Thursday, October 12, 2017

HUGHES: A MARKED MAN FROM THE START


Remembering Mark Hughes's difficult start in the hottest of Premier League hot seats. The original article for ESPN can be found here. This is an extended version

It is almost ten years since Manchester City’s then-owner Thaksin Shinawatra received an offer to purchase the club from a hitherto unknown buyer calling itself Abu Dhabi United. In that time the club has grown at breakneck speed and now sits proudly among the elite of the Premier League and can also credibly suggest that it now belongs to the small group of clubs that have the wherewithal to win the Champions League.

When the initial investment came flooding in, the club was given an immediate boost, breaking the British transfer record on the very same day to capture Real Madrid star Robinho from under the noses of Chelsea. David Conn, writing in World Soccer called it an "epoch-changing takeover", while the normally taciturn magazine’s cover screamed “the deal that will change football forever!”.
While that may have been over-egging the cake a little, it has certainly transformed City and drastically altered the fault lines of the league they compete in. What had become a cosy cartel at the top of the league, featuring the serial Champions League participants Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, was mortally damaged, allowing not only City to see a chink of light, but also paving the way for the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City to sneak in ahead of the usual suspects too.


It was, in many ways, the moment that has brought us the slightly more open playing field we see at the top of the Premier League these days, with the old behemoths of Liverpool and Manchester United struggling to keep pace with new, upwardly mobile clubs. Although it has also created a new cartel of six, the fact that only four can have access to the troughs of gold in the Champions League has brought competition of a kind. That Leicester found it possible to leap frog them all to gain the title two years ago gives almost everyone some hope.
The arrival of Stoke City to the Etihad this weekend will bring those heady days back to the forefront of many City supporters’ minds. Visiting manager Mark Hughes was the man wearing the bemused expression when the football world turned upside down in Manchester in 2008. it was also an opponent that Robinho bagged a hat trick against in Hughes's eventful first season in charge.

Hughes had come to City on June 4th, just three months before City’s new circumstances threw a global spotlight onto the Welshman. Writing in the match programme for Robinho’s debut game against Chelsea, Hughes’s bewilderment was palpable: “It has been quite a fortnight for Manchester City, hasn’t it?” he wrote breathlessly. “The news of an imminent club takeover followed by the breaking of the British transfer record all in one day ensured that the football spotlight was well and truly on the blue half of Manchester on 1st September 2008.”
That spotlight, as bright as it was harsh in those opening months, was on Hughes too, as he struggled with a side that had suddenly been spoon-fed one of the world’s most gifted players. For Hughes, making a player of Robinho’s pedigree gel with the likes of Michael Ball and Valeri Bojinov was one thing; managing the supporters’ burgeoning expectations quite another.

Hughes brought the likes of Nigel de Jong, Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany to City, stalwarts all, and at bargain fees, but was also responsible for a hefty £19m being spent on the dubious talents of Jô and Tal Ben Haim, who at €6m was around £6m overpriced. The money clicking incessantly through the tills must to an extent have frazzled Hughes's football brain a little. 
“I came to the football club with the intention of winning things,” the new manager continued in the Chelsea programme, but it would not to be until his successor Roberto Mancini arrived a year and a half later that City would make the breakthrough, winning the FA Cup, against Stoke City of all teams, after a smooth and trouble free trophy-less period of just 33 years.
There were many, who reckoned Hughes to be incapable of managing a club endowed so suddenly with such an enormous transfer budget. Dealing with world superstars is not easy at the best of times and if, as the manager, your name does not carry the weight of men, who have seen trophy-laden action at football cathedrals such as Lazio, Internazionale, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, as the subsequent occupiers of City’s hot seat have, things can get a little tricky. Hughes battled on, signing Wayne Bridge in another critical moment of weakness.

Jô: Not the best.
Hughes was a man overtaken by circumstances, perhaps the most unexpected circumstances that one could possibly have imagined for Manchester City at the time. That he struggled to get maximum reward from the bursting purse strings can be put down partly to the suddenness of the changes and partly to the newness of the environment for a man, who had previously only been in charge of a down-at-heel Wales and a fading Blackburn Rovers. At Ewood Park, there had also been a generous budget, but the glory years under Jack Walker were beginning to fade and the media spotlight was far more forgiving. It was there that his strange attraction to Roque Santa Cruz took shape and the ailing Paraguayan would also follow him to Manchester to very little effect.
Pep Guardiola, who will stand face to face with Hughes this weekend, has inherited the City job at a completely different phase of the regeneration of the club. It is now maturing into one of the continent’s big-hitters. Guardiola, no stranger to steering the world’s biggest clubs to titles on a global stage, is showing serious signs of getting to grips with a notoriously difficult club to keep on the straight and narrow. After all, even with its relatively new-found wealth, City have successfully maintained a reputation for quirkiness, which still keeps us all on our toes.

As with Hughes’s October 2008 introduction of Robinho, the Premier League reconvenes after an international break. It is up to the present incumbent of the City hot seat to maintain the upwardly mobile form of the early rounds into the critical autumn period. If he can do this, City’s so-called "epoch-changing" developments of late summer 2008 will have reached another stage in the club’s remarkable renaissance. 


Sunday, October 1, 2017

MATCH NOTES / CHELSEA h

Player ratings for ESPN can be found here, but here are the extended notes from the Chelsea game, with more detailed analysis of individual performances in what was an almost faultless display by City.


