Monday, November 30, 2015

SLAMMING THE DOORS SHUT


Manchester City’s major failing so far this season has been an inability to keep key defenders fit. The lack of stability and consistency at the centre of the defence has been the overriding factor in the team making a stumbling half-success of their title quest so far.

It is easy to criticize anything that moves these days and City at the top of the table and already through to the knock-out stage of the Champions League is, of course, a qualified success. However, the loss to Juventus and defeats to West Ham and in particular Spurs and Liverpool, where Pellegrini’s side was casually undressed one garment at a time, have set alarm bells ringing in some quarters.

City could and perhaps should be clear at the top of the Premier League and about to proceed in Europe as the top club in Group D. Given the paucity of proper challengers at the top of the Premier League, it is an indictment of City’s somewhat frail challenge so far that they are merely "in among the runners and riders" with a frisky but limited Leicester, a wholly uninspiring Manchester United and an Arsenal side unable to shake off any of its traditional ailments. Even Tottenham, annual deception artists, appear to be in with a shout in a season that has not yet thrown up an outstanding side.

Much of City’s problems can be put down to defensive frailties and the constant chopping and changing of personnel in this vital part of the team. 
Up to now, twenty games into the season, City have had five different centre back partnerships already. It is no coincidence that any that have featured Vincent Kompany also feature good results, but it must be said that contrary to popular belief Eliaquim Mangala’s stats are also pretty persuasive.

City’s five game opening streak, where they managed consecutive wins and conceded no goals, saw Kompany paired with Mangala. Whilst the Frenchman has spent much of his City career being heavily criticized, his darting, muscular approach actually dovetails pretty well alongside the calmer, more domineering Kompany. It is by far the best partnership City have tried out so far this season. In fact it even remained unbeaten in the sixth game, at home to Juventus, as the score was still 1-1 when the pairing was broken up by Kompany’s 75th minute injury.

City's most successful centre back pairing
Kompany’s partnership with new boy Otamendi has also showed promise, with three games played: the tight draw at Old Trafford, the superb win in Seville and the laboured home defeat of Norwich. 
On paper it looks like Otamendi has also produced the goods in partnership with Mangala: but of the three games, two wins were the thrashings of Newcastle and Bournemouth, hardly taxing for the defence, and four goals were conceded. In the four games shared by Kompany and Otamendi, only two goals were conceded. Plus the Otamendi-Mangala duo also have a bizarrely out of synch first half against West Ham to their names.The real problems arise when the lumbering shadow of Martin Demichelis appears. A lot has been said about the Argentinean’s loss of form, speed and awareness after his sterling efforts over the last two seasons. Whether he has been kept on a season too long or not is open to discussion, but the figures are certainly not sympathetic. He has been paired with Mangala twice and Otamendi five times. The partnership with Mangala includes the debacle against Liverpool.

In his latest outing this weekend, Demichelis had coped reasonably well with the first half efforts of Southampton, but when they went for the jugular at the start of the second period, his game disintegrated towards the lethal moment when he could be seen actually stepping out of the way of the advancing Shane Long. It was a weird attempt at a dummy, but looked a little like a man getting out of the way of an approaching train.

On the other occasions he has been paired with the eager Otamendi, things look patchy, with eight goals conceded in the five games they have shared. This includes the desperate cave-in at White Hart Lane, where City's defence did a passable impersonation of Billy Smart's Christmas Circus when the hooter announces the arrival of the guys in the oversized shoes.

The only combination not yet foisted on Manuel Pellegrini by the God of Hamstrings is Demichelis-Kompany.

Taking City’s worst results so far this season, the two four goal beatings by Spurs and
No circus this Christmas
Liverpool, have both occurred on Demichelis's watch. Strangely there is another link that might also be relevant: Fernando was also picked in defensive midfield in both those games. Clearly, the work done right in front of the back four is essential to its proper functioning too. City have dabbled with a Fernandinho-Fernando axis with Yaya Toure pushed forward and the more frequently seen Fernandinho-Toure pairing with only creative players beyond.

