Thursday, 30 December 2010

TLDORC December awards

The month that marked the one year anniversary of Roberto Mancini's becoming Manchester City manager was unfortunately dominated by the act of Carlos Tévez - the most important player in Mancini's debut year - issuing and then withdrawing a transfer request. Whatever the issue between the Tévez camp and the club, a truce has been declared, although I imagine we will go through the same tiresome routine next summer. It's a shame in and of itself; Tévez is a compelling footballer, comfortably the best striker I've seen in blue (sorry Uwe), and this was fairly ugly stuff, even more so given that he was club captain.

But it has allowed some to detract from the fact that it was the best footballing month of Roberto Mancini's tenure thus far. We took twelve points from five league games (three more than we did from five games in November). Putting the annual home defeat to Everton to one side, we recorded two home wins - against Bolton Wanderers and Aston Villa - where we played and created much better than usual at Eastlands. Then there were two more away wins; an easy one at West Ham, and a much harder one at Newcastle. The table is skewed by the games in hand our rivals have on us, but no fan will complain with second. Even if the games in hand are all won, we'll be third. On top of all of this we took four points from our remaining Europa League games, despite starting Jô and Shaun Wright-Phillips both times, and won Group A.

Red Bull Salzburg (h) 3-0 (thoughts, ratings)
Bolton Wanderers (h) 1-0 (thoughts, ratings)
West Ham United (a) 3-1 (thoughts, ratings)
Juventus (a) 1-1 (thoughts, ratings)
Everton (h) 1-2 (thoughts, ratings)
Newcastle United (a) 2-1 (thoughts, ratings)
Aston Villa (h) 4-0 (thoughts, ratings)

Player of the Month

It can only be David Silva. The best footballer I have ever seen at Manchester City, I think. Not in terms of utility (Tévez) or service (Dunne). He is divinely talented, certainly, but so were Robinho, Elano, Ali Benarbia and Georgi Kinkladze. But his gifts, when married to his reading of the game and his underestimated work-rate (as it turns out, he does rather fancy it) make for the most natural, complete and charming footballer I can remember. December was his best month yet; he is now wholly congruous within the English game - I worry for our rivals what he will be like next season.

The most important thing he did this month, I think, was to show that we could still score goals and win without Tévez. This is important for the players but also, perhaps, for the club in negotiations with Kia Joorabchian. David Silva is our security against ransom demands. He was masterful in the Tévez-less wins over West Ham and Aston Villa. He ran the game at the Boleyn Ground, teasing and taunting before his dagger pass to Adam Johnson set up our third. Against Villa he set up our first goal, had a hand in our second and then threatened to recreate his Blackpool goal, the sprawling Brad Friedel denying him but not Mario Balotelli for our third. It's only the serene power of Vincent Kompany that is stopping David from dancing away with the Player of the Season trophy.

Performance of the Month is Silva against Villa - see above.

Goal of the Month

Johnson v West Ham

I feel increasingly sympathetic to AJ's hopes for more starts, so I'm always happy to see him do well. City were 2-0 up away at West Ham, and he scored the goal that killed the game: running between defenders (much like his goal against Juventus at Eastlands, or for England in Switzerland), he was spotted by David Silva, drifting between the lines, and went wide of Rob Green to finish. Elegant, precise football.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Villa player ratings

Hart Made some important saves - from Eric Lichaj, and from a low free-kick, in the second half. Distribution also improved, probably thanks to the presence of Mario Balotelli up front. 7

Richards Back in the side after a few games out, he played well in fairly comfortable circumstances. With Adam Johnson ahead of him there was not as much space as there might be, with, say, David Silva on the right. But he was astute enough overall. 6

Kompany He has certainly had harder challenges this season than dealing with Gabriel Agbonlahor. But complacency is as anathema to Vincent Kompany as losing his man, or letting the ball bounce, and so he was predictably faultless. One of the highlights this season has been his growing confidence bringing the ball out of defence (comparisons with Lúcio or Piqué are not facile), and there was one Zidane roulette in the first half which revealed just how total is his set of talents. 7