One goal and a gulf in class separated the two sides after 93 minutes of breathless football at Stamford Bridge. With the champions being forced to play a 4 5 1 formation to try to stem the City flow, the movement and interchanging of positions from the away side was just too much for them to cope with, even on their own Stamford Bridge patch. Let it not be forgotten that this was the champions at home just after a win of historic proportions at Atletico Madrid, changing their shape to a wholly defensive unit to try to hold City at bay. Mind games may be old hat these days, but the psychological effect of prematch moaning about tiredness on the back of Champions League games and altering your own line up to counter the visiting team must have got through to Chelseas players.

The arm waving Chelsea boss had already withdrawn Cesc Fabregas to deep midfield in order to try to help stem the seemingly unstoppable flow towards the home goal, when injury to striker Alvaro Morata brought another admission that his side was being outclassed on its own turf. The replacement was to be Willian, another able bodied midfielder to clog the passing lines that City were using to such great effect and not Batshuayi.  

City were closing down their opponents to such great effect that there was frequently no out ball for the home side at all and they lost possession dangerously close to their own goal time and time again, as the away attackers began the press at the edge and sometimes inside the Chelsea penalty area. Bakayoko and Fabregas, needing to drop deeper and deeper to counteract this, left Chelsea with little or nothing to move forward with - at the same time completely isolating Morata and Hazard further forward - and on it went, with wave after wave of City pressure winning back possession and threatening the home goal.

Positives
City arrived at the home of the reigning champions without their captain, without flying left back Benjamin Mendy and without talismanic forward Sergio Aguero, but still took the game to Chelsea and thoroughly deserved the victory. The confidence, spirit and ability of the side that Guardiola has reconstructed is at the moment quite intoxicating. There will come a time of the season when this fluency is not so great, but you can only sit back and admire its efficiency at this early stage.  

Negatives
Difficult to find anything remotely wrong with a performance like that, but once again, the weight of possession and chances created suggests a one goal win could have been bettered. A number of presentable chances came and went in front of Thibaut Courtois goal, whilst Edersons area at the other end remained almost virgin territory to the one man Chelsea attack.  

Manager Rating out of 10
9 – Finally winning a game against Chelsea after 7 attempts, Guardiola was as bold and confident in his team selection as the players were in carrying out his instructions. Their ability to keep up his optimistic tactics all the way to the climax of the game were never in doubt. The wonderful fluidity of the Dutch in 74, of Barcelona under Cruyffs tutelage came flooding back here, with Silva and Sane popping up wide right, De Bruyne driving from deep midfield, Otamendi pounding through the centre circle and right back Walker also to be found in central areas. All frequently far from home but interchanging almost at will with team mates. Guardiola could be seen wandering the touchline with his hands nonchalantly in his pockets, with Antonio Conte, just behind him, gesticulating and screaming like gesticulating and screaming were soon going out of fashion. Indicative of the two managers respective afternoons.

Player ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Ederson Morais, 8 – The confidence seeping from the goalkeeper through the defence and beyond is intoxicating. One shot from Cesar Azpilicueta came at him unsighted and he was rapidly down to his left to palm it away. Straight after this a brilliant high catch and throw out to release a scintillating counter attack from Raheem Sterling should have led to a goal. The Chelsea shot total of 4 was their lowest at home since January 2015 (also against City) but, even so, he was alert to the possibility of quick breaks throughout. To illustrate this, three of his infrequent touches came from punts down the pitch from his opposite number, who, unlike the Brazilian, had nobody to aim at at all for long periods. Finished the match with an outrageous 50 yard punt of his own, which sailed straight to the feet of Jesus in the 93rd minute. If ever a metaphor was needed for the confidence running through this side, here it was.   

DF John Stones, 8 – Absolutely imperious at the back in an all but faultless display. Quick to nick possession from Morata early on, but experienced his one dodgy moment against the same player when the Spaniard skinned him down the right touchline and he was grateful to Walker for the saving interception that followed. Injured going forward to get on the end of a superb De Bruyne cross to the far post but picked himself up to complete a commanding performance of interceptions and clever passing.    
DF Nicolas Otamendi, 7 – Wrongly penalised for an early tackle, he was also booked late on for an unnecessarily hectic lunge at Willian when City could have been playing down the clock in more genteel fashion. Flying header from De Bruynes first half corner, and keen to get forward through the middle areas and play his part in the surging attacking moves of his team mates.   

DF Fabian Delph 8 – Another calm and assured display, this time on the big stage under a searching spotlight, as Chelseas early attacking pinpointed him as a possible weak spot. Wrong choice. Undressed down the line early on, but thereafter confident and increasingly in charge of the left flank, where he often joined the attack. Cannot be expected to fly to the byline like Benjamin Mendy, but does his work tidily and crisply, cutting out plenty of passes and joining the attack so enthusiastically that he spent more time advanced than the much vaunted Walker did on the opposite flank.    

MF Kyle Walker 8 – Energetic display from the right back. First touch took him marauding through central midfield, to link with Leroy Sane wide on the left flank, an early sign for the home side of how the City players would be interchanging their roles. Quick to support Stones on the one occasion Morata got goalside of his defensive partner. Two magnificent through balls one after the other as City pressed late on and energy to spare at the end to head away one last bit of danger with a minute to go.    

MF Fernandinho, 8 – Plenty of early possession as City settled in. Set the pace and drew the boundary lines. Great opportunity to score from Kevin de Bruynes corner but his bullet header was saved. Booked for accumulation of fouls, after one of his tactical trips on Willian was quickly followed by another block on Hazard, but was a lynchpin in Citys almost total midfield control.   
MF David Silva, 8 -- Always available, always turning out of trouble and finding the crucial spaces. Promising early links with De Bruyne and Sterling suggested that City were on the money and Silva robbing Chelseas boiler room boss N-Golo Kante served to confirm this. Pushed well forward - often tucked in right behind Gabriel Jesus - the Spaniard had two chances to open the scoring, but just failed with both, dragging a shot wide from Walkers run and doing extremely well to get off a shot with no space for proper backlift with Rudiger breathing down his neck. With City in the ascendency just after the goal, could and should have made it two, but appeared to mistrust his right foot to do the job. In the whirling vortex of such a fast paced game, every pass had just the right weight applied to it.

