Thursday, 13 May 2010

Notes on a season

We have missed the chance of being able to compete with Europe’s best next season. For many fans this will represent failure, but the reality is found far from this assessment. If anything, we are still a club in transition, and this above all things we must remember as we look back on this season, in my opinion our second season of upheaval.

So let us look at the campaign in its entirety. Why have we ended up in fifth position? Why not fourth? And why does this year’s season look and feel like a bit of a failure?

When it really mattered, we lost
Let’s start with the last question, and in particular the disappointment of the Spurs game. It was a cup final, and yes it was a cup final I expected us to win. But on the night we fell short because we ran out of attacking ideas. It is never productive to point the finger at individuals, but I feel Emmanuel Adebayor was a key element of this loss. Adebayor started the season well but climaxed way too early during the home tie against Arsenal last September. Following his subsequent suspension, and then of course the horror of what happened to his Togoelse team mates in Angola, he never recovered this early form. And I can’t work out whose fault that is.

Against Spurs (as we have done pretty much all season with Ade), we kept on pumping long balls up to him. I might be walking around with my eyes closed, but I don’t recall ever seeing the 6’3” striker ever win a header. He always jumps at the wrong time, and ever when he is close to getting the ball, he doesn’t seem strong enough or willing enough to win the ball a redirect it to a team mate. His opposite number – Peter Crouch – had this off to a tea. This meant that Spurs were able to retain possession much more easily higher up the pitch, putting us under pressure. Our long balls just came straight back at us, which is part of the reason why we eventually ran out of legs and ideas.

We can look at Adebayor’s individual weakness and pin blame on them. But we also have to question the tactics. What are the players told in the dressing room? Surely it is obvious that Adebayor is not going to win headers and therefore obvious that we have to find different ways of getting up the pitch? If we’re going to knock it up to the front guys, then why not play a more traditional front man in the mould of Roque Santa-Cruz? I was confused by Mancini’s approach to this.

Another big reason why we lost to Spurs was lack of attacking threat from midfield. We started with De Jong and Barry, then substituted Barry with Vieira. A midfield with the defensive stamp of Mancini. With little central link from the midfield, it seemed to me Tevez and Adebayor were coming deeper to retrieve the ball, and then running it into wide positions. Whenever they were successful and crosses did come into the Spurs box, our attacking presence was halved, as one of our striker’s was doing the winger’s work.

In sum then, our attacking play was disjointed – full of endeavour but with no teeth. All very frustrating when you consider the wealth of attacking talent we have within the squad. So we lost against Spurs, and full credit must go to them for the way they secured fourth position. With all the money we’ve spent, no Champions League football is a kick in the teeth. If we’d have beaten Spurs I feel we would’ve secured that berth. It was literally that close and this is where the feeling of failure comes in.

The derby defeats
The heart ache doesn’t end there of course. We also lost in other pivotal games throughout the season. The 4-3 defeat at Old Trafford was a bitter, bitter pill to swallow. It was our first loss of the season, and an important loss I feel for the confidence of the squad. We fought unbelievably well in that game, and when Bellamy scored to make it 3-3 in the 90th minute, it certainly felt for one second that finally, after all these years, the scales were beginning to tip in our favour. We were becoming as mentally strong and ruthless as our neighbours. It was our turn to spoil the party and nip back into contention at the death. Owen’s 96th minute winner cruelly demonstrated that for now at least, we had to wait a little bit longer. That goal knocked us sideways and over the season I don’t think we fully mentally recovered from that blow.

This mental state was underlined when in the Carling Cup semi final Wayne Rooney scored in stoppage time to deny us our first trip to the new Wembley. I was at that game and I can tell you that it was quite simply horrific.

And neither did it end there. Last month at Eastlands, Paul Scholes decided a drab Derby affair by netting in the 93rd minute. This was absolutely soul destroying stuff for the average City fan. Personally I didn’t react as badly to this defeat as I did to the other two. Maybe I was inwardly half resigned to losing it anyway, given what had happened during the season.

We also feel as if we have failed this season because of these dramatic defeats and our inability to put one over on our rivals and draw real blood. We need to chalk up a League victory against Ferguson’s men quickly if we are to remove this inferiority complex.

