Tuesday, 16 February 2010

We don't sense blood

Last Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Stoke in the FA Cup, and tonight's 1-1 draw – also against Stoke – in the League, confirms that our recent slump in form is indeed a slump and not a flitting aberration. The upturn in performance that inevitably followed Mancini’s arrival is now well and truly over. I think now we will see just how good a manager the Italian is.

Return to mediocrity
The recent wins against Portsmouth and Bolton were mediocre. I suspect most will not have an issue with mediocrity as long as the result is right. But when mediocrity is added to a draw, or even a defeat, it becomes a different matter.

And we have been mediocre for a few games now, probably starting with the visit to Goodison Park. We were outfought against Hull. We just did enough against the likes of Portsmouth and Bolton, but if they’d have been any better they probably would have got something out of the game. Even though we were never behind in these home games, I still felt that our lead was slim and fragile. Maybe that’s just my own typical City mentality shining through. Against Bolton especially, we won because we are a richer club that can afford to buy players who are capable of producing the kind of skill that Adebayor displayed to score the second goal.

As regards to the Stoke FA Cup draw, the most frustrating element was our response once the Potters had drawn level. Apart from an excellent header from Gareth Barry, producing an equally excellent save from Thomas Sorensen, we hardly mustered a chance. Its not that there wasn’t endeavour – we huffed and puffed – but there was little in the way of creativity going forward. It was the kind of performance that reminded me very much of our long run of draws earlier in the season.

I did not see the Stoke League draw, but I listened to parts of the game on the Club’s website. We sounded even worse than we did on Saturday, with crosses into the Stoke box poor and – even when they were better – no-one seemed to want to get on the end of them. To go behind against the 10 men of Stoke was criminal. I accept that playing against 10 men can sometimes be more difficult than 11 – but it should’ve been difficult in terms of us breaking them down, not a reverse (and perverse) scenario where Stoke actually managed to get themselves ahead whilst they were a man down. Shay Given’s form has taken a slight dip of late – and he confirmed this last night by allowing a relatively tame shot from outside the area to trickle past him.

Barry’s equaliser was a massively important goal for us. The major positive must be that we moved into fourth position with this dire performance. We are a team that looks disjointed, but we are still up there with a good chance of securing Champions League football next season. We are playing badly, but we are still picking up points.

In true City fashion, we almost threw the whole thing away in the final minutes as we allowed yet another Rory Delap throw to cause us major problems in the area, which resulted in a Stoke goal that was eventually disallowed. When Stoke were awarded that throw, everyone knew what was coming. Everyone also knew that this was the manner in which we conceded in the Cup game last Saturday. So it was treason for us to so again, so late in the game. The bottom line as we come away from the Britannia is that we were lucky. Stoke’s second should have stood – there was no foul on Given in the area – and most probably Patrick Vieira should have been sent from the field of play by lashing out after a Stoke player challenged him from behind. Even though we are not playing like a top four outfit, perhaps we are developing the luck that seems to favour the top four sides in these kinds of games.

What are we missing?
We already have the players we need at the club to make the top four. So this is not a question of new personnel.

It is obvious that we are a much lesser side without the likes of Tevez and Bellamy. That should be no surprise – any team would suffer without these kinds of players. They are our attacking lynchpins in terms of our creativity and goal scoring threat, and they are also our heartbeat given the intensity that they bring to our game.

But we should still have enough to get by when our key men are not involved. That back up should be coming in the form of Adam Johnson (who of course was not available for the Cup tie) and Stephen Ireland.

I would like nothing more than for Ireland to recapture the form that he showed so consistently last season. At the moment is it not up to that level – this is stark because that level was high for so long last year. Whilst Ireland is a victim of his own success, he is right to think that he is also a victim of changes to the team’s formation. It’s fair to say that his form has been knocked out of him because of these changes. But Ireland remains a key player for us and his creative spark will return if he gets more games attacking from central midfield positions. Of course, Ireland’s wish is a hard one to grant at the moment given the amount of midfield players we have in contention for places.

Recently, there’s been some worrisome rumours regarding the Irishman’s possible sale. If this were to happen, it would represent a grave mistake, one of the worst the club has ever made. Ireland is not only an excellent player and professional, he also has a great affinity with the club and the fans. He is one of the club’s own. As United have proved, players who understand the club and who are in step with its heartbeat are invaluable assets, especially as teams begin to change with the influx of new players. This is very relevant for City, especially now that we have so much new, foreign talent at the club.

Having said that, I’m certainly not placing the blame of our Stoke Cup performance solely on the shoulders of Ireland. Petrov again turned in a below par outing. The Bulgarian just doesn’t look interested and if he continues in this vein I’m sure he’ll be playing for another team next season. Adebayor continues to frustrate me immensely. If only the lad could win headers. Then he would be the complete attacking article. But he cannot win headers and he cannot seem to challenge strongly for balls pumped up to him in advanced positions. His height is perhaps his greatest enemy in the sense that it lures people - like me – into the perception that he is a traditional frontman. He’s clearly not that kind of forward, but still I find his complete inability in winning aerial battles and holding up the ball unusual for one who is so tall and one who knows what it takes to be a frontman in the Premiership.

Once again, mentality
Aside from individual performances, I still feel that we show deficiencies in the mentality department, deficiencies that need not exist given the talent that runs throughout the team. More than anything else, this is the major factor that separates us from the top three. Both City and the top three expect to win. For the top three, it’s a positive thing, an attitude they draw on that fuels their confidence. But for City, at the moment it seems to be negative – our expectation to win seems to make us complacent, disjointed and sluggish.

We didn’t have to do much to put Stoke on the ropes in the second half of the Cup tie. When we decided to get our act together with Barry’s header, we should have turned the screw, upped the intensity and come at Stoke again. When Stoke went a man down in the League game, we should’ve upped the ante and made the extra man count. That’s what top four teams do in these situations. But we just don’t seem to be able to sense the blood of our opponents.
We will soon have to, or else I fear that Messrs Cook and Khaldoon will start sensing the blood of those in the City dugout.

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