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Mind the gap

Space was the ‘Final Frontier’ for Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise as they vowed to ‘boldly go where no man has gone before...’

The cult science fiction TV series of the late 1960s and early 70’s swept all before it and now, here in 2015, another Captain whose surname begins with ‘K’ has some spatial issues to address, if he wishes to enter previously unchartered territory.

Manchester City skipper Vincent Kompany, on-field leader of the Champions of England, needs to literally step up and take his team to a place where the sky might not even be the limit – back-to-back Premier League titles.

The gap between second placed City and PL leaders Chelsea is presently five points. A win for Jose Mourinho’s team over Manuel Pellegrini’s side on Saturday night, would see the chasm widen to a yawning eight points.

Such a gulf could prove unbridgeable for City for a second time this season. They’ve already done it once, having sat level on points at the top on New Year’s Day. To do it again is always possible, but perhaps improbable.

If City are to haul themselves back into PL contention, Captain Kompany and his defensive crew would be well advised to take a few steps forward...and get closer to their defensive midfield colleagues.

At this point it has to be stated that Manuel Pellegrini, winner of the Premier League and Capital One Cup in his first season in England, winner of numerous league titles and cup competitions in his native South America and winner of 28 international caps for Chile, is pretty tactically astute, but there are areas of glaring concern, as seen from the ‘terraces’.

City continue to leak goals at an alarming rate, (10 in the last 6 games) so something is fundamentally wrong with the team’s defending.

Changes in personnel, injuries, loss of form, even jet-lag have been cited as the source of the problem – all with varying degrees of merit – but a defence sitting too deep and disconnected from its midfield, is a common denominator.

For anyone who has studied City and sought a cure for the team’s defensive frailties, look no further than the space between Kompany and Co and the much maligned likes of Fernando and Fernandinho.

Once City lose possession in the middle of the park – and they’ve been quite good at doing so in recent weeks – their opponents find themselves with a good 15-20 yards to gather momentum, look up, seek options, maraude forward and bear down on Joe Hart, or occasionally, Willy Caballero’s goal.

If City held a much higher backline and compacted the space between defence and midfield, any loss of possession could be addressed quickly and more effectively by a defender in closer proximity.

What’s stopping Pellegrini introducing the higher defensive line? Surely it can’t make City any more vulnerable and susceptible to being hit on the break than has already been seen, to such painful effect, in recent games.

Does the manager, or indeed City’s defensive corps, lack the confidence or collective self belief to adopt such a system?

Fernando and, to a lesser degree, Fernandinho, have come in for what many would say is justifiable criticism, as City have lumbered through some lack lustre showings since the turn of the year.

Undoubtedly under-performing, the ‘F’ men might have fared better if their mistakes hadn’t been compounded by City’s ‘spaced out’ formations.

As if conceding goals wasn’t a big enough problem, City have – by their own standards – been well down in the ‘Goals For’ column. The crippling run of injuries to Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic is an obvious reason, but it can’t be cited as the sole explanation.

The arrival of Wilfried Bony to City – hopefully sooner rather than later if Cameroon can beat the Ivory Coast and send ‘The Elephants’ crashing out of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) – will beef up the firepower.

If Pellegrini runs true to form City will continue with the manager’s preferred 4-4-2 set up, after all, it’s served the Chilean well in most instances in the domestic game.

Even so, many fans, perhaps even some of the players, would prefer greater flexibility from the City boss, especially at times when the City midfield is outnumbered and overrun by the opposition.

High profile defeats in the Champions League in recent years, notably against Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have emphasised the naivety of allowing two strikers to become stranded, as City’s midfield is suffocated by the sheer weight of numbers and intensity of an opponent’s pressing game.

Both Arsenal and Middlesbrough targeted David Silva, in the belief that if you nullify the mesmerising Spanish playmaker, you snuff out the bulk of City’s creativity.

Without Nasri and Yaya present to take advantage of the attention being paid to Merlin, it’s a ploy that has worked for City’s opponents.

Deprive Silva of the space in which to operate, ensure that he and Sergio Aguero are kept apart by resolute defending and you have more spatial issues, this time with the attack too far away from their supply lines.

When forced to play without any recognised striker, Pellegrini found that a 4-5-1 set-up more than served its purpose, even when James Milner was playing as a makeshift centre forward.

With Yaya and Bony’s availability for Chelsea unclear until the conclusion of the Group Stages at the AFCON, Pellegrini, presumably cannot finalise his game plan in attack.

It doesn’t, however, preclude him from working on his defensive drills, hoping Kompany is back up to speed asap (maybe Warp Factor 10 in ‘Trekkie’ terms) and City’s midfield and rear are as tight a drum.

You never know, Fernando might even hear the drums...beating out to the rhythm of a seismic win for City on Saturday night.

By David Walker @ReadButNeverRed @djwskyblu

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