Lescott Kept in the side despite the return from suspension of Kolo Touré, he looked confident. A bit more direct with his distribution than I'd like him to be, but with Balotelli in the side (and Dzeko on his way), he can afford to be. Scored his first goal in a while - a powerful header from a corner that Barry Bannan could not get away in time. 7

Zabaleta Back in the team after a rest (I'd always find a way to include him if possible), and in at left-back this time. Did fairly well against Stewart Downing, making six interceptions in useful positions. Performed an important attacking job: staying wide on the left flank, maximising the breadth of the pitch while David Silva came inside. Had one left-footed shot which he hit over. Relax: he's already scored his 2010 goal. 7

de Jong Captain for the day, he had a fairly easy time of it in what was a gently-contested midfield. Had time to pick his passes, and completed 59 from 65 - including an unusually perceptive cross-field ball to Adam Johnson in the build up to our fourth goal. A few important tackles, although gave away a needless free-kick on Stiliyan Petrov which might have cost us. 7

Vieira I think that as our Europa League campaign becomes more serious, Vieira's luxury deployments will increasingly be in the Premier League. This was a comfortable afternoon stroll for Vieira, alongside de Jong in our 4-2-3-1. He had time on the ball, he occassionally jogged forward to join in attacks but on realising that our forwards were doing well enough without him he decided against it. 6

Johnson Good to have him back. (I sympathise with him given his rare selection this season, so I like to see him in the team). Stephen Warnock is probably AJ's dream opponent, so he revelled in the savannah of the left-back area, taunting and beating whichever defenders were in his way, buying the penalty off Marc Albrighton for 4-0 (the fourth such penalty he's won at Eastlands in 2010), and putting in the corner for Joleon Lescott's goal. The sad thing is that his all-round game has improved under instruction from Mancini, but he's still not playing as much as he might. 8

Yaya Touré Powerful movement and intelligent distribution through the middle of the pitch. A useful beacon for Joe Hart's long kicking. Only one or two of his charges but still a good overall performance, the highlight being the interplay with Silva before our third goal. 7

Silva It seems a waste of effort to write, again, that he was the best player on the pitch, and played football to embarrass the other 21. But he was, and he did, at least as responsible for our win than Mario Balotelli. He slid Balotelli in goal-side of Lichaj to win the first penalty. His ball to Yaya Touré won the corner from which Lescott scored. He played a one-two with Yaya, made space and shot across Friedel before Balotelli tapped in his second. Throughout, his little drifts and darts dragged Villa players around, making life easier for others. 9

Balotelli The sixth, seventh and eighth Manchester City goals from the club's most natural finisher. His two penalties were very witty: he paused mid-run-up, as if waiting for the goalkeeper to move. Friedel was frozen, so Balotelli side-footed the ball past him. He then repeated the trick in the second half. His other goal was a tap-in, the missing of which would have been beyond Darius Vassell on an off day. (I appreciate that making a joke about Vassell makes his scoring against us in the cup inevitable.) Balotelli's all-round game was good, though, as he showed for the ball, ran in behind, and threw his weight around. I imagine this was not disconnected from his rejecting any arguments with opponents, team-mates or officials. 9


Milner Put himself about nobly. 6

Jo Too late to evaluate fully but he tried hard enough. n/a

Bridge Another one of Mancini's 'ironic substitutions' just to embarrass the team we are playing against. n/a

