Tuesday, April 28, 2015

ELEVEN GAMES THAT FLOORED CITY





Manchester City


sit precariously in 2nd place in the Premier League table. Precarious second places don’t come by very often, but we appear to have one on our hands here, so we must make the most of it.

Manuel Pellegrini, looking bright eyed and bushy-tailed, was heard saying the immortal words-

It is no shame if City are runners-up. You cannot improve every year”.
Subtle attempts like this to boost personal ratings pre-summer camp are all very well. They allow those of us who have nodded off and not noticed the ugly string of defeats that City have decorated spring with to think all is well in the cookhouse. 

Sweaty meetings with your desert paymasters are understandably tricky hurdles to jump, especially when you've overseen something of a damp squib of a season, so it is well worth a quick blast of positivity to see if it works as well as it surely does for our slightly-too-clever politicians.


Just last season
No shame indeed in 2nd place, Manuel, for we have been in a fair few darker places than that, but let us not climb aboard the bone-shaker to Sincil Bank yet again. Not when the first class sleeper to the Nou Camp is apparently our chosen method of transport these days. No parking the penny farthing against a privet hedge outside Moss Rose anymore for us. It's load up with tapas and bratwursts and break out the Lonely Planet Moscow. 



The manager is of course right. Shame takes many shapes but second place in the Premier League is not usually one of them. Not if you support a club whose previous occupants of the fabled hotseat considered 0-6 defeats at Liverpool “entertaining” or believed five months without a home goal to be adequate pay-back for continued support. Shame exists in football in a variety of rude shades, from Alan Pardew’s wicked tongue to people who choose a minute’s silence to abuse Cesc Fabregas for no longer wearing a red and white football shirt. 2nd place is undiluted delight alongside all of this.



No, if there is shame in City’s season, it has nothing to do with 2nd place in the world’s toughest league™ but stems from eleven matches which could and should have been won but were not. The consequences of that will follow Señor Pellergini deep into the desert this summer.



Here they are, in all their chronological beauty.



▐ ► ONE: Sunday 10th August Arsenal, Community Shield – Before we had even sat down to enjoy the start of proceedings, here was one gigantic wake-up call that went unheeded. An admittedly below strength side taken to the cleaners by Arsenal. No redeeming features, no excuses, no way out. This was a horribly lax performance that would be reconstituted in similar form several times in the ensuing months (mainly in the following passages of this article). The game had any number of other tellingly repetitive elements: a haphazard Fernando midfield performance, a defence at sixes and sevens, a depleted Yaya Touré being pulled off after less than 60 minutes, a first and last view of the potentially iconic Bruno Zuculini, the first of scores of weird non-penalty decisions (for Chambers’ brutal check on Jovetic)  and one of the last sightings of Matija Nastasic in the sky blue. □ After match Manuelism: “We played better after the break…



▐ ► TWO: 31st August Stoke (h) – Stoke, yet to score at the Etihad since their 2008 arrival in the biggest and best league, managed one here in another match that revealed tasty items of what was to come: plenty of tippy tappy and heaps of possession, followed by a big yawning void; Fernando pulling his groin by putting his foot on the ball; everything Yaya touching going into the sky; a whopping hand ball by Wilson in the area ignored by a strolling, loose-faced Lee Mason and an ill-adjusted defence, featuring slow diagonal runs away from the line of the ball by Kolarov and Fernandinho, allowing Diouf to run in from somewhere north of Burslem and slot past Joe Hart. □ After match Manuelism: “We lacked creativity.



▐ ► THREE: Saturday 25th October West Ham (a) – Having inexplicably thrown away a two goal lead away to CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, City managed to match that generosity at Upton Park against serial lambs to the slaughter West Ham. 70% possession for City, away from home, a wonderful David Silva goal and absolutely no points whatsoever. More patterns developing. Chelsea already opening a clear five point gap at the top of the table with patient, powerful, unspectacular football, but football that ended up with three points at the end of the game. □ After match Manuelism: “Tiredness from the trip to Moscow was not to blame.”



