Monday, 26 October 2009

Rolling back the years?

Yesterday's 2-2 draw against Fulham felt more like a capitulation than a draw. Walking away from Eastlands on a cold, wet Sunday evening, the first questions that came to mind were as follows. Was this an aberration? Or have we just taken a massive step back into last season?

I try not to be a pessimist, nor the fan who has a short memory. Our start to the season has been excellent. But the manner of this draw brought back some unwanted memories. The bloke on my left summed it up. At 2-2, with Fulham looking decent value for the winner, he turned to his mate, sighed, and uttered the words: “I’ll settle for a point.”

The reality is that we should not be settling for a point. We really should not be going to 2-0 up at home and then drawing games, not with this squad of players.

The defence
Clearly still not right, and by today’s standards there appears to be some way to go before we are talking top four. The warning signs were there in the first half when Bobby Zamora ballooned an effort over the bar from yards out and with Given sprawling. The concentration of Micah Richards worries me. He was in no mans land in terms of stopping the cross that led to the first Fulham goal. Clint Dempsey’s equaliser was down to the central defensive pairing, and if I was pushed to name names I’d point the finger at Joleon Lescott.

And let’s also not forget that Fulham had the chances to win the match.

The really worrisome point is that our current defensive frailties are beginning to stand out. I don’t have much tactical nous, but if I were the next opposition manager to visit Eastlands, I’d certainly tell my centre forwards to get in amongst Toure and Lescott and pressurise them at all costs.

The midfield
We know what Fulham are about. They are about patient, disciplined football, two banks of four. Mistakes are kept to a minimum. The left hand knows what the right is doing. For this reason I think a midfield combination of Barry and Ireland would’ve been more potent. De Jong has been playing very well, and away from home when we are certain to be under the cosh we need him. But I think we need to be more ambitious at home against non-top four teams. Hughes talked about the need to shift around Fulham’s formation, manoeuvre it out of shape to create space to play into. With two defensive minded, tidy midfield players in Barry and De Jong, I think we gave ourselves less of a chance to accomplish this. Petrov was the positive in this department – his switches of play were good, but we didn’t take advantage of them.

The other side to the defensive-offensive midfield debate is that we already had four very potent attackers on the field in the form of Tevez, Adebayor, Petrov and Bellamy. So to place another offensive minded player – like Ireland – on the pitch would be a big risk against a Fulham team looking to hit us on the counter. It is swings and roundabouts. We all know Hughes has a conundrum on his hands tweaking the team against every new opponent. Perhaps sometimes there can be too many options on the table for a manager that has, in the past, been forced to work with very limited resources.

The attack
Tevez was the better striker in the first half. He created a few chances for others and had two very good scoring opportunities himself. I certainly admire the Argentinean for all his toil, but the £25.5m man should be putting away these opportunities.

Adebayor was off form. He wasn’t on the ball enough, we didn’t see enough of his power and pace, nor his ability to run at defenders. And whilst I’m harping on about Adebayor, I’ll also say that for a big man he doesn’t win enough headers for my liking. Still, his talent is so huge that he should’ve made a bigger impact on this game.

This result was all the more disappointing because of the results around us. A win would’ve seen us jump to third place, making ground on United due to their Anfield defeat, and overtaking Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool. Fulham are a good team, but we should be putting them away at home if we want to think about nicking fourth and / or beyond.

I don’t want to sound overly negative. It is still early days and we have hardly lost touch with the top four. Arsenal drew – albeit away from home - in a very similar fashion yesterday and of course Spurs were defeated at White Hart Lane against Stoke – which must have been a real gutter for them. Perhaps all of this is evidence that the league is changing in the sense that it will be a tighter affair this time around. I hope that is the case, rather than the other more depressing scenario that despite so much investment, the Blues are still in the business of throwing away games like the City teams of yesteryear.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Fragility and greatness: the return of Michael Johnson

The first quarter of the season has brought many positives for Manchester City, perhaps none more satisfying than the return of academy product Michael Johnson.

The young midfielder made a substitute appearance in the 3-1 win against West Ham and was then on the bench for the visits to Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic. If he keeps his fitness and continues along his current path, a regular place in the first team squad must beckon. This represents a fantastic achievement for the lad from Urmston.