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

City 4 - 0 Villa

  • No Carlos Tévez, Gareth Barry, Aleksandar Kolarov or a handful of other first choicers, and they produce the best home display under Roberto Mancini. We were lucky enough to be facing a side who had evidently learnt none of the lessons of our recent home games, who showed no appetite for tackling and who placed no value on possession. Had they set up as Everton or Birmingham City did at Eastlands then it might well have been different. But, for whatever reason, they did not and we flourished. We attacked with fluency, confidence and variation. We scored an early goal (always important), and then followed it with more heat, not less. It was 3-0 within half an hour and 4-0 soon after half time: it could have been more had we really wanted it.
  • The big news was the resting of the captain. I suppose we have to rest him sometimes, particularly at this time of year, and if we're going to do so it might as well be for a game like this. Mario Balotelli was given the chance to lead the line in his absence, the second time he has done so in the Premier League. David Silva, Yaya Touré and Adam Johnson lined up behind him (my preferred creative line), while Mancini trusted Nigel de Jong and Patrick Vieira to anchor. We started brightly enough, everything naturally following David Silva, a shuffling, scurrying magnet and metronome. If you wonder how we'd do without Tévez (the evidence suggests it would not be the end of things), just think what we would be like without Silva. Anyway, we moved the ball well, and it wasn't too long before the little Spaniard put Balotelli through outside Eric Lichaj, inducing a foul. Balotelli converted the penalty. Five minutes later Joleon Lescott headed a Johnson corner towards goal, and the ball was judged to have crossed the line.
  • The best goal was the third: Silva took the ball on the right hand side and sparked a one-two with Yaya Touré. He then sneered past the backward Stephen Warnock and, finding space as he did famously at Blackpool, shot to the far post. Friedel parried, Balotelli converted. Early in the second half Johnson drew a tackle from Marc Albrighton and Balotelli completed his hat-trick. At 4-0 the game was over, and Silva was soon withdrawn: Mancini understandably keen to protect our best player. Yaya and de Jong did not last much longer, and from then on it was keep-ball. Ball retention when ahead away comes naturally to us: at home it's even easier. There were no more moments of note.

  • To rotate this far, and then to play this well, is a sign of our being, well, a serious team. (I refuse to use the 'c word', naturally.) It suggests what we all knew, which is that we can make changes without having to resort to the ragtag army we put out in the Europa League. Having done this now, it reinforces the belief that we can continue to challenge in the Premier and Europa Leagues in the spring, without having to reject entirely the FA Cup. We host Blackpool on New Year's Day: I anticipate a similarly open team then, albeit with different full-backs, Tévez and maybe Jô, before we bring back anti-football at the Emirates and then go about cavalier again at Leicester City. The key is to generate and foster a momentum of results whilst not rotating so much as to destroy continuities. It is one of Sir Alex Ferguson's great gifts and only the next few months will reveal whether Mancini has it too. But based on this evidence he might just have a good feel for it.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Newcastle player ratings

Hart Distribution was a bit over-enthusiastic at times (does he think we've got Edin Dzeko up front already?), must have been frustrated with the marking for Andy Carroll's goal. Otherwise did ok - a good save down to his left late on. 6

Boateng Beaten too often by Jonás Gutiérrez when isolated, which was fairly worrying. Contributed well when he got forward, although the full-backs looked as if Mancini had told them to stay in second gear. 6

Kompany A major aerial challenge up against Andy Carroll, and another strong performance. Much less time on the ball than normal, which was both cause and symptom of our lack of possession. 7

Back in the side due to the suspension to Kolo Touré. Competent enough, and didn't look out of place given that Kompany wasn't playing much football either. His last game for City? 6

Kolarov Gave the ball away too much - misplacing over 20 passes. His shooting is getting better though - he will score this season, and it will be magnificent when he does. Zabaleta's going to play on Tuesday, somewhere, certainly. 6

de Jong
Didn't get a polite round of applause from the locals. Couldn't control the game as he likes to - Newcastle's midfield was too good for that - but he kept things moving and kept the ball when he could. We're better with him than without him. 7

Yaya Touré
Not much of the bounding physicality of recent weeks, just some basic midfield competence and control, a few half-breaks through the middle and a running spat with international team-mate Cheik Tioté. 6

Opened the scoring very early on, and continued to run about more than usual - helping Kolarov, helping in midfield, helping Silva. Good stuff in a difficult situation. 7

Playing on the right rather than the left, presumably to cover José Enrique, he did well - so much so that Mancini singled him out for praise after the game, which isn't something that the manager does often. He worked hard, set up the second goal, kept the ball - nothing spectacular but a lot of good stuff. 7

We can't pretend that he isn't toweringly important to us, and he showed it all again today: two goals and an assist. His second goal was a deflection - like his crucial second go-ahead goal at Bloomfield Road but, like Frank Lampard, scoring repeated deflected goals is a sign not of being a fortunate footballer but rather quite the opposite. More of the same please. 8

Silva On the left, strangely. Did not drift inside as much as usual, although was still important on the counter. Withdrawn early - possibly as a means to preserve him for Villa on Tuesday. 7