Question marks remain about Touré's continued ability to charge up and down the field as in the days of yore. he attempted two such runs at the weekend and made a mess of both. Fabian Delph's surprisingly sprightly performance alongside Fernandinho against Southampton brought fresh possibility to this area. When Fernando arrived and Tadic took control for Southampton, Delph's energetic presence was immediately missed.

Perhaps what Pellegrini might have learned as we near the half way period is this: City need Kompany back as quickly as possible. Whether he is paired with Otamendi or Mangala, might be less of an issue than the importance of persevering with Fernandinho and Delph as a really combative shield for the defence.

With Silva and Aguero back in the fold to galvanise City's forward options, the Chilean might not be too far away from finding his best team for the busy Christmas period.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

PHASE THREE TEETHING PROBLEMS FOR CITY

Come on in, the door's open
Could it be that we are beginning to see a Phase Three Manchester City emerging?

Since the takeover by Sheikh Mansour in September 2008, City have been moving along like something strapped firmly to the side of a medium sized rocket. The impatient climb and the thirsty lust for silverware have already reaped their rich harvest, with an FA Cup, a League Cup, a Community Shield and two Premier League titles in the brief and exhilarating seven years that have ensued. 

A couple of Community Shield duds and a failed FA Cup final with Wigan can also be added to the list, as City fans have been deposited in aland of milk and honey that has necer tasted so sweet.

Clearly, given the investment, there is more to come. Just as clearly, more, much more, is expected too and City’s dreadful cave-in against Liverpool will have started a number of sizeable alarm bells ringing in the marble corridors Chez Mansour.

Manuel Pellegrini, it would seem, has been unlucky enough to have his hand on the tiller just as the good ship Manchester City sailed into a new and perhaps époque-defining era.

If Phase One of Mansour’s City was the beginning, the construction, the grand projet, the breakthrough to the edge of the Champions League and the excited baptism, trophy-wise, of the noisy infant, Roberto Mancini can think himself fortunate that it coincided with his stay on watch.
"Mancini, the man who got City up and running. The man who made us all believe. The man who delivered at a club where non-deliverance had become religion."
With expectations only moderate to good, owing to the 40 years of chaos and ridicule that City had produced before, Mancini’s efforts were always likely to be seen in a positive light. That they conjured a magical FA Cup victory over Stoke (that included an even more defining moment in knocking United out at the semi-final stage) and the most sensational league title win in English club history, cemented the Italian’s place in City folklore forever. The recriminations from a coach more than happy to show huge displeasure with his playing staff in public have faded to leave the mythology firmly in place: Mancini, the man who got City up and running. The man who made us all believe. The man who delivered at a club where non-deliverance had become religion. Mancini, the man who sent us all a love letter when he left, for God's sake, just in case anyone was in any doubt.

This tumultuous first phase was represented, then, by massive outlay, huge turnover in playing staff to begin the empire building and the biblical tornado of actually winning things. As a result City have affected a great many changes, among them an enlarged Etihad Stadium, the sumptuous football campus, a burgeoning youth academy and the regeneration  of large swathes of east central Manchester. Nothing more incredible, though, than a complete and successful overhaul of fans' traditional hangdog mentality.

Pellegrini’s arrival coincided roughly with a new, second phase, in which expectations now ran very high, as did confidence, spending and rhetoric. City were not just joining the elite, but they were rocking it enthusiastically from side to side. They were not just rubbing shoulders with the likes of United, they were rubbing their noses in the dust. Mancini had produced the shock and awe of the 6-1. It was for Pellegrini to remove the shock element from beating United and make it commonplace.

Saturday felt like most of the 70s and 80s felt against Liverpool: absolutely rank.
The Chilean’s era was signed and sealed with a 5 trophies in 5 years mantra. This really defined Phase Two at Mansour’s City: a self-assured, up-front acknowledgment that City were now big players with the squad to prove it. European participation had become a yearly staple, rather than an odd and irregular quirk. Winning trophies and being there at the culmination of all big tournaments was now more than a distinct possibility, more than a distant desire, it was a prerequisite if you wanted to keep your job.

