Monday, 31 March 2008

"Flaccid up front, wretched on the road, increasingly sloppy in possession"

TheGuardian's Paul Doyle has written a very critical piece about how we've played in the last few months. He makes some quite legitimate criticisms: about SGE's judgement on strikers(although failing to mention Bozhinov) and that the 2-1 win at OT was an aberration from months of poor form.

In other places he's too simplistic: implying that we only beat Spurs because of Castillo, and comparing how Elano and Petrov's form has "plummeted lately". Elano's been struggling for form and fitness since November, whereas Petrov peaked in December/January and has only played twice since the derby. It's hard to strongly disagree with Doyle's conclusion:

Just as it was premature to hail Eriksson as the harbinger of a glorious new era for City on the back of a decent start to the season, it would be rash to now declare him a flop. But it is certainly legitimate to wonder what exactly he's up to.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Goals, abundance of

Yesterday's backheel was Cristiano Ronaldo's twenty sixth goal of the league season. With six matches left, it is already at the very least the sixth highest tally in the 38 match season era.

The other players to have scored over twenty five in the 38 game Premier League:

1995/6 Alan Shearer 31, Robbie Fowler 28
1999/00 Kevin Phillips 30
2003/04 Thierry Henry 30
2005/06 Thierry Henry 27

Even twenty five goals has only ever been done four times since 1995/6: Les Ferdinand in 95/6, Shearer in 96/7, Ruud van Nistelrooy in 02/03 and Henry in 04/05.

We hear and read so many words about Ronaldo's excellence that sometimes I think it's best to put numbers in focus instead. I'm not desperately enthused by the prospect of United winning the league, but I do genuinely hope Ronaldo scores six in the last six games to break Shearer's record, and not only because it might dilute Shearer's smugness somewhat. Excellence is worth applauding even in a red shirt.

Goals, lack of

We have scored one goal in open play in the last six matches, and that should have been disallowed.

How strikingly bad is that?

Friday, 28 March 2008

Team for Birmingham

This is one of the most open team selections for a while - I think the first time since we signed Castillo that all of our midfielders are available. Presuming that Hart, the back four and Benjani are all guaranteed their places, we have Hamann, Johnson, Fernandes, Ireland, Castillo, Petrov, Elano and Vassell competing for the remaining five spots.

The most certain to start of those eight is Martin Petrov. Our most consistent attacking player this season, badly missed during his suspension, he will surely play on the left. From here, the jigsaw puzzle is further confused. Ireland, Elano and Castillo could all claim to play in either the middle or on the right. So the team cannot be constructed piece by piece, but only with a constant balancing act.

In central midfield, we have the choice between playing either all three of Johnson, Gelson and Hamann; or two of them with one of the more attacking players. One could certainly make a convincing argument for dropping one of those three and returning Elano to his trequartista role. We did have Hamann/Fernandes/Johnson in the middle at Reading and lost 2-0. After cautious 0-0s against Wigan and Bolton, perhaps the solidity/creativity trade-off ought to rebalanced somewhat. Convincing as that may be in the abstract, when viewed against the available players it is less strong.

The reality is that Hamann, Fernandes and Johnson are three of our best players, and not so similar that they can't all play together. With Didi and Gelson behind him Johnson is able to get up and support the forwards. Hamann's willingness to play and beat Stephen Hunt/Kevin Nolan types at their own game is vital in these sorts of games: how I wish he'd played last Saturday and got the despicable Nolan sent off. Finally, Elano has not looked good in that position for months.

So, only the wide right position remains: with Elano, Castillo, Ireland and Vassell in contention. Apart from anything else, not playing Elano or Ireland in the middle means that they are more likely to play on the right, and therefore Vassell is less likely to start which is a good in itself. I'm yet to be convinced that any of these is a top quality right winger, but as Donald Rumsfeld said: "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time." I think SGE's hints in his press conference suggest that it will be Elano, and that's probably the best choice, by elimination if nothing else. Ireland's not a winger, Castillo's not right sided (or Leo Messi) and Vassell's not a Premier League footballer.

That leaves a bench of: Isaksson, Sun, Ireland, Castillo, Vassell. But Sun might not be available after international duty (I'm presuming Caicedo won't quite be ready, or at least less ready than Vassell). If Sun can't make it maybe we'll put one of the Academy defenders on the bench.

