Monday, 14 February 2011

Close, but no cigar

Another derby, another day of disappointment, where we are left picking through the embers of a defeat that even the most objective City fan will surely feel we did not deserve. This after all was the best City team to visit Old Trafford for years, depleted – I would argue - only by the absences of Nigel De Jong and Adam Johnson.

But derby days are strange days. In the past we have won at Old Trafford with much lesser elevens than the one that walked out last Saturday. All the more frustrating then, that we should come away with nothing.

Analyse the game itself, and you find that we gave an impressive and at times stylish account of ourselves. Our main threat came from the right in the form of Micah Richards, who I must say put in a fantastic performance. The right back seems to be returning to the form of old, when he first broke through into the first team. The threat from the right increased when Shaun Wright-Philips entered the fray for the ineffectual Kolarov - another good substitution from Roberto Mancini. SWP put in his best performance for a long time, with vastly improved crossing and dribbling – the kind we know he is capable of delivering but that which also seems to have deserted him for months on end. Its funny how opportunities open up in football – had Adam Johnson not been injured, SWP would likely have exited the club last month. Instead the little winger now has the chance to play his way back into Mancini’s plans. An interesting sub-plot to the season finale.

Aside from Richards and SWP, our big guns stepped up to the plate. Kompany was imperious as usual as the back, and as usual Silva and Tevez were always a threat, playing stylish one twos around the edge of the United penalty area. Indeed it was this intelligent interplay that carved open the United defence in the opening minutes, with Silva toe poking a shot past Edwin Van Der Sar that rolled agonisingly past the post. We all know that its moments like these that come back to haunt you.

That said this was a much better all round performance than at Eastlands. Ferguson went with a defensive-minded 4-5-1 formation, if anything else a compliment to City and the myriad threats we pose. It is rare indeed that United opt for caution at home. As it turned out this played into our hands. For large periods it was us with the initiative, us with the ball in the opposition’s half. On the whole we restricted United to the long shots of their irksome winger, Nani.

It came against the run of play on 41 mins when United edged in front. What a soft goal to give away. Lescott failed to win a header that had his name written all over it, the ball bounced to Giggs who quickly lofted a pass to Nani and the rest was history.

All our endeavours deserved the slice of luck that we got in the 65th minute, when substitute Dzeko struck a SWP cross towards goal, only for it to be deflected off the back of Silva and into the back of the United net.

Back United came, but not with the tenacity of our meetings during last season. This time around I felt that we dealt with their attacking threat much better. So much so that it took a combination of luck (Nani's deflected cross, Kompany's slip) and the technical brilliance of Wayne Rooney to see us off.

No prizes are given in football for impressive performances. They took their chances and we didn’t. And that clich├ęd sentence unfortunately sums up this derby meeting.

If it wasn’t already, now the title is completely gone and we must focus on our cup competitions and the battle for Champions League football. And looking at the league table, there is certainly no time for self lament over this defeat. Tottenham and Chelsea are breathing down our necks with games in hand. We must pick ourselves up quickly.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Balance the key to undermining the mediocrity that faces us

One emerging theme of this campaign has been City’s inability to defeat teams of lesser calibre, especially when the team in question sets themselves up as hard to beat. Even when we have managed to get the goal, sometimes we haven’t pushed on and got more goals, or we’ve managed to the get a second, third or fourth but have somehow allowed the opposition to keep within reach of levelling the game.

The results

Let’s take the obvious results first – i.e. the frustrating draws that should have been wins: Blackburn at home (1-1), Birmingham at home (1-1), Leicester away (2-2), Notts County away (1-1), and most recently Birmingham away. Then we have a set of edgy wins that should have been comfortable victories – i.e. Bolton at home (1-0), Blackpool at home (1-0), Wolves at home (1-0) and Leicester at home (4-2).

I sometimes feel that we are a bit skewed tactically. If we’d have decided what were about in these games, maybe we’d have come away with more points. For me the problems emanate from wide positions and have a knock-on effect on our ability to score goals. Are playing with full backs? Or are we playing with more traditional type wingers? What is the function of Edin Dzeko?

Full back conundrums

Whilst Alexandsar Kolarov is undoubtedly good going forward he remains shaky when going in the opposite direction. We could still be seeing a bedding in period here but the Serbian certainly does seem to lack pace, which is alarming given that Mancini has bought him with an attacking function in mind. Once Kolarov gets better positionally we may see him be able to do the whole job on the left. And of course his goals will always come in handy.

I am more worried about Jerome Boateng, who does not seem comfortable playing at right back in the English game. Rarely does he venture forward, which in one sense is a shame because he can put a half decent cross into the box. On the other hand it shows that the backroom staff, or Boateng himself, do not believe that he can perform the full hit on the right. If you don’t have the pace, better to be cautious rather than push on, lose the ball and then get hit on the counter.