Flashes of greatness: a new talent emerges
Since breaking into the City first team in 2004, Johnson has already experienced much of what the game has to offer. Initially, these came in the form of unforgettable highs. It was playing in Sven-Goran Erikisson’s free-flowing, high octane, high risk attack of the early 2007/08 season where Johnson really made his mark, scoring the winning goal in a 1-0 win over Derby County.

Picking up the ball at the halfway line, Johnson showed his guile by rounding the opposition midfielder, his strength by brushing away the oncoming challenge, his linkup play by interchanging passes with Elano, his first touch by deftly knocking the Brazilian’s pass into a goal scoring position, and finally his goal scoring instinct, as (in full stride) he struck the ball with the outside of his boot and curled it around the keeper into the back of the net.

Irrespective of the opposition, the strike was immense and indeed was all the more so because it represented so much more than a goal. It represented a player who had the whole package. Later, Johnson went on to score a similar goal against Aston Villa. Surrounded with the new, exciting talent of the Eriksson era, the world was at Michael Johnson’ feet.

Rumour and injury: the nightmare begins
But that world soon shattered. Soon after Johnson scored his wonder goals he was sidelined with a reoccurring abdominal injury. At first the midfielder was out for a short period, but further abdominal problems eventually caused him to miss the majority of last season.

And then rumours began to emerge that all was not well with the young midfielder. For someone who was attempting to get fit, he was supposedly being seen far too much in the wrong places at the wrong hours. With the club struggling to get to bottom of his injury, the lad was losing his way. Hughes’ assistant Mark Bowen could’ve been interpreted to indicate as much when he gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph in December 2008:

“Michael is a young lad who has been unlucky. He has had a nagging injury that has held him back. When Michael in on the training ground and is focused he is a fantastic asset for this club. When young players have been in and out of action as long as he has it can mess your mind up a little bit because they just want to be out there playing. He has just got to be strong, fight through it, train hard and get back in the team. In the early part of the season he was a big player for us and we miss him.”

Seeing Johnson interviewed about his fitness on Sky Sports News, it was easy to believe that he had lost his way. He looked extremely uncomfortable and nervous, and it was clear for all to see that he had gained a lot of weight.

The Bell albatross
Johnson’s build, gait, footballing attributes and surging runs into the box from midfield positions earned him comparisons with Steven Gerard. But the heftier comparison came in the form of Colin Bell, for many fans the greatest player ever to play for the club.

The sidelines of a football pitch are a lonely furrow to plough for any player, but for one such as Johnson, such a young boy with the weight of Bell on his shoulders, I suspect those furrows were immense. To add to this, he has had to sit and watch the unprecedented upheavals that have taken place at the club over the last year. Witnessing the City midfield get stronger with every transfer window – first Kompany, then De Jong, then Barry, whilst excellent additions for the average fan, certainly cannot have been good news for the returning Johnson. With his starting place in midfield long gone, he was in real danger of being overtaken by bigger events.

A welcome romance
However fragile, Johnson’s re-emergence in pre-season, coupled with his return to first team action must be taken as a huge positive. Hughes and his team must also take some credit. In these situations, I believe mental toughness is just as important as physical fitness. Indeed, I think the stronger you are mentally, the less likely you are to get seriously injured. It has been no surprise to see Hughes building up Johnson’s confidence, first talking of the midfielder’s great potential and then speaking of how Johnson started so well in the early days of the Hughes regime before his major injury. Knowing full well that the minds of idle young men can wander, the key for Hughes and his team has been making Johnson still feel wanted, still feel as if he has a major part to play in City’s future. I think they have got it exactly right. Johnson’s pre-season return prompted Hughes into this statement:
"I thought it was a good exercise for us, a lot of players had good periods, but a big positive was Michael Johnson getting through 45 minutes. We are absolutely delighted with that. I was really pleased with what he was able to produce in that time. If we can get him back at anywhere near the level that we know he is capable of then it's like an extra player for us this year.”