Prediction? Can't see past 0-0. In our seven remaining matches I'd be shocked if we scored more than five or six goals.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

France 1 - 0 England

On a day when President Sarkozy pledged an 'entente amicale' in London, dozens of footballers and thousands of fans summoned memories of centuries of conflict at the Stade de France. Unfortunately there was no glory or heroism this evening - just nintey minutes of drudgery.

Whilst Capello was meant to replace McClaren's holiday camp attitude with rigour and discipline, there has always been a hope that he would 'get us playing football'. England failed on both counts this evening, never looking comfortable against an attack that was strong but sans Henry, and hardly threatening the French defences at all.

In the first half we played pretty well. The 4-2-3-1 (2008's 4-3-3?) allowed us to dominate possession in the French half - something previous English teams would never have done. As well as we were passing the ball, we only had two Gerrard headers as attempts on goal. Going in 1-0 down at half time, Capello decided to take off Gerrard, Joe Cole and Rooney for Crouch, Owen and Downing. 4-2-3-1 became what Mike Bassett called 'four-four-fucking-two'.

What was Capello trying to prove? That a team stripped of its best attackers attacks less well? Maybe it was just a joke: with a front six of Downing, Barry, Hargreaves, Beckham, Crouch and Owen it played like a tasteless parody of the worst of Eriksson or McClaren's England. Or a warning? Perhaps Capello was reminding us that this was what it used to be like, and could be again if he chose. There is a useful cautionary tale here for City. Two goals in five games have given rise to criticism of Sven's 4-5-1 possession football. If only we could play two up front! Why can't we move the ball forward a bit quicker!? If long balls to Benjani are the alternative, I'm happy to stick with Hamann and Irelands' sideways passing.

PS Tonight did not suggest that signing Michael Owen would put 'bums on seats'.

Assorted City stuff

  • In the unlikely event that you read this more than you read Purely Man City, have a look at the average player ratings for the season so far. It's a very interesting tool in looking at relative performance levels. The most noteworthy points: the primacy of that integral isosceles triangle: Dunne, Richards and Hamann; the talented imports (Petrov, Corluka and Elano) all scoring lower than the spine of the team; how bad Vassell is and the lack of foundation for my natural sympathy for Ireland and Garrido. But do check it out.

  • Kit price slashing suggests something new next year. We're only one year into this design, so it's either the replacement of Thomas with Singha Beer (as people keep on saying on Bluemoon) or the termination of the le Coq Sportif deal. I can see that Thaksin might want to replace LCS with a higher profile manufacturer, as part of his brand expansion drive. So maybe Adidas or Nike next year?

  • There's been more movement, albeit in the other direction, on the Giovani dos Santos story. This doesn't seem like anything other than a player trying not to upset the Barca hierarchy. After all, Rijkaard, Laporta, Beguiristain et al are still his bosses for the next few months at the very least. He's not going to publicly say that he can't wait to play alongside his mate Nery next year. Anyway, it's only March.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

City rumour backed up by actual quotation shock

We can't buy players for at least another three months, but we're already in an absurd rumour frenzy (this is my fourth post on summer transfers in the last five days). Today, however, we have been blessed with an actual quotation from a named person in support of a pre-existing rumour.

Last week The Mirror published a story about Barcelona's young forward Giovani dos Santos. It was no more worthy of whichever reward we give (attention? consideration?) to rumours which cross some threshold of plausibility than any other. Pretty unrealistic, without any factual foundation and focussed on a player sufficiently out of the public eye not even to merit a denial on Sky Sports News.

This all changed today, however, when dos Santos' father, Zizinho, mentioned that we are interested in Giovani. He told Mexican newspaper El Universal that: "There is interest from Manchester City, however, I cannot give more information now as Giovani's agent is the one in charge of all this, it's him who is dealing with negotiations. I can't say for sure if Giovani will go to another team. There are still games to play in La Liga and while there are he's only thinking about Barcelona. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves, there is interest but first he has to concentrate on Barcelona."

Very promising. The agent mentioned is Pini Zahavi, who is apparently close to SGE and has been trying to hawk dos Santos around for a while.

