Monday, 30 November 2009

Another day, another dollar, another draw

I was nervous going into Saturday's game with Hull, but I did not expect a 7th consecutive draw. I was so frustrated I felt sick. Maybe I should see a doctor.

We are certainly not at crisis point, but this trend needs to be arrested quickly. All City fans, whether they be of the uber pessimist or die hard optimist ilk, must recognise that something is not right. What is the problem? How do we go about fixing it? These are the real questions, pretty much identical to the ones I asked after the Burnley game.

From 5-1 to 1-1
Let’s be honest, Hull will have headed home laughing their socks off. Phil Brown must have been incredulous on that bus. It seems their luck has changed for the moment and fair play to them. Apart from the industrious Jimmy Bullard – their best player by far – they had very little to offer other than the usual fouls on SWP and awkward, bouncing punts forward for our centre backs to deal with. They’ll struggle staying up but if they fight like they did yesterday they’ll certainly give themselves a great chance.

Aside from a miscommunication in the first half (the crowd blamed Richards but Given didn’t seem to be telling him anything in terms of leaving or clearing the Hull cross), and of course the goal in the second (to which I was irate that we again allowed opposition attacker a free header in our penalty area so late in the game), I thought we saw defensive improvements. I’ll admit that Richards continues to look shaky, almost resembling the schoolboy that needs to be told where to position himself. He still looks at his best when going forward, purely because of his strength and speed. It was much better from Lescott, I think he had his best game in a blue shirt, which was still not great but given his recent form was a positive. He looked more commanding in the air, did better with clearances, and of course saved our blushes by clearing a shot off the line in the second half. It was better from Bridge too – again not great shakes but the left back positional sense looked a bit more assured.

I think Jimmy Wagg’s post match phone in on BBC Manchester indirectly underlined these improvements. In recent weeks the defence has rightly been taking the brunt of criticism. This week it was the turn of the attack, again, rightly so. And I must say I think the attack has been getting away with it of late.

It was not that we did not endeavour to go forward. It is just that our control of the ball and concentration in the final third was woefully lacking. To many times did the final ball go astray. Too many times did it not reach a blue shirt. Too many times was it inaccurate. Our set piece play also seems to have regressed. We seem intent on hanging corners to the back post area. Why not mix it up? Why not try a fizzing inswinger into the box? This isn’t acceptable. We have to expect and demand more from this crop of attacking talent.

Robinho was the best of our forwards on Saturday, looking dangerous every time he was in possession. Adebayor continues to disappoint after a blistering start. The only target man we seem to have in the team is Santa Cruz. I wished we used him more like the battering ram he is rather than employing him in approach play positions around the edges of the box.

It is also futile to push forward the ‘we were robbed by a bad refereeing decision’ argument. It probably wasn’t a penalty and SWP had a decent penalty shout turned down at other end. But this is not the point. We should not be hanging on these decisions against team like Hull. It smacks of desperation. We should have pulled away long before the referee pointed to the spot.

Underlying problems: confidence and leadership
One of our most assuring performers, Nigel De Jong, speaks of the confidence being there but the rub of the green as deserting us. Well, I think we are a side running low on confidence. Great players have come in and perhaps the squad has half expected immediate results. And when those results have not come off, heads have gone down. This is where team spirit and leadership come in, or in our case lack of them.

And that is partly down to the squad being new. This is the reason why Hughes has brought players like Barry and Toure to the club – to play well and lead. But it is no mean feat to come straight into a club and take up the captaincy immediately. Leaders need to be built up and need to feel an affinity with the club they lead. Of course, this takes time. Richard Dunne is gone, so there is no point harping on about how much we miss him. The Irish centre back, a legend of the club, was never going to be our long term future. Players like Onuoha and Lescott are.

So when Hughes rightly talks of the team showing a collective anxiety, we know and the players probably know that there is no-one amongst them who is currently capable of quelling it. Only time will provide the solution. Before we can seriously think about the top four, this team needs to build character. To do that, I think it needs to lose together as well as win. It is vital we remember that the team is still only in 6th place, five points off 3rd. But the weight of expectation dictates that this team’s back – however rightly or wrongly – is up against the wall. This is where the foundations of a winning team spirit are built – not by winning your first five games and having it all too easy.

A note on the future of Mark Hughes
In no way should we be contemplating parting company with our manager. The chopping and changing of managers has never brought good things to this club. I know that it is different now in the sense that money is no object. But we need consistency, badly. At the very least Hughes should be given until the end of the season.

The pro-sackers should be careful what they wish for. There are no guarantees in football and a new boss won't guarantee us anything. Impatience has been the enemy of this club for far too long. It would be madness to prolong this trend to make it 12 managers in something like 20 years. Mansour and Khaldoon need to apply patience here, and I believe they will do it until the end of the season.

A note to Jimmy Bullard
Finally, even if it is at the expense of City, it is good to see the Hull midfielder enjoying his football again given his horrible luck with injuries. Bullard is an excellent player, and I would like nothing more than to see him in the England World Cup squad. I congratulate him on a well taken penalty and a celebration that was truly legendary.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


Who emerges as the dominant forces down the channels may well prove to be one the most interesting squad battles of the 2009/10 campaign. The abundance of talent that City now have in the channels will bring new tests for our players and indeed for Hughes himself. To keep the squad morale afloat, different combinations of wingers will have to be used at different times. For this, Hughes man-managing abilities will have to be spot on. The wingers themselves will have to get used to increased competition.

