Know Your Opponent: Manchester City

Shaun Botterill

Ahead of Sunday's match at the Etihad, I sat down with a fellow blogger from Bitter and Blue to talk things over.

On Sunday morning Tottenham Hotspur plays arguably its biggest game of the young season thus far when they head to the Etihad to take on Manchester City, a club that, on paper if not in practice, is the best team in the Premier League.  City has struggled on the road a bit this season, but is incredibly strong at home, and Spurs will need an outstanding performance to get a result.  I caught up with sonics097 of SB Nation's City blog Bitter and Blue to talk about the match, tactics, alien brain transmogrification, and more.  And in return, I answered some questions for themover in their neck of the woods.

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Uncle Menno:  Let's get the obvious question out of the way first:  What the hell is wrong with your team? With the talent assembled on that roster you should not only be well ahead of Spurs but you should be ahead of Arsenal.  Is it early season jitters related to a new manager, or is there something more pernicious going on? Are you concerned about the slow start to the season?

sonics097:  To be honest, I'm not overly concerned right now. There is a pocket of City fans who are panicking already, but I'm not one of them. There is no denying that we haven't picked up the points that we should have so far, but the reasons why we haven't picked up those points aren't alarming. From a team standpoint, I think we've been fine. What worries me is the sudden propensity for some of our players to make glaring individual mistakes at key moments, something that has not been the case in recent seasons. In my mind, we've played three poor games so far in the league: Cardiff away (L), Hull home (W), and Stoke away (D). Unsurprisingly, those were all consecutive matches. Some people reading this might wonder why I haven't included Sunderland in that list but we vastly outplayed them and had a couple great chances but just couldn't find the back of the net. Everything leading up to the final moments in our attacks was acceptable to me; it was just the final pass or shot that was lacking. To contrast, in each of those previous three matches I mentioned, we struggled to create good chances and lacked cohesion for basically the full 90.

But I think we put that poor form to bed and have played well as a team since then. We did drop 3 points to Villa but I still can't fathom how absurd of a loss that was- we dominated the entire match and lost on 3 largely fluke goals: an offsides goal, a perfect free kick strike from nowhere, and a breakdown in communication between our usually reliable CB pairing of Kompany and Nastasic. That last goal, combined with Joe Hart's huge error against Chelsea, have cost us points. Those are the type of individual mistakes that have dragged our season down to this point and that's what's been worrying. Generally reliable players like Hart, Kompany, Nastasic, and even Zabaleta (he was responsible for 1.5 of Cardiff's goals; the media was too harsh on Hart) have had too many lapses in judgment. I wouldn't expect these players to continue making these uncharacteristic mistakes. This is why the 'away form' that keeps getting talked about isn't as bothersome to me. It is true that our form is better at home, but away form and away results are two different things that have been getting lumped together too quickly by the media with City.

Okay, rant over.

UM: Related question:  did aliens abduct Joe Hart and (to borrow a phrase from Bloom County) "Gephardtize" his brain? Is he really Robert Green wearing a Joe Hart mask?

There's no hiding from this one: Joe Hart has been bad. Just plain bad.


S097: There's no hiding from this one: Joe Hart has been bad. Just plain bad. As I mentioned above, I think he should only be held half-responsible for just one of Cardiff's goals in that match. He made a poor choice to try to punch away a corner that he couldn't get to, but then Zabaleta didn't help by losing his man and allowing an easy goal. I hoped it would stop there because it really gets annoying as a City fan to hear about 'Hart's Howlers' any time he does something wrong. But then came Bayern Munich. And Joe let in two more completely saveable, soft goals. Fast forward a few weeks and we arrive at Chelsea, and we all saw what happened there. I don't know how to explain it to be frank; the GK position is just a very different beast to analyze. I want to say that it's just a patch of poor form but even when Hart isn't at his best he usually doesn't allow it to continue for so long. Pantilimon has been fine in his starts, but most City fans want to see Hart back between the pipes. A good showing against Germany in the break and a few highlight-reel stops against CSKA have at least reminded us that the old Joe is still in there, somewhere. I believe Pellegrini previously said that Pants would start again this weekend, but Hart's game against Germany might have changed MP's mind.

UM:  Early season stumbles aside, how's life with Manuel Pellegrini?

S097: Pellegrini has been good so far. His tactics, rotations, and substitutions have been mostly right. His most important asset thus far has definitely been his man management, however. Roberto Mancini's approach in this arena has been well documented. Pellegrini has certainly been a breath of fresh air for the players. I think that much is evident in the performances of the rejuvenated pair of Samir Nasri and Aleksandar Kolarov. Both have been in good form for the majority of the season after struggling mightily under Mancini. I'm sure Pellegrini isn't the only person to credit for this, but combining that with more attacking-minded tactics that suit the squad better and the success thus far of the summer signings, it has to be said that MP has had a good start to life at the Etihad.

