The defending Premier League Champions have provided uneven and perhaps even worrying performances fixture after fixture in all competitions this season. Not since the second half of the Community Shield win over Chelsea, had City looked in command of a match and secure at the back. Late transfer activity seemed to do more unsettle the side, much as it did to Arsenal last season than anything.
The sale of Nigel DeJong to Milan was particularly difficult to swallow for City supporters. A limited player but one who never lacked commitment, DeJong had become a fan favorite who never let his side down over three and a half seasons at Eastlands. In his place, Jack Rodwell and Javier Garcia have failed to make a positive impression thus far and both seem to have obvious limitations in their games that have been exposed by the opposition.
Saturday against Sunderland Roberto Mancini returned to familiar faces to steady the ship. The re-insertion of Gareth Barry, Micah Richards, Alexander Kolarov and James Milner in the side meant that every City starter had been with the club since at least the summer of 2010.
Last season, despite numerous critics among supporters who do not understand tactics well and the media always looking to stir up trouble, Barry was one of the steadiest performers in the Premier League. Without Barry, it is unlikely City would have won the club’s first title in 44 years. Yet coming off an injury that ruled him out of Euro 2012, and now well into his thirties, questions marks appeared about his place in the team this season. Mancini and Football Administration Officer Brian Marwood bought Rodwell and Garcia for close to £35 million this summer (a sum that could increase based on several factors) collectively, while spending far less on players at other positions.
Despite the lavish new signings it has seemed that each time City has performed poorly in Central Midfield Barry was the answer. Against Sunderland, teaming with Milner (who typically plays in a more advanced or wider role) an effective shield was created that allowed City to dictate play and critically push Yaya Toure forward and maximize his touches in attacking areas.
Milner is among the best hustle players in the division and his performance against Sunderland was reminiscent of the types of shifts he put in during the first portion of the 2011-12 seasons before falling off. Milner was not only effective during the run of play, but provided several excellent corners that were almost converted into goals, and then claimed a goal himself on a late free kick.
Along with Milner, Micah Richards was singled out by Mancini in his post-game comments for praise. Richards has lost the right-back spot to Pablo Zabaleta for the foreseeable future, but provides important cover in the middle and can push up when needed as he demonstrated in the 3-0 victory.
Finally, Alexander Kolorav turned in another shift. Kolarov is a perfect example of the type of practical buy City has had to make to become champions. A player off the radar of top European clubs when he was purchased from Lazio, he has proven to be a reliable squad player capable of the spectacular cross or free kick. He provided both today, and is well on his way to re-establishing himself as a regular in the side.
Manchester City’s 3-0 victory could be differentiated from recent shaky performances based on the selection of players who have played together dozens of times and showed an ability to work together once again. This is tried and tested formula and while the outlay of cash this summer means Rodwell, Garcia, Matija Nastasić , Maicon and Scott Sinclair will play a role this season, it is far too early to count on them to be as reliable as City’s old guard.