Sunday, 21 December 2008

The problem

I spend a lot of time thinking through what's gone so wrong this season. How can last years squad + Robinho = relegation fodder? It doesn't add up. Clearly, something deeper is wrong. We're suffering from a severe lack of confidence. I don't mean confidence as a function of results, either. There can only be something wrong within the club which is impacting confidence, which in turn damages results. So what is it? Why has the confidence been drained from the squad?

I think the root cause lies in Hughes' misunderstanding of our last season. He has cast himself, very publicly and consciously, as the anti-Eriksson. The complaints that the players were insufficiently fit, the taking of them all on that German fitness camp, saying that Sven had brought the wrong sort of players for the Premier League, the establishment of the 'football factory' - the expulsion of agents and girlfriends from Carrington - it was all part of one project: to define himself as an order-destroying manager.

Everything he said and did put out this message that the Eriksson regime stood for comfort, for laziness, whereas he and Bowen would introduce an era of discipline and rigour and physical fitness. I think that this overhaul of approach and methods at the club is the best explanation of the general decline in confidence: most noticeable in Dunne and Richards, but also to varying degrees in Elano, Hart, Gelson and Hamann. Not only is it a radical and disconcerting change in routine, it also quite insulting. For Dunne and Elano to be told that the Eriksson season, in which they played such big roles, was a failure and a bad example cannot be good for their confidence. The fact that the two players most improved under the Hughes regime, Ireland and Garrido, did not look fully at home under Eriksson further supports this point.

Based on this reading of last season, Hughes has torn down much of the Eriksson system, and tried to rebuild it in his own image. Such transitions are always painful in the immediate term. If our bad performances looked like a simple by product of these changes, with an improved team around the corner, I could accept them. But that's not how it looks at all. Today was an improvement on the last few games, but we still lost to West Brom. And it took a big change in approach - no Brazilians, no 4-3-3, just getting the ball quickly to Vassell and Benjani. It seems quite clear that the Hughes approach is nowhere near to reforming City into a quick, physical, fit unit, but has merely drained the squad's confidence.

The real shame of this is that the Hughes interpretation of 2007/08 is wrong. Yes, it wasn't a great season. It ended with the sort of shapeless, spineless, goalless shit that we've been enjoying this November and December. But before then we played some good football, and as the media love to remind us, we were fourth at this stage in the season. 9th place and 55 points is at least respectable. To get to 55 this year we'd need 37 from the last 20 games: an average of 1.85 points/game, which would translate to a 70 point season - somewhere between fourth and fifth place last year. On current form we're right on 1 point/game, which is enough to stay up most years but a total embarrassment for a 55 point squad + Robinho.

So where does this leave Hughes? I fear that after five months of fitness training, strict discipline and so forth we are too far down the Hughes road to simply bring back the Eriksson way. While SGE himself may be unwilling to return (although I'm not sure he's loving it that much in Mexico), there are other similar characters we could look to: if we want a relaxed, continental, multilingual manager of superstars we could surely tempt Frank Rijkaard: a coach who got lazy Brazilians to do special things. But that being the case, would we be wisest to stick with Hughes? While Hughes surely deserves the censure and humiliation of sacking, I still believe that his age, track record and transfer nous make him the best man for the job in the long term. Unless we can find someone to carry on down the Hughes path, without being the man himself - Martin O'Neill surely has too much honour to abandon Villa for our money - we may just be safest in sticking with Hughes.

12 comments:

King of Siam said...

Best article I've read on City this year. Agree entirely with the interpretation of our current ills. Hughes has alienated most of the squad, as although his intentions are honourable (who doesn't want a strong, disciplined team playing attacking football), he doesn't have the talent or the kudos to carry it off.

BigRobBCFC said...

Great article; i think you have really hit the nail on the head. to change managers now would be madness!

hughes has said all season that we need to add to the squad, and i think he should be given that chance. his record in the transfer market is outstanding; i doubt there is a city fan in the world who could honestly say that SWP, Zabaleta and Vinnie have been anything other than quality signings who have added to the team (also think we will see better from Ben Haim).

if you look around the prem, there are plenty of managers who have had bad starts, but have been given the requisite time, and benefitted as a result.

there are clearly problems at the club, but hughes should be given time to sort them.

also worth noting that, on the point you made re the differences between the eriksson era and that of hughes...

both the eriksson and pearce eras were founded on football which was based on a more defensive set up. its possible that this season, being a lot more attack minded (ignoring the last few weeks where we couldn't hit a barn door), that dunne and richards are more open to attack, and being exposed as not being as good as we orginally thought. erikksons 4-5-1 was a lot more defensive than the 4-5-1 we have been playing this season, which has been near enough 4-3-3 for long periods (worryingly, we seem to be 4-5-1 going forward, and 4-3-3 in defence).

