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.

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