By Sam Lee at Villa Park
Let's get straight into it. Roberto Mancini is not the best manager in England. Either he has been hamstrung by those above him and he cannot get the best out of the players that were brought in at his behest, or he chose the players himself and cannot get them to do what he wants.
Either way, it doesn't look good for his recent claim. Manchester City won narrowly on Monday night against Aston Villa, and it was, in many respects, the same old story. Yet again, there was no spark, merely a nod towards the talent the squad boasts. Yaya Toure showed his strength on one particular occasion in the first half, David Silva played a slide-rule pass after the break. Carlos Tevez came up with the goods after the opposition faltered. That was it.
City's problem last season was that they struggled to carve open well-drilled opponents. They had, for a team putting together their first serious title challenge, been worked out remarkably quickly. Of course, they won a number games by virtue of having better players. Sergio Aguero, missing here with a knee injury, would be in sparkling form. Silva would charm teams into submission, Big Yaya would bludgeon them. They looked brilliant at times, of course.
But they always looked capable of being outwitted when the luxury of having better players was taken out of the equation. Two Champions League schoolings have proved this.
The weakness was and still is that they do not have intelligent, talented players in the wide areas. Nobody to create space, nobody to exploit it, nobody to just put a cross in from out wide. When the play is focused around central players it can become predictable. When those star players are not on their game, problems will follow. That is what is happening this season.
Mancini's failing is that he never corrected those issues during the summer. The transfer dealings were awful, and the Italian's annoyance was clear as the window wore on. In the end his board gifted him a batch of average players incapable of providing the inspiration that a £1 billion project should be able to call upon.
Perhaps offended by the quality of his recruits, perhaps as a protest, Mancini attempted to move towards 3-5-2. The problem was that the wide men were just defenders pushed higher up the pitch, they did not have what was needed, and they were fighting a losing battle by having to go up against full-backs and wingers. City may have had an extra man in the middle, but the middle was never the problem. It became a case of too many cooks.
By the time the experiment was abandoned, City had already drawn too many games. The alien defensive line-up could not shut opponents out, and the funneled attack could not bail them out.
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Desire is another clear issue. Mancini bemoaned the lack of fresh blood to rejuvenate the squad he feared would become complacent, but a manager, one who claims to be the best in England, cannot simply rely on big-money signings.
With nobody available to give the team what they are crying out for, City have long since reverted to their old ways.
It is hard to complain when those ways brought the club the Premier League title, but progression is the name of the game. Manchester United, as they so often have done in the Sir Alex Ferguson era, have moved on. City, at best, have stayed the same.
Mancini refused to countenance the idea of being overtaken by Spurs after the game on Monday. And they won't be. But, from now until the end of the season, they will be stuck in that strange void between first and third place, playing out the remainder of their games knowing they are good, but not good enough.
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