The consecutive draws
Not long after our first defeat to United, we began to get in the habit of drawing games. The seven draws we chalked up in the months of October and November were key to us missing out on fourth. They were also key to the demise of Mark Hughes, sacked in December. Some were welcome and came against good sides such as Aston Villa and Liverpool, but too many of these draws were worrisome. The home draw against Fulham was where I saw the first signs. We had built a good 2-0 lead by the 60th minute, but by the 70th we had capitulated and allowed Hogdson’s men to draw level.

At the time I passed it off as an aberration, but I nevertheless sensed the smell of ‘typical City’ lurking in the atmosphere. At the next home game that sense was confirmed as we went 2-0 down to Burnley in 30 minutes. By the 60th minute we were 3-2 in front, but we capitulated yet again towards the end of the game and allowed Burnley to level the tie 3-3. We broke the duck with an excellent home win against Title-elect Chelsea, but a game later we were back to our drawing habits, allowing Bolton to put 3 past us at the Reebok. We gave as good as we got of course, and equalised every time Bolton took the lead. But it was clear to see that something was going wrong at the back. It was entertaining, high octane stuff going forward, but we were leaking goals badly at the back and the back of our minds everyone knew that this was not top four form.

Although we’d put a stop to the consecutive manner of our draws, you could see our confidence was knocked. We’d lost our steel, we weren’t the side we were at the beginning of the season. For the Mansour-Khaldoon-Cook axis, the final straw came with the 3-0 defeat to Spurs at White Hart Lane. This was (quite rightly as it turned out) a game billed as a battle between pretenders to the top four crown, and quite simply we failed spectacularly. I don’t remember us managing a chance all night as Spurs kept us at distance and picked us off. The billing of the game sealed Hughes’ dismissal. Whatever your opinion on Hughes, it confirmed to the owners that he didn’t have the mettle to lead this team into the top four.

The ingredients of our best ever Premier League finish
Having gone through all this dejection and despair, its clear that this is far from the whole picture. Although we failed on most of the big occasions, we certainly did a lot right. We would not have finished as high as 5th if this were not the case.

A lot went right offensively. Yes, Adebayor failed to fulfil his £25m price tag, but other players stepped up to the plate magnificently. Some, such as Carlos Tevez, were expected to. But others were not. Craig Bellamy has arguably just completed the best season of his career. Not many predicted the heights to which the Welshman would climb this year. A constant menace (both to opposing teams and – constructively – to his own team mates) it is difficult to see how we would have finished so high without Bellamy’s overall contribution.

But the largest accolade must go to a certain little Argentinean striker. After harbouring slight knocks at the beginning of the season, it took Carlos Tevez a little time to get into his stride. But when he did, he quickly became the attacking fulcrum of the side and the best player I have ever seen in a Blue shirt in all my years of watching City. The diminutive striker finished the season with 29 goals, 23 of them in the Premier League. In hindsight, it is this statistic that will most rankle United supporters this season. It is now clear beyond doubt that Ferguson made an error of judgement in letting Tevez leave. Perhaps this represents our best jibe at United this season – with Carlos Tevez in a Red shirt, they almost certainly would have won the League.

Our attack gave rise to some blistering results. It is to the attack’s credit that these reached their peak at the end of the season, with the back to back 6-1 and 5-1 demolitions of Burnley and Birmingham respectively coming to mind. But better results with more moderate score lines lay earlier on in the season. The opening day defeat of Blackburn Rovers was fundamental. Sam Allardyce and his men were the first to face the full brunt of Sheik Mansour’s millions. During the pre match build up they warned that City’s starlets would have a tough, physical ride. I think the term ‘kick lumps’ was used by one of the Blackburn players. And lets face it, a drubbing from Blackburn Rovers would have been an utter disaster on the opening day. Our season would have got off on the completely wrong footing and we’d have been the laughing stock of football, with Allardyce crowing in our ears. But these threats never materialised and the Blues efficiently despatched Rovers 2-0 at Ewood Park. Allardyce’s men seemed to heed this warning during the return fixture at Eastlands as I don’t remember any mind games being used here. But it didn’t matter. City were better than they were at Ewood and sent Blackburn packing 4-1.

