Monday, 24 October 2011

The history men

At the end of this season’s Charity Shield, Wayne Rooney said that Manchester United had taught City a footballing lesson. If that was a lesson, then yesterday, City returned the favour  with interest. Only this was something more akin to an education.

It is rare indeed that United find themselves on the receiving end of a defeat so emphatic, but there’s no other way of looking at it. Yesterday, United were hammered 6-1 in their own back yard. And I’m not even being partisan there either. This was Manchester City at their very, very best and United couldn’t cope. It’s a wonder the stands of Old Trafford coped with the Poznan too, such were the amount of times City fan were called upon to observe it.

The game had a familiar feel about it in the opening exchanges. United were out of the blocks quicker and were harrying us all over the pitch. Whenever we tried to search for the outlet, they closed us down. We defended well though, largely restricting United to shots from distance.

And that resolute defence was just as important as the flair we showed going forward.  Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott were solid. Indeed, perhaps the more disturbing element of this match for United fans was not the fact that they were cut wide open. If they are honest, they perhaps know that defensively, they are not at their optimum. Maybe the more level headed United fan might even say that they had this coming, but on balance, attack has for the most part got them out of jail. So it follows, that the most disturbing element here for them was the way we controlled that attack. Apart from Darren Fletcher’s excellent strike, only Jonny Evans came close.

When you are under the cosh at Old Trafford, finding an outlet is key. For those first 20-odd minutes or so we couldn’t really find it. And then? Enter Mario Balotelli, with a superb strike from an excellent Milner cross that outwitted the United defence. We were on our way.

I have to say there can be no complaints for the sending off either. Evans was left for dead, and Balotelli would surely have netted. De Gea is good, but he is not Van Der Sar just yet because he does not have the presence. Then the rest was history, as United were blown away. And talking about history, the Blues created quite a bit of it on the way. How about 81 years since United let in six at home in the league? That’s unbelievable.

And at the centre of it all, the irrepressible, the magical, the sensational David Silva. The Spaniard played out of his skin. The pass he gave Edin Dzeko for the final goal was out of this world, something to die for. That pass, and the Spaniard’s goal, were the icing on the cake. It could have easily been seven or eight.

The unofficial United mantra of ‘strength in adversity’ went out of the window here. Instead, they just got weaker and weaker. As Joe Hart said, United were already bleeding when Evans brought down Balotelli. All that was required then was for us to administer the diagnosis. And boy did we go in for the kill.

We did exactly what we needed to do. 2.0, 3.0. Then came the Fletcher goal, a glimmer of hope, a comeback to end all comebacks. And the answer? 4.1. Want some more? 5.1. And by the way there’s a sixth for afters. Crushed. This was an utter Derby humiliation, on a completely different level to that of 1989.

This is the way to play against United at OT. In general, in the past United have been rewarded for being United: positive, going forward, with the belief that they can salvage almost any cause. But every team has its limits. Here’s they got punished for showing those exact same values – they got punished for doing the exact thing that has got them out of jail on so many occasions. They got punished for being United.

The unusual thing was, they didn’t seem to understand what was happening to them. As Ferguson alluded, they were probably guilty of believing their own hype. In trying to hold true to the idea of United, they only did themselves more damage. But in the end, all empires overstretch their reach. It will happen to Barcelona one day, and it happened to United here – in the worst possible circumstances.

The stock response of many United fans: "its only three points", shows how little they really have to say about this hammering. What they should be saying is: "fair play". They know they can’t complain. Sometimes you just have to take it on the chin and respect the fact that you were beaten by the better team. Mancini is right to be humble. United are reeling now, but they won’t need any more galvanising. We know they’ll come back at us.

Nothing has really changed at this point in terms of the league.  United are still the favourites because they are the champions, and we’re still incomparable to them on that front because they’ve done it so many times whilst for all those years we fought amongst ourselves, got relegated and sacked managers. As Mancini said, things will only start to change once we secure that first league title.

But the context surrounding City and United has changed, its impossible to deny. On and off the pitch, this is a different City nowadays. Ferguson can only label us as noisy neighbours for so long. To be honest, we’ve been a whole lot more than that for sometime. Remember the 4-3 at Old Trafford? Remember the Carling Cup Semi Final defeat at Old Trafford? And now this. In the wider context, of course things have changed. To deny that is to be out of touch.

One thing’s for sure, the return leg at the Etihad Stadium will be an explosive affair. We’ve certainly given them something to think about.

This was us at our best. Aside from the mercurial Silva, Milner was also another standout performer. Aguero and Balotelli were as menacing as ever. Mario is still one for the future, I don’t think we can rely on him 100% yet, but his performance here and in previous matches proves that his mindset has changed somewhat. That’s not to say he won’t go and take five steps backwards. But that’s part of the madness of Prince Mario. Here United couldn’t control him. The Italian is explosive, that much is true. He has that little bit extra that you know could make him great. Unpredictability, audacity. If channelled in the right direction, Balotelli could be formidable.

