City's defeat at Arsenal confirmed what had in many ways seemed inevitable over the last few weeks – that Arsenal fans will now, once again, be unjustifiably giddy about their title chances at the start of next season. More importantly, it also signalled that the Premier League title is almost certainly on it's way to Old Trafford instead of the Etihad and that City's sometimes outstanding season has stuttered to a slow and disappointing end.
Accompanying the general melodrama, celebrations and ridicule in certain parts of the media has been an instant debate over whether Roberto Mancini can maintain his position as manager beyond the end of the season. A debate that at first glance might seem typically knee jerk and sensationalist, concerning, as it does, someone who is not a bullet proof tabloid idol like 'King' Kenny Dalglish or 'England's' Harry Redknapp.
After all, this is a manager who has lead his club to its highest ever Premier League points total and a clear second place.
But it is also a debate that has been taken up in earnest by some sections of City's support. Whether it's the disappointment talking or longer held beliefs being verbalised there's no denying that questioning has started amongst some.
So, where has Mancini fallen short, if at all, and is it by such a distance that requires his position being considered?
Looking back to the start of the season Mancini was in charge of a squad that the bookmakers rated as third favourites for the title. The likely winners were, as usual, favourites. As many will tell you “the bookmakers don't often get it wrong.” That's not strictly true but is a separate argument for another day. However, what is certain is that the general view at the start of the season was that it was unlikely that City would win the league and that there were better teams out there. Namely Chelsea and United.
City were approximately 4/1 to win the title. In blunt terms, the bookies reckoned that if the league were played out five times, City would win it once. And of the pundits that were all lining up to proclaim City prospective champions at Christmas, few were willing to nail their colours to the sky blue mast back in August.
So should the fact that City haven't overturned 4/1 odds be viewed as a failure?
The odds were clearly wrong and many City fans were in possession of much more accurate information than both the bookies and the pundits when they recognised that this team was a different beast from pre April 2011. Different from the 'divided' and 'boring' clichéd view propagated by 'experts' at the start of this season. However, the fact remains that City's current points total was viewed by most as way beyond that expected in August. That alone could be a compelling argument for Mancini having done at least an adequate job.
Yet City are not top of the league, despite their huge points haul. This is due to a record breaking points total amassed by Manchester United. Something which, given the relative strength of their squad when compared to their previous teams, seems almost inexplicable.
Mancini's City, with this points total, would be neck and neck in the title race or leading the table in almost every other recent season. Without doubt, City's recent form has been concerning but the reason that they now seem to be out of the race is solely down to the freak points total amassed by United. And that is exceptional. Unrivalled. Something which City have no control over (other than when they met in the league and more than did their part to restrict United's total).
Is it fair to not take this into account when judging the position that Mancini's team resides in in the league table? Shouldn't we take into account the fact that he would most probably be managing title winners if he had replicated this performance in other seasons?
Strength of Opposition (or in this case, the opposition's uncanny, unexplainable ability to pick up points)
There's another factor to having to compete against this record United total. Any observer of City's form over the last two months would find it difficult not to conclude that they have looked like they are gradually losing confidence in the face of United's ongoing and relentless point accumulation. More than just the pressure of competing at the business end of the season, the real pressure this season has come from having to match a team that has barely dropped any points in their run of fixtures since Christmas - when statistics would suggest such a tremendous run is extremely unlikely.
Seeing, week upon week, your only rivals somehow avoid dropping points is a mental challenge way beyond the (ridiculous) cliché of 'squeeky bum time'. A back and forth battle, with both dropping unexpected points in the last months of the season, is the pattern that is generally expected. Yet City have had to compete against something (United's run since January) that doesn't meet the usual pattern of a standard second half of the season, title chasing results. Whenever United have looked like they are playing poorly or being matched by the other team (something that has been a regular occurrence) they have still found a way to pick up the points.
Make no mistake, City and Mancini have come up against something exceptional. Not an exceptionally talented football team but an exceptional period of points gathering. Something that no team in Premier League history has ever achieved at this stage.