So where would he fit with our transfer policy? He doesn't quite have the sufficient profile to be The Big Name Buy we've been talking about this week. Nor is he an experienced and prolific goal scorer. I was at Camp Nou for his Champions' League debut last September, and have seen him on Sky a few times. He's not even a centre forward - he plays out wide in Barcelona's traditional 4-3-3. He's very quick and two footed - probably more dangerous in the channels than as a Petrovian winger. Rather than being our Berbatov or Torres, he's more of a 'Sven signing' - an exotic and talented foreign youngster, in the mould of Gelson, Caicedo, Garrido or Corluka. dos Santos is only three months older than Daniel Sturridge. So as exciting as he would certainly be, he would have to be bought as well as, rather than instead of, the experienced striker we're looking for.

More on The Big Name Buy

Guillem Balague, who seems to be well plugged in to the network of serious football gossip, was talking about The Big Name Buy on The Game podcast this morning. After going into the rationale for it (reasons with which we are all familiar), he claimed that Thaksin has allocated Sven £30million to be spent on any one player.

He then discussed which players SGE is actually looking at, saying that he's not interested in David Beckham, or Thierry Henry but in: Diego Milito, Karim Benzema or Dimitar Berbatov. We were apparently very close with Milito in January (again, according to Balague) but he pulled out just before signing. He seems like the most likely purchase. But as good as any of those would be, I fear that we will not be the most attractive offer these players hear this summer.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Today was a good day

I was hoping this morning that we could keep pace with Aston Villa. I envisaged falling two points further behind them. Instead, we have gained ground - and are now seperated only on goal difference. Although Blackburn gained two points on us, the fact remains we are more likely to get the Inter-Toto Cup place than we were at 3 o'clock today.

Today's result was entirely in keeping with how we've done away at other poor sides. Obviously we'd want to be doing better than 1-1 at Derby and Wigan, 3-3 at Fulham and 0-0 at Bolton, but this is a problem we've had all year - and not some recent or sudden failure. That said, we could really do with a few goals at St. Andrews next Saturday.

So, even disregarding Fair Play, European football is within our grasp. Thanks to Portsmouth's failure to apply for the Inter Toto cup, and Everton's hopefully impregnable lead over Pompey, all we have to do is get more points than both Villa and Blackburn over the final seven matches (we could do Blackburn on goal difference if we get some big wins but I don't think it will come to that).

Here are the three run ins:

City: Birmingham (A), Chelsea (H), Sunderland (A), Portsmouth (H), Fulham (H), Liverpool (A), Middlesbrough (A)

Villa: Man Utd (A), Bolton (H), Derby (A), Birmingham (H), Everton (A), Wigan (H), West Ham (A)

Blackburn: Reading (A), Tottenham (H), Liverpool (A), Man Utd (H), Portsmouth (A), Derby (H), Birmingham (A)

Blackburn's run in is strikingly difficult - I imagine they would get 10 or 11 points maximum out of it - with two difficult trips to teams battling for survival.

Aston Villa seem to have the easiest. They have four games they'll see as secure three points, but they're currently in a poor run of form. A heavy defeat against United could set them back a bit further, but I'd still back them for twelve points, with the possibility of as many as fourteen or even fifteen.

Given Villa's superior goal difference - could we overcome that much of a (theoretical) deficit to get European football? It's a big ask. Fulham is the only obvious easy win. Apart from that, we've got three trips to teams fighting relegation - matches in which, as described above, our record is poor. Nine points is unlikely - to be honest I'd probably take five and certainly six. At Anfield we can only hope that their possible Champions' League semi-final three days before has taken it out of them and we get to play a team of Kuyts, Pennants and Benayouns. Even then I wouldn't back us. It's all going to come down to the home games against Chelsea and Portsmouth. Three points is a necessary minimum, and four may not even be enough.

So despite today's progress, we're relying on a continuing Villa decline and a few surprise wins for City if we want Inter Toto cup football. Failing that, don't get booked and respect the referee!

Bolton line up

Vassell and Petrov in for Castillo and Elano. So we've stuck with the Gelson-Johnson-Ireland triangle - which is tougher than its average age would suggest, and gone for wide players who will play through a few kicks in a way that Elano and Castillo might not. On one level, I'd rather we didn't compromise our principles to play against less talented opposition, but experience teaches that you do have to clamber down into the ditch and fight. Look at Arsenal's recent record at the Reebok.

And what great impact players we have if it's still goalless after an hour!

Thaksin seeks big name buy?

There's an article in the Times this morning which says that we're looking at a very big name signing to help improve attendances. It claims meetings between Dr Thaksin and Sven this week have come to this decision, quoting Sven: "We think it might be a good way to fill the stadium. Football has always been like that, if you have a big, big star, people want to see them playing. I don't know if it's going to happen, but there are thoughts about it. It can't be someone at the end of his career. That would be going the wrong way about it.”