If we are going to set our stall out to play with wing backs, then I would suggest Kolarov and Micah Richards. The latter was the only consistent threat going forward against a weak Notts County side in the FA Cup. Richards can cause damage going forward, and his speed and strength serve him well if he gets caught out and needs to get back.

It is concerning though that we don’t really seem to have moved on a lot in the full back areas, given the money that we have spent (Kolarov £16m, Boateng £10m). These players both came to the club to perform these functions but at present they don’t seem up to the full task. Both were injured earlier in the season and they do need time to continue to bed in but the fact remains that if they were doing the job we bought them for we would be much more of an attacking threat.

Wing problems

When the full backs aren’t firing on all cylinders, we turn to the more natural wing players that we have in the squad, but this has now also turned into a problem area for us. We just don’t seem to have enough wingers.

This has been aggravated by the injury to Adam Johnson, one of our most natural wide men, who will possibly miss the rest of the season with an ankle injury. Our next best thing has to be Shaun Wright-Philips, who still appears to be a crowd favourite even given the lack of form that the diminutive winger has showed for months on end now. Unless SWP picks up his game, he will struggle to fill the void left by AJ.

Then we have James Milner, clearly not a natural wide man but often employed there by Mancini. Milner huffs and puffs – you will always get 100% from him wherever he plays, but he lacks the pace and trickery of a wide player. At £26m, the ex-Villa man appears to be an expensive commodity to use out on the wing at any rate. And finally we have Jo. I hate to kick a player whilst he is down, but against Notts County, the Brazilian was awful. Complete lack of presence on the field and an awful touch. We all know that he is never going to be the answer.

Packing the middle

Our inability to breakdown average teams form the flanks has led to us packing the middle. Too many players trying to do too much from central positions against opposition that is, on the whole, behind the ball. All this threatens to stifle the threat posed by our new striker, Edin Dzeko. Against Aston Villa and against Notts County, he found himself in possession in wide positions. This is not where we want the Bosnian. He may well be able to play, and from what’s I’ve seen he certainly can, but we want the lad front and centre to take advantage of the physical and aerial threat that he can pose. We have the players around him who can play. For me the Bosnian badly needs service from wide positions.

A balance that might not exist

So now that the transfer window is closed, how does Mancini get around these problems to turn an already good season into an excellent one? He may have already found part of the answer. Against West Brom last weekend, Kolarov was employed as a left winger and I must say he gave one of his best performances yet in a Blue shirt. With Zabaleta at left back, the Serbian was given licence to go forward with Tevez and Silva, and even found himself at times in the central midfield attacking position often occupied by Yaya Toure.

But the balance of the side is still not quite right. Where was the threat from the right against West Brom?

It seems to me that at present, we can’t field a fully balanced team. If we opt for wing backs, then we open ourselves up to Kolarov’s lack of pace and Richards’ lapses of concentration. A Kolarov and Boateng pairing means that one gets forward and one does not. If we opt for traditional wingers, then we only have one in the squad who is capable of beating defenders – Adam Johnson – who is currently injured.

And whilst I accept football is sometimes a game of trade offs, with the money we have spent, you’d be forgiven for thinking that perhaps we shouldn’t be allowing ourselves to be making these kinds of compromises. Meanwhile of course, we have a £27m target man who should be attacking quality balls in the opposition box. Surely the signing of Dzeko is proof of the value Mancini places on attacking from wide positions. But strangely enough we now find ourselves beyond the January transfer window with question marks over whether we have the players to mount significant threats down the flanks.

Mancini has done well so far, no-one can deny this, but I do sometimes wonder whether the Italian has chosen the wrong system for the players at his disposal. Or rather, whether he has signed the wrong players to fit into the system he wants to play.

Only time will tell, and who am I to argue with Mancini, who has up to this point put in an impressive performance as manager. But if we fail to get into the top three this season, then we are all sure the look back at the fixture list and deduce that it was ‘our failure to beat mediocrity – that’s wot did it’. Then the next sentence will be: ‘we didn’t go for it enough’. And perhaps we don’t go for it enough because we are aware of our frailties, weaknesses that give rise to a cautiousness in our play, and that stem from having a slightly off balanced team.

If we want to be successful then this needs to be addressed. It's things like this that can prove to be the difference between a top four side and a side that vies for the title itself.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Topical City - Issue 2 released

The second Issue of the excellent online City magazine is now available. Just click on the image to the right to get reading. This issue includes a wide array of topics - anything from Tommy Caton to Maurizio Gaudino to David Silva! Without a Dream in Our Hearts makes an appearance on page 17, with an article about Michael Johnson and the City Academy.