The fact that United's record breaking point gathering has also featured so many games where they have not reached the performance levels of other previous United teams, where they have been matched by many other teams yet still found ways to pick up points, when they have been the beneficiaries of some, let's say, generous refereeing only makes the mental challenge faced by City and their players even greater. It must have seemed at times that United were unable to drop points, no matter how they played. Seeing the inevitable three point gain from them every week, often in circumstances and with performances that wouldn't usually guarantee anything of the sort, is the sort of thing that mentally affects players and teams. Much more so than the fact that it is merely approaching the business end of the season.
Of course, failing to meet such a challenge is exactly that – a failure. But it would be unfair not to view it in terms of United's freak point gathering statistics, their relatively average levels of performance, the helping hands that they have received at key times and the unique mental challenge that presents for anyone going up against it. Especially a team that is in its first year as genuine challengers.
That's an outside factor though. And the factors that are most likely to see pressure increasing on Mancini are likely to be internal ones. Namely, how he has managed his players and any mistakes made in doing that.
Unavoidably top of the list is Mario Balotelli.
The Italian has, in the last few weeks, seen the general neutral bemusement with which many City fans have met his bizarre behaviour and sporadic performances replaced with genuine anger and frustration. Emotions which certain comments in the press and reactions on the pitch seem to suggest may be shared by at least some of his team mates.
A feeling of 'one rule for Mario, one rule for everyone else' seems to hang around Mancini's relationship with Balotelli. Whether that is genuinely the case or not, the fact that the notion exists amongst the fans (and possibly the players – note Joe Hart's reaction to the sending off on Sunday) is indicative that things aren't right.
Mancini himself freely admits that Balotelli cannot be trusted and behaves in a way, on and off the pitch, that is not deemed acceptable. Yet he continued to play him and select him over other players with a more reliable attitude on the pitch. Players whose general performance levels can't be said to have been world's apart from Balotelli's.
This is Mancini's Achilles heel. The impression that his faith in Balotelli has significantly compromised City's challenge will not now be dispelled this season. Many will question why Mancini's selection policy regarding Balotelli seemed to contradict the frustrations and disappointments that he regularly verbalised about the player. Especially if they buy into the belief that other players share the same misgivings and it has had the potential to affect team spirit.
Tactics and style of play
A further question hangs over City's play since January. There is an obvious difference between the free flowing, record breaking style of play seen prior to December and the current stuttering efforts. However, there is an argument that puts this down to fluctuations in form, especially the form of key players. David Silva, easily the best footballer in the league in the first half of the season looks tired, out of form and restricted by the ankle injury that has been said to hamper him. Yaya Toure, Aguero, Dzecko, Milner and several others all have failed to consistently hit the heights they soared to in most games prior to Christmas.
But, form aside, there are also the questions of selection and style of play which contribute to this discussion.
The start of the season saw a hybrid of styles taking place in City's play. But the dominant and most impressive aspect of their pre-Christmas performances was the possession based, short passing game that revolved around Silva, Ageuro, Toure, Barry and an out of form Nasri. This was a genuine evolvement of City's style from the previous season. A style that is rare in this country and has perhaps only seen in Arsenal's invincible team and, maybe more unexpectedly, Swansea this season.
And it was a style that teams could not cope with. It produced record breaking points hauls and goal scoring. Yet it has gradually broken down over the season. Form has played a part. But tactics have too.
I rate Mancini tactically. I've seen him change more games positively with subtle, but deliberate, adjustments in 2011 than most of the previous half dozen City managers put together. Yet as the season has developed he could be accused of failing to totally commit to the style that saw City brushing everyone aside.
His selections have become confused. Nigel De Jong, a player who often appears to have the attributes required for this sort of style but too often proves that he doesn't, has been selected more and more as the season has gone on. Whilst a player like James Milner, a strong performer in the early part of the season, has not.
