For a team with designs to be the greatest on the planet, to attract superstars from around the globe, play breathtaking football, amass trophies and plan European conquests, something was not quite right with Manchester City yesterday. You could see it from the moment they kicked off, and it became more apparent over the game.
A colossal storm was brewing in the south that day, and there was a dark cloud beginning to form around City too. It became more and more obvious as it went on, something badly wrong, something hideous. A terrible malaise, spreading and causing stomachs to churn as those watching at the ground and on television began to take sight of it. Grim looks began to be passed around between supporters and neutrals alike, as the sour taste formed in their mouths at the realisation. No words were spoken, but knowing, despairing glances would be exchanged. Something foul was happening. Something nobody had thought possible, something from one of the dark places, an unnameable, unimaginable horror from beyond the mind's comprehension.
Manchester City were missing Gareth Barry.
Manuel Pellegrini's starting lineup that day was an odd one, not only containing the absurd Martin Demichelis but also Javi Garcia, in a midfield three along with Yaya Toure and Fernandinho. Chelsea's midfield of Frank Lampard and Ramires have found it impossible to control games this season, so there seemed to be no need for such negativity to control a game. Nonetheless, there it was. Javi Garcia in midfield.
Garcia is a man of particular talents, but none of these have been on display since he moved to England. His lack of pace is so remarkable that City often appear to be playing with ten men, but with Chelsea's attacking midfield comprised of such a dangerous list of players, the idea of not having a true defensive midfielder would be suicidal. But Fernandinho lacks the positional discipline to play there, and Toure was long since converted to a roving, box-to-box type. Garcia was the only option.
Gareth Barry was the man previously picked to do that job, and while being better than Javi Garcia is not a glowing recommendation, he would've been a far better option for City yesterday. It was in some ways the right decision - Chelsea lined up without such a player and conceded a bad goal due to Samir Nasri being allowed far too much space between defence and midfield, in the kind of manner people would draw on a blackboard to explain what an attacking midfielder did. But it also meant that City dominated midfield yet could barely create a chance.
Chelsea's answer to this problem is John Obi Mikel, a superior player to any of the other options in that position mentioned above, but José Mourinho chose to leave him out of the side. It cost him a goal, but in the end a catastrophic defensive error meant that he was in part rewarded for his comparative adventure. Nonetheless, it is mindblowing that two teams that have spent so much over the past few years can both have such a terrible problem at the heart of their side.
This is a continuation of an issue both teams have had for some time. It was the error which allowed Manchester United to remain competitive despite having a similar, yet more severe problem. This year, it could let in Arsenal or Tottenham. In truth, City are not so much missing Gareth Barry as missing the superior version of Gareth Barry they ought to have signed at some point in the last three years.
Both City and Chelsea have flirted with the likes of Daniele de Rossi in attempting to acquire the perfect player to suit their needs, but have been unable to get the right man in the role. Not too many are available, but the fact that a player as mediocre as Barry can have his absence missed in a game of this magnitude shows that it wouldn't have taken a world-class player to vastly improve both sides. Someone merely good would have done.
The Premier League still has, among all of its members, the biggest pulling power of any league in the world, but it is also a league where its four best sides can miss a distinctly mid-table player. Manchester United are the same without Michael Carrick, and Arsenal are the same without Mathieu Flamini, two equally average footballers. None would be close to the top ten in the world in their position, but England should be doing so much better than this.