I'm not particularly comfortable with buying players on reputation alone. The fact that Ian Whittell identifies David Beckham as "the obvious, and topical, choice" demonstrates how this would not be a purely footballing decision. It is quality football, rather than footballers, which attracts supporters. For too long in recent years we were a retirement home for millionaires: Fowler, Cole, McManaman and Hamann Mk. I. Sven, however, brought in hungry young players eager to prove themselves on a new stage (and Geovanni). I do think we need to make new signings, and not just young players, but this idea of a world famous new superstar is just a bit too Shevchenko for me.

If it's not Beckham, it could well be Michael Owen - another star on the wane. This is even more plausible than Beckham, I think. He's world famous, he's not at the end of his career, he's got a good relationship with Sven and he wants a move. I can see the attraction, but we already have one striker with dodgy knee ligaments - and he might actually be better than Owen next year. No one else quite fits the bill: we've been linked with half the Barcelona squad but I can't see it. Joaquin or David Albelda from Valencia would be great buys - but they're not the massive names we're looking for.

None of this sits well. A chairman demanding a big name buy from his manager destroyed Chelsea. Or for an example from City's past - George Weah couldn't keep Paul Dickov out of the team.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Bolton preview

The failure to take more points from trips to poor teams has been our principal weakness this season. Two points rather than twelve from trips to Derby, Fulham, Wigan and Reading is not good enough. We can catch Aston Villa, but only if we take maximum points from games at Bolton, Birmingham, Sunderland and Middlesbrough. The win against Tottenham had the feel of pressing the reset button on our season– removing months of stagnation and setting up an eight game charge at European football. Three points on Saturday gives our first back to back wins for five months. Anticipation for Bolton has been running through me for days. I haven’t been this excited about a City match since the Derby – and that was for very different reasons.

However, lowering expectations as a pre-emptive defence mechanism remains natural to City fans – even those, like me, whose memory only stretches as far back as Brian Horton and Paul Walsh. I know that ‘potential banana skin’ is a cliché –but this will not be an easy game. That does not mean that Bolton Wanderers are a good team. Like East Germany, they’ve traded a despicable but functioning system for an ugly and useless one. But they are kicking, chasing and elbowing for their lives at the moment – and it will not be an easy afternoon.

Our style works best against those teams who play football against us: Manchester United and Spurs both gave us space to counter attack into; a luxury not provided by those who ‘park the bus’ in front of their goal. Recent failures to break down Reading, Wigan and Everton have cost us dearly. We can pass the ball all afternoon in the opposition’s half, without necessarily threatening their goal. I don’t know enough about football to know how best to combat this: with the pace of Castillo and Petrov, the possession play of Elano and Ireland, or the work rate and physicality of Vassell and Caicedo?

Presuming we keep the same back five from Sunday, Johnson and Fernandes in the middle and Benjani (hamstring permitting) upfront, we have three positions left to fill. SGE’s comments today suggest Petrov starts – in Elano’s left wing forward role. And two assists against Tottenham ought to guarantee the Brazilian’s place, albeit in a different role. Where exactly he plays depends on the choice between Castillo, Ireland and Vassell. If Castillo sufficiently impressed to keep his place, Elano would start in his old role of attacking central midfield. If Ireland’s uncharacteristic tenacity guarantees the same spot this week, Elano could replace Castillo on the right hand side. And if Sven goes for Vassell’s work rate on the right wing Elano moves back into the middle.

Whichever line up Sven chooses, we will have superior quality to Bolton. The challenge will be in converting this into goals; something we have not always achieved this season.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Thaksin's transfer policy

Thaksin’s interview on seems to give weight to the rumours that we will be not be as extravagant with transfers this summer as we were in 2007. When asked about transfer policy, he replied that we ‘probably need one in each position’. He soon clarified it as meaning ‘two or three more players’. His justification for spending was not to increase the quality of the squad, but its depth – saying that injuries are unavoidable and the squad needs more padding out.

This all points to a summer of modest spending: two or three squad players rather than heavy investment across the team. It is a total repudiation of rumours suggesting bids for Diego, Thierry Henry, Giovanni dos Santos etc.

