Sunday, 8 November 2009

What is going wrong?

Yesterday’s 3-3 result against Burnley is another draw that feels like a defeat. This team can’t afford to have many more days like this at home.

To be honest the whole thing appears to be a conundrum. My reaction to the previous home draw against Fulham was to suggest a midfield combination of Barry and Ireland as opposed to Barry and De Jong. I thought we should’ve been more positive. Well, today I got my request. The team sheet did look more positive and we did have that combination, but soon after the half hour mark we found ourselves 2-0 down against a much lesser side than that of Fulham. So just what is it that is going wrong? I welcome suggestions.

Yes, players are making individual errors – strings of mistakes are leading to us conceding goals, but I fear the problem is wider, with the real worry being that Burnley appeared to want it more than City. Apart from our spell early in the second half when we were dominant, more often than not a Claret shirt was seen winning the 50/50 challenges.

Hughes is right to talk of the problem being a collective one – partly to save the confidence of our defence but also partly for tactical reasons. Whilst we are scoring goals, our front men are perhaps not doing enough in terms of offering outlets for the ball from the back. Today, this was illuminated by the performance of Adebayor. For me his mind was never really in the game, he gave away possession – both with his feet and his head, and I felt he was slightly behind the pace of the game. Adebayor is so talented, so much better than the majority of strikers in the league. Sometimes I feel as if he can take on whole defences on his own – Drogba style. All the more frustrating then, that he didn’t turn up today.

This said, our attacking qualities remain the big positive. It should not be forgotten that we came from 2-0 down to place ourselves in a winning position. Okay, we went 2-0 down and it shouldn’t have happened, but this is sometimes football, and we have to recognise the resilience that underpinned our comeback.

At the end of the day, you can spread the blame of our performance as thinly as you want, but when you really get down to it, the real problems lie in the midfield and defence. Everybody knows that we are frail at the back. Yesterday our defence appeared to just melt away. Zabaleta was the most assured of the four, but I couldn’t find many positives about the other three. Hughes can bring Kompany in, but that’s just about all he can do at the moment. I certainly wouldn’t like to see Richards return to the starting line up, and Onohua remains injured.

But if we look at the team as it is today, perhaps the root of our current fragilities comes equally from midfield. It is no coincidence that our recent run of mediocre results has taken place alongside Gareth Barry’s slight dip in form. I have written of how Barry epitomised the mainstay of our earlier success, and how much of our ball pursuit, retention and distribution had improved. Those qualities, as fast as they came, now appear to have gone missing. The result is more pressure on the defence, especially yesterday with Barry basically the sole defensive-minded midfield player. With the defence in the state that it is, the back four are finding little time to settle, which leads to confusion, doubt and ultimately errors. The counter argument is that the back four are (apart from Zabaleta, who is not a worry) all seasoned Premier League professionals and therefore should be doing the basics right. I can’t really find any answer to this. After all, this is the reason Hughes bought Lescott, Toure and Bridge. They are all supposed to be familiar with the rigours of Premier League combat. But somehow a lack of confidence has set in and now seems to have spread pretty much across the back four.

The confusing thing in all of this is that, having had an excellent start to the season, we appear to have regressed. With all the new players we have signed, I would’ve expected a shakier start to the season whilst the new squad gelled. Round about now would’ve been the time that I would’ve expected to see the right signs. But it is not happening that way.

Perhaps we have been lulled into a false sense of security by our solid start? Perhaps it just went for us a lot more in those opening eight games? The home game against Wolves was very similar to today in the sense that, having got ourselves into a winning position, we almost let it slip when they hit the bar. The difference is that Burnley were a lot more clinical. Furthermore, the game against Arsenal could have gone either way – in the end the score line suggested we ran out comfortable winners, but this was not the reality.

Or perhaps our poor form is a question of teams knowing what we are about now that we are into the new season? If this is the case, it doesn’t make yesterday’s result any more acceptable. Good teams always find a way to get around awkward opponents and win.

The upshot is that our current world of mediocrity has come into focus, which will heap more pressure onto the team. We are still up there at the right end of the table, but we have thrown away numerous chances to make that next step, to go one better and cement a top four presence. This fifth draw in a row is sure to make the trip to the UAE slightly uncomfortable for Hughes and his playing staff.

Also of note is the fact that our expensively assembled team are the first to hand Burnley any points on their travels this season.

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