x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

City search for magic number

It is one of the unwanted consequences of wealth that a swirl of numbers surrounds Manchester City. References to their expenditure are a constant.

It is one of the unwanted consequences of wealth that a swirl of numbers surrounds Manchester City. References to their expenditure are a constant, no matter how much it irritates Mark Hughes, and any hint of fallibility is inevitably accompanied by a mention of the cost of the culprit.

When Gareth Barry, bought for £12 million (Dh70m), lost out to Richard Dunne, sold for £5m, as the latter scored on Monday, a trial by numbers beckoned. As the Premier League pauses for another 10 days, however, there are some figures the City manager can contemplate happily. With 16 points, his side occupy fourth place after the 1-1 draw with Aston Villa; each of the three teams above them have played a game more and only Chelsea have dropped fewer points.

A draw at Villa Park equated to a sign of advancement for Hughes: "We'll probably look back as the season progresses and view it as a good point." The manner of the result, with City trailing before Craig Bellamy levelled, heartened the goalkeeper Shay Given. "Last year, we would have struggled with this game but we showed a lot of character to come back," he said. Character, too, has been displayed in abundance by the goalscorer.

Bellamy possesses the ego to believe he can prosper at a club with City's ambitions. He is producing the performances to justify that considerable self-belief. "He always thinks he's the best player out there," said Hughes. "For most of the games this season, he has been. The quality of the players we have brought in is a challenge." Given added: "His work-rate is phenomenal. The stats show he is right on top there with running and distance covered and sprints."

Certainly the way he tore along the left touchline, disturbing his hosts with scintillating speed, troubled Villa. Even with the Welshman on the flank, Hughes has a surfeit of options in the centre. Martin O'Neill, the Aston Villa manager, admiring Emmanuel Adebayor, said: "They have a brilliant centre forward. In fact you can say with [Roque] Santa Cruz getting fit, they have two." The two target men operated in harness for the first time in the last quarter of the game. Before then, Carlos Tevez had one of his quieter matches but Adebayor's relish for the lone striker's duties, coupled with the Argentine's superior understanding with Bellamy, raises questions about the compatibility of the two costliest forwards.

Then there is the issue of the balance of the side. After the early season success of fielding one striker, selecting two at Villa amounted to a statement of intent. Yet it came at the expense of Stephen Ireland, with Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry preferred in the centre of midfield. Ireland's introduction provided much greater creativity to present Hughes with a dilemma for the trip to Wigan. His preference for continuity of selection will be tested. His theory appears to be that constancy of thought will provide City with a consistency of performance, something they have lacked.

Yet, while competition for places abounds elsewhere, Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott appear among the first names on the team-sheet. Dunne's opener at Villa Park - besides providing an unwanted reminder of an old friend - echoed Darren Fletcher's headed brace at Old Trafford against City. A susceptibility to the aerial ball provides scope for improvement for the new-look central defensive partnership. Among the encouragement, there is proof that they remain a work in progress.

rjolly@thenational.ae