I couldn’t agree more. The academy has produced some good graduates in recent years. Micah Richards, blistering when he first emerged, has since hit a sustained patch of inconsistency. If Nedum Onouha keeps on building up his game in the quiet and assured way that he has to date, he is certain to become a formidable international-class defender. Stephen Ireland has become a vital cog in the City engine room, attracting attention even from Old Trafford. Ireland’s dynamism, footballing brain, energy and goals make him a cut above most players. You can see from his performances that he is ready for the Champions League. And then of course we have the raw talent of Daniel Sturridge, spirited away by the clutches of Ancelotti’s Chelsea. All of these players are good. Some are excellent. Others outstanding. But Johnson is better. With the ability to do it all, he has the potential to reach the greatness that City fans would like nothing better to see coming from one of their own.
And this is where the real romance of Johnson’s return emerges. The midfielder is special not only because of his footballing abilities but because he may buck the wider trend of the club in recent times. He is the young, homegrown talent that we as City fans all want to see mix it with the rest of the expensively assembled squad. If he could rise to this challenge, it would be proof that, through the mediocre years since returning to the Premiership, the academy really was capable of producing the kind of class that could compete at the top of the game.
Of course, rising to that challenge is one thing. Overcoming it is something else. The task facing Johnson is bigger than the task facing Richards or Shaun Wright-Phillips for the simple reason that he is coming into probably the most highly competitive area of the team. But if can get fit and stay fit, he stands a great chance of overcoming the barriers of first team selection that stand in his way, just as John Terry and Steven Gerard overcame similar hurdles.
A fit again Michael Johnson will bring another dimension to a squad that it already hugely talented. Questions of fragility remain, but I am sure I would not be alone by saying that I for one would like nothing more than to see him answer those questions that are now surely heading his way.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The season so far

Any reasonably minded City fan cannot really complain. Eight competitive games played, seven won. Its been a strong start to the new season. Actually, no. Its been more than strong. The victory against West Ham makes it our best league start since 1961.

The defeat of Arsenal

The real high so far has been the 4-2 defeat of Arsenal, a match that will go down in Eastlands history because of the intensity in which it was played and controversy that it produced. The skill, pace and power of Emmanuel Adebayor is something that City fans should cherish. Such a shame for these talents to be dampened by the attack on Robin van Persie. I am not fully convinced that the Arsenal striker’s head was the intended target, but that Adebayor went for some part of van Persie is not in doubt. Seen in the longue duree of the game, the actions of the former Arsenal man become a bit more understandable. The intensity that Wenger’s men directed towards Adebayor was there for all to see. But stamping on another player is not the way to do business and I have no qualms over his ban.

The hatred that existed between Adebayor and the Arsenal fans before the game has now surely been increased tenfold by that infamous goal celebration. Lost in the rhythms of a highly charged game it was a stupid thing to do, but also I think excusable. Of course, that is much easier to say when you are on the winning side. And I will always be biased of course.

The mainstay of our success

If the goals of Adebayor represent the icing on the cake of a season that has started so well, it has been the energy, concentration and pure footballing savvy of players like Gareth Barry that represent the foundation upon which this early success has been built.

Clearly this is an area in which the team has massively improved. Grinding out wins against the likes of Blackburn, Portsmouth, Crystal Palace and Fulham means that the team is already displaying a resilience that I have never seen in twenty-odd years of supporting City. Barry’s ball pursuit, ball retention and ball distribution skills are not only of a very high quality but are also consistent. Moreover, they seem to have spread throughout the team. Although it was against lesser opposition, the Palace game is the best example of this new kind of tenacity. Palace gave us a hell of a game, and attacked with bags of energy and speed. City teams of old would have withered under this style of play – that this City team didn’t is highly encouraging.

A Derby to remember

What a match. I disagreed with all the media hype surrounding this fixture – that it was a judgement on whether we were going to be real challengers to United’s title. People forget that Derby games are never a good measure of where the two teams are at. It’s a cliché, but form really does go out of the window. We’ve gone to Old Trafford in the past with much lesser teams and have got much better results, so I don’t accept linking the outcome of this fantastic game to the position of City’s project.

Irrespective of the injury time (or should that be Taggart Time) controversy, I really believe that this was a game that we should have got more out of. After a shaky start, we equalised and ended up dominating the first half. After the break we were our own worst enemy, with the very qualities that have brought us so much success (ball pursuit, retention and distribution) deserting us for the best part of the second half. In this desertion lay the real reason for our defeat, not the supposedly sublime attacking talent of United. They are clearly a top side, but the mistakes we made coupled with our inability to keep hold of the ball meant that United were able to press and press. Goals were thus inevitable.

The real sublime attacking talent of this game came in the form of Craig Bellamy. The Welshman was already on blob with his fizzing strike against Arsenal, but his goals at Old Trafford were a step up again. It will be interesting to see what happens when Robinho returns to the squad. For me, the Brazillian will need to do something to warrant starting ahead of Bellamy. Still, this is what we want – competition for places all over the pitch.