The contribution of Adam Johnson should also be noted. Johnson, signed by Mancini but most probably identified by Brian Marwood, is a great English talent that will surely go on to do great things in football. Whilst formidable, his trickery on the wings has not always been there whilst he has been at City – most likely due to his lack of physical strength. But he has been a damn sight more consistent that Shaun Wright-Phillips, and this might well mean that the younger winger goes to South Africa in the place of SWP.

The defeats of Chelsea both home and away showed exactly what the side could achieve when it set its mind accordingly. In their decline, Liverpool were lucky to escape with two draws against us this season. We could have easily despatched them in both games if we’d have brought will and determination to the table. Things were looking very rosy indeed when, at the end of the season, we came from behind to defeat Aston Villa 3-1. The win was the first of a two game stint that we all knew would decide our Champions League future. We took the first step with flying colours, but as we all know by now, we failed to navigate the second.

The arrival, and subsequent backing of Roberto Mancini
The arrival of Roberto Mancini was a controversial development, not least because I feel the majority of fans – after they’d thought about it – actually didn’t want Hughes to go. Tempers were high and people were looking to point the blame at the club’s hierarchy. At first I thought Mancini looked a bit bewildered by it all. I remember his first press conference, when reported fired questions to him about whether he would be sacked if he did not reach fourth. The speed of Mancini’s arrival and the rumours of him being in the stadium to watch Hughes’ final game contributed to the feeling that the owners had plotted to plunge the sword in the Welshman’s back for some time. Then there were allegations from Hughes that the owners had unfairly moved the goalposts, now demanding a top four finish whereas at the start of the season they asked only for sixth. The mud was flying in all directions, but the majority of it stuck to Garry Cook. Hardly any seems to be still running down the faces of Khaldoon and Mansour. But they are the ones with money after all, so perhaps they deserve

After that initial press conference where Cook was took to task for supposedly unfairly raising the bar on Hughes’s performance, I soon became very impressed at the way Mancini acquitted himself. If anything, the Italian was the calming influence that we needed around the club.

The appointment of Mancini has seen our football make a trade off. Clearly more cautious, more defensive than Hughes, Mancini has shored us up at the back. But this has diminished our attacking threat – not fatally I must add – but it is nevertheless diminished. City’s tradition is to play progressive, attacking football, but to do that in today’s game and win (much like United do) you need better players at the club. This season we’ve not had those players and so Mancini has opted for defensive solidity over attacking risk, employing a much more defensive midfield in outlook. Tevez too, seems to expend a lot less energy now than he did under Hughes, where he seemed to pressurise defenders much more through chasing down the ball. I don’t know why this has changed, or who made that decision, but we all like it when Carlos is chasing down lost causes because we know that he’s likely to cause opposing teams problems employing this tactic.

The defensive solidity that Mancini has introduced has made us much more difficult to beat. We now concede less goals and I remember only being comprehensively beaten once under Mancini’s leadership – that being a 2-0 home defeat to Everton where Moyes’ team frustrated us all match, culminating in Mancini losing it on the touchline with Moyes. It’s also the only time I can remember the Italian losing it.

The backing of Mancini – even though he did not reach his target of delivering the club into the Champions League – is most welcome. I have written time and again on this blog of the club missing the ingredient of stability. In truth we’ve not had it since the early 1990s. Stability doesn’t just equal success, but the right personnel and stability certainly does. With the new financial backing, we have brought the right kind of personnel to the club – both in playing and managing terms. It is about time that someone finally backed that talent that we now have, and not only that, but remain fully committed to that talent when things don’t go according to plan. I honestly believe that this is the only way Manchester City will achieve sustained success in the years to come.

Looking forward
So its not really that bad after all is it? We’ve now a Europa League campaign to look forward to with a much better squad of players to attack it with. We must remember that we did well a couple of years back with a set of much lesser players. The Premier League also looms, but I think we are still a way off in terms of securing that title. After next season I think we will have a much better handle on where we are domestically. A lot depends of course upon the trajectory of other teams, but it also depends upon ourselves and the team spirit we forge at the club, which I feel has been lacking for the past year. A key area here is identifying our leaders, and specifically a club captain that can take us forward. At present I am not sure whether we have any of these. These things can only be developed over time, and it is for this reason that I expect the League to be beyond us for a couple of years yet.

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