MF Kevin de Bruyne, 9 – Perhaps with a point to prove to the side that sold him, De Bruyne was the difference between a great City performance ending unrewarded and the eventual win. Ironic then that it had been his miss 12 months ago that was the turning point in the Etihad match between the two sides, which possibly brought it home to Chelsea that they could win the title. Here his strike appeared to remind Chelsea that this year will be very different. Started wide on the right, but popped up all over the pitch, guiding, prompting, prodding and, when it came to the crunch, scoring a superb left footed winner. Early freekick proved to be a sighter for an afternoon of magical passing and forceful running. Despite playing a lot of the game hugging the right touchline, his influence was immense. From time to time drifted back to a central number 8 position, dragging Bakayoko with him. Balls through to Sterling causing constant danger and the arcing right wing passes and crosses almost impossible for Chelsea to deal with. Still closing Chelsea players down on one leg right at the end. Complete performance.  
MF, Leroy Sane 8 – Quick to block early attempts by Rudiger to advance down his flank, he posed plenty of problems to Chelsea going forward too. Brilliant use of tiny spaces close to the touchline in swapping close passes with David Silva and wriggling free to the goalline. First of these could have brought a goal but the ball in was played just behind the onrushing De Bruyne. Switched to the right for much of the second period, where he also caused some danger. Defensively, failed to pick up Hazard from a quick free kick played inside him, leading to an Ederson save.   

MF, Raheem Sterling 8 Sent flying as early as the third minute, he remained happy to run at the heart of the Chelsea defence, drawing a string of first half free kicks in dangerous positions. His shadow Marcus Alonso was booked for one foul too many and was afforded little chance to leave his tracking duties to create some damage of his own. The speed of his running through the inside right channels was too much for ponderous Chelsea defenders. Volleyed a strong left footer over, when with a little more composure, he might have added to Citys score. Ball snatched in extremis from his toe end as he was shaping to shoot just after this too, having been set up beautifully by David Silva.   
FW, Gabriel Jesus, 8 – Selfless and capable performance from the Brazilian, putting a real shift in for the team. This was encapsulated in his constant closing down of the Chelsea defenders and goalkeeper, leading to multiple losses of possession from the home side. Sterling effort. When the day demands that he "disappears" into the team effort, this is exactly what he does, with his deftness of touch playing a vital part in the goal and his holding play good enough to maintain possession with plenty of attention from home defenders. Amazing technique on show towards the end, firstly to fashion a cushioned volley that was arrowing inside the far post when Rudiger got his head to it in last gasp desperation and secondly when trapping Edersons fifty yard punt down the middle of the park in injury time. Killed it dead.     

Substitutes:
Bernardo Silva -- Arrived as a 75th minute replacement for his namesake David and took only a few minutes to get into his stride. That Citys passing through the middle did not skip a beat in the meantime showed how well he adapted to a more central role.

lkay Gundogan – Arrived on 83 minutes for Leroy Sane and immediately threaded a wonderful ball through the middle of the Chelsea defence. Sprightly and alert, he looks keen to catch up for lost time.
Danilo – 93rd minute time waster to replace an absolutely exhausted De Bruyne.    


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

MATCH NOTES - SHAKHTAR DONETSK h

Match ratings for ESPN can be found here, but below is a broader look at the ins and outs of a fascinating and absorbing game with the Ukrainian champions.


Pic courtesy of Phil Hammond.
In a match of intense ebb and flow against a well drilled Shakhtar side, City prevailed through patience and perseverance. With another clean sheet and plenty of good chances worked against a side of some skill and excellent character, City can be pleased with a night’s work, which puts them in the unusual position of being clear at the top of their group after two games. Building on this with two critical games against Napoli coming next, the chances are good that this might be one of City’s smoother passages through the group stages after 6 years of trying (and mainly failing) to look unruffled. 


Positives

City recovered from a first half where Shakthar’s positioning and energy provided plenty of puzzles for the home side to work out. Ably marshalled by the undervalued Paulo Fonseca, Shakthar were proving obstinate, clever and capable, with particular trouble coming Kyle Walker’s way through the gifted Bernard and his sidekick Ismaily. Reorganised and re-energised at half time, the breakthrough came quickly for City, with Walker pressed further forward on the right and a tighter press in the middle squeezing some of the possession out of the visitors. Although Shakhtar pressed on bravely, once a goal down the spaces started to appear and City were perhaps a little unlucky not to be further clear than the single goal by the end of 90 minutes. Sané’s profligacy, Aguero’s soft penalty miss and a number of other chances went begging, before Bernardo – left in acres of space down the right side – squared perfectly for Sterling to seal it at 2-0.   

Negatives

When the fussy referee Jorge Sousa finally gave in and awarded a penalty – that in fact should not have been given – City missed the chance to put some clear air between themselves and their opponents. It took until the 90th minute to seal the victory but supporters’ nerves could have been saved by taking one of a clutch of earlier chances.   

Manager: Guardiola chose to stick with the relatively inexperienced (on a European front at least) Fabian Delph, resisting the obvious temptation to play Danilo, and was rewarded with a mature performance by the stand-in. The changes he made at half time had the same effect as they had done against palace at the weekend, with City appearing in a new gear with Walker pressed higher and more bite to the midfield movement, squeezing Shakhtar’s dangerous middle men when they had possession.

