While Manchester City are still alive on all four of their competitive fronts, one thing is for certain, they won't be seriously competing for any trophies if their current run of form continues.
A combination of injuries and team philosophy have proven to be the thorn in the side of the club this year, add that to the malaise that has seemed to plague the squad for the last few seasons -- and you've got a team who aren't meeting their lofty (and deserved) expectations for 2015. They've lost three matches to three good clubs, and in those losses looked completely outclassed and lacking concentration.
Yesterday, we saw the loss to Stoke as one that was the result of total domination on either end of the pitch. The Potters managed to tear the back line apart with a formula of constant pressure that was concocted first by Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool. Xherdan Shaqiri and Peter Arnautovic made the center back duo of Martin Demichelis and Nico Otamendi seem as if they've never met each other -- they paired up in a way that a random side would be assembled at the park, let alone the two being Argentinian national teammates. Shaqiri's exploitation of Fernando was criminal, and Fernandinho was stretched all over the pitch in an attempt to cover for his Brazilian midfield partner.
Manuel Pellegrini blamed the loss on fatigue, stating that City were dragging after their third match this week where they successfully defeated Southampton and Hull City, but there is a certain amount of blame that can be placed on the players for making decisions that weren't conducive to the conditions that they were playing with. In one instance, we saw Kevin De Bruyne kicking a rolling corner because of high wind at the Britannia, and numerous long balls, and cross pitch passes were attempted by a team that seemingly ran out of ideas before the first half ended. The attack looked uninspired spare a few shots from Kolarov on the left side, Wilfred Bony was nowhere to be found, and David Silva is still trying to find his feet after missing a month of work.
So, what's really the problem with Manchester City?
Obviously Vincent Kompany is a talisman in the back line, in the 13 matches that he's missed for City thus far, they've not had a single clean sheet, in fact, City have only had two clean sheets in their last 18 matches. What Kompany brings to a defense is immeasurable, and no matter who he is paired with, they seem to be able to organize the back and keep attackers at bay. Kompany seems to be the true leader of the squad and as captain, does his job very well, however there's not much that can be done in regards to injuries, and the next man has to step up.
That's not to say that City are without options, this weekend the team was without Eliaquim Mangala, leaving the 34-year old Martin Demichelis as his deputy. As a fourth option, Demi has seen better days, and his inability to keep up with younger forwards in the league. Many City fans were confused as to why Jason Denayer had been called up from EDS only to be shipped off to Galatasaray on loan. Perhaps Pellegrini saw Demichelis' experience as the deciding factor as to who would make that final spot at center half, but it's clear that Demi's experience can no longer be used as a substitute for pace and reaction.
Lack of depth is something that Pellegrini and even former gaffer Roberto Mancini griped about during many a transfer window. What we are seeing is that the club has two men for every position, but given the amount of games played, even the second man has succumbed to a varying muscle injury. Granted, these are all factors that are to be expected when such a hectic schedule is what comes with playing domestically and abroad, however, one has to question whether or not the rotation should be expanded to included more players. After all, the holistic approach that was quoted as a club philosophy would require some of the EDS players to move up through the ranks and see high level competition. With 36 injuries (not including the recent loss of Fernando at the weekend), City lead the Premiere League in that category, and there are hungry youngsters who would love a crack at the top flight.
Another point could be made with the manager himself. As stated previously, he has seemingly been exposed by Liverpool with a high pressure, direct and matter-of-fact style of play. What teams have stopped doing is respecting City's attack and lying in wait, and done nothing short of punch the Mancs in the mouth. We saw industry in Fabian Delph against Hull that we hadn't seen in the midfield in quite awhile, and it seemed that his physicality and motor would be a no-brainer against Stoke, yet Pellegrini felt the need to place him on the bench.
We also saw no substitutes at the half despite the play of Fernando (who would ultimately leave the match when the team had no substitutes remaining), the dull and disappointing play from Wilfred Bony, and the seemingly timid effort from Raheem Sterling. There were changes made eventually, but the spirit had already been dragged and beaten from the club, and the smoke had already cleared before the fire could be reignited.
Could it be that the rumors of Pep Guardiola are too loud for Pellegrini? Has he been found out from a tactics perspective? Who knows -- but it can be said that with nearly six months remaining in the campaign and his contract through the end of the 2017 season, Pelle has to respond like a man who wants to keep his job, as of late that hasn't been the case.
Even with all of this, Manchester City still remain only three points back of Leicester for first place, and as mentioned, alive in all competitions. Success and trophies can still be obtained this season, not to mention the ability to patch a few holes on an otherwise battered tank will have its opportunity come January. No title has ever come easy, and City have the players and experience to come out on top, the health of the squad is paramount, and a spark from the manager could be what pushes the club to the level that fans and observers know that they are capable of.