UM:  Obviously, City have spent a lot of money in recent years. With all that money inevitably comes a truckload of ego. If you're Pellegrini, how do you keep all you high-priced talent happy?  And as a bonus question, do you see your current fiscal model as sustainable in the new Fair Play era?

S097:  Well for my two cents, I'd do what Pellegrini's done so far: don't call players out in the media + bring in players on lower wages with less baggage. Most of the guys who made all the negative headlines have been offloaded and replaced with no-nonsense veterans like Fernandinho and Negredo. Furthermore, I think it's been huge to have a nice harmonious Brazilian/Argentinian/Spanish unit in the squad. Those guys have meshed well and more importantly, none of them have egos. In regards to calling players out in the media, well, let's just let our imaginations run wild with how Mancini might have handled this whole Joe Hart situation.

As for Fair Play, I think we're getting there. I don't think we'll see transfer windows anymore where City bring in 3-4 players for 100 mil or something like that. There was a clear strategy in place when this project began all those years ago and I think the club is just about on pace with meeting the financial goals they wanted to achieve thus far. When the project began, we had to spend big if we wanted to crack the top 4, plain and simple. Long gone are the days where you can build a team up from the lower end of the table and turn them into a contender (yes, I know our exorbitant spending hasn't helped this situation either but it's just how the sport is evolving in modern times). Now, the club is slashing wages and if reports are true, none of this past summer's signings are above 90,000 per week, I think. There's also a massive training/youth campus being built which should really help aid the development of the academy and bring homegrown players into the first team. So, things are moving in the right direction. We'll see how it all turns out. One thing I do know for sure though is that our owner's ain't goin' nowhere with this kind of investment in the future of the club.

S097: By now, most EPL teams know (or should know) how to beat Tottenham. How do you see Pellegrini structuring his side vs. Spurs?  Related: Edin Dzeko seems ready-made as a Spurs defense-buster, don't you think?  What are the odds we'll see him on Sunday?  (Disclosure: he scares the crap out of me.)

I'd expect to see Yaya and Fernandinho together in the center with James Milner and Nasri in attack and Aguero and Negredo up top.


NC:  I think Pellegrini is going to (and should) stick with what's worked for us so far, with one change due to David Silva's injury. This doesn't give us a whole lot of width in the midfield players but our wing backs like to push forward and make a lot of overlapping runs which helps fill the channels while Nasri cuts in from the left and Milner uses his endless engine all over the pitch. Depending on the returning players' fitness levels from the international break this might not be the exact gameplan but it's one that Pellegrini definitely likes. Milner isn't a shoe-in, but Jesus Navas wasn't in the best of form in the matches leading up to the break. I wouldn't be very surprised to see him in the starting XI either, though. Our weakest point remains the central defense as Vincent Kompany looks like he will be out again leaving either Joleon Lescott or Martin Demichelis to deputize alongside Matija Nastasic. In all likeilhood, it'll be Demichelis. He hasn't been bad for us, but the defense is a shell of itself without Kompany.

As for Dzeko, I wouldn't expect him to be in the starting lineup. He's been pretty bad over the last two months and he's rightfully fallen down the pecking order. He'll have the odd game here and there in which he'll score a random goal to bail out an otherwise bland performance but there's too much lacking in his game at the moment to trust him to start. He has a heavy first touch, he doesn't fit with the more technically skilled players in our attack, and he is often not active enough. I don't want to go so far as to say that he is lazy, but when you watch Aguero and Negredo zip around the pitch, Dzeko just pales in comparison. Though, he does like to score against Spurs, so maybe... Nah, scratch that. I'm fine with him doing his super-sub thing off the bench on Sunday.

UM: Why is Manchester City going to be relegated this season?  Please be thorough.

S097:  We're going to get relegated because we won't pick up a single point in any away game from here on out. Joe Hart's errors will spread like the plague amongst all of our keepers and we'll bring Balotelli back on loan, who subsequently will set the stadium on fire and get us an automatic 10 point deduction. The owners will back out and City will tumble into the abyss, reappearing somewhere in the Skrill Conference after being bailed out by the US government. [Insert joke about City fans jumping ship to join the Chelsea brigade here: ____ ]

UM:  Finally, a score prediction.  What's the result Sunday, and why?

S097:  I'm going to go with 2-1 to City. Eastlands has been a fortress for us and we are better on both sides of the ball when we play in front of the home faithful. The pairing of Aguero/Negredo is in great form and on the flip side Spurs have been finding goals hard to come by, but I'm sure we'll leak a goal at some point. If we can score a couple of goals early we can take a comfortable position in dictating the flow of play, otherwise I'd anticipate a gritty affair. My brother, who happens to be a Spurs fan and frequent visitor of CFC, and I have both been particularly looking forward to the matchup of the CMs of both teams. We will see arguably the two most physical groups of CMs in the entire Premier League go toe-to-toe in this one, and this positional battle could determine the outcome of the match.

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Thanks to sonics097 for a fun interview!  You can follow him on Twitter, and go check out  Bitter and Blue for a good pre-match analysis of Sunday's game and to learn more about the Citizens.

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