Ederson 8 -- What a difference a confident, competent goalkeeper makes. Made two early fast passes out to Delph and Sane in the opening minutes, which were a precursor to a range of fantastic throw-outs in the second half, one of which put Sane straight through in the opposition half for the penalty decision, practically an assist had the penalty gone in. Fast out to snatch the ball from the raiding Taison and still on the ball in injury time to make an alert save and maintain the cleansheet. Only one mistake, coming for a cross that Ivan Ordets beat him to but put his header well wide.

Kyle Walker 6 -- Left with plenty to think about by the whippet-like Bernard and Ismaily on City’s right flank, he was shunted further forward at the start of the second period and it paid immediate dividends. Fantastic ball down the line for De Bruyne to centre for Sterling’s terrible miss after 69 minutes. Skinned by the tricky Bernard in one of many second half raid down his side.   

John Stones 7 -- Solid and in control despite the flurry of fast feet coming at him throughout. No hesitation in playing it straight out into touch if the agricultural approach was needed, which was only rarely the case in a cultured display of calmness and authority. Hooked clearance with outside of the boot a speciality.

Nicolas Otamendi 7 -- Likewise, played a calm part in stemming the white and orange tide of pattering feet. Got foot in on goalbound shot after 49 minutes and there to block when it was needed. Produced one great diagonal ball out to Walker on the right touchline.

Fabian Delph 8 -- Took to top level European football like a duck to water. Played left side of defensive four, which morphed to three for periods, and was faultless in his calm distribution and accurate link-up play with David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne. Great block on Taison was one of a number of well timed tackles. Slalomed out of defence to great appreciation from the crowd.

Fernandinho 9 – The experienced head in a midfield blur of tricky and talented countrymen in opposition. Involved in a fascinating battle to hold midfield ground throughout, he did himself proud against his old team mates. Marked his territory to great effect with an 11th minute tackle on Fred, as the Brazilian threatened through the middle. Was on the end of a reducer from Facundo Ferreyra ten minutes later as he fought every inch to boss the all-important zone in front of City’s defence. Vital cog.  

Leroy Sane 8 -- Dozy start when he twice let the ball run out of play under his foot, the second after only 12 minutes a useful feed from Ederson, but developed quickly into one of the game’s sights to behold. A series of devastating runs down the left flank ensued, the first after 21 minutes taking him weaving past two defenders. Switched to drift in from the right but his Liverpoolesque attempt was weaker and easily held by the veteran Andriy Piatov. Speed and change of direction took him through again after 41 minutes and his shot just cleared the far post. Carried the ball too long on several occasions in the second half, particularly the chance on 86 minutes when put through down the left by Gundogan’s clever ball, he drove into the area but refused to deliver, preferring to shoot into a forest of legs. Fell very easily for the penalty.    

David Silva 8 – Two early losses of control took the ball away from him in threatening positions but after that was always ready to feed Sane down the left or cut in and swap passes with De Bruyne in more central positions. Surrounded by mini Shakhtar clones, he was still the original master at keeping possession and using it positively and intelligently. Perfect cut back to find De Bruyne for the first goal and one of the passes of the match to switch direction and loft it to Aguero at the far post for a cushioned volley that was smothered by Piatov. Torrid second half for Ordets in particular, trying to track his ghost-like movements. > Gundogan 80’

Kevin de Bruyne 7 – Two attempts at early through balls failed owing to the offside flag, but when put through by Jesus, he dragged a low shot just wide of Piatov’s right post. Started and finished the move for 1-0, quickly onto a loose pass, feeding Silva to his left and drifting to the edge of the box to be found by the Spaniard’s cut-back. Prodigious strike that followed arrowed right into the top corner on an arc that kept the ball away from the dive of the ‘keeper. Despite all this, he has played much better than this on many occasions.    

Sergio Aguero 6 -- Had four chances to overtake Eric Brook’s all-time scoring record, but, even when presented with a penalty, he did not look confident and had his weak shot palmed away by Andriy Pyatov. First shot of the night went out for a throw in, second was on target but weakly struck. Cushioned volley from Silva’s sumptuous assist also failed to go in as Piatov blocked in extremis. 4th chance sailed past the far post. Blank night. > Bernardo 83’  

Gabriel Jesus 6 -- Quiet night for the Brazilian and was taken off to be replaced by Raheem Sterling after only 53 minutes. Had put De Bruyne through for the shot he dragged wide and produced one or two nice moments before being crowded out and fading noticeably. > Sterling 53’   

Substitutes:

Raheem Sterling 7 -- Arrived early in the second period and took to the right wing. Should have scored almost straight away, skewing a tremendous chance wide with his left foot after being set up perfectly in front of goal by De Bruyne’s flat cross. Put away his second chance but even that went in off the crossbar. Direct running troubled a tired defence and perhaps did not get the penalty he deserved because the fussy Jorge Sousa had already given one he shouldn’t have for Sane’s floppy collapse.

Ilkay Gundogan NR – First touch led to a sprightly 70 yard run and set up Sane perfectly late on with a slide rule pass that his countryman squandered selfishly. No obvious after effects to the nasty-looking injury against West Brom and a pleasure to see him running confidently and without fear.

Bernardo Silva NR -- Highly energetic cameo from the wiry Portuguese, setting up Sterling for the clincher after a great run in from the right flank. Only on the pitch for 7 minutes, but spent plenty of energy closing down the keeper and defenders to help run down the clock with the ball pinned back in Shakhtar’s half.     



Friday, September 22, 2017

THE DAY ALLISON TOOK HIS LEAVE FROM THE KIPPAX

 "John Bond's cup runneth over, but Malcolm Allison's remains as dry as a bone..."
Malcolm Allison marches towards the Kippax pre-game 
So went the opening line of Colin Malam’s pithy match report for the Sunday Telegraph in January 1981.