Johnson Stretched the Newcastle defence late on. Surprise booking. n/a

Vieira Too late to mark. n/a

Silly booking. n/a

Newcastle 1 - 3 City

  • If you are looking around for something to characterise the Mancini era as it enters its second year, then settle on this: so far this season we have won six and scored 19 in 10 away games, while only winning four and scoring 9 from 9 games at home. It is not quite a reversal of our record under Mark Hughes, but we do now have the best away record in the Premier League, which is not something that we're used to. Today was possibly the hardest-fought, the least easy of our six road wins to date. It was nothing like the strolls against Fulham and West Ham; Newcastle completed more passes than we did, which is rare. There was none of the possession for football for fun in midfield. But this is what away wins are like most of the time! It's not meant to be easy as we made it look at Fulham and West Ham. But we stood firm, took advantage of some good fortune and came away with the three points.
  • In terms of the narrative of the 90 minutes, it had echoes of the defeat to Everton on Monday. We stormed two goals ahead at the very start - first from a mistake, then from a quick sharp piercing exchange. Having gone two ahead we had every right - as Everton did on Monday - to defend deep, to eat time, to warn of counter-attacks. The midfield three did not manage what they have done in similar situations this season, and metronomically pass the ball to one another. Newcastle were too fierce and insistent for that. There were spaces, though, for us to counter-attack into. The inclination of David Silva, Carlos Tévez and Yaya Touré is to drive through the centre; hence our repeated failures to out-manouevre the parked bus at home. Here we did make openings to score a third, although it took a while for us to take one.
  • But, for the most part, Newcastle were on top. Defending deep isn't quite as smart against an aerial threat, and Andy Carroll was as towering as ever. Vincent Kompany, of course, was Vincent Kompany and we repelled Newcastle's assaults until, with eighteen minutes left, Carroll headed in a corner. This only emboldened the beseigers and we were very fortunate when Kevin Nolan missed from two yards out at 2-1.
  • In the very next minute we won the game. The whole match, really, was a lesson and an embarrassment to those of us who suggested that we might not miss Carlos Tévez. This was a judgement based on disappointment at his transfer request and his absence from one of the easiest away wins (at West Ham) in living memory. Today he reminded us of himself. He set up the first goal, for Gareth Barry, made and scored the second and then, via a deflection, signed off the game with his third. What a powerful, imposing striker he is. I don't know what would have happened today with Jô up front instead but I imagine that this was one of the many games under Mancini where Tévez was the alchemist, converting an average performance into a victory. There is nothing Kia Joorabchian can do to debase moments like this.
  • Not our best performance this season, and probably the second time we've been lucky to get past Newcastle this season. But their record at home is good; they've beaten Liverpool and drawn with Chelsea there recently. So it's an excellent result, especially given that Spurs have since won at Villa Park. And with Villa playing as poorly as they did, and a fresher team that we will put out on the 28th, we could well get a result from that game too.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

'Absolute commitment to the Club'

For all the Christmas-spoiling frustration of the Everton defeat, there was another, happier, story on Monday: the withdrawal of Carlos Tévez's transfer request. News of this came via a club statement a few hours before kick-off, after meetings on Sunday between Tévez, Khaldoon al-Mubarak and Roberto Mancini:

During the meeting Carlos expressed his absolute commitment to the Club and formally withdrew his transfer request. Carlos’ contract remains unchanged and both Carlos and the Football Club are keen to focus on the opportunities that lie ahead.
Well there you go. This is clearly, by any measurement, a victory for the club. We get to keep our best player, without having to suffer the ignominy of offering a new deal and a pay rise. The fact that the club have won this is largely testament to a new willingness not to be buffeted by the whims of players and agents but also, it must be said, to some fairly poor poker played by Kia Joorabchian. When Paul Stretford played United for cash recently he obviously had City waiting with a better offer. But who did Joorabchian have? It was just incredible from start to finish.

