This is a follow up to this post, about Hughes' plans for the team and how he has gone about implementing them.
Attempting to evaluate how well Hughes has done as manager is inherently very difficult. There is nothing against which to test Hughes' achievements - no controlled element that can be used as a yardstick. The criticism is often made of Hughes that we are no better than we were last year, or in fact worse. (It is unlikely that we will match last season's points total of 55). When combined with the £100m+ he's spent, it's easy to paint Hughes as a failure.
What I think this analysis underestimates is the mess the team was in when Hughes took over. April through August 2008 was a very unsettling and rather unpleasant time to be a City fan: Thaksin's needless and narcissistic destruction of managerial authority, the 8-1, the ludicrous Far East tour, Thaksin's going on the run, the attempted Ireland and Ćorluka sales and all that. It was a time when I genuinely feared a Leeds United scenario, as managerial changes and enforced sales of players saw us plummet back down the divisions. What I'm getting at here is that while our boardroom stability is clearly thanks to the ADUG intervention, Hughes deserves praise from turning us into a moderately competitive outfit at the start of the season.
It's widely reported that in the wake of the events of May, the players threatened to go on strike and refuse to attend the Thailand tour. Richard Dunne thought of leaving and was surely not the only one. So although Hughes inherited the same personnel that won 55 points in 2007/08, he also inherited them in a state of discord and disillusionment. To suggest that that squad could go on to replicate their performances of the Eriksson season after going through that period of tumult is unrealistic.
So our question must be: given the squad in the state he inherited in, has Hughes succeeded to make it tougher and stronger? The quick answer must surely be no. There can be no avoiding the simple fact that City have been patchy and inconsistent this season. Our home form has been very good - nine wins and five losses with four easy home games left. Our away form, though, has been shocking. One win, five draws and eight losses - with four of our hardest away trips remaining. And despite Hughes' claims to be installing a mental strength in the side, we never won from behind, while often throwing away leads. We lost from ahead against Chelsea, Liverpool (h) and Spurs, drew from winning positions at Newcastle, Hull and Fulham. For the first few months of the season all ouf our wins were by big margins: 3-0, 3-0, 6-0, 3-0 and 5-1. When we played beautiful football, we were unstoppable. But beneath this veneer of class we were very fragile; when we didn't dazzle we folded, it was all very frustrating.
There have been recent signs, though, that we are improving in this regard. We are starting to consistently grind out wins at home, something which eluded us in 2008. Of course, it would be better to always play like we did against Portsmouth and Hull, but we do seem to have added an element of grit to our game which can be called upon when needed: the 1-0 against Wigan, 2-1 against Newcastle and 1-0 against Middlesboro were all games where we won without playing brilliantly, something we were not previously capable of. The 2-0 against Villa was a combination of some of our best attacking football with the defensive solidity we've seen more of recently. Even our away form has started to get less bad. The 2-2 at Blackburn suggested an ability to battle the team hadn't previously possessed. Bad results followed - Stoke and Portsmouth - but the draws in Liverpool and Copenhagen were both impressive. Progress is never fully linear (although the performance at West Ham wasn't too bad), and we may not win another Premier League game away from home this season. But the signs, from the two months or so, are that City are finally starting to toughen up, that the process of Sparkyisation is starting to bear fruit. But whether or not this warrants Hughes' staying another season is a different question.