We may be paying the price for exceeding expectations this year. Thaksin has a clear plan for our future: Top ten this year, top six and UEFA Cup in 2008/09 and Champions’ League in 2009/10. Given how close we are to achieving next year’s goal this year, he may think that serious improvements are unnecessary. He promises extravagant spending in summer 2009, attempting to breach the walls of the top four. At such a point, he would be willing to trust Sven to bring in world class players to help us make that jump. The problem is that with only two or three squad players this summer, we will not be on the cusp of Champions’ League football next summer. In the post-Abramovich EPL, the bar is being raised higher and higher every season. Only a slight improvement on this season will not be sufficient next year.

UEFA Cup qualification by the end of next season is a very admirable goal, and we should be able to achieve it. But next year will be even more difficult. We have been lucky this year with Tottenham’s failure to challenge in the league – next season they will be much stronger and real competition for European places. We don’t need to replicate last summer’s transfers. But I’m not sure whether two or three more squad players will be sufficient to meet Thaksin’s own targets.

Monday, 17 March 2008

The Garrido/Ball debate

After months on the sidelines, a series of injuries have brought Javier Garrido back into the first team. There is a general consensus that with Michael Ball in his place at left back, we've been more solid, and have benefited from the change. Alan Hansen's destruction of Garrido on Match of the Day after the 6-0 loss at Stamford Bridge is seared in people's minds. But Javi played well against Spurs - and his persecutor in December, Aaron Lennon, was withdrawn at half time by Juande Ramos. So should he keep his place when Ball is fit? Or do we re-solidify the back four, going for the more experienced option, putting safety ahead of the chance to blood a promising youngster?

The statistics suggest that it is not that clear.

I have divided all of our Premier League games this year in those which Garrido and Ball have started at left back (ignoring the cup matches where both of them often played, often in different positions). This is the fairest way, but even then suffers from the fact that Ball played centre half in the 2-0 loss at Reading, a game which is here designated to Garrido, and so does not appear on Ball's record.


P 18 W 10 D 3 L 5 F 22 A 20 Pts 33 GD +2


P 12 W 3 D 6 L 3 F 14 A 14 Pts 15 GD 0

As illuminating as that is - they do not tell the whole story.

Points per game: Garrido (33/18) : 1.83. Ball (15/12) : 1.25.

Win percentage: Garrido (10/18) : 56%. Ball (3/12) : 25%

Goals/game: Garrido (22/18) : 1.22 . Ball (14/12) : 1.17

Conceded/game: Garrido (20/18) : 1.11 Ball (14/12) : 1.17

So on every relevant index, Garrido comes out stronger. The fact that he overlaps more than Ball does would probably cause most people to presume that we'd score more with him (which we do), but these stats blow away they myth of solidity under Ball. It's only a difference of 0.06 goals/game in Garrido's favour, but given how people talked of the change at the time you could have thought we'd swapped Bramble for Baresi.

There is obviously a correlation/causation issue here. Garrido's games happened to coincide with the fitness of Johnson and the good form of Elano - neither of which Ball was lucky enough to have. In a game like football, it's difficult to know exactly what impact any one player, particularly a full back, has on a team. But these stats should hopefully give pause to the 'Garrido can't defend' brigade, and make the issue of Ball's return to the team from injury (still, in my opinion, a very tight call) a closely contested one.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Spurs victory: a few thoughts

  • Tottenham’s goal was seriously disappointing. Corluka’s lapse of judgement, and failure to sprint back for it were not very impressive. Talented footballer that he is, his concentration is sometimes suspect. Keane’s goal reminded me of the third we conceded at Craven Cottage: when Corluka missed an easy header, Danny Murphy stole in behind him and scored. Sometimes I think that Richards and Corluka ought to switch positions (so they could each play in the positions they do for their countries), but moments like today teach caution.

  • Abandoning a second striker might be playing dividends. We’ve been doing it for quite a while: I couldn’t put a date on it but I think the Christmas period. It’s the natural response to having Gary Speed/Michael Brown types ‘doing a job’ on Elano and gives us a more diverse attacking edge. Today both the tight central three (Gelson, Johnson, Ireland) did very well and the three man front line (Castillo, Benjani, Elano) was generally threatening. Until an obvious solution shows up to the Elano quandary (lots of gym work?) this Chelsea type system seems to be the way forward.

  • We missed Hamann. No surprise: he’s been our most consistent performer this season. Without him we lacked the necessary composure once we’d won possession. The number of times we’d win the ball and then give it straight back was infuriating. Our midfield three did very well, but ideally we’d have Didi in there making sure they were fully switched on. My admiration for Gelson is no secret, but I don’t think he reads the game well enough to be given that role yet.

