intent.

Arsenal have been exceptional but when the fixture list came out, I looked at this period as significant.

It is not because I do not admire how Arsenal play, but sensed that when they met the best teams in the league we would learn more about their capacity to stay at the top. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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