There is a sense of irony that it took a home match against Sunderland for the Manchester City of late 2012 to finally start looking like the Manchester City of earlier in the year.
The Mackems were the only team to leave the Etihad Stadium with more than a cup of tea and a sense of regret in the Premier League last season, with late March’s 3-3 draw serving as the only home league match of 2011/12 that City didn’t win.
They would have experienced defeat back then had first Mario Balotelli and then Aleksandar Kolarov not struck in the final five minutes to earn a point which ending up proving vital in the title race, but there was only one way that the meeting between the same two clubs a week-and-a-half ago was going to go once Kolarov scored a trademark free-kick just five minutes in.
The Serbian was playing in a City team which was made up entirely of players who picked up league title winners’ medals last season, with first Sergio Aguero and then Gael Clichy emerging from the bench to make it a lucky 13 champions on show for Roberto Mancini.
Only after James Milner had made it 3-0 with his deflected free-kick did the City boss turn to one of his summer recruits, with Jack Rodwell climbing off the bench to enter the contest after the 90 minutes were up, ensuring that he didn’t have time to make the kind of error seen in the matches against Southampton and Borussia Dortmund earlier this season, when stray Rodwell passes led to opposition goals.
This isn’t singling out the former Everton man, but City’s troubles at the start of the campaign seem to have stemmed from their desire to integrate summer signings into their plans.
In a transfer window which saw Chelsea buy Eden Hazard, Arsenal bring in Santi Cazorla and Manchester United acquire Robin van Persie, City – fresh from a first title in 44 years and no doubt determined to build upon it – signed Rodwell, Javi Garcia, Scott Sinclair, Maicon and Matija Nastasic.
Garcia, an expensive arrival who lists Real Madrid and Benfica on his CV, is undoubtedly a fine player whilst Nastasic, at just 19, showed immense promise at Fiorentina, but neither were signings to get City fans out of their seats, whilst Maicon’s best days are as far behind him as Gareth Bale was a couple of years ago, and Rodwell and Sinclair are young talents who aren’t likely to get the playing time at City that they would have got elsewhere.
Last season – right to the very last kick of it – was of course one of perfection for Mancini, City and their fans, and in the task of improving upon perfection City might just have come up short. They’re not alone in that though of course, it happened with The Godfather sequels as well.
This particular Italian figurehead has seemed to have complicated things for himself in the early weeks of the season, with the signings of Nastasic and Maicon in particular seeing Mancini switch to using a back three instead of the back four which saw City to success last season.
The result has been uncertainty at the back whatever way City line up, with two goals conceded in both of their first two league games of the season against Southampton and Liverpool, three against Real Madrid in the Champions League and four as they exited the Capital One Cup at home to Aston Villa. Only the heroics of Joe Hart kept Borussia Dortmund down to one in the Champions League two weeks ago, as the defence in front of him resembled an absent Polish roof letting everything through.
Mancini’s mood after that match indicated that he was ready to abandon the back three experiment, and so it proved when City looked back to their old selves against Sunderland as they kept a first clean sheet of the season.
Going back to improve in the future seems to be the way forward for Mancini, and whilst his summer signings can’t be written off as duds just yet, the boss might just have to make them work a bit harder for their places in his plans.
Those who were in them last season deserve that at least.