  • The return of Martin Petrov gives us a ‘welcome selection headache’. Stupid as his red card was, he comes back in on football grounds, and would fit well into the new 4-3-3. Which of Castillo and Elano comes out: I’m not sure. On today’s performance I’d keep Castillo on the right – and move Elano inside. But that might contradict what I said above about 4-3-3: I’m not sure he’s got the willingness to graft for it playing central midfield. So I’m not sure. And this only gets harder when Hamann comes back.

City 2 - 0 Tottenham: Player Ratings

Hart: Andy Gray said he ‘wasn’t good enough’ to get to Keane’s goal – I’m not sure either way. Generally sound but with one or two unsure moments. 7

Corluka: Mistake raised fears over concentration, but solid after that, with both Malbranque and the centre forwards. Not too effective going forward. 6

Dunne: One of his best performances: why does he always save them for televised matches? No one would have known he was a doubt before the game. Held off Berbatov very well, and pretty good at keeping up with Keane too. 8

Onuoha: Rather rusty defensively, could not keep pace with Keane, distribution was poor. Took his goal well though. 6

Garrido: As well as he’s played for months: forced Ramos to withdraw Lennon after forty five minutes. Stretched Hutton on the overlap, although occasionally panicked when he gets into the opposition half. 7

Fernandes; Took a while to settle down – perhaps missed the influence of Hamann early on. Got into the game in the second half, energising a flagging midfield. 7

Johnson: Closer and closer to his September best. Very strong against Jenas and Zokora in midfield, linked well with Castillo and broke into the box well a few times. On another day could have scored a goal or two. 8

Ireland: Returned to the central midfield role he played so well at Old Trafford, hassled well and put some good passes together. Deserves credit for getting into the six yard box for his goal. 7

Castillo: Best game yet. Electric in the first half, especially linking with Johnson. Got into very good positions, probably ought to have done better but deserves credit. Really stretched the Spurs back four. Faded a bit in the second half. 8

Elano: Increasingly adept as a wing forward. A few nice touches and some very clever play. Two assists. What happens now Petrov is back? 7

Benjani: Not quite the Drogba-style front man we were hoping for – well contained by Woodgate – but impressive when pushed out wide. Made the first goal. 7

Vassell: Won the corner from which Onuoha scored. Squeezed ninety minutes of effort into twenty. One or two good touches as well. 7

Caicedo: Admirable willingness to get stuck in, although I would have been furious had we conceded from any of those right hand side free kicks (and we should have done). Had two chances - maybe could have done better? 6

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Team for Tottenham

The defence issue seems pretty clear: Garrido, Corluka, Onuoha and then either Sun or Dunne, depending on the latter's fitness. By no means our ideal back four but stronger than predicted a few days ago.

In terms of our system, I think it might be best to return to the 4-4-1-1 of earlier in the season. In recent weeks we've gone with three central midfielders and two wingers, with no split striker. I think this has been a good response to Elano's performances (there's no point in building a team around a player out of form) but doesn't look like penetrating at all. Given how strong Spurs are in wide areas, and the quality of our full backs, it might be wiser for us to play two wide midfielders - allowing us to double up on Malbranque and Lennon where necessary. The suspension of Hamann, whilst a blow, does allow us to play four across the middle - Johnson and Fernandes will certainly cover more ground than the Kaiser could.

The personnel to play in the two wide and the two forward positions is not immeadiately clear. Starting with the right and left wings, none of the options stand out: Elano, Vassell and Ireland are out of form and judgements are still pending on Caicedo and Castillo. I think the necessity for hard work on Sunday suggests Vassell on one side (certainly if Sun is playing). It's then down to a choice between Castillo and Ireland for the left wing. I really don't know which way to jump on this: Castillo looks sharp and is unproven, really not sure how much help he'd give Garrido. Ireland is not really a left winger but will at least keep possession and might just produce something special. In the spirit of 'change versus more of the same', however, I'd start Castillo. This is, after all, a home game against a team ten points behind us - we might as well try to win it.