▐ ► FOUR: Wednesday 29th October Newcastle (h) Carling Cup – Another whopping 70% possession (any pennies dropping yet) and a 2-0 reverse to yet another of City’s accustomed whipping boys. Give us West Ham, give us Norwich – if they’re around - give us Villa and give us Newcastle, but not this year thank you very much. Lacklustre and fragile, with Silva crocked after ten minutes, the holders of the Carling Cup departed the tournament early and in a dishevelled state. Just the three trophies to concentrate on now. □ After match Manuelism: “The team tried to run, tried to do things better but we couldn’t because we’re not in good form…” (October, this, remember)

 

▐ ► FIVE:  Wednesday 5th November CSKA (h) Champions League – 2 points from the first four Champions League group games meant continental prancing had also been reduced to a hobble at this (early) stage of proceedings. Here we were treated to more shambolic defending, a free header for Doumbia whilst Yaya counted pigeons overhead and a red card for Fernandinho and another one for Yaya Touré’s Muhammad Ali impersonation. All signs of a growing European presence were at this stage hiding behind a very small rock. □ After match Manuelism: “Qualification is not impossible.”



▐ ► SIX: Sunday 28th December Burnley (h) – Mince pies may have been eaten but there were still plenty of turkeys hobbling around at this one, as City threw away a 2-goal lead (becoming a little repetitive, isn’t it?) against an average Burnley side with plenty of energy and enthusiasm and, in Danny Ings, a player who could cause wobbly defences problems. Wobbly defence, did you say? Walk right up! More unprovoked full back rotation, both being swapped, plus an absent Vincent Kompany, crocked again, told more of the season’s narrative before it was half over. □ After match Manuelism: “We still have 57 points to play for.”



▐ ► SEVEN: Saturday 18th January Arsenal (h) – Outplayed and tactically outmanoeuvred by a compact Arsenal side playing to cancel out City instead of going toe-to-toe at tippy tappy, this result revealed two things: that City’s off colour season was no flash in the pan and that Chelsea’s relentless charge was not going to be easy to match with this kind of form. A run of five without defeat went up in smoke on Aguero’s return to duty after 8 games out. Also returning, captain Kompany, who gave away a needless penalty when bringing down Nacho Monreal. 65% possession though. □ After match Manuelism: “A lack of creativity cost us here today.”



▐ ► EIGHT: Saturday 24th January Middlesbrough (h) FA Cup – Here went the second cup possibility, with even less of a whimper than Newcastle and the distant sounds of people exploding on the streets of Manchester. 65% possession (just copy and paste from previous passages) proved absolutely useless as Boro' tore City open on the counter attack. None of this was made any easier by one of the away scorers being a Chelsea loanee (Bamford), City were bamboozled by Boro’s front runners and unable to make any impression at the other end. No Wembley trips this year then but we always had the timely….> □ After match Manuelism: “We got scared.”



▐ ► NINE: Saturday 8th February Hull (h) – City needed a 90th minute equaliser from James Milner to avoid defeat at home to Hull, who – like Burnley – had offered little more than lively resistance and bodies in handy places in handy numbers. 74% possession this time, but let’s not dwell on the uselessness of passing backwards and sideways. Lead at the top stretched to seven points after this one. □ After match Manuelism: “We needed more urgency in the final third.”