Having come back for the third time it was difficult to stomach coming away from Old Trafford with nothing. For Owen to score the winner will go some way towards justifying Ferguson’s gamble on a gambling man. Irrespective of what Ferguson may say of the Manchester rivalry, his joy at the final whistle showed just how much it meant to put one over on City. For me, Ferguson can enjoy this victory all he wants, but I think we stand an excellent chance of returning the favour at Eastlands.

The departure of Richard Dunne

From the moment our new owners were installed, the future of Richard Dunne, one of City’s most reliable servants of recent times, was in doubt. His move to Aston Villa on transfer deadline day was unsurprising, but for me was tinged with a little bit of sadness at the way in which he exited the club.

There is little room for sentimentality in football, and I accept that in footballing terms Richard Dunne was not the long term answer for the Manchester City of the future. But it is sad when you hear rumours of Garry Cook attempting to sell the City captain behind his back. We may never know the extent of the truth behind Dunne’s words, but I tend to believe him. There has been a bad taste in the mouth ever since a bullish Cook spoke in August 2008 of the need to replace steady, workmanlike players such as Dunne with global footballing superstars: “China and India are gagging for football content to watch and we’re going to tell them that City is their content. We need a superstar to get through that door. Richard Dunne doesn’t roll off the tongue in Beijing. Ronaldinho brings access to major sponsors and financial reward.”

Cook may well have been speaking the truth, but his comments were reckless and potentially highly disruptive. Speaking about the club captain in this way also showed a complete lack of respect – a word that City’s current owners seem to quite big on. Finally, Cook’s comments showed a lack of understanding. Dunne was the best thing about City up until very recently, with four player of the year awards in a row telling a story. The defender was a rock of stability in what was, at times, an extremely volatile and turbulent environment.

If Dunne is right, and Cook was trying to force a move behind the Irishman’s back, then this shows poor form. It is also surprising, given how savvy and in-touch the club seems to have been with everything else.

Good luck Dunney. You were good, but in the end you were the victim of wider machinations. Thanks for the massive effort over the years.

Conn’s trilogy

Our newfound prominence in the English game has given rise to some fantastic City analysis in the papers, coming in the shape of three big articles from The Guardian’s David Conn. Here’s some points I found interesting from Conn’s reporting:

The New Owners: for big business, for prestige, and for the love of the game

Conn’s first report focuses on the new owner of the club and his objectives. Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan is said by his friend and City Chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, to have wanted to buy the club for two central reasons. One is the Sheikh’s supposed love of football, the irresistible pull of embarking on a “great football journey” that will finally bring sustained success to a club that has always underachieved.

The other motivation sounds much more realistic: to develop a business capable of reaping a long term (and probably lucrative) returns. But it doesn’t end there. Conn sheds light upon the really fascinating element of the deal: how City appear to have become a tool of the UAE’s foreign policy. Although the Sheikh is a businessman, and his purchase of the club has been a private one, his position as a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi also makes him a political figure. The nature of the Premier League meant that when Mansour’s deal became public knowledge, it became global public knowledge, a tool for Mansour to communicate with a new global audience. And herein lies the politics. The takeover of Manchester is now playing a big part in the global prestige of Abu Dhabi and, therefore, the UAE. The words of our Chairman echo this: “We are acknowledging that how we are handling this project is telling a lot to the world about who we are. The UAE is different from other Arab countries. People think the Arab world is one, but it is not. This is showing the world the true essence of who Abu Dhabi is and what Abu Dhabi is about.”

Khaldoon goes on to describe how the new Manchester-Abu Dhabi connection is much more than about football: “The reception from day one, from the fans, has been absolutely incredible. There is an element of bridge-building, of understanding, between the Arab world and England. It was never intended. The intent was business and football, but it has come along, as part of this journey.”

Disarray and disrepair: how we almost lost everything

Conn’s second instalment is perhaps the most alarming read. Here he analyses the last days of the Shinawatra regime, seeing as it did the appointment of Hughes as Manager and Cook as Chief Executive.

The revelation here comes in the form of Hughes’ naivety, and his admission that he nearly walked away from the club. Then Chairman Thaksin Shinawatra was clearly a wealthy man – perhaps even a billionaire – but his murky political background meant that he was facing corruption charges in his home country of Thailand. And that in turn meant that up to $2BN worth of his wealth was frozen by the Thai government, which was bad for City – and Hughes.