Ditto for Sergio Aguero. This lad is the one to watch for me. Aguero has the look of a man that will win us serious trophies. I like his style: a true footballing brain and a glint in the eye that says he is up for the fight too. This is where our special added value will come this season. If he can stay clear of injury, then it’s going to be a better year than last for sure.

And as for Mancini – his hand continues to strengthen at the club. I have great respect for the Italian. He’s a professional and he took this victory like a professional. He has proved his doubters wrong this season. I think everyone has been surprised with just how progressive we have been since August. It is a different City than last year, a more optimistic side, more adventurous. Mancini is still experimenting, pushing the limits of what we can do going forward. And credit to him for doing that. To build a Premier League dynasty, we need to strike a balance between the flair of Arsenal, the pragmatism of Chelsea and the ruthlessness of United. It’s a task of the highest order, but Mancini is certainly moving towards that. He has to be praised for doing that.

If we’d have had an indifferent start to the season, playing with the same defensive mindset, the anti-Mancini faction would have grown, such is the short termism in football these days. But the Italian has nipped that in the bud. He’s the man who ended our 35 years trophy drought. He’s the man who led us into the Champions League. He’s the man who has just issued United with probably their worst ever Derby defeat, at Old Trafford. He’s already in the history books.

1955, 1989 and now 2011. I was there at Maine Road in 1989 when we beat United 5-1. It’s one of the clearest memories of my childhood – being passed over the barrier in the North Stand because some United fans had got in and were causing trouble. But I must admit, even though I watched this demolition in a bar in Jakarta, this day was so much better.

It was one of the greatest and will be for quite some time to come. Good to know too, that this defeat still means an awful lot to some people. Now, we must move on, get our heads down, and carry on with the job.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Mancini must find Derby cure for City’s identity disorder

It’s that time again. This weekend, we’ll renew our rivalry with United at Old Trafford. Over the past few years, Manchester Derbies have tended to be rip-roaring affairs. It’s impossible to know which way this one will go, but there’s bound to be passion and controversy somewhere along the way.

That passion has become super charged because of the narrative that is building this season. It’s a story of two Manchester clubs (albeit with one technically just outside the city of Manchester), one that continues to grasp the Premier League crown and one that edges closer to it season upon season. For the neutral, it is fast becoming one of the most compelling club fixtures of the world game, even if Ferguson would have people believe otherwise.

I can’t remember when we last visited Old Trafford as clear league leaders, but I know that this only serves to add further spice to what is an already explosive Derby cauldron. As we were in the Charity Shield, at Old Trafford we will be cast as the new pretenders, arriving at the swamp with our title credentials established. Even though we had kaept pace with United on points for weeks, we were still denied top spot on goal difference because of United’s 8-2 freak hammering of Arsenal. Even when we dealt out a demolition to Spurs, it seemed that we still couldn’t best our rivals. That of course is the superficial view, and ignores the context surrounding both fixtures. But now, with United drawing at Anfield, and City hammering Villa 4-1, we will arrive at Old Trafford as clear league leaders, both on points and on goal difference.

In reality, being ahead by one point and being slightly ahead on goal difference means little at this point in the season. All it means is bragging rights for City fans at OT. As soon as the game kicks off, all of that will disappear.

Football suffers from so much short termism these days. One week, teams, managers and players are the best thing since sliced bread, the next they can be cast as villains, sometimes even outcasts. Various forms of media, including the likes of this blog, are all guilty of fuelling that short termism.

But one argument that does not throw wood on that fire is the view that City are once again a different side to the one that faced United last season. At the risk of falling foul of short termism, a great case in point was this week’s Champions League game against Villareal. I’m sure most fans expected us to coast it, but it didn’t turn out that way. The Spanish side shocked us with an early goal, and then all of a sudden, come the 93rd minute, we were staring at another draw and likely early exit from the competition.

And then up pops Sergio Aguero, in the 94th minute, to give us the three points we so badly needed. It’s becoming a cliché, but City teams of old just would not have done that. It’s down to belief. With belief, you put yourself in the right positions in order to affect a change. You force things, but you do so in an intelligent way. In fact, I thought that Aguero’s strike, and maybe the team’s overall performance, even bore shades of Manchester United.

United have been doing that – forcing the play in intelligent ways – for years. Not playing well, but yet still coming away with the required result. Anyone who has ever won anything will acknowledge that it’s what all the best teams do.

And that why we must not start to believe our own hype at Old Trafford. For we are not the only narrative builders in this league. Ferguson has been building a narrative of his own for decades – its called 19th league titles – and we are the latest threat to that narrative. For years, United wanted to knock Liverpool off their perch. But now, make no mistake about it, they will want to put us right back in our box.

