Thursday, 21 February 2013

A season lost in the mind?

One prominent theory as to why the Blues haven’t been firing on all cylinders this season seems to centre on us not sufficiently strengthening the squad.

There’s probably an element of truth in this, but I think the overarching reason why City haven’t got out of third gear this season is that we’ve not been up for it mentally.

We’ve not been ready for the mental task of retaining the league title. Some say the first league title is always the hardest, because you are going into the unknown and trying to do something you’ve not done before, but for City this season, there’s been no question that retention has been the harder task.

A look at our neighbours and the outstanding difference this season appears to be Robin van Persie. Of course that’s true – the lad has gone and bagged 19 goals in league, so that can’t hurt anyone’s title ambitions. But it is only part of the picture. The bigger part of that picture is about performances, or lack there of, from our existing squad. 

We started the season with four top rate strikers, probably the best in the league, but none of them – save perhaps flashes form Sergio Aguero – have really been at the top of their game. Four strikers of the quality we had represented incredible depth. If an inform Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli had not put us on top of the league at this point in the season, we certainly would not be 12 points behind the leaders.

There is the view that things always need to be freshened up a little for the new season, just to keep the established pros on their guard. The argument goes that - yes - we have freshened up the squad, but not with the right level of quality, so the strongest starting eleven is pretty much the same as it was last season. Teams have become accustomed to the way we play and have adjusted accordingly. New blood of the quality to improve the squad would have given the opposition something different to think about, etc. 

But can we really make a proper judgement on the quality of our new signings? It is Javi Garcia’s first season in the Premier League and no doubt he has struggled, but there is no way he should be discarded as an inferior signing just yet. We miss Nigel de Jong’s qualities, but I was always under the impression that Garcia was brought in because he could offer us more than de Jong – a combative midfield presence allied with a bit of deep midfield creative play – and a threat from set pieces. Garcia needs another season at least until he can be judged.

As for the others, Maicon, Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell have hardly played due to injury or – especially in Sinclair’s case – not being selected. Between them they have something like eight Premier League starts. It’s hardly fair to brand them lower grade replacements either.

And then of course we come to Matija Nastasic, who has been anything but a disappointment. We await his development with great interest.

The fact is, all the way through the squad, there's players who haven't been performing. Joe Hart hasn’t, Samir Nasri hasn’t, Yaya Toure hasn’t. By his own dazzling heights, neither has the magnificent David Silva, but this I think is more due to the fact that the onus is always on the magician to pick the lock when the going gets tough because no one else is stepping up to the plate. When we look back at the campaign, it will be the draws that we will curse: Southampton, QPR, West Ham, Arsenal; not to mention the defeat against Sunderland. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more down the line this season.

With the league now 95 percent lost, perhaps we could freshen up our squad - late in games - with some our youth players (if indeed that have been registered) to get Premier League experience. Although the striker has just come back from injury, John Guidetti is the obvious choice. Its not as if the 20-year-old is wet behind the ears, having bagged 20 goals in 23 appearances for Feyenoord last season. Who knows what would have happened this season if he’d stayed free of injury? The other two players are Denis Suarez and Marco Lopes, the latter of which has already featured in the FA Cup against Watford, scoring a goal. Introducing youth needs to be measured of course – if we cant have first then it must be second. A loss to Chelsea this weekend doesn’t really bear thinking about.

However, the focus on our youth needs to intensify. Since the likes of Micah Richards and Stephen Ireland, it feels like we’ve been waiting years for someone to come through the academy. The academy has of course produced some good players – solid Premier League players I would say – but by and large there has been nothing on the scale of what West Ham and Manchester United have produced in recent years. Any hopes surrounding the return the greatest product of our academy – Michael Johnson – have now been snuffed out for good. 

Nobody knows what the future holds in terms of Financial “Fair” Play, but we do know that the Premier League is moving toward it in some fashion through restricting losses. That of course is the other dimension to our “second rate” signings this summer. If we’d have broke the bank on signing another raft of top rate talent, how much deeper would we have mired ourselves in the UEFA regulations that are on their way?

Sooner or later, FFP is going to bite, so our player development is the key to our future success. The sooner we start giving more youngsters opportunities in the first team, the better.


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