The match of some considerable drama that had just been completed on the soaking wet Maine Road pitch, between Manchester City and Crystal Palace sides as evenly matched as this weekend's fixture appears to make them, had finished 4-0 to the home side. It was to be the beginning of a legendary FA Cup run that would take in never-to-be-forgotten matches with Norwich (an uproarious six-nil pasting), Peterborough (with 28,000 packing the 4th division club’s old London Road ground), two mammoth quarter final ties with Everton, played out in front of an aggregate crowd of well over 100,000 people, and a semi final with the then all-conquering Ipswich Town, who had been on route for a treble of trophies before being sent packing by a dogged City performance at Villa Park.

The final with Tottenham, the centenary FA Cup Final would also be drenched in sweat and drama, but – at this point in January -- that was still some four months away.

The reason for the autumnal change of management at Maine Road in 1980-81 was on this occasion sitting in the dugout not ten metres away from where ex-Norwich boos Bond and his assistants John Benson and John Sainty (the beknighted "Three Johns") were busy arranging their sheepskin coats and flasks of coffee.

The incumbent of that small plastic and steel arrangement in front of the Main Stand had in fact only just sat down, having spent those typically tense pre-match minutes striding out across the Maine Road mud towards the heaving Kippax terraces on the opposite side of the ground, to take the adulation of an expectant and thoroughly wound-up 39,000 crowd.

If ever there was a game that required the hackneyed you could cut the atmopshere with a knife, it was this one.

The 3rd round tie between City and Palace that set up the run to Wembley 1981 was not so much a game about the two clubs but a deeply intriguing look into the psyche of the two managers. What made them tick, what made their relationship so unique, how they had come to be on opposite sides on this grand occasion.

City, under the atsute management of Bond, had taken off – pilfering 20 points from a possible 26 in the league since his arrival the previous October. The side that he had inherited his opponent on this occasion had been at its lowest ebb for some time, with debilitating cup exits at Shrewsbury and Halifax still very clear in the mind from the previous two seasons.

Back down at pitch level, the Kippax was still in a tumult. It was difficult to remember an opposition manager having the gaul to walk arms aloft towards the centre circle, clapping his hands ostentatiously above his head and receiving exactly the same back from the mass of hands and faces staring back at him from the great swaying steps. It was one of the moments of the decade at Maine Road, an unforgettable sight and an unforgettable moment that sent chills down the spine.

It was later captured in the ultra intrusive Granada TV documentary CITY!, a crushingly honest look at those last barren days of a City managerial career that was utterly doomed.

The exclamation mark after the club’s name in the Granada documentary has never really gone away. It would have come as very little surprise during those 70s and 80s of self-inflicted carnage to see City appear on the results boards as Manchester City!, so serpentine and entangled had the club’s attempts at normality become.


The man in the middle of the pitch with two minutes to go to kick-off was of course Malcolm Allison, sacked by City’s genius chairman Peter Swales, the used television mogul from Altrincham, just two months earlier. The very same Allison, who had been mentor to John Bond from their days playing together at West Ham United in the 50s and still the larger than life character that City fans had grown to love and respect for the drama-laden trophy years he had brought to Maine Road between 1967 and 1970.

Allison it was, as a pupil of the magnificent Hungarian national side of the 50s with its strutting Puskas and twinkle toes Hidgekuti, had introduced to City's training regime elements that would - thirty years later - earn Arsene Wenger wide-eyed plaudits at Arsenal.

Under Allison's 1981 regime, however, a succession of terrible results had brought the famous coach's City tenure to a sad end. A chaotic three-nil home defeat to Liverpool where Allison inexplicably told his players to choose their own tactics to face the champions and a dismal midweek loss at Elland Road against an equally appalling post-glory Leeds United led chairman Peter Swales to pull the rug from under the coach's expensively clad feet.

Football is a game that seldom stands still and – as Allison saw the thousands of hands returning to their pockets on the Kippax -  he made his way back towards the Main Stand, where the teams were about to enter the fray and the various elements of the coaching staff were jostling for pseats in the tiny dugouts that predated today's sponsored aircraft seats.

As he did so, the crowd rose again, an upswell of noise from the Kippax telling Allison in no uncertain terms that his moment had now come and gone, that he would forever have a place in the hearts of the faithful but that now he was here as Leader of the Opposition.

Suddenly a chant rolled down off the great terrace behind him, creating one of the most poignant moments in what was the beginning of the twilight of Allison’s career as a respected coach."Johnny Bond, Johnny Bond, Johnny Bond," was the repeated refrain as Big Mal wedged his frame wistfully into the tiny dugout.

His face was stretched and his eyes carried a sad glaze as he made himself comfortable. He would take Palace down to the second division at the end of the season and would later lead Middlesbrough in an ill-fated spell in the North East

reporter: “Mal, Middlesbrough is not really a champagne and cigars sort of town is it?” –  Allison: “When you’re winning, any town is a champagne and cigars sort of town”).

His Palace side on this occasion, beaten thoroughly by his old love Manchester City, managed by his old pupil John Bond, must have left Allison with one of the saddest memories of his late career. The feeling that his life at the forefront of British football was coming to an end must have been horribly tangible for a man used to making things work so effortlessly.

As Malam had written in his post-match report, Bond’s cup ranneth over, whilst Allison’s remained dry as a bone. What delicious irony that would have been to Allison, the original Dartford gunslinger, of champagne and bunny girls fame. Few were the occasions that Big Mal’s cup was anything other than full to the brim.

