Thursday, August 30, 2012

Manchester City's identity crisis

Manchester City's two Premier League games this season have been ... workmanlike.

The new signings ... underwhelming.

The manager ... apparently unsettled.

In spite of this, Manchester City remain the smart choice for this year's Premiership title. Even after managing a victory and a draw after falling behind against promoted Southampton and an inspired Liverpool, City have yet to inspire. In order for them to do so, the scattered approach that's characterised their August needs to disappear before it becomes a problem.

City has looked unstable this term; their centre of defence still hasn't convinced after shopping four goals in two matches and their experimental 3-5-2 formation hasn't been the versatile attacking springboard that manager Roberto Mancini hoped it might. Rumblings continue to emanate from Etihad Stadium that Mancini wants new – pricey – signings opposed somewhat by a boardroom that has adopted a confusing fiscal conservatism.

The club is travelling well, but no doubt things could be more smooth. The club proved last year it has the talent and application to overcome even the most troubled times, however it's imperative the club address this unease before it becomes more problematic.

The present Manchester City team seems from the outside to be struggling with its sense of identity. This is natural, considering so much has changed within the team over the past half-decade – only Joe Hart, Micah Richards and Pablo Zabaleta (just) pre-date the Sheikh Mansour regime. Given the number of personnel and tactical changes the squad has undergone, it's not surprising they might question how they play their best football.

Since August 2008, the club's been first a rest-stop for second-tier superstars like Emmanuel Adebayor, Roque Santa Cruz and Craig Bellamy. Once Mancini arrived, the club then became an indomitable defensive team who burnt opponents with terrier-like forwards like Carlos Tevez. Last season, City started as barnstormers, reverted to defensive type in midseason and finished the year in true come-from-behind style. Added pressure from being league champions – and popularly perceived as being a billionaire's plaything – forces two more elements to this identity crisis.

But which of these – if any – are Manchester City in 2012-13? Which personality suits them best?

A sense of identity always helps a team's performance. This is because it offers certainty to players, removing doubt as to how they play. Underdog. The Bad Boys. Pass and Press. Buying club. Selling club. These are all merely labels, but what labels provide is a sense of certainty and identity. Lacking that assurance in tactics, formations or individual role promotes player confusion and hesitation, while instinct is minimised and key decisions are overthought.

If existential questions on an individual level are vexing, they can become destructive when there's another 30+ elements in the equation. City are hardly the only club in such flux. The same could be said of many clubs that undergo significant change – Spurs, Arsenal, United and Aston Villa. However given the moderate quality of City's opposition (no matter how well Liverpool played) and their gift equaliser from Martin Skrtl, City's lack of cohesion has been quite pronounced.

It seems the lack of a defining identity in the Manchester City squad of August 2012 has manifested as caution. Do the players and managers see themselves as defense-first, offense-first or a football chameleon able to match any team at their gameplan? Defining identity and subsequently adopting an attendant culture is the foremost responsibility of any coach. This means the task is Mancini's alone, a task undermined or distracted by constant public calls for reinforcements.

The season is still young. But it behoves Roberto Mancini to create an identity for his team before it begins to overshadow their wonderful 2012.

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