▐ ► TEN: Saturday 14th March Burnley (a) – 70% possession for this one. Story of a season underlined one last time by Burnley’s answer to Rivelino, George Boyd, smacking one home when City’s profligate forward line could not find the target. Burnley, almost certainly destined to go down, thus completed a four point haul against the Blues this season. In previous seasons possession has led to goals, cannon fodder has been fired into the blue yonder and City going in front has almost inevitably meant City winning. Not this time, buddy. □ After match Manuelism: "We shall defend our nets, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight them in the centre circle, we shall fight them on the training grounds, we shall fight them on the field and in the penalty areas, we shall fight on the flanks. We shall never surrender."**
 
Pre-match bravado
ELEVEN: Sunday 12th April Manchester United (a) A game that put the seal on the whole foul-smelling affair of 2014-15. Taken to the cleaners by the club that had, we thought, – with City’s assistance – become a laughing stock. Chasing a club record of 5 consecutive victories against the old foe, City caved in. When Van Gaal had taken over the reins from David Moyes, it had looked set fair for more japes and laughs. Only the last laugh here was on City, as United powered back from a goal down and showed the Blues what fight, determination and organisation can do against eleven supposedly better players. Another lead lost, another bragging post dismantled. City were now 4th, four points behind United. □ After match Manuelism:  “It’s not easy to think there is just one problem. There is a lack of trust in this moment”


All of the elements mentioned above have either fallen away this season in comparison to last (ability to take the lead and hold on to it) or have appeared out of nowhere (extreme defensive frailty). Pellegrini’s Manuelisms (“not too bad”, “quite good”, “not so so bad”, “a little bit lacking here”, “not quite sharp enough there”) may just be attempts to hide the blazingly obvious or the signs of an old man struggling with a new language. A team may occasionally find it difficult to improve every year, although it is not out of the question to see slight chinks of light here and there. To stagnate, which City have done this season, or go backwards, which some will also accuse them of doing, was not on the Abu Dhabi menu. When the Chilean sashays into the Middle East next month, he can expect to be welcomed with the customary politeness and largesse. Once the canapés have been scoffed and the talking starts in earnest, however, it may prove to be as comfortable for him as a sand-infested poncho.



** may not be entirely his own words.

Monday, April 13, 2015

IN THE HEART OF ROARING LIES SILENCE

“...I remain restless and dissatisfied; what I knot with my right hand, I undo with my left, what my left hand creates, my right fist shatters”   ― Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum
Quick out of the blocks, alert and aggressive, sure-footed and thrusting, a tuned-in-looking City took the derby to United for a mighty impressive ten minutes before deciding enough was enough and downing tools. Thereafter the baton was handed over to their counterparts, who went on to dominate the remaining 80 with Louis van Gaal's much maligned brand of, apparently, kick and rush doing far more damage than anyone could have imagined. It was far more than that, of course, but the tactics were simple and fresh and too much for City to deal with.

Spending a game of this importance being given the runaround by the one team they could not afford to allow that pleasure was not a particularly sound move by Manuel Pellegrini, whose swiftly diminishing box of tricks showed no lustre, no shiny surprises and not a single idea on how to pull the Blues back into a game speeding frantically away from his team from the tenth minute onwards.

A mauling at the hands of your nearest and dearest is not something owners and boards usually take kindly to and the money spent on City means Sheikh Mansour, Kaldoon al-Mubarak and the boys might just be in a slightly touchy mood right now. Being shown up by Manchester United is not, after all, something that has featured regularly during his watch so far.

As for the increasingly frayed-looking Manuel Pellegrini, specualtion will now -- if it had not already done so -- go into overdrive. Will he last until the end of today? The end of the week? Before or after the West Ham match? Or the end of the season? It all seems now to be just a matter of time.

As it became painfully clear which way the dice had fallen, Sky's coverage of the game gave us several uncomfortable close-ups of City's Charred Man and the closer they got, the redder his eyes seemed to be. Pellegrini has in recent times become a rather sad image of his team: tired, pasty and slightly bewildered-looking, forlorn, drawn and confused. The blood-shot eyes suggest a man deeper into the pressure game than he likes to let on. His "the buck stops here" quotes will weigh heavily on judgement day.


"It is my responsibility and the only way we can change this is by winning games..."