****

The cup run, from Palace, via Norwich and Peterbough to Everton and Ipswich. Halcyon days.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

TO THE COALFACE

1993-94 Pre-season friendly: City 2-4 Feyenoord. Gary Flitcroft in action against future manager Peter Bosz
As City prepare to launch their 2017-18 assault on European football’s top prize, manager Pep Guardiola and his staff will be well aware of the pressure facing them to make serious advances towards the oft-stated designs of the club’s ambitious owners.

The money lavished on clear player upgrades this summer speaks volumes for the ambition of Guardiola, the club and the owners. Champions League success evidently ranks as highly as winning the Premier League.
Despite a sticky start in the competition, when tough draws came thick and fast, City’s steady progress since 2008 means the club is now in a good position to press on in its attempts to beat the semifinal reached in 2015-16. That match, woefully tossed away without the semblance of a proper fight against Real Madrid represents City’s only foray beyond the round of 16 so far.
City were passive-aggressive in Madrid in 2015-16
Although City are now the most consistent of England’s representatives in this competition, since Arsenal’s belated failure to qualify, they must push on to convince that they are anything other than slightly green and hopeful challengers.

The might of Real Madrid, Bayern, Barcelona and Juventus awaits them in the latter rounds and, to stand a chance against their like, City must put in a convincing pre-Christmas stint in the group stage.

Starting with this week’s tricky-looking tie in De Kuip to play a resurgent Feyenoord side, City have once again been pitched into a group that looks extremely even. Napoli and Shakthar Donetsk are hardly mugs when it comes to continental competition and City will need to repeat their league form to progress.

Feyenoord have started their domestic season even better than City with four straight wins that see them out in front of the pack in the Dutch Eredivisie. Having eclipsed Ajax last season, the Rotterdammers will be keen to impress on their return to the big stage. This will be their first game in the Champions League since 2002.

Programme cover from City v FC Twente, UEFA Cup 1978-79. (1-1 away, 3-2 home)


City European history against Dutch sides is short, having played FC Twente home and away in 1978 and 3-2 again in the lop-sided group format of 2008 when only a home game was played against the same side. That was the weird season City played 16 ties just to get to the quarter-final stage, where Hamburg was a step too far. Trips to the Faroe Islands and three games against Danish opposition (Copenhagen, Aalborg and Mydtjylland) made it the oddest season on record for City on the continent.
As far as the Champions League is concerned, the story is equally brief: Ajax home and away and memories of a crushing failure in Roberto Mancini’s last season of 2012-13.

Having lost unluckily in Madrid against Real (2-3), City had been extremely fortunate to draw at home to a rampant Borussia Dortmund – they would go on to contest the Wembley final with Bayern that season --and were then faced with two matches back-to-back against the Dutch champions, which would decide whether they had a chance of progressing or not.

In those two matches everything went wrong, with City well beaten in Amsterdam (1-3) after leading through Samir Nasri’s opener and pegged back to 2-2 at the Etihad, thus putting an early lid on their ambitions for another season. Those were also certainly happier times for Ajax boss Frank de Boer, enjoying the kind of stage and backing palpably lacking at the more prosaic surrounds of Crystal Palace this autumn.
Curiously, given Guardiola's start this season with a three-man back line, Mancini also opted for a similar set-up at the Ajax Arena, a shape criticised by right back Micah Richards after the game, who stated he and his team mates had not had enough time to master the new formation.
"The players just want to play. It's a hard system because we're not used to it but I think the players prefer a 4-4-2 but he's the manager and we do what he says." -  Micah Richards
The 1-3 final score in Amsterdam represented the biggest defeat City had tasted in competitive European history until last season’s dismantling at the Camp Nou (0-4). In fact the amount of goals scored both for and against in last season’s tournament will be cause for concern for Guardiola and his staff. A total of A total of 24 goals were scored and 16 conceded in City’s 10 competitive games, which included a play-off drubbing of Steaua Bucharest (5-0), another five goal haul against Monaco (5-3), a big win against Borussia Monchengladbach (4-0), a thrillingly entertaining draw at Celtic (3-3) and the afore-mentioned drubbing in Barcelona.
City’s 5-0 thrashing of Liverpool last weekend points to a season, where even more goals are on the cards, but Guardiola will be keen to staunch the flow at the other end. Another match with a big 5 in it features a link to this game. Feyenoord coach Gianni van Bronkhurst was in the Arsenal side that cantered to a 5-1 win at City in 2003.

Programme cover: pre-season friendly 2003-4 in Aarhus
While all the goals were flashing in last season's Champions League campaign, one thing remained stable: City's inability to get an away win. This now totals seven games without a win away from home in the Champions League. While away draws are fine if they are paired consistently with home wins, it is a run Guardiola will want to put an end to before it gets any more noteworthy.

With injury doubts once again circling around captain Vincent company and Nicolas Otamendi’s woeful lack of pace shown up by the roasting he got from Mohamed Salah, the Catalan’s insistence on three at the back and gung-ho attacking may be tempered on this occasion.
Away games in European competition are perhaps not the best place to throw caution to the wind and a steady, successful start to the group stage is essential to take some of the pressure off, as the season hots up. Guardiola only has to look back to the fateful season when City last played Dutch opposition to see how the club sank after a poor start. There was no coming back from the single point haul from the two Ajax games and City were eliminated at the group stage.

