Robin Sainty: Only one time when City must be top - and it's not yet

Mario Vrancic of Norwich in action during the Sky Bet Championship match at The Den, London
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Mario Vrancic - not altogether comfortable in the number 10 role - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Mo Farah is the most successful British track athlete in modern Olympic Games history. There are many reasons for that, but one of the key ones is his understanding of how to pace a race. 

Whilst a sprint less than two thirds into a 10,000m race might create an impressive gap for a while, it’s not necessarily going to result in victory over the full distance, in which case it would ultimately count for nothing. 

That may be a clumsy metaphor for the situation in which City find themselves, but the reality is that promotion is decided in May, not early February, so the fact that the gap between the chasing pack has closed following two consecutive 0-0 draws shouldn’t be of major concern. 

Of course, it would be lovely (and comforting) if City could generate an ever-growing gap at the top, but the key is to be there at the end, and they are still perfectly placed to do so.  

Despite coming down some way adrift at the bottom of last season’s Premier League, City have significantly out-performed their fellow relegatees, Watford and Bournemouth, both of whom have now sacked their managers. 

Their greatest threat currently comes from Swansea and Brentford, two clubs with stable management and similar styles to City (and I don’t think that's a coincidence), and that will make Friday’s game an intriguing battle. 

The worry is that City’s dip in form has come at an inconvenient time, although there are mitigating circumstances in that they have just faced two teams who are experts at stopping their opponents playing, although fortunately neither can pair that with quality finishing. 

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In addition, Millwall’s pitch on Tuesday night was hardly conducive to City’s flowing style and their growing frustration was visible as the game went on. 

Nevertheless, the current lack of a cutting edge is a concern, and that isn’t helped by the fact the Daniel Farke has yet to solve the problem of finding an effective number 10.  

Mario Vrancic is clearly more comfortable and effective in deeper positions, and the fact that he was often just in front of his back four on Saturday left Teemu Pukki isolated, while Kieran Dowell and Marco Stiepermann have been hampered by injury and illness and neither has yet to make a convincing case when fit. 

On Tuesday, the reshuffled midfield unit worked well defensively, but was less effective going forward. Inevitably, City’s creativity drops without Emi Buendia but even so, they did engineer some opportunities only to see several efforts blocked by multiple Millwall bodies thrown into their paths. 

I think it was also a significant indicator of the state of the pitch that both sides struggled to strike shots cleanly, the best example being Jed Wallace’s shocking miss in the closing seconds. 

There was a definite lack of energy to Tuesday’s performance, perhaps explainable by the fact that the next game was only three days away, but it did seem that for much of the game City were waiting for something to happen rather than making it happen. 

Partly that is due to their full-backs having been pegged back in the last couple of games which has resulted in the centre backs having to do more to initiate attacking moves, but it has also been exacerbated by a significant drop in the quality of their passing. 

However, in highlighting City’s attacking problems it’s easy to overlook the fact that they have now kept clean sheets in four of the last five league games. As Monaco manager Niko Kovac put it, “scorers win games, but defences win championships”. If that’s the case, then City are well equipped to get through this slight downturn. 

Even the worst-case scenario of a defeat and Swansea winning their game in hand would leave City just one point off the top. There are plenty of laps to go in this race. 

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