EMPTY WORDS EMPTY GESTURES

Winning games is precisely what City are not doing of course. This was the 8th defeat in 14 matches since January 18th. As Bacary Sagna said after the limp showing at Palace, "there are seven cup finals left for City". Well, there had been eight before that game and now there are six. It smacks a little of the Tiny Tim announcing there are only five sleeps till Christmas. And then what, exactly?

City, needing a big performance after all the recent desperate ones - were out-played, out-thought and out-manouevred by a mobile, aggressive United side, playing simple, effective football. Passing back to their keeper rather a lot, utilizing fast, robust long balls rather frequently, it still worked famously. Van Gaal's gameplan came unstuck initially with Aguero's opener but was vindicated by half time with United turning it all around and positively celebrated thereafter.

With Aguero notching his 99th and 100th City goals and the corner count (not that City's corners have produced a single item of interest in the last six months) heavily in City's favour, the attack carried a temporary threat. If you were a United fan after ten minutes, you might have been hoping to restrict the score to below recente drubbings, but there was a pleasant surprise in store for all prepared to keep the faith. City were about to go back into hibernation.

MAKING ASHLEY YOUNG LOOK GOOD

At the back there was carnage and much of it, it has to be said, was caused by yet another pedestrian
Pass the towel
performance by Yaya Touré. Himself dominated by the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini, he was caught dawdling in midfield time after time. His inertia pressed Pablo Zabaleta into a difficult decision between doing his job at right back and helping cover the overrun Fernandinho in midfield. This in turn allowed Ashley Young a miniature field day down the wing.

On one early occasion, lightly fouled in midfield, Touré, a big man, went to ground, producing the usual high armed theatrical protest from a prone position. Referee Clattenburg refused to play ball and let the game run on. As the resultant United possession morphed quickly into a proper attack, you looked for the fast back tracking bulk of Touré, but it never appeared. Jogging back, he made no attempt to catch up with play, contenting himself with a watching brief just inside his own half.

Touré's performance by the end amounted to a dereliction of duty, an abdication of sorts, a sad footnote to what has been a magnificent innings in Manchester. Who will now want to buy a player of his age (31) on his wages is anybody's guess, but the last two months have seen him join a lengthening list of players many City supporters will want out this Summer. Touré, the man who lit the blue touch paper against the same desperate foe in 2011's FA Cup semi-final, is one of the reasons City are where they are today: double Premier League champions, FA and League Cup winners. He will live long in the annals of City folk heroes, but his wonderful contribution is being tarnished by these late days of empire.

For those, who do not want to see blackness in the blurred and subjective terms of player and team performance, there are other more scientific ways of measuring just how grim it was out there: City's 4th consecutive defeat was the first time they had managed such an inglorious run since the Alan Ball masterminded relegation season of 1995-96.

City's pass accuracy in this game was an almost entirely alien 71%, a full seven points below the next worst for this season. So often were the targets of City players' passing missed that it looked like Alan Ball had had an influence on that too.

Similarites are being drawn between this fall-off of form and how Roberto Mancini's last season in charge finished, but this time two years ago City were producing a magnificent FA Cup semi-final performance to sweep Chelsea aside and book a place at Wembley. That "downing of tools" by Mancini's team looks magnificently celebratory in comparison to Pellegrini's late term offering in 2014-15.

The papers will now have their day, dispatching players to the summer transfer whirlpool and sucking out the managers foolhardy enough to offer themselves for a job, which will now involve wholesale overhaul of squad, post-graduate level understanding of financial fair play mathematics and the handing out of plentiful positive platitudes to a network of supporters becoming a little low on tolerance of a club that has again shot itself in the foot.

UNTYING THE KNOTS

Questions must be asked: Who has the final say on buying and selling? Are they being held accountable for the state of City's squad today? How have the powers that be let a brilliant squad age en masse? What input does Pellegrini have in player acquisition? Why was the decision taken to roll over and take UEFA's FFP edict with legs in the air and tummy waiting to be scratched? What has happened to the form of the side's bulwarks, Zabaleta, Kompany and Touré? Why was Lampard kept on then not played? Why was Bony bought and not played earlier (despite a month of action in Africa)? Why has nobody in the management team come up with a cure to City's ills when rattled out of possession by aggressive high-marking opponents? How come there is such a marked difference between City in confident possession of the ball and City (half-)trying to win it back again? Why has the club gone for a severe hike in season ticket prices when they needed to keep the hardcore support onside?