Which is not to say that Tévez is very happy at City - I think he might well leave next summer. But his complaints were rendered incredible by their flippancy and volatility. Whether it was money, Champions League football, 'certain executives', or simple homesickness, the case got weaker as its rationale swung between the different explanations. If it all boiled down to separation from his daughters, then why not just say that? There would have been a degree of sympathy, on a personal level, had he done so. But instead we got a week of confusion and noise, ending what what looks like a fairly clumsy and embarrassed retreat from Tévez and Joorabchian.

The hope from the club, and, I imagine, from Tévez, is that we can go back to where we were one month ago. I'm not sure it's quite that simple. As a fan, I feel as if my relationship with Tévez - which was never too illusioned in the first place - has been faintly toxified by this. I didn't think he was Tony Book beforehand, and I certainly didn't think much to Joorabchian, but this has not been pretty. I still love Tévez as a player, and think that he is indispensable in our push for success. Cheering his goals and his performances is a no-brainer. But things are not quite as they were before, and that is a shame.

My guess is that he'll either get a big new contract in the summer or a move to Real Madrid. But that's for consideration in May. All I want now is for him to beat Newcastle.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Everton player ratings

Hart Not at fault for the first goal, might just have done better with Baines's though with Milner so relaxed about his getting away a shot with his right foot I suppose Hart can't blamed for being unprepared. 6

Zabaleta Took an early knock, and had he been on the pitch it's possible he might have helped block off Baines' shot. Once we were 2-0 down he was good, but not necessarily what we were looking for: maybe the pace of Boateng would have been a better option, as we struggled to create from wide. 6

Kolo Touré
Let Cahill in for the first goal, which is where our problems started. The sort of abject decision-making that characterised his first year at City but not, fortunately, his second. After then a quiet game, but the damage was done. Silly red card. 4

Not directly responsible for either goal, but he played well enough. Resisted the temptation to go direct, still completing 74 from 78 attempted passes. Should, by rights, have been captain. 6

Purposeful going forward, and a very clean striker of the ball. Takes corners better than anyone at the club. But his allowing Seamus Coleman to put that early cross in was a mistake that cost us seriously. I still like him, mind. 5

Playing alongside Barry in 4-2-3-1, he had enough of the ball but picking incisive passes and setting the tempo isn't really his game. Withdrawn at half-time for Adam Johnson. 4

One of the few players willing to pick the tempo up, he was busy and effective, making tackles, moving the ball along, and showing for it from his team-mates. 77 from 91 attempted passes shows just how active he was, which isn't always like him. 7

Faced with nine players packed across the Everton box, he was denied the pockets of space he needs to make things happen. Still technically excellent, of course, and he did some things very well. But he couldn't quite break through Everton's lines. 6

Yaya Touré
A pasing map like Barry's or Silva's - lots of the ball in central areas (67/77) - and some intelligent play but never really that much incision. No room for those bounding runs of his. Made our goal, though, his shot deflecting in off Phil Jagielka. 6

Not one of his best performances so far. Hit the post in the second half, but much of his play was skittish and poorly thought through. Not convinced he'll play up in Newcastle. 5

Still playing, still captain, and will be for a while it seems. I was expecting some drama from him tonight, but this was low-key. Tested Howard in stoppage time but there wasn't too much else. Seemes strange to say given his record but I imagine he needs a goal to re-settle him. 6


Some spark (more than Milner, certainly), though he didn't turn the game as he has in similar circumstances before. I'd like to see him start agains Newcastle and/or Blackpool, ahead of Milner, Balotelli or Jô. 6

Hid a hand-ball claim from Peter Walton. n/a

City 1 - 2 Everton

  • Just as we were on the brink of novelty (first Christmas lead since 1929 had we won, as I'm sure you know), we get dragged back by the most familiar result in the calendar: the home defeat to Everton. The stoppage time United winner, the home surrender to Fulham, the blitzing by Spurs: they've all made deep grooves in my psyche through repeated inflictions, but the home defeat to Everton has a special resonance for me now. Four straight years. I suppose routine is healthy, in a way. I guess that to beat Everton, finally, at Eastlands, and to go top, the day after Mancini's first anniversary, and the day of Carlos Tévez's withdrawn request might have been a confluence of symbols and landmarks too far. By that I mean, it would have led to too many people (me included) saying too many things along the lines of 'this is where it all went right' or so forth. Unhealthy at this stage of the season, perhaps.