I hear City fans talking up our chances at the swamp, looking at United’s recent performances, and I honestly wonder whether City fans have learnt anything from our battles with United over recent years. It a complete and utter mistake to draw comfort from United’s recent performances. They may well have been performing below par, against the likes of Stoke, Basel, Norwich and Liverpool, but it doesn’t matter. They are still picking up points. They may well have a suspect defence, but somehow United always seem find a way to up their game. And I’m sure they will do so again when we face them this weekend.

It would be great to issue United a resounding defeat. In a sense we’ve a right to hope for that, as we’ll be racking up at the swamp with some heavy artillery in tow. But when was the last time United took a hammering? It doesn’t happen often, and Ferguson is the reason why. When it comes to the crunch, United rarely let their guard down.

We mustn’t let our guard down either. And I don’t know how Mancini will go about that at OT. There’s only two ways I believe he can do it. The first is to approach the game as the City of last season: safety first, keeping things tight and trying to nick a goal. The second is to approach the game as the City of this season: offensive, progressive, playing fluid football, striking quickly, effectively, efficiently.

Go too defensive, and we will keep it tight whilst having the players to hurt United on the counter, but here we will also run the risk of inviting too much pressure, which you don’t do against United.

Go too offensive, and we give United something to think about at the back but leave ourselves open in the process, which given United’s penchant for counter-attacking, could prove disastrous.

I honestly think that Mancini is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Win, and he’ll be lauded as a tactical genius. Lose, and he’ll either be labelled too cautious or too naïve.

The answer, as it often does, probably lies in balancing of City’s split personality. And for once, that should give City fans more cause for hope than they usually have at OT. Because for once, I sense that this match is more about the personality of City than it is of United. More about how the Blue side of Manchester acts and how the Red side reacts, than the other way around.

We’ll see soon enough.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

WADIOH on BBC World Service

A big thanks to the team at Sportsworld, a programme aired on the BBCs World Service, for inviting WADIOH onto the show to discuss the recent Carlos Tevez saga.

Sportsworld is (like the title suggests) beamed across the world, presenting live commentary from the EPL, topical sporting debate and big name interviews from the world of sport.

To catch the next programme, check out Sportsworld's website here.

Alternative you can contribute to the debate through Sportsworld's Facebook or Twitter pages.

What will be success for City in 2011/12?

This might seem like a tedious question but it is one that is going to be recurring at Manchester City for seasons to come now. I asked the same question towards the end of last season as Mancini’s days of judgement loomed. But with the manager coming through that period unscathed, and with the club in a record four competitions this season, I think now is an interesting time to ask the question again - whilst we're still relatively at the start of things. So what do people (Blues and non-Blues alike) think can be defined as a successful 2011/12 season for City? Here’s some of my own thoughts.

Let’s take the Premier League first. Given the start that Arsenal has made, and with Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool not coming out of the blocks too quickly, we have to be looking at the top two positions. United have admittedly had an explosive start, but it will not last forever, as evidenced by the recent loss of Wayne Rooney to injury. Defensively, they are also more open - whilst De Gea is not as bad as everyone thinks it is impossible for the young Spaniard to fill the boots of Edwin Van Der Sar so early in his tenure. Chelsea now are slack and are in the middle of a 'changing of the guard' of sorts, but the signs are there that Fernando Torres is on the way back, and with Juan Mata and Raul Meireles coming into the squad, I've little oubt that Villas-Boas will oversee the necessary transition. This means that Chelsea may well come on strong towards the end of the season, but we still have enough in us for one of the top two spots.

In terms of trophies, I would forgo not winning both the FA Cup and the League Cup (yes!) if it turns out that we can put together a solid run to the latter stages of the Champions League. I think it is a little unrealistic to think that we can win the CL this season, but progress in this competition with serve us better over the longer term, rather than winning the League Cup for example. Don’t get me wrong, its always good to win more trophies and I certainly wouldn't shy away from doing that, but the collective experience gained from a lengthy CL run would be worth more.

But if we win the lot – then great!

I guess the main thing this season is perhaps not to become frustrated if we end up with nothing. It would surely be hard to take for the fans if this were to happen, given the FA Cup glory last year, and the amount of money that has since been spent players – again. But it must be remembered that this season is a new experience for us, fighting on four fronts. We now have the squad to win the league, but the final pieces of that squad must still be given time to settle. Sergio Aguero is one of the reasons why we are title contenders this season, but although he has made a blistering start, he must still be given the time to settle properly. We just need to ensure that we are qualifying comfortably the for CL each season and are having a real crack at the Prem each season. We're established in the top four now, so we've a great base from which to build. I think its a matter of time before we land one of the big two trophies.

But that's my three penneth. What does success mean for you this season?

A second place league finish? Nothing less than the Premier League title? Champions League glory? Domestic cup glory? Settle for nothing in the event that the Blues still prove that they are progressing (i.e. they reach a couple of finals and finish second in the Prem)? Or nothing less than the quadruple?

Answers on the (electronic) postcard below!