“The reality wasn’t exactly what was described and sold to me,” said the Welshman. That may be so, but one would’ve thought that one could work things out. As Conn reports, Shinawatra had after all been facing the charges since 2006. Clearly, for a manager coming into the fray the picture was not transparent. My view is that Hughes took a gamble.

Then there was the club infrastructure. Hughes quickly realised that the training facilities were shot and in addition was having to address suspicious goings-on within the club in the form of attempts to sell players behind his back.

The bottom line is that there was no money. The by now infamous cash flow story – when former chairman John Wardle has to loan the club £2M in order to pay playing personnel – it completely true. We were on the edge of a precipice, the worst debacle in the club’s history.

Should we be surprised? Probably not. We were living up to the ‘typical-City’ tag after all. The difference this time was that instead of there being mistakes made on the field, there was mistake after mistake made off it – and with a good deal of stupidity thrown into the pot.

As Conn appears to suggest, it started with Wardle and Makin. Why did our previous owners even think about selling the club to a man facing wholesale corruption charges? Here were two men that were bailing out of a sinking ship.

The cacophony of errors carried on with Cook. “I deeply regretted my failure to do proper research on Thaksin,” said the City Chief Exec. I cannot understand how a former Nike Brand Jordan president fails to do the research on his next employer.

The real twist of it all is this – would there have been Mansour without Shinawatra? Indirectly, Wardle and Makin may have just delivered us into the most financially powerful football club on earth. And there’s a twist with Hughes and Cook too. Despite their naiveties Shinawatra actually delivered the club two very talented individuals. I doubt whether Mansour would’ve appointed either, but as it happens the Sheikh has stuck by both because of the qualities they bring to the club.

We shouldn’t be surprised, for the simple reason that this was City – ‘typical City’ – a club capable of plundering the depths and touching the heavens in the same sentence. But strangely enough, things have somehow fallen into place.

Culture wars: the exorcism of ‘typical City’

Conn finishes his trilogy by detailing how the Hughes-Cook-Khaldoon axis has set about revamping the culture of the club, curing the ‘typical City’ disease.

For Hughes, it is about stamping out the bad habits of the previous regime. These include eradicating a cliquey dressing room that had been allowed to become so through Eriksson’s signings. Of course, here we are talking about Elano. Part of Hughes’ solution to this has already been well documented – offering the squad a ‘no-excuses culture’ – or in other words giving them everything they need to perform to best of their ability in every game so that there is no opportunity for them to whine. It is also about developing greater linkage between the youth academy and the senior squad, giving our younger players key opportunities to learn from top quality professionals in the first team. There are certainly a lot of latter about at present.

For Cook and Khaldoon, it is about thinking big off the field – something City have never done. In Conn’s previous articles, Khaldoon has talked about how he found the infrastructure of the club ‘unacceptable’ upon arrival. New, top line gym and treatment rooms were in place weeks after Khaldoon first set foot in Manchester. For Khaldoon also, it is about what image the club is projecting. Conn draws attention to this by emphasising a lengthy debate between Khaldoon and Hughes over the signing of Bellamy. The Chairman was clearly not convinced by this target and Hughes most likely had to do a bit of explaining to get his man. Khaldoon’s unwillingness to immediately yield could’ve been to do with footballing reasons, but I doubt it. It could’ve been to do with Bellamy’s chequered medical history perhaps. There’s a business dimension too: I can’t see Bellamy’s shirt sales competing with the likes of Robinho’s. But I also think that image also played a part. The Welsh striker has a history of disciplinary problems. Did we really want to sign a player who did not seem capable of channelling his aggression in the right direction? Did we really want to sign a player that appeared to be incompatible with some of the values of Abu Dhabi as outlined by Khaldoon himself: commitment, discipline and respect? At the moment Hughes is being proved right.

Cook’s role in the exorcism comes in the form of thinking globally, something that was embodied by the audacious move for Kaka. A big buzz word for Cook must be ‘ambition’. We may have ultimately failed, but as a club we showed massive ambition by lodging a bid for probably the most talented player in the world at the height of his powers. Moreover, the bid was credible and could’ve gone through given the right climate. Off the pitch, Manchester City has never thought bigger or had as much bottle in its entire history.

This exercise in exorcism is about mobilising the resources of the club to achieve three interlocking objectives: making big money, winning big trophies and projecting a positive image of Abu Dhabi worldwide.

All of this seems light years away from the days of Peter Swales. And it is.