Bellamy’s form
Different wings are giving rise to different problems. At the moment, it is the left that is giving rise to the most debate. The form of Craig Bellamy has surprised a lot of people – and a welcome surprise at that. His blistering start the season, combined with the injury sustained by Robinho, likely blew out of the water all pre-season conventional thinking about the left

The big question is whether this situation is going to be sustainable. Even if his good form continues, Bellamy’s troublesome knee may well put pay to his aspirations of cementing a left wing birth. If this happens, it will be a great shame. The Welshman’s performances have not only stood out because of his goal contribution, but because of his work ethnic and therein the quality of his defensive wing play. I think it will turn out to be a case of a vicious circle for Bellers: he is a first choice winger because his overall play matches the demands of the Hughes regime, but these demands will probably end up taking a toll on that knee, making injury and time out of the team more likely.

The gathering storm around Robinho
The current predicament of another one of our left wingers, Robinho, is threatening to turn into a saga. Rumours of a move to Barcelona, ebbing and flowing for months, have now stepped up a level. The Guardian seems to think this it is a question of not if, but when the little Brazilian moves to Spain.

To what extent has Robinho been pushing for this move? Stephen Ireland has recently come out in support of his team mate, stating that Robinho is a ‘changed man’ (Ireland goes on to attribute this to players like Elano leaving the club, making it less cliquey and encouraging Robinho to interact more with the rest of the squad).

Whether or not this is true, I don’t think it will have a big impact on Robinho’s intentions, which appear to be a law unto themselves. Footballers can sometimes speak in mysterious ways, but I find it difficult to believe that Robinho is not angling for a move. For me, the alarm bells began to ring when he went on record as saying: "I'm very happy about the interest that Barcelona have in me. I'm not forcing a hypothetical exit from England and nor do I have problems with my coach. Playing in the Nou Camp it is much easier to be the best player in the world than at City."

Mixed messages? Yes. But there’s definately smoke here I and suspect there’s fire too. Particularly irksome is the final sentence. The bottom line is that Robinho should not be talking about Manchester City and Barcelona in the same breath. Why would the player do this other than for the sole reason of fanning the flames speculation to engineer a move?

A strange co-incidence is the fact that more wood has been thrown onto the fire this week with Hughes’ stand off with the Brazil National team. The root of the problem here is the national team’s open consideration of playing Robinho against Oman next week. City, concerned about the Brazilian’s recovery from injury, say they struck a deal with Brazil to allow the player to train with the national squad but to not play in the international friendlies.

With speculation growing that Robinho and his wife are apparently sick of the sight of Manchester, the club’s spat with the Brazilian national team will only serve to give the winger another stick with which to beat City with.

In terms of our own interests (because at the end of the day this is what this whole thing should be about, not the interests of one player), this needs to be nipped in the bud asap. I have never been the Brazilian’s greatest fan. The lad is immensely talented – that is beyond doubt – but if he were to leave tomorrow, what could we say we got out of one of the most talented players in the world? Half a season (during which he scored the majority of his 15 goals) at best? For me it’s always been a question of commitment with Robinho. We are at the point now where he either needs to be brought in check or sold on and replaced with someone who wants to play for Manchester City.

Petrov’s window?
With Bellamy injury prone and Robinho’s future uncertain, a window of opportunity has opened for Martin Petrov. The Bulgarian has always impressed me with his attacking play and crossing of the ball from the left. If he can improve the defensive side of his game to the level of Bellamy, there’s a real chance of him cementing a left wing spot. Petrov also provides another striking outlet and has already scored some important goals this season. This aspect of his game will also need to be sustained if he is to make the desired impact. Despite his contribution to the team so far (delivered in the context of limited appearances, it must be said), I still think Petrov’s biggest barrier could be winning over the manager. The recent speculation surrounding Benfica winger Angel Di Maria moving to Eastlands could well turn out to be an indictment on the Bulgarian's future at City. If there's substance to the Di Maria move, it sends the message that Hughes views left wing position as out of Petrov's reach.

Problems of the right
Competition for places down the right channel is a different ball game. For now, the right wing position belongs to Shaun Wright-Phillips. We need more competition down this flank for the reason that Shaunie is not being pushed hard enough. SWP is a cracking little player. He has a balanced game, he plays for the shirt and is willing to track back. We all know he has an eye for goal too. But I believe he has played within himself this season. I can’t put my finger on it – perhaps it’s a lack of confidence or a lack of concentration, but his final ball is not really there at the moment. Also, his dribbling skills are not coming off in the way that they used to. I think a bit of competition for SWP is the answer here – it will certainly be interesting to see what Hughes does in this department in the next transfer window.

Of course, the growing presence of academy product Vladimir Weiss is relevant here. Weiss looks really promising. Going forward he is a very exciting prospect – the kind of player that gives you the sense something is going to happen when he gets the ball. Whether he is ready to make the step up to a starting place is another thing entirely. Personally I think we need to see him make more substitute appearances in Premier League games before making a judgement on how ready he is.

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.