As the second striker, the only options really are Elano and Ireland. On current form, it's difficult, but the possibility of something out of the ordinary just swings it for Elano. Ireland has had a few months to make that attacking midfield spot his own and hasn't quite taken it. Elano hasn't really produced for some time but has had one or two touches in recent weeks that suggest he might be slowly turning a corner. Finally, the centre forward spot probably goes to Benjani by default. He hasn't looked very sharp recently - although that's perhaps due to the support he's been getting - and SGE seems unwilling to fully test out Caicedo yet. I think Sturridge could still have a role to play this season - but he hasn't been near the team for a while - so we'll have to wait on that one.

Friday, 14 March 2008

We only came to see...

Elano, about to take a corner kick in the second half at the Madjeski last Saturday.

In praise of Gelson Fernandes

Although the blaze of our initial triumphs is fading away, there is one flame which has brightened as those around it have died out. None of our Autumn heroes have been able to repeat their feats through the winter, or into our spring time pursuit of Aston Villa for the Inter-Toto Cup places. As we descend from the peaks of excellence into the foothills of honest mediocrity, only one player is willing to drag us back up the mountainside: our player of 2008 (pace Joe Hart), Gelson Fernandes.

An archetypal Eriksson signing: young, exotic, and so unknown he wasn’t even on Football Manager 2007. He was given the label ‘one for the future’, which, as Felipe Caicedo knows, limits a player to token twenty minutes here and there. Serious involvement seemed unlikely: the Hamman/Johnson/Elano triangle was the core of early successes and Fernandes was restricted to the fringes. However, losses of form and fitness allowed Gelson to carve out a role in the team no one expected on his arrival.

He has been involved in every game since the loss at White Hart Lane in December, including uninterrupted starts since the West Ham double header in January. A partnership with Player of the Season-elect Didi Hamann has grown, founded on antithetical styles. Hamann, thirteen years older than Fernandes, plays with minimum effort: covering only as much ground as he needs to retain possession. Gelson’s energy levels are unlike anyone else at City. A comparison is often made, quite wrongly, with a windup toy: Fernandes never slows down and never needs re-winding.

He is also very good at football. At first he seemed like a purely destructive player – no bad thing, in the post-Makelele Premier League. His size (not quite Yaya Toure but certainly no Stephen Ireland) and athleticism dominates opposition midfielders. His short passing is as good as any of our other midfielders. His touch is immaculate. But in recent months he has expanded his sphere of influence beyond the centre circle and deep into opponents’ halves. He has scored as many this year as Stephen Ireland and Michael Johnson. In recent weeks he has been even better at Gerrardian runs into the box than the master of the Steven Gerrard impression himself, Michael Johnson.

After Joey Barton and Paul Dickov it is nice to have players who rely more on talent than on enthusiasm. I know it’s a cliché, but I would play with passion if selected by Sven. But sometimes I fear that we’ve overcompensated: whether with the understated coolness of Hamann, Corluka and Johnson, or the slightly mercenary feeling around Petrov and Elano. So the combination of a talented athlete and footballer with an overpowering will to win, found best in Gelson (and Micah Richards, and hopefully, in time, Valeri Bozhinov), that makes him the success he is.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Sven on, Spurs team.

New Sven interview just on (well worth £3.99/month if you're not already paying).

Ball is almost certainly out, Dunne is 50/50 and Onuoha should be fit - he starts training on Thursday. He suggests that without Dunne, it would be Corluka and Onuoha at centre half - presumably with Garrido and Sun either side. With Dunne, we don't have to play Jihai at full back, and can put out a very respectable Garrido-Dunne-Onuoha-Corluka.

The crisis comes if Dunne doesn't make it and Onuoha breaks down on Thursday/Friday. In that case, we'd be left with Garrido, Corluka and Sun. I don't know who would be the worse centre half out of Javi and Jihai - but either of them against Keane or Berbatov would be difficult. Who we'd draft in as a replacement full back (Gelson? Elano? Mee? Trippier?) is also not immediately clear. So let's hope Dunne and Nedum both make it and hopefully we'll get something.

The interviewer pressed Sven on potentially changing up tactics for the last ten games. He was characteristically reticent - suggesting that our play has not been too bad recently, and so "I am a little bit afraid to make a revolution". The issue of changing the players or the system can often be a bit chicken/egg I think. We've come this far playing variations on 4-5-1 (the best we've played this season was 4-2-3-1 in the Autumn- when Elano was getting genuine support from Petrov and Ireland) so I can't see that changing now. Moreover, we barely have one fit and firing centre forward, never mind two.