  • Or maybe I'm trying to rationalise my way out of another deeply sour mood brought about by David Moyes' team. There is something particularly frustrating about losing to Everton. It grows out of the relative aggregate costs of the teams, I think. A mixture of embarrassment that we should get outplayed and outfought by a team so much cheaper than ours, and resentment at that very fact being driven back at us by others. This was probably the worst one yet: we started the day thirteen places ahead of Everton in the table, nearly at the half-way point of the season. How big will the gap between the teams be for us to beat them?

  • Of all the familiar ways of starting such a familiar defeat, it had to be a Tim Cahill header. There is no better way to disrupt a gameplan in this sort of match than to concede quickly, so this was terrible. Aleksandar Kolarov fecklessly failed to stop a cross from coming in, and while Vincent Kompany believed he passed Cahill on to Kolo Touré, Kolo stoody idly by as Cahill nodded the ball in at the near post. It was almost like Mark Hughes nostalgia defending to commemorate the anniversary of his dismissal. Fifteen minutes later we conceded a second; a lovely, curled goal by Leighton Baines, who cut inside and beyond auxilliary right-back James Milner. 0-2, 20 minutes in.

  • With a two-goal cushion, Everton had every right to withdraw within their 18 yard box and defend what they had. Moyes had clearly learnt the same lesson that Blackburn, Birmingham and - to a lesser extent - Manchester United knew: defend narrowly, and with little space between the lines. Everton were very relaxed in ceding wide positions to us, in the knowledge that crosses to Tévez are fairly worthless tools. Silva, Yaya Touré, Balotelli, Tévez and Adam Johnson are all players who like to cut inside: by blocking off the central space Moyes blocked our preferred routes to goal. Yes, we had almost all of the ball, but, crucially, it was always possession and territory on Moyes' terms. We barely ever got the ball between Everton's lines, and certainly never between them. An own goal pulled one back, and we did hit the post, but for all our passing we did not look like breaking through Everton as much as we should, which points to a lack of variation in our attacking play. Regardless of the extent or sincerity of Tévez's commitment, there is a footballing case for Edin Džeko.

  • Ultimately, we put ourselves in an almost insurmountable position by conceding those early goals. Not that it's impossible to score twice against Everton at home, but once they had their lead they defended it so doggedly that it was always going to be difficult to claw back. Even putting the derby to one side, two points from home games against Everton, Blackburn and Birmingham is the sort of record that got Mark Hughes in trouble. We clearly lack variety against teams that defend deep and narrow; once visitors have leads, as Blackburn and Everton did, their incentives to play like that are almost total. Losses like this demand instant rectification: St. James' Park on Boxing Day is crucial.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

One year on

It was one year ago today that Mark Hughes was replaced by Roberto Mancini as City manager. This is still the defining, framing event of the ADUG era and the one that tells us the most about the owners and their approach.

My reaction at the time was fairly intemperate. I described the sacking of Mark Hughes as "destructive and devious". I stick by the second word if not the first. We should certainly analyse Roberto Mancini's record over the past year, and how that reflects on ADUG's decision making, and there will be more of that later. But it's still worth, even now, reflecting that Mark Hughes was treated with contempt by the club, that leaving a condemned man out in the dock in front of 48,000 people is no way to treat something, even with a generous pay-off soon after. This is a moral stain that still lingers.

But that was only half of my critique. I didn't just say that this was a badly-executed decision, I said that it was a bad decision. Ultimately, it's on those grounds that this swap will be judged, and not on the grounds of fair play. And on this I was wrong. Because Roberto Mancini has revealed himself to be a better manager than I expected. Noticeably better, I think, than Mark Hughes.

And I feel confident saying that even in the knowledge that Mancini failed the first test he faced: he was tasked with attaining Champions League football, and he failed. He could have got us beyond the League Cup semi-final, but he didn't do that either. So why do I still like him? Well, I don't think the targets he was set were realistic. He was put in a very difficult position. Putting a new manager in charge with a squad that isn't his half way through a season just isn't a smart move: for precisely the reasons I thought it was wrong to get rid of Hughes, I think it's unfair to blame Mancini too much for our finishing fifth last year. He was dropped mid-season in a league he didn't know, with a squad that wasn't his, and asked in a half-season to improve their record. Getting to a 90-minute play-off with Spurs and losing it is no great failure on Mancini's part.

