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.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Robinho fades away

Last week we allowed the most expensive player in British football to leave City for pastures new. Robinho has now joined Brazilian club Santos on a loan deal that at the very least extends until the end of the season. Was this a wise deal to sanction or not? Robinho was clearly many things to many people at the club. I have mixed thoughts about his departure.

Robinho: the embodiment of Arabian power
As I have previously said on this blog, the little Brazilian has cut so much more than just a footballing figure ever since he arrived in Manchester in September 2008. He embodied Sheikh Mansour’s message to football: that of Manchester City being ready to become a major force in the world game.

At the time, the signing of Robinho was a massive statement, plucked right from under the noses of Chelsea. It was certainly effective then, but looking back we can perhaps see how much of a gamble it was for the men from Abu Dhabi – not in terms of finance, but in terms of footballing prestige.

Roughly 14 months later, football has bitten back. The message: whilst money certainly helps, it does not automatically buy success. For the likes of ADUG then, Robinho’s departure represents a failure of sorts. In a sense it proves right the approach of Mark Hughes – that the club must be built up slowly through progressive stages, rather than immediately aiming for the highest point. Now the club risks looking like it can’t hold on to its biggest players. In terms of footballing prestige, we have tried to run before we can walk and have ended up stumbling.

Robinho: the footballing genius
We certainly cannot deny the pure footballing talent of this little Brazilian. He is the most naturally gifted player I have seen pull on a Blue shirt. The sad thing that somehow we have been unable to unlock his massive potential.

This partly could’ve been down to things we’ve had some control over. How well, for example, did Mark Hughes understand Robinho as a player and how well did he accommodate him into our system? Well, going off the record, for the first few months of the 2008-09 season, Hughes did pretty well in this department. Robinho scored the vast majority of his 14 goals in the first half of the season. If he’d have replicated anything like this form in the second half of the campaign he would’ve been a good bet for the Premiership’s top scorer. As it happened he ended up City’s top scorer and 4th top scorer in the League overall. This disproves the argument of those who say that Robinho just wasn’t built for the rigours of the Premier League.

Not one more day in Manchester
But as we all know, this form didn’t continue. Perhaps the signs were already there in the second half of last season when the goals started to dry up. Was this a case of player mis-management? Of Hughes and his coaching staff not having the tools to help Robinho overcome his bad patch? I doubt it. In fact I doubt whether the Brazilian ever really paid that much attention to the instructions of Hughes’ coaching team.

I think it certainly was a case of teams working out how to handle Robinho a bit better, but biggest of all I think it was down to the Brazilian’s mentality. I would’ve thought that the beginning of this season would see Robinho hitting new heights, especially with all the new talent that Mark Hughes had assembled at the club. If anything, it went the other way. Robinho’s performances deteriorated, he became injured, rumours of a move to Barcelona resurfaced and then stories emerged of him not wanting to spend another day in Manchester.

There seems to be a lot of mileage in the fact that he simply did not like England and was not happy playing his football here no matter who it was with. Earlier in 2009, he was arrested on suspicion of rape at a nightclub in Leeds, only to be cleared five months later. He claimed that this contributed to his unhappiness and how he viewed his life in England.

And then of course, there must have been the weather. Having just come out of one of the worst winters for many a year would have certainly done nothing to help the Brazilian’s motivation.

The gap between South America and Europe
These things – managing the player, fitting him in the right system, the player’s mentality on the pitch, the player’s mentality off it – are all variables. They could’ve been changed – by managers, coaches and the player himself - to make football in England a much more worthwhile and enjoyable experience.

But there are some things that we could not have changed, things that perhaps make the player’s departure seem that much more inevitable. One is the cultural change that Robinho has failed to make coming from the South American game to the European game.

The BBC’s Tim Vickery has written an excellent article about this cultural shift. In it he quotes the current Brazil manager Dunga:

"[The Brazilian press like to say that Brazilian players move abroad to develop in a tactical sense. But in truth they go to Europe to learn individual and collective responsibility. In Brazil, any player who is a little better thinks he can get away with more than the others and behaves irresponsibly, including on the field. And the coach lets him. Abroad, if the athlete doesn't play for the team, he loses his place."

At City, and probably to a lesser extent at Real Madrid, Robinho has likely been treated in this fashion – as an equal member of the squad despite his mesmerising talent. But at Santos, Robinho will be placed upon a pedestal whilst air will be blown into his inflatable footballing ego.

Indeed, perhaps this process has already started – take a look at this footage of the Brazilian arriving at the Santos stadium.

Robinho: a child in a man’s game
At any rate, coming to Europe seems to be about growing up. That Robinho has failed to do this perhaps lies at the very root of why he has cut and run from his second challenge at a European club. Aside from his baby like thumb-in-mouth goal celebration, the Brazilian has acted within his 26 years in numerous other ways during his time here.

He was brilliant, but he did not seem to understand the frustration of the crowd when they saw only glimpses of this brilliance.

He was a massive offensive threat to opposing teams, but for one so inventive, he offered surprisingly little in the way of new attacking ideas once his opponents had worked out how to nullify his existing armoury.

He spoke of great commitment, of wanting to join a ‘big club’ like City, of wanting to be part of City’s ‘exciting project’, of wanting to win the Premier League title and of wanting to stay with City for the next five or ten years. But his desire on the pitch, soon on the wane, and his continued inability to settle into Mancunian life, proved that these words were all too empty.

And it is for all these reasons that I believe we will never see Robinho in a City shirt again.