Arsenal's loss of form following the end of their 49-game unbeaten run offers a cautionary tale to Manuel Pellegrini, whose unrelenting commitment to attack could backfireCOMMENT
By Ewan Roberts
It is a glaring indictment of modern football's see-sawing, flip-flopping narratives that, from recording a 20-game unbeaten run across all competitions, during which time only two league points were dropped, Manchester City can so quickly be on the precipice of a crisis after just one, solitary defeat to a title-challenging Chelsea team.
The noises coming out of the club after the 1-0 reverse have been defiantly positive, with Manuel Pellegrini, stony-faced and giving little away, quick to dismiss the relevance of the loss. "This defeat will not have any psychological problems for our team," he insisted, though the Chilean could be forgiven for flicking through the dictionary in search of a Spanish translation of 'bouncebackability'.
|MAKE OR BREAK?
Man City's upcoming fixtures
||Norwich City (a)
Now is not the time for wobbles, with City's most significant setback of the season coming at the most inopportune moment, and anything but a convincing win over struggling Norwich City at Carrow Road on Saturday will have tabloid sub-editors scrambling to mock up comparison's with Manuel's Fawlty Towers namesake.
A display of dominance as long-lasting as City's, particularly at home, has not often been seen in the Premier League, but in one fell swoop their 100 per cent home record, plus a 61-match scoring run at the Etihad Stadium, have been wiped out. Now they must pick themselves up and start again, though a return to their ultra-confident, free-flowing best is perhaps easier said than done.
Arsenal's 'Invincibles' side pays testament to that. The Gunners were looking to take their (Premier League record) unbeaten run to 50 games when they played Manchester United in October 2004. They appeared unbeatable in every sense of the word, but a 2-0 loss stopped the north Londoners in their tracks.
Arsene Wenger's men won only one of their next five games, dropping points against the likes of Crystal Palace and West Brom (who had not won all season or picked up a single point on their travels at the time), and only winning one of their following four home matches. They were rattled and, despite having claimed the title with comfort the previous season, finished 12 points adrift of eventual winners Chelsea. They have not won the Premier League title since.
There's an almost haunting similarity between Wenger's panic-dismissing, post-match soliloquy after that Old Trafford defeat and the platitudes rolled out by Pellegrini on Monday night. "I don't feel this will be a turning point," said the Frenchman a decade ago. "In football your confidence goes when your performances are not good but from this performance we can take away a lot of positives and I hope the players remember that. I think this defeat will make the players stronger." Unfortunately for Arsenal, it did not.
Not dissimilarly, after going much of the season unbeaten in 2005-06, Bayern Munich's loss to Hamburg in early March made a once comfortable canter towards the title rather squeakier. Before that defeat, the Bavarians had won 78 per cent of their matches and averaged 2.5 points per game. Afterwards, their win rate dropped to 36% and they picked up a whole point per game less.
|"I think this defeat will make the players stronger"
- Arsene Wenger following defeat at Old Trafford
Perhaps City's undoing against Chelsea can be written off as a mere blip, then; that master tactician Jose Mourinho simply has the beating of the man he replaced at Real Madrid. The two have met nine times now, with Pellegrini coming out on top just once and conceding 27 goals in the process. There has been no pizza-throwing scandal to contend with, no dissenting voices from the dressing room.
With Pellegrini committed to playing a set style - "we'll always try to play creatively," he extols - and with no opposition capable of forcing a change in his attacking philosophy, then equally there is no result that is likely to cause the Chilean to question his footballing values. That steadfast loyalty to attack ought to be seen in a positive light, it breeds continuity that cannot be rocked by one loss, but at present it could also be their undoing.
It was Pellegrini's reluctance to shift from 4-4-2 that played into Chelsea's hands, as it had done against Bayern Munich earlier in the season. Captain Vincent Kompany recently remarked that City's attacking adventure and style was a weakness as much as it was a strength, and, with Fernandinho absent and Martin Demichelis unable to replace his dynamism in midfield, it feels like a bigger vulnerability than ever before. Pellegrini will need James Milner to regain fitness quickly ahead of key matches.
On top of that, with Sergio Aguero injured (and in spite of the attacking options Pellegrini still has at his disposal), the gung-ho formation feels like an unnecessary risk when the extraordinary fire power that makes it work is missing, while Mourinho has now advertised the blueprint needed to take City down - and you can guarantee the rest of the Premier League will have been taking notes.
How City respond to Monday night's defeat in the coming weeks will unquestionably define their season. History shows that flippantly brushing off such a setback, as Wenger did, can prove costly, and perhaps Pellegrini would be wise to tinker with a cavalier system that is missing key components ahead of a series of demanding fixtures. Alternatively, it could be that unrelenting commitment to attack that saves them.
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