So the bejewelled story of Pep Guardiola and the Champions League starts another chapter. 25 years on from his glorious introduction as a young Barcelona player in the season the club finally won the tournament for the first time, it is perhaps time for the Catalan to add another personal milestone in his close relationship with the trophy. As far as City’s relationship with the Champions League goes, another tilt at the latter stages seems overdue. The long glittering road to Kiev begins this week at the coalface in Rotterdam.
CITY v. FEYENOORD PREVIOUS MEETINGS
1993-94 Pre-season friendly at Eastlands: City 2-4 Feyenoord
2003-04 Pre-season friendly in Aarhus, Denmark: City 2-1 Feyenoord



Friday, September 8, 2017

BRIDGING THE 15 POINT GAP

Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were each convinced that a good goalkeeper ---Peter Shilton, Peter Schmeichel and David Seaman at their respective title winning Nottingham Forest, Manchester United and Arsenal sides  -- could save their sides between 10 and 15 points a season.

As City prepare to face Liverpool this weekend, the long history of goalkeepers, good and bad, that has wrapped itself around these two clubs, may make this old saying even more poignant.  In City’s case, the big question is: have they finally found the man, who can do for them exactly what Messrs Schmeichel, Seaman and Shilton did before him and be a deciding factor in the Premier League title returning to the Etihad for a third time in seven years?

After all, the afore-mentioned 15 points that those managers believed a proper keeper could save them represent the exact difference between City and title winners Chelsea last season.
City’s recent problems in this position are well documented: from Joe Hart, England’s first choice and a regular at the Etihad since his breakthrough in 2007-08 to his immediate replacement Claudio Bravo, Chile’s record cap holder, things have not always gone smoothly between the sticks for the club.

This is nothing new of course. As far back as the last time City featured in the trophy-winning highlights back in the late sixties and early seventies, the goalkeeping position provided a proper headache for Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer.
Joe Corrigan, putting on weight quicker than his profession required, failed to take off successfully - both metaphorically and literally - and found himself dropped. In those nascent glory years, the gloves flew between Harry Dowd, Corrigan and Ken Mulhearn. The latter was the main keeper for the title season of 67-68, while Dowd regained his place to feature in the FA Cup final v Leicester in 1969. Corrigan was in the side the next season for the double triumph in the League Cup and Cup Winners' Cup and was also between the sticks for City's 1976 League Cup triumph over Newcastle, plus the 1981 FA Cup final defeat to Tottenham after a replay, where he was the BBC's Man of the Match(es).
A lot had happened in between, however. 
By 1973 the battle for a flabby and nervous Corrigan was to wrest the number one jersey from Ron Healey and the expensively acquired Keith MacRae, a £100,000 buy (imagine that) from Motherwell, of all places. A succession of managers around that time did not rate Corrigan and even some of his team mates had had enough of his occasional gaffes, Mike Doyle purportedly asking the management what Corrigan was doing still in the side.   
That he fought back, regained his place in the first team and – by the mid seventies – had found a slot in the England squad, was testament to his incredible willpower and attitude. That he never made it past a meagre total of 9 international caps was down to the bad luck of finding himself competing with the afore-mentioned Shilton and a certain Ray Clemence of Liverpool.

Clemence stood between the posts at Anfield nearly 500 times during the seventies, before giving way to Bruce Grabelaar, a moustachioed Zimbabwean who had fought in the jungles of central Africa before finding an unlikely place in British professional football.

Grobelaar was the archetypal “eccentric goalkeeper”, often leaving his line to perform the kind of duties today’s goalkeepers are regularly expected to do, but in an era, when the backpass could be picked up and defences did not expect the man at the back to frolic from goal and start playing the ball to feet. Grobelaar seemed to be making up the goalkeeper's art as he went along and this often led to embarrassing failure.

In one such event, in 1981, City came to Anfield fully expecting to get their annual pasting, but came away with one of those rare away wins, partly because of Grobelaar's antics in the home goal. Coming way too far for a high ball, he was stranded in no man's land when the foray resulted in a missed catch, as City's Steve Kinsey looped the ball towards goal, forcing Phil Thompson to palm it over the bar.

Kevin Bond's penalty conversion helped City towards a 3-1 win that was as rare as hens' teeth.

Corrigan, watching from a safe distance at the opposite end that day, will have had uneasy flashbacks to his own dark days.

Claudio Bravo arrived at City just over 12 months ago knowing exactly what to expect. Guardiola, an advocate of so-called sweeper keepers, had brought him to England to do what he professed Hart could not manage: come out, use his feet, pass and set attacks in motion with alert, adept balls to his midfielders. 
This was quickly shown to be a flawed exercise, with Bravo caught horribly in an early season Grobelaaresque act of hot headedness in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford. The game left a
All the way from Motherwell
mark on the Chilean, who became steadily more erratic and less convincing as the season progressed, to the extent that he eventually lost his place in the first team to Hart’s old understudy Willy Caballero.


This was arguably one of the major turning points in Guardiola’s first attempt at trophy winning in England. With an already shaky defence shot of confidence, a major Achilles heel had been uncovered and was duly attacked as City’s weak point by a variety of canny opponents.
To their credit, City have moved to correct the weakness.

Bravo’s much heralded arrival had initially pushed fan favourite Hart out to Torino on loan and subsequently West Ham, where he is still trying manfully to shore up his battered reputation.
That Bravo is still at the club comes about as a result of the impasse with Hart. The Chilean, meanwhile, relegated to second choice by the expensive acquisition of Ederson Morais from Benfica, has witnessed a sturdy and reliable start by his new Brazilian team mate.

The calmness and authority that was so obviously missing last season as Bravo’s confidence ebbed away like the evening tide, is now there for all to see. After opening matches with little to do at Brighton and at home to Everton, the young goalkeeper found himself in the thick of a truly crazy game at Bournemouth, which required maximum concentration and huge agility to help his side to the most hard-earned of three points.
That his concentration did not waver was one thing. That he was able – when called upon – to pull off the kind of elastic saves that seemed for the most part of last season to be beyond his predecessor, bodes well for the future.