And Pellegrini has delivered. To a point. This, his third, season will be absolutely critical. He will either maintain the target or fall below it for the first time. He won himself time and breathing space with the Premier League title and League Cup double in his first season (2013-14), which was just as well, as last season nose-dived. Either circumstances helped save him (the managers City were interested in weren’t available) or he had amassed just enough brownie points to maintain a reasonable grip on the rough edges at the top of the cliff.
"It is the one area where continual belly flops remind us of a cold and bleak past inhabited by balloon-induced defeats at Sheffield United and eight goal Sven-farewells at Middlesbrough."
Now things have changed again. We are entering what might logically be termed Phase Three, the End Phase. With the Liverpool performance still fresh in the mind and the team selection of the Chilean widely blamed for the unusually heavy home defeat (worst ever Etihad collapse and only the second time a visiting side has hit four), one line of thought has it that the Champions League has now taken priority over everything else. And why not? For Sheikh Mansour, there are probably a finite number of four goal thrutchings over Norwich and Aston Villa before it all becomes a little… you know, run of the mill.

What now looks exotic, enticing and perhaps even mildly realistic is a good tilt at the Champions League. It is after all the one place City still tread like Bambi rather than the self-assured beast we are now used to in England. It is the one area where continual belly flops remind us of a cold and bleak past inhabited by balloon-induced defeats at Sheffield United and eight goal Sven-farewells at Middlesbrough. We could of course travel further back to Cock-up County, but there is no need. City were still doing stand-up ten short years ago.

Phase Three, then, is underway and it is characterized by risk. Huge fees were again used to bolster the squad and make it fit for purpose. Fit for purpose in Phase Three looks increasingly like fit to win the Champions League. Why else would Sheikh Mansour once again produce the big bucks for Raheem Sterling , Kevin de Bruyne and Nicolas Otamendi? Why else would Manuel Pellegrini rest important players for a game against Liverpool?

Another one.
Since when did City have the arrogance or desperation to put out a below strength side against Liverpool, the one team above all in the history of English football to rejoice in pushing City’s heads continually underwater? The countless four and five-goal drubbings in the 70s and 80s; the 4-0 and 6-0 defeats within four days under Alan Ball in 1995; relegation at their hands under the hapless Ball the same year, when Liverpool – actively trying not to win – couldn’t help themselves and beat City almost by mistake to send them down. The Liverpool against whom City have a masterful 26% win rate over the history of the fixture, the absolute worst of all their opponents.

This then smacked of an intensifying pressure on Pellegrini to land top spot in Champions League group D. Having started badly, yet again, with home defeat to Juventus, City have turned things around dramatically in a tricky group. For the first time the club is beginning to carry itself with a degree of upright confidence in this parade of monarchs. Finishing above Juventus, who City meet this Wednesday to fight for first place, will ensure no more Barcelonas at the last 16 stage. It might mean PSV Eindhoven instead of Bayern Munich. It could mean Phase Three is being realized and bedded in with some success.

What it evidently means for Mr Pellegrini is the unenviable pressure to bring in trophies this season whilst also making proper progress on the continent. On Saturday, City fans paid the price for this as the manager took his eye off the ball just long enough to receive a massive bloody nose. Liverpool shredded City’s half-hearted plan. With no Kompany and Otamendi at the back, the manager produced a rickety central defensive pair that played like Abbot and Costello. In apparently also resting City’s player of the season so far, Fernandinho, he exacerbated the problem of playing facing a team set up by Jurgen Klopp (perhaps wise to expect speed, ferocious pressing and an unremittingly energetic approach?), leaving City's midfield utterly overwhelmed and the flimsy Demichelis-Mangala Show open to all sorts of possibilities from Liverpool's mobile attack.

Was this the first sign of a serious transfer of eggs into the European basket? It would seem so. Phase Three is marked then by risk-taking, either calculated or gung-ho, that City’s squad can compete on both major fronts. In a way, the manager is right. This squad can do that and probably will, but what it cannot do is survive against a feisty and well-drilled title rival (because Liverpool on this form will surely join those vying for top spot) with three pillars of the side missing and its creative force also out injured. Klopp, jovial and relaxed before the match, will have scarcely been able to believe what his eyes were telling him. He was quickly joined by 54,000 others in this respect.

The pressure of Phase Three at City now means, for this oversight to be forgiven by the masses, City must prevail in Turin, at the home of last year’s Serie A winners and Champions League runners-up. Then at least a flawed plan would have been seen to be partially effective. There has never been pressure quite like this at City and Manuel Pellegrini has only succeeded in ramping it up an extra notch or two with his feeble team selection at the weekend. 


