Southampton 3-1 City

Scott Heavey

In the end the most disconcerting aspect of this defining defeat on the South Coast was not that the title pursuit is surely over for 2012/13 but that City capitulated in such a farcical and spiritless manner....

Of the 14 players who featured at St. Mary's only a handful could say that their performance was even remotely in keeping with their ability and even then it is fair to say that the character, spirit and battling qualities that have defined this City team were no way near the level required. Criticism can be levelled at management down on a sobering afternoon for the men in blue.

It is important to strike some balance and inject some rational thought when assessing the weekend's proceedings and the season as whole. It is of no benefit to make knee-jerk dismissals of experienced, title-winning players, but the warning signs have been evident over a period of months and yesterday a few home truths came home to roost. The most obvious starting point is the late summer transfer activity that was of the plan B category and Nastasic aside, not one of the players who have come into the squad have improved it in any way beyond filling squad space. Javi Garcia - competent but essentially ordinary as a defensive midfielder - was hopelessly at sea at centre half here. Maicon who demonstrates flashes of technique and quality in possession no longer has the athletic capabilities to be the presence he once was on the right flank. Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair, the first through injury the second through managerial preference have been peripheral to the verge of being invisible. The same could also be applicable to Samir Nasri although he has been afforded ample game time. Supremely gifted but so ineffective to be an irrelevance Mancini righted his selection wrong by introducing the unfortunate James Milner moments into the second period. If anyone embodies the steady deterioration in performance of City in 2012/13 then Nasri is that man.

To level all the blame at the door of Brian Marwood 7 months after the summer activity was concluded does not fully explain away the recent failings but it certainly needs to be mentioned. Mancini wanted a handful of sports cars in the summer and ended up with a small fleet of Ford Fiestas...be it through poor negotiating, a lack of acumen or club strategy in light of FFP City stood still and have subsequently paid the price.

As mentioned that does not excuse away the inexplicable errors that perforated Saturday's nadir. City looked like a side there for the taking from the early stages and the mistakes ensured there would be no fightback. Seasoned performers such as Joe Hart, Gareth Barry, Yaya Toure, Edin Dzeko...(I could go on) - stalwarts of the title winning campaign - were by and large inept. Southampton pressed high to great success as we have seen from Dortmund and Ajax in the Champions League particularly; were hard working and hungry and fully deserved their victory which in fairness could have been by a greater margin than it was. But they were aided by a lethargic, dispirited and ultimately directionless City side who have never performed worse under Mancini.

Mancini still has widespread support from the fans and owners but is entering the hardest spell of his tenure to date. Now more than ever before Mancini needs to keep a firm hand on the squad and ensure he is still able to motivate and eke out performances from them before key decisions are made on a number of players in the summer. There will be numerous departures, that much is clear but what the Italian will need to ensure is that he is not one of them. He will need to identify those players who have allowed themselves to rely on others when faced with adversity - not just on Saturday but over a sustained period - and have become fat after gorging on last seasons rich success. Mancini only has to look across town to see a manager who knows how to evolve a squad over time and sustain hunger levels and motivation. Evolution, not revolution is the requirement here.

And yet the season is not over. Last years nirvana resulted in a general feeling that City have now arrived yet the performances have failed to match the billing on too many occasions domestically and in the Champions League. Saturday was a brutal reminder of the weekly fight required to retain the Premier League. The FA Cup is still a viable target and would be greatly received despite its reduced billing in English football. And even if almost to a man performance levels have been down on last years output the club are still the 2nd best team in the country. Defensively City have been sound. The hope is now that with the title gone City will finally free themselves of the shackles that have appeared to bound them all season and play expressively without pressure for the remainder of the campaign. Mancini's long term prospects rest on this fact - any more directionless leaderless displays like this and the Italian will be sitting by the phone uneasily this summer. Finish the season well, possibly with some silverware, clear out some of the deadwood and bring in one or two world class performers in the next transfer window and City's progressive ascension to the top table of world football can recommence. As a blue it's been much much worse than this - the gallows humour was strongly in evidence at the weekend - but there needs to be a unity of direction and ambition throughout the club to have the fans singing again for the right reasons from here on in.

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