Having proved his worth against Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the Champions League for Benfica in 2016, Ederson simply has to keep doing what he did in those two closely fought quarter-final matches: racing from his goal, passing accurately and confidently to feet and launching searing counter-attacks with incredibly accurate drop kicks to the wings.
If he can do all of this at City, those 15 extra points – exactly the margin of failure last season -- might just make all the difference to City's challenge in 2017-18.

An abridged version of this article featured on the ESPNFC website here

Sunday, August 13, 2017

BRIGHTON PEER

Faced with a blanket defence from a team making their debut in a noisy Amex, City produced a remarkably composed display, strangling any vigour the home side could muster almost at birth. Brighton, full of the vim and vigour that comes from a sunny opening day 34 years after the last top flight outing, were predictably well supported, but just could not break clear of City's tight grip.

To illustrate this, it was the 44th minute before Brighton got their first touch inside City's penalty area, a weak header from an erroneously awarded free kick out on City's left flank. Up to this point Ederson's only view of the ball had been watching it travel between his defenders and his midfielders like a shuttlecock in an evenly contested game of badminton.

It had taken the home side an entire half to have a single touch in the opposition area.

Despite Brighton's extremely blunt attack, there was plenty of enthusiasm from the South coast side. However, 22% possession by the end again underlined how dominant City were. To emphasise Brighton's supine state, by the end goalkeeper Mat Ryan had made more passes (27) than anybody else in his team.

City set up as expected with Danilo and Kyle Walker as flank players to a midfield anchored by Fernandinho and further populated by David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne. Each of these players had an important role to play as the game developed, with Walker and Danilo often as far advanced as Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus in attack. Walker in particular had a lively game, successfully marrying a marauding attacking profile with the ability to motor back and snuff out any Brighton threats on his flank.

Danilo's contribution was more in attack and he played well for the first forty minutes or so, giving Solly March much to think about. Despite this, his penchant for the right foot was much in evidence and the urge to cut in and use it stopped him from passing his marker down the outside, which Leroy Sane would immediately try to do (without success it must be said) when he came on later in the second half.

Silva meanwhile did his usual thing, prodding and passing all day long, the conduit for the quick movement of the ball from left to right and back again, as City searched for an opening. De Bruyne too, after one or two fluffed early passes, was prominent in trying to lever an opening in front of a wall of midfielders backed by a second line of defenders.

In all of this, Fernandinho's first half saw him almost redundant, sitting in the hole in front of the back three of, from left to right, Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones and Vincent Kompany. If Brighton had not upped their game at the start of the second half (minutes 50 - 55 saw the only proper "sustained" threat of the game from them) it might have been Fernandinho giving way. More active defensively, the Brazilian also began to get forward more in the second half and eventually had an important role to play in City's victory, playing the teasing cross in from the right that Lewis Dunk headed into his own net under pressure from Gabriel Jesus.

The back three looked solid enough but judgement will have to wait until they are put under proper pressure. Otamendi's penchant for sleepy moments and Stones's propensity for casual balls out (he was caught once here, producing a sloppy short pass that was intercepted) mean there will be hairy moments but here there were none.

Behind them Ederson might as well have been sunning himself on the Copacabana, caipirinha in hand, so little was he called upon. His first kick out went to a Brighton player, however, and his first punch was missed, so maybe the drinks trolley should stay in its place for the time being. He was fast out to deliver attack-building passes and dealt competently with anything that came into his area, mostly back passes from Kompany, Stones and Otamendi, it must be said.

Up front Jesus showed some moments of great skill - one flick over the bewildered Lewis Dunk left the unhappy defender looking like a bollard on the famous pier - but also displayed an inability to get the ball in the net when provided with good chances. His four opportunities included a free header in front of goal which Mat Ryan wafted away, but really should have been the opener. Both he and Aguero were active in harrying Brighton's brief possession, which played a major part in unsettling the Brighton defence and led to numerous misplaced passes out towards midfield from the home side.

The Brazilian was brave enough to go in for a ball that was bouncing high and get his head (then, by mistake, a hand) to a wonderfully flighted through ball from De Bruyne, which was correctly ruled out by Michael Oliver, but harshly deemed a yellow card offence by the otherwise competent official.

His partner in attack was also active. Aguero's persistence in both tracking back and in holding possession in the face of a wall of opposition players was laudable and led directly to the second goal. Aguero's mazy run seemed to finally come to an end in a thick forest of legs, but a rebound brought the ball back to him and on he ploughed until the ball could be released wide for Fernandinho's cross for the well aimed own goal header.

The chasing down of all early Brighton possession by City's front two was essential in harrying the home side out of its rhythm. The resultant loose balls in advanced midfield were meat and drink to Silva and De Bruyne, constantly mopping up and putting City back onto the attack.

In all, a suffocating performance by City, showing great patience in the face of a side that showed the expected exuberance, but had little more to offer than that. It will be a long season for Brighton if they cannot find more in attack than the theatrical Knockeart, who came on and dived twice, and the injury-prone Murray.

City's seventh consecutive opening day win sets them up nicely for the visit of an Everton side that will test their defence more, but will allow the free runners down the flanks more opportunity to fly. Much more will be gleaned on the new structure's stability to survive pressure and exert serious damage on the opposition in this fixture.

In the meantime, the used subs her, Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, will be busy wondering exactly where they fit in, in Guardiola's new scheme of things. With Benjamin Mendy sure to take Danilo's place on the left, there is currently little space for this most talented of trios beyond second half impact as substitutes. Injuries and tactical preening will no doubt affect this in due course.

You can read my player ratings for ESPN here.

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