Sunday, November 1, 2015

LOVE, SPEED AND THRILLS

"Officer Hart did WHAAAT?"
This was a game put together like an ill-conceived chase scene from a silent movie: it began going after its own tale and only stopped to allow the main protagonist, an over-muscled man of Ivorian descent, to occasionally stand on a misplaced rake. A clunking soundtrack of tuts and sighs followed our hapless hero's every move until, suddenly tiring of going around in ever-slower circles, the whole show exploded in our faces with twenty men running after each other at top speed. 

For Mr Wilfried Bony, it must have felt like he had played the whole game with a grand piano parked on his big toe. 

A dull match illuminated by ten extravagantly ridiculous minutes right at the end.

And so things were at the Etihad. What should have been a gentle picnic ended up giving everybody indigestion. Norwich's garishly-coloured  blanket kept them comfortable and warm, while City tugged at its edges with varying degrees of failure, until the whole thing finally blew off in a fully fledged hurricane right at the end. 

With Yaya chugging in midfield and a front two unable to deal with Norwich’s extra numbers at the back (five at all times, ably abetted by four more that were midfielders by name only), it was down to what creativity City had at their disposal to break the green and yellow barrier down. Unfortunate then that this comprised a slightly below-par Kevin de Bruyne and a speedy and eager Jesus Navas. The former contributed the corner from which Nicolas Otamendi, the game’s outstanding player, thumped an imperious header, the latter a series of runs down the outside, delivering crosses that a big, fast, intelligent centre forward would have dined out on.

Unfortunately for City, not only did they not have one of those on the pitch, they don’t possess one in the squad. Thoughts wandered idly to Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo, feeding on a stream of such lofted balls in Rome and Valencia respectively. Instead we were treated to the Wilfried Bony Show, an epic catalogue of trying too hard, leathering decent chances like he was trying to hit a far off planet and running head-down-headlong like a man trying to escape from a padlocked barn. 

By the end, with a looking-at-the-floor run that ignored two colleagues well placed in open space, it and he had become a parody of himself. When an argument broke out right at the end as to who would take City’s second penalty in Yaya Toure’s absence, you closed your eyes and hoped the ball didn’t end up in his fellow Ivorian's hands, because – on a day like this, in a season like this, in fact – he would have taken some poor punter’s head clean off somewhere towards the back of the second tier of the North Stand.

Instead it was left to Aleksandar Kolarov to offer the final slapstick image of a last ten minutes that had copied the script of The Keystone Cops in Love, Loot and Crash starring the Bangville Police and a heavily sweating Fatty Arbuckle, when the Serbian swiped City's second penalty of the match casually wide. It was the hilarious culmination to a late period in the game, where everything had melted like the middle of Delia's chocolate drizzle cake.   

With City sauntering to an ill-gained one-nil win, Joe Hart took it upon himself to drop Brady’s speculative left foot cross onto the knee of a deeply surprised Cameron Jerome. The big striker didn’t know whether to laugh or do the hopscotch, but the chance to score could not have been easier if Hart had produced a silver tray and rolled the ball onto a well folded napkin.

City were duly asked to show some mettle and – bless their socks – they did just that, with Sterling, who had
The penalty went that way. After it.
rejuvenated the attack when replacing Iheanacho, playing his part in a desperate late onslaught. Still it took another goalkeeping howler to put City back in front, Ruddy fumbling a cross out to the edge of the box, where Sterling's goal-bound shot was shouldered away by Martin. A red card and penalty brought us the climactic end to the hair-brained chase.

Touré, an increasingly peripheral figure as the game had gone on, hit a lovely penalty low into the corner and all seemed well again. Still there was time for a ridiculously elastic stop from Hart as a deflected shot almost zipped past him and for Sterling’s late trickery in the box to end with a second penalty when he was dumped on his stomach by O'Neill.


By then we had all been thoroughly scorched by the contents of the game’s last 10 minutes . City’s Cake of Many Layers had done for us once again. Cue credits and fast music.

Other Tedious Stuff

Poets and Lyricists