John said...

Rijkaard was a failure in Holland as a coach and Barca seem to be better off without him, so I can't agree on your suggestion.

If we are the most resourceful club in the world, then we should hire Gus Hiddink.

As for our season, up until the Derby there were signs that we were looking good: goals and chances were coming easily and our defence was mainly suffering through poor player form. Since then we've been dire and it's very alarming.

If we can get a top class coach then we should, otherwise it's a case of hanging on until the summer.

Anoldtrout said...

Some very interesting and thought provoking points along with some speculation (obviously). On balance I agree with the vast majority of your conclusions and certainly summary of our plight at this time. A few players need to be taking a really good look at themselves.
Even so I think we have to continue on the Hughes strategy we're on and may even have to be mental in the Jan window to be absolutely certain of safety.
I don't post responses that often but wanted to say great job and keep up the good work. As a life long blue living in exile here in Atlanta I always enjoy reading your posts / blogs.

bluenova said...

Really interesting post - one of the more thoughtful I've seen for a long time. The interesting point for me about our position this date last year is that we were 4th (17 games played 33 pts), but we then got just 22 points out of the next 21 games. For more than half a season the team were just as bad as they are now. Didn't Sven say that teams had worked us out? And it appeared he had no plan B.

One of the great problems we have is the lack of strikers. Benjani and Vassell have never been prolific and rarely look like scoring (Vassell looks like the last injury robbed him of his pace), Jo is a long way off being a great player, and Sturridge & Evans are no way ready to lead the line week in, week out.

Our goals have come from playing a very attacking formation around the striker and that's left holes at the back.

Until Hughes has had a full transfer window to fill the gaps I don't think we can really judge him. Gelson has energy but was I thought he was very poor at the Euros. Capello was unimpressed by Richards long before Hughes arrived and Hart is still a very young keeper. They'll all get better but I think the side would be much improved by more experience in central defendce and defensive midfield and ANY striker that can score. If any one of the strikers had hit half a dozen this season (one in three so not a dramatic return) we'd be in a very different position.

I think we all hope that Hughes will turn out to be the manager he was hyped as when he signed.

tommytheblue said...

brilliant stuff, i think the king of siam as put it quite nicely, hughes doesnt have the talent or kudos to take city to the next level

charles gullung said...

I can't help but to think, and the ladyman piece talks about this, that hughes has lost some players. how many, 3, 4, 5?
is he going to replace these in jan.?
straight swaps, in and out?
how many "lost" players can be on the pitch?
none should be...
liabilities.
lost concentration.
those simple mistakes that lead to lost points.
how many more players is he going to turn off?
I don't trust this, him.
this is something much different than "typical city".

Bent the Golden Boot said...

Despite our strong desire to get rid of Hughes, the biggest fear would be for our owners to try and prise away one of the best coaches in the world and fail by mid-January because of current Champions League or other title chasing commitments. This could lead to an Alladyce type appointment who will bring in their own particular brand of dicipline and long-ball tactics. Even worse, would be to appoint a Pearce like coach who would respond to every defeat by assuring us all the players will roll up their sleeves and work harder in training.

So perhaps we have to put our trust in Hughes's apparent ability in the transfer market and judge him again in May.

Being the richest club in the Championship is a title nobody wants.

simonk said...

Jack, a typically thoughtful piece. But I can't agree with your conclusion. Any one of us at Santander saw a team lacking passion and, most worryingly, pattern of play. What system are we playing. Who's going to supply the inspiration? Who's going to do the work? Apart from Stephen Ireland and Vincent Kompany, you can basically forget the rest. It is a team without backbone, whose defence is having a collective nervous breakdown and who are a yard slower to the ball than even modest opposition (santander, West Brom for instance). In short, a shambles, for which the manager must take responsibility. There is a widespread view in the game that Hughes won't be there next season. That's going to make it hard, if not impossible, to attract the right players in January, unless we want a coach load of mercenaries. Also, there's more than a chance that players with potential might leave. I am never in favour of hasty decisions, but it does seem foolhardy not to cut our losses now.

NorthBayTrapper said...

I don't have a problem with upsetting lazy players. If it takes a few years to widdle them out of the lineup so be.
I'm much happier seeing committed players like Ireland, Zabs, SWP and Kompany work their arses off.
Short term pain for long term gain. Do you think that Sir Alex would put up with it?

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