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Jack: Table is lying; Man City are excellent home and away

Kristian Jack
12/4/2013 8:48:35 PM
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We are told 'the table never lies'.

It is a cliché dragged out by fans and pundits regularly when discussions take place around which teams are better than others.

However, the only lies being told are coming from the ones who deliver the cliché.

We have have been told 'Manchester City are a poor away side'. A quick glance of their record heading into Wednesday's match at West Brom (1 win, 1 draw and 4 losses) would suggest this but once again the league table was lying.

To judge teams, at this stage of the season, solely on their results misses so many factors that go into ensuring teams sustain success in the long-term.

During 90 minutes of football things happen that can have a direct effect on the result at the end of the game. It is too simplistic to say the team that won played well and the team that lost didn't and there is no better example of that this season than with Manchester City away from home.

Before Wednesday at West Brom headlines, splashed across England previewing the match, called City away from home everything from 'rubbish' to 'poor'.

It is, of course, not ideal to lose four games this season early in the season. In fact, the last team to lose four of their first eleven games (which City did) and win the title in the top flight of England was City themselves back in 1968.

However, for the majority of their away matches this season City have been far from poor. On the contrary, City, in large parts of away matches, have looked like the attacking, entertaining team many dreamed they could sustain under Roberto Mancini.

Two years ago under the Italian, City sprinted out of the blocks, scoring an incredible 23 goals in their first six away matches in the Premier League. Six goals at Manchester United and five at Tottenham sent messages that this team was the clear favourite to win the Premier League.

Then the league started to work them out. Teams sat deeper and City couldn't adjust. They went on to win the league title, in the most dramatic ways through a late Sergio Aguero goal on the final day, but it was their atrocious away form that almost cost them.

A look at their championship winning final league table shows City scored 38 goals and won 10 games away from home that season. What it fails to tell you is that half of their wins, and 23 of their 38 goals, came in those first six away matches. Ten goals, including 8 against Norwich and Wolves, and three wins also came in their last three matches, in late April and May. In the 10 away games in between, from the end of November to the middle of April, City scored just five goals (2 from open play), won 2, drew 3 and lost 5.

It was a run that was far worse than the way they started this season but it didn't get the attention it deserved because the league table told a story that included City's breathtaking start. When rivals United collapsed and handed City the title, Mancini's constant tactical changes, and failures to get his team to create as a unit away from home, was forgotten. It would play a massive part in their failure the following season, however.

When City failed to win for the 7th time in their first 10 away games last season last year, on Boxing Day at Sunderland, their attempts at regaining the championship were already over. Wins later in 2013, at Arsenal and Manchester United, teams who didn't sit deep and took the game to City, weren't surprising, but neither were there abysmal performances in losses at Southampton and Everton.

When Mancini was replaced by Manuel Pellegrini many felt the Chilean had been hired to help turn around City's woeful Champions League efforts under Mancini. That is certainly true, but also Pellegrini is expected to get more out of his team as an attacking unit, particularly away from home.

There is no denying City's brilliance at home and many teams will be on the wrong end of some serious hammerings this season, just as Norwich and Tottenham already have encountered. In those victories, City have shown they can score goals from quick transitions and counter-attacks, something that is sure to translate to successful away performances also.

In fact, for large parts of their four away losses, City have been very impressive in attack, getting their full-backs forward and showing some useful combination play between their forwards.

Their loss at Cardiff came from poor defending and goalkeeping on two corners. City were not at their best that day but did enough to win the match.

Their loss at Aston Villa came from a fantastic individual free kick by Leandro Bacuna and some terrible defending and goalkeeping on a long clearance by Brad Guzan. City were absolutely magnificent that day and played far better than their past two visits to Villa Park, under Mancini, when they won 1-0 each time thanks to a goal from a set-piece (header by Joleon Lescott) and a mistimed poor back pass by Ciaran Clark (finished off by Carlos Tevez).

Their loss at Chelsea came from poor defending, and, in particular, goalkeeping (there is a theme here) when Joe Hart rushed out and allowed Fernando Torres to put the ball in the back of the net in the final minute.

Having gone a goal down, City were the best side in the second half, after Sergio Aguero's equalizer, showing they can be equally dangerous when the Argentine plays as a lone striker with a strong midfield 3 behind him. City caused Chelsea much more of a threat than they did in their past two visits to Stamford Bridge when they were lifeless in each of those second halves. Like at Villa, it was yet more evidence, that City had improved away from home, blinded by the game's result.

Their loss at Sunderland was their worst of the season, highlighting the key area Pellegrini has to get right. Once again they were a real threat going forward but a second-string back four featuring Micah Richards, Martin Demichilis, Joleon Lescott, Aleksandar Kolarov let themselves down on the Phil Bardsley goal and this time their attackers could not bail them out.

City's defending, at times, away from home has clearly not been good enough but Pellegrini will know this is much less of a concern than if his attacking unit was not playing well. Scoring goals is the hardest thing to do in the game and if that is not working (as we saw under Mancini) it can lead to much bigger problems. Making a team organized and better defensively, particularly with the players at his disposal (this is no Newcastle of the mid 90s), is a much less difficult job for the Chilean.

"I worry about the away form," Pellegrini conceded after the Sunderland loss, but he knew the way the team is playing in an open 4-4-2 style has to stay despite the results, saying: "We've had a lot of chances and played really well in (away) matches, I am absolutely sure we are playing the right way and know the wins will come."

That attitude took the manager and his City side to the Hawthorns for a date with West Brom on Wednesday evening. City welcomed back captain Vincent Kompany at the heart of their defence and kept their 4-4-2 shape with Edin Dzeko replacing Alvaro Negredo alongside Aguero.  Pellegrini had predicted the wins and performance would come and his players didn't let him down,

City's first half display will rank as one of the finest halves a team will play all season. After 24 minutes, they led 2-0 and were so dominant it should have been up by more. The first involved 14 passes, over 46 seconds, that saw the ball move to the right and to the overlapping right back Pablo Zabaleta whose cross was smashed home by Aguero. It was a sensational team goal but fifteen minutes their second one was even better, coming from 15 passes, in which the home side didn't touch the ball for 53 seconds, finishing with the left back, Kolarov, this time getting forward to cross for Yaya Toure to power home.

It was a dream half of football for Pellegrini. Jesus Navas and Samir Nasri were outstanding in their movement and combination play while Aguero was just as lethal with Dzeko as it has been with Negredo this season. At the back, Kompany was a rock with key blocks denying West Brom of any real scoring threats. City were that dominant they made more successful passes in the first half than they attempted in the recent win over Swansea at home. This, as regular viewers to their away games would attest to, this was not a team who have played poorly away from home.

In the second half City stepped down a few gears but still sent West Brom fans home early when they converted a third, from the spot, again created by a run by full back Kolarov down the left.

"You should have gone Christmas shopping," chanted City fans to the home supporters as they dragged themselves out of their seats.

Not only had they watched a superb away performance, they had also failed to see their team put a shot on goal or attempt a shot inside the penalty box for the first 81 mins.

It was the perfect all-around performance for City until West Brom scored two late goals with Toure, Nasri and Aguero all resting on the bench. In many ways it was fitting that those who will judge the game solely on the scoreline will once again miss the point.

City look very much like the formidable away team they need to be to contend for the title.

Just don't let the scoreline or the league table tell you otherwise.




Golfer Taylor Pendrith is the highest ranked player on Canada's men's national team. The recent graduate of Kent State University is 18th on the world amateur rankings. More...

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