By Ollie Irish
City are building something amazing… but is it a team?
Goalkeepers – Joe Hart appears to have taken over from Shay Given as the new No.1. What a tough call for Given, who has done nothing wrong since he was signed by Mark Hughes last year, and is still a fine keeper. But Hart is younger, shinier, more promising – and he represents change, and a perceived upgrade. Which is the way City seem to work now: don’t give the players you have time to settle, not if there’s a better version out there who costs twice as much. Given may leave then. In Arsene Wenger’s shoes, I would do whatever it takes to bring the 34-year-old Irishman in on a two-year deal, or a loan deal at least. As it is, I think Given will stay and win his place back. Journeyman Stuart Taylor is there as back-up, and Colombian David Gonzalez too, though Gonzalez may be sold by the end of the month, as City really must trim their bloated squad.
Defenders – Germany’s Jerome Boateng had a fine World Cup and is a progressive signing (who can play anywhere in the back four). Ditto Alexsander Kolarov, who is set to become City’s first-choice left-back. Neither came cheap, but both will add much-needed dynamism to City’s iffy defence.
The other men in the frame to make up City’s starting back four are slightly more familiar and should benefit from some playing time together: club captain Kolo Toure, Joleon Lescott, Wayne Bridge, Vincent Kompany and Micah Richards. It’s not the most convincing defensive roster in the league, so promising teenagers Greg Cunningham and Dedryck Boyata may find themselves thrown in at the deep end.
Highly rated centre-back David Luiz might also join from Benfica before August is over.
Midfielders – Signing David Silva was a real coup and I look forward to seeing the little Spaniard shred ponderous full-backs at will. With England’s Adam Johnson on the other flank, City can cause serious damage down the flanks.
Central midfield is an even stronger area this season, with the addition of the freakishly talented – and freakishly expensive – Yaya Toure. Yaya will use his considerable muscle to fight for playing time with Patrick Vieira, Nigel de Jong, Gareth Barry. That battle will be fierce, but I see City’s first-choice midfield looking something like this: David Silva – Yaya Toure – Nigel De Jong – Adam Johnson. Hmm. I wonder how Barry feels about the prospect of going from marquee signing and potential England saviour to bench warmer? (Villa fans, you may smile at the thought.)
And don’t forget the great unwanted: Shaun Wright-Phillips, Michael Johnson, Vladimir Weiss, Stephen Ireland, Kelvin Etuhu. These are good players – not so long ago, it seemed City would build its team around Ireland. Not now.
Oh, I almost forgot: James Milner will probably join too, though God knows where he would play. Right-back!?
Forwards – The roster: Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, Robinho, Roque Santa Cruz, Jo, Craig Bellamy, Felipe Caceido. That’s a bloated bunch, and City are reportedly keen to ditch Caceido and Santa Cruz, at least, whilst Bellamy – unhappy at Eastlands since Hughes was dumped – is tipped for a loan move to Celtic, or possibly a permanent deal to Aston Villa. The mercurial teenager Mario Balotelli is also set to join from Inter, but only if his people accept a more realistic salary for the young Italian (looks like they have).
The key man is Tevez, who is immense and must be the No.1 striker at the club, but after that there’s a distinct shortage of reliable, grounded forwards. Which makes it all the stranger that City would go after a notoriously unstable character like Balotelli – as if Roberto Mancini’s job isn’t tough enough, he also needs Mario’s agent in his ear every Monday?
Then there is the crazy talk that Zlatan Ibrahimovic might also come to Eastlands, on an absurd £500,000 a week. Madness gone mad. I can’t keep up. Who can?
Formations – City’s area of strength is in central midfield, so it makes sense for City to play to that strength, perhaps with a 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation using Tevez as the spearhead. That way there’s room for Yaya Toure, De Jong/Vieira and Barry in the middle of the park, with Silva and Johnson on the wings. This would give Yaya licence to get forward more than he ever was allowed to for Barcelona – and despite his DM qualities, Yaya is a great box-to-box player with an underrated eye for goal.
Verdict – As I said at the top of the preview, the problem is not the players – it’s the team. City’s squad is stronger than ever but it takes time for even world-class players to gel, and time is something Mancini doesn’t really have on his side. I don’t envy the Italian his job of keeping his players happy, and I doubt he’s a strong enough character to keep control of the dressing room for a whole campaign; if not, Mancini won’t last the season.
Being more optimistic, it’s easy to see this team overpowering opponents and mounting a very serious challenge for the title – especially as their rivals all have weaknesses. As Fergie said, it will be a dogfight at the top this year, and City are streetwise enough to take care of themselves. I just don’t think their defence is solid enough to finish on top of the heap.
Prediction – Second
How do you rate City’s chances this season?