Thursday, October 30, 2014

QUÉ PASA, MANUEL?



Since trooping in at the sort-of-empty Arena Khimki after 45 minutes of CSKA-City, looking well pleased with themselves, City's players' fortunes have taken a distinct downturn, encompassing a second half cave-in in Moscow, a little disorientation practice in East London and the nightmare warm-up for the weekend’s derby match getting turfed out of the League Cup by a Newcastle reserve side. There seem suddenly to be five issues at play here:


1. Semi-Shambolic Defence



Only three clean sheets in fifteen competitive games so far this season tells its own story. Let your minds drift back to the dozy sun-drenched display in the Community Shield, too quickly dismissed as a training exercise for the reserves. Since then, City have bombed against Stoke, CSKA, Newcastle, West Ham and, to a degree, Roma. The defence is not playing well, is not gelling and looks uncertain and nervy. Even the two accepted bulwarks Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta have looked jittery of late. Of the others, Eliaquim Mangala has revealed enough to suggest he will be the business alongside his captain at some point in the future, but the young Frenchman is having a baptism of fire at the moment. Fast in the tackle, speedy taking the ball forward, he has displayed the innate passing ability of Albert Tatlock of late.
At left back the choice between an off form Gael Clichy and out of sorts Aleksandar Kolarov looks like the proverbial Morton’s fork. Some will say chopping and changing doesn’t help, but that is the reality of clubs competing on many fronts these days and City have not just been thrust among the movers and shakers and should really have got used to it. Now that the “choice” of trophies is down to three for City, irony offers the manager more chance to play the same back four more frequently.



2.
Summer Signings



Question: Of Willy Caballero, Fernando, Mangala and Bacary Sagna, which has settled most seamlessly? Exactly, the answer is Frank Lampard. While the new second ‘keeper has looked ok in his brief spells in the limelight, the other three have all had their hairy moments. Fernando has been caught napping by a combination of the furious pace of the English game (TM) and the strange slow pirouettes being daintily enacted by his midfield partner Yaya Touré and, while Mangala is never going to have a problem with the concept of speed, his brain appears to be playing catch-up with his legs, which is not always a pretty sight. Sagna is perhaps the most mal-adjusted of the lot, looking ponderous, nervous and hesitant in his appearances so far, displaying none of the rampaging qualities showcased by Pablo Zabaleta in the same position over recent years. Where the Argentinean fires fearlessly up and down the flank, Sagna is almost static in comparison. Where he flies into tackles, Sagna stands off and gets beaten to the ball. Time will help Mangala and Fernando, both of whom need to be allowed to adapt after arriving from the apparently genteel non-combat fields of Porto*, but Sagna has been a Premier League regular for years.

* a club that has of course hit above its weight in Europe with no problems at all over the years and sparred toe to toe with Europe’s greatest for far longer than City, but still...


3. YaYa & Fernandinho



With a rock-like defence fronted by a two man defensive midfield axis, City have been sitting pretty and sitting tight for three seasons now. That axis has been put into doubt – and this may well be having a debilitating effect on Issue 1 above – by the stuttering form of last season’s first choices for these two berths, Yaya Touré and Fernandinho. The latter appears still to be shell-shocked from his experience with Brazil in the World Cup, where he was singled out by the fervent and excitable domestic press as a scapegoat for their failures (along with the more high profile and obvious target of Fred), whilst the former’s gentle meandering has provided perhaps the contrast of them all with last season. Put mildly, Yaya Touré’s 2013-14 effort was an astonishing masterwork of the complete midfielder’s range. Add to this the fact that he has been responsible for so many of City’s highest efforts since the FA Cup breakthrough in 2011 (where his goals knocked United out of that unforgettable semi final and won the Cup against Stoke) that a certain amount of slack must be cut. The oft-documented shenanigans with his white suited agent suggest a lack of drive to continue with City’s well versed targets. This is becoming all too obvious in the big man’s distracted displays whilst grazing amongst the midfield carnage. Touré is a real City legend, but he is in some danger of ending his career in Manchester on a slightly sour note.



4. Champions League



A lot of steamy talk about this too. The owners love it. The Ipad warriors love it. The half and half scarvers love it. Mastercard love it. Heineken loves it, presumably in responsible doses. The club wants it. The manager’s good at it. But the fans either dislike it or at best are ambivalent to it. The forced removals from treasured specs, the high prices, the wall to wall stadium makeovers, the adulation of stars, the clammy media interest, the tourists and their strange antics. There is a lot here that City’s much talked about working class, low income, ageing, traditionalist, no-farting about support can get their teeth into, but it is not just that.
That would be too simple. Most have waited for the chance to see the Blues lock horns with Bayern Munich for several generations, but have quickly been forced to see a competition which throws us together with the Bavarian giants three times in four years with a certain amount of cynicism. The seeding, those pots, the smug faces, the ranks of suited octogenarians fawning over Cristiano and Lionel and Zlatan, oh God, Zlatan.The natural feeling seems to be to tell them to man up, cut the crap about who can and cannot be drawn together and throw all those damn balls in ONE BIG HIGHLY POLISHED GLASS BATH. Then if we come out in the same block as Liverpool, Real and Atlético, so be it. It’s still better than knowing who you will play before the draw has even been made, because of a dearth of possibilities after taking country clashes, tv schedule requirements, Eastern European war zones, Michel Platini's all-time favourite conference venues and any number of other fatuous excuses to make sure Real and Barcelona prevail out of the equation.



5. Manuel Pellegrini



This is the big one. Is he here for the long haul? Is he capable of getting angry? Can he really do the Champions League? Does he have an engineering degree and where the hell is Valparaiso anyway? And, whilst we're at it, why go without a replacement for Negredo when all the pups have been loaned out? So many questions with too many question marks flying at a dangerously low level. The manager's age and experience tell us that the Chilean is not here for the long haul. As Alan Pardew once noted, he is getting on a bit. A lot of speculation about City’s plans for turning Patrick Vieira into a Pep Guardiola with a French accent has surfaced of late, but the reality is probably different. The reality is probably Pep Guardiola with a Spanish accent, if it’s at all possible, although the papers will have you believe that United are at the front of that particular queue too (as well as the ones for Klopp, Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo). Ironically, whilst nobody suggests Pellegrini is anything other than secure right now, City’s chances of landing such as Guardiola or Ancelotti or Simeone are better soon rather than later, as the likes of Mourinho and Van Gaal are not about to move on just yet. This means manager hungry Chelsea and star magnets Manchester United are not in the market for any of the A Class bosses, who might become available shortly. As things stand, Jurgen Klopp may well be the first of that bunch, but does that fit City’s game plan and will there be a vacancy at the Etihad before the end of this season anyway?  Let us hope not. Because, if all this blows over and is looked back on in May as a mere storm in a teacup, it will mean that City’s Charming Man has charmed another trophy out of the trees for the faithful to stare at. He will go a long way to calming some already rumbling stomachs by maintaining City's recent excellent record against this weekend's visitors from over the border.

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