A mephistophelian knot of intrigue awaits City's manager this summer. If it is to be Manuel Pellegrini, a miracle of biblical proportions must now make itself apparent. If not, the faithful await news on who, how and when. Wheover steps into the breach will have a job akin to peeling the layers off an onion. Layer upon layer needs that man's immediate and undivided attention.

The runners and riders must wait for another day. The mainstream press is already tying itself in knots with different permutations. City now prepare to chase or be chased. A home win over West Ham will reignite the run-in for a club that has two in-form teams ahead of them in the pecking order for the 2nd and 3rd places that will grant straight qualification to the Champions League. Miss that and prepare for an uncomfortable mix-up with Lazio, Sporting or some mysterious invaders from the dusty east.

Clinging to small mercies used to be an occupational hazard for fans of this great old bastion of the slapstick and the colourful, but there are precious few to cling onto after Sunday's game.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

DERBY DAY



Mike Hammond digs deep to remember his first Derby match, in March 1983
Season 1982-83 March 5th 1983, Maine Road: Manchester City 1 Manchester United 2
Att 45,400  Scorers: Reeves; Stapleton (2); HT 1-0

 
IT’S
 

Saturday March 5 1983. A 10 year old sits in the passenger seat whilst his dad drives down the Princess parkway. As I look to the left, on the concrete banking, a slogan has been spray painted. It's a lament to Bobby Sands and remains visible amongst the weeds despite the fact that he had let go of life almost 2 years before.

Manchester was a different place then, but for one boy making his way towards Moss Side it's a special day. Past the brewery, the glorious aroma of hops are distinct even to my uneducated nose. We park up and four get out of the Ford Escort. Two blue and two red. It's not been a great season, and it will get much worse, but today is derby day. My first.

Sitting in the North Stand, the ground is full - officially 45,500 are present but it feels like more. I've never seen so many people before, the noise is tremendous. In the first half City go 1-0 ahead, my hero Kevin Reeves scores and life is good. At half time I look to my left, the kippax is a sea of blue scarves and the two women on the row in front delight me with songs of how fat and round Ron Atkinson is.
The enemy advance

Forty five minutes later and City's season has been summed up in one game. We had been top of the world after 3 games, 2nd in the league after 12, and then it went wrong. I look to my left again, that same Kippax is now a sea of red. I'm crying, deep heartfelt sobs. My red cousin consoles me, "don't worry, it'll be alright", but I know it won't. I wanted the day to be a great day, a day we'd beat United and gain the family bragging rights. It didn't turn out like that, and it was to be like this for a long time.

I have been to a lot of derby matches since that first time. On each of those occasions we have been considered by all right minded people as the overwhelming underdog. We have more than fought our corner though, and have frequently bloodied Fergie's nose. I've always felt that this match meant more to us blues than it did to them. It's always meant the world to me anyway.

In so many ways, something changed in the FA Cup semi final. Wembley in April was a watershed moment for City. I shed a lot of water too, lots of us did. We were the poor relations of the family no more, we deserved our place at the head of the table. For those of you who have been on a similar journey to me, nothing tasted sweeter than the that. You have to be poor to truly appreciate the finer things in life. United have never been poor, so i don't think its ever meant as much to them.


I was thinking on my train journey home from the capital that sunny day in April, about a quote from Dear John, by Nicholas Sparks:

"The saddest people I've ever met in life are the ones who don't care deeply about anything at all. Passion and satisfaction go hand in hand, and without them, any happiness is only temporary, because there's nothing to make it last"

We've been through a lot since my first derby, and I wouldn't have it any other way.




 

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