I've written more than I planned to here - hopefully there will still be enough uncovered material for me to do something about our team for Sunday later in the week.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Possible addition to the coaching staff?

After Liverpool's victory at San Siro this evening, Inter coach Roberto Mancini has announced he is standing down at the end of the season. This may be absurd - but could he be on his way to City?

His friendship with Mancini is no secret, and we are currently taking his son (seventeen year old forward Felipo Mancini) on loan. At the time of the deal, Sven said something about how if Felipo was half as good as Roberto he would be a very good player indeed. When it was rumoured that Elano would be going to Inter, SGE pointed out his weekly contact with Mancini, in which such a transfer had never been mentioned, as proof against the rumours. So they're clearly extremely close.

And if Mancini wants a change of tempo after the high profile Inter job, where better to come than City? His three managerial posts (Fiorentina, Lazio and Inter) have all been in Italy, and whilst he's done well in Italy he has never transferred that success into European competition. He may well seek some experience of football outside Italy - and where better than the league which provides half of this year's Champions' League quarter finalists?

Not only would such a move be good for Mancini - but he would be a real boost for City. The coaching team is strikingly old. Eric Steele is the youngest at 53, followed Hans Backe and Derek Fazackerley at 56, Sven himself now 60 years old - and Tord Grip is another ten years older than that. Having forty-three year old Mancini could help to bridge an age gap with our relatively young squad. Whilst this has been a successful season, there is a sense that we have come as far as we can with the current set up. Generally seen as a need for new players, it could also be relevant to the coaching set up. Who knows how the introduction of the man who won the last three Scudetti could improve us next year?

To be honest, I don't think this is particularly likely. But it's just about possible enough, and certainly sufficiently enticing, to be a hope worth entertaining.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

City's fall back to earth

My concern is not that it was an atypically bad performance, but the opposite. It was yet another bad apple from the same batch which gave us both draws with Wigan, both losses to Everton, the loss at Bramhall Lane and the shameful point at Pride Park. Our last consecutive good performances were, if not Newcastle and Middlesbrough five months ago then Liverpool and Newcastle over New Year. Victories seem to be against the run of play and followed by defeats.

The personnel has not changed much. Benjani fills the role which Mpenza and Bianchi took it in turns to prove they were not good enough for. Johnson was injured but is now fit. Elano has drifted in and out. Many individual players are out of form: Petrov is not as good as he was in December and January, Corluka slipped from his post-Euro Qualification heights, and Hamann increasingly tired. But none of this really matters, or at least it matters less than what I’m writing about. In the past, poor individual performances would be covered by outstanding others: think how much Garrido and Mpenza played at our zenith. We have ceased to play as a team.

The three-one win against Newcastle was the last (and only) time this year that we have won having conceded first. Think how different our season could be if we’d shown some fight after conceding at home against Everton or Arsenal, at White Hart Lane, in the Carling Cup quarter-final or at the Madjeski Stadium. Combined with leads thrown away at Derby, Wigan and Villa point to a team lacking much resolution or grit. I know the example of the derby will be used against me, but that is the exception that proves the rule. Everything about that day ran against trends: the poverty of United’s performance, Stephen Ireland’s Gattuso impression, Sir Alex’s dignity in defeat and even our fans respecting the dead (how nice to hear ‘Town full of Munichs’ at the Madjeski yesterday). It was, as Premier League matches go, sui generis and ought to be treated as such.

You can see this in our play too. We used to beat teams with passing, but not any more. Those attacks we do have seem to be based on players feeling they have to do it all by themselves. Petrov, Elano, Johnson, even Gelson take the ball and run with it and shoot rather than picking a pass. The team ethic seems to have collapsed. In isolation, this is no surprise: our front line against Reading started off as an Englishman, a Zimbabwean and a Brazilian, and finished off with an Ecuadorian and a Mexican as well. This is still, relative to other Premier League clubs, a team of strangers. Gelling takes time. But these things are meant to get gradually better over time. An awkward August should give way to steady improvements in the Festive season, and real momentum by March. What we have is the reverse.

Is this a result of complacency? I hope not: Eriksson is an experienced enough manager to deal with that. Too much talk of European football may have caused our players to switch off. Or personality clashes? Perhaps Elano, Petrov and Johnson let their good press get to them. Petrov seems in a perpetual state of frustration with his team mates. As bad as these explanations are, at least they are fixable. The real fear is that we have not been undergoing decline, but normalisation.