Balotelli, a man who too often holds up and slows down play and is too often found receiving the ball with his back to goal and without a first time pass in mind, has become a regular. Again, earlier in the season, during the best periods of play, he wasn't. Balotelli gives the impression of a man who wants the ball played over the top into channels an awful lot. Something that isn't a bad thing but doesn't stack up with the Barcelona-esque style City replicated at the start of the campaign.
The loose 4-3-3 formation, with Silva free to roam in the middle from out wide, employed at the start of the season has become a less regular sight – even though it is still a significant part of the tactics. 4-4-2 and 4-3-1-2 variations have all been tried. And when the original formation has been employed it has often featured players out wide that actually narrow the pitch, rather than stretching it to suit the short passing, possession game. Balotelli, Johnson and Kolarov have too often been employed as twider players. And whilst Kolarov will keep the width (yet be let down by pace and technical ability), Balotelli just isn't suited to that role in this sort of team.
Mancini currently gives the impression of a man who is not willing to fully commit to and advance the highly techinal, movement based, short passing style that saw City conquering all. De Jong, Balotelli, Kolarov, Dzeko and Johnson (due to lack of pace more than anything) are all not the sort of players required for that system. (Not a crime, see Ibramhimovic at Barca) The rest are adaptable enough but the next step is to bolster them further by players who have the imagination and technical ability to specifically play in that style. The question is whether Mancini seems willing to totally commit to this style of play and to target players like Hazard, Muanain, Bale and Ben Arfa. Rather than a mix and match approach of quality players who all prefer and suit a variety of different approaches.
Take Dzeko as an example. A competent striker who has scored a variety of different types of goals in top European leagues. A very good striker. But someone who does not suit City's style of play. He is not adept at linking play in a short passing game, moving to create space for others and finding short through balls to play them in. A lot of great strikers aren't. But to build upon what City had at the start of the season Mancini would do well to add players that are.
Dzeko would not doubt score a large amount of goals if he were a regular starter for Spurs or United. But City don't play like them and shouldn't aim to do so. The overwhelming strengths of City's game are those exhibited in the play that revolved around Silva early in the season. Buying players who specifically suit that style should be Mancini's overwhelming concern in the coming window. Whilst at the same time moving out players, no matter how good they are at their particular style, that do not fit that mould.
What is disappointing to hear in some quarters is the assertion that buying 'old fashioned wingers' is the way ahead and it is the lack of these players that has let Mancini down.
Whilst the ability to stretch the pitch is vital in whatever attacking players are bought, it is only as vital as their ability to join in with and play the intelligent short football that should be the hallmark of this team. A glance at any Adam Johnson appearance this season, as he often looks lost and a second behind others when he attempts to join in inside should be enough to tell you that signing wingers who are willing to beat a man is not enough. They must be exceptional footballers first, able to play the extremely fast, intricate football needed, with an ability to stretch play and be effective wide (coming inside or going outside) a close second.
The Right Man?
So, that's a lot of question marks against Mancini. His relationship with Balotelli and its consequences for the rest of the club. The seemingly growing reluctance to commit to the style of play that destroyed the league in the early part of the season and has proven to be able to destroy the strongest team in the country three times in the last 12 months (Barca, Bilbao and the 6-1). The lack of ability to install the mental strength required to deal with the pressure caused by United's record breaking points accumulation. And a transfer policy over the last 18 months that has not always seemed to have a tactical style in mind.
A lot to think about and a lot that criticisms can be built around. And enough to hold genuine concerns.
But I'll stick with the man who, in the face of this, produced the best footballing side this country has seen for years in the first half of the season and has, despite all of the above, attained what would be a league winning points total in most seasons.
If he can do that this season, in the first season as genuine challengers – in a season that City were not even rated in the top two at the beginning – it would be a brave man who backs against him going one better next season with a year's extra experience, a more targeted summer of transfers and possibly a squad without the distraction and divisive presence of the world's most childish footballer. Those last two points are a must though, in my opinion. Otherwise he would be encouraging the problems seen in the second half of this season.
Put it this way, if Mancini stays there is absolutely no chance that they will start next season as 4/1 third favourites for the title. And that is due to the progress he and his team have made this season.