This season, though, with his own players and with some familiarity of the Premier League, you'd naturally expect more from Mancini. And that's what we've got. We're third in the league, two points off the top (five if United win their game in hand), and we won our Europa League group without really playing our best players that much. We're not Guardiola's Barcelona but after our fourth consecutive summer of overhaul one shouldn't expect us to be. Given the new players that have come in and the depth of the squad we're probably going to improve as the season progresses: so the position we are in now is a satisfactory one.

That is to say, I think Mancini is doing a good job, a better job than I expected, and a job in keeping with most realistic expectations. The most obvious improvement from Hughes is the defence. This is comfortably the most impermeable defence I've seen in my time as a City fan. The experience of going into games confident that we will not concede is novel, and one that is still being synthesised into my match-day psyche. After 38 league games in charge, Mancini's City have conceded just 31 times (0.81 goals per game). Contrast that with Hughes' tenure: 77 conceded in 55 (1.4 goals per game). Even if you ignore 2008/09 and just give Hughes time after his summer 2009 spending it's 27 from 17 - 1.59 goals per game. This is a statistically significant difference. Moreover, it's not a difference that can really be ascribed to better personnel under Mancini. Yes, Jerome Boateng and Aleksandar Kolarov have played a handful of games this season but for the most part it's been done with defenders Hughes signed, or that were here before him (Joe Hart, Micah Richards). Now, for the first time in living memory, we have one of the best defences in the country. In the time since Mancini took over, Chelsea and United have conceded 29 and 27 goals respectively, in one fewer league game. So far this season, we've got the second best record, one goal behind Chelsea, and three behind United. It's an obviously impressive record.

Of course, football, like anything else, is a trade-off. And the attacking football has not been as thrilling as it was under Hughes. Too often we have lacked ideas in the final third, and only a remarkable goal-scoring run from Carlos Tévez has kept us winning games. It's not healthy to rely so much on one player, and that reliance is why the current situation is so disconcerting. But, I do sense that this is changing. Not that we don't need our captain any more - until we get a competent replacement, we do - but that with every game he plays David Silva gets better, and that in doing so he reveals himself to be the most gifted player we've had at City in my lifetime. Not quite as effective as Tévez, yet, but his superior for technique, grace and imagination. With Tévez, the improving Silva combines magically. Without Tévez, well, Silva still manages to do well enough. There has been an improvement in our attacking as a team in recent weeks, and it's not reading too much to suggest that now that Mancini has fixed the defence he is allowing himself to be more ambitious.

Because this now feels like Mancini's team, in a powerful sense. He has been ruthless in expelling those that didn't fit in: Robinho, Stephen Ireland and Craig Bellamy, the three best players under Hughes, have all gone. Vincent Kompany and Nigel de Jong are still here, but are such obvious Mancini Lieutenants that to imply any residual loyalty to Hughes on their part is laughable. Tévez, of course, is a difficult one: Mancini's defensive move to give him the captaincy - sound logic, still - has not worked and it looks as if a summer departure is likely. But, then, this is Carlos Tévez and so I'm not sure the fall-out reflects too badly on Mancini. Putting our volatile captain to one side, there is a now a core of players at City, either signed by Mancini or recently buying into his work, talented and ambitious, of a similar generation. From front to back, Joe Hart (1987), Kolarov (1985), Zabaleta (1985), Kompany (1986), Boateng (1988), Silva (1986), James Milner (1986) and Adam Johnson (1987). These players are only going to get better and I would be surprised if, two years after Mancini's appointment, they did not still represent the core of the squad.

Some of this is irrational: The scarf, the good looks, the scrap with David Moyes. Some of this is lucky: Tévez found form, Valencia sold Silva, United, Chelsea and Arsenal all have problems, leaving us in a competitive league position. But I think there is a rational and empirical basis for believing that City are a more serious prospect than they were one year ago, and that this is largely down to the cold focus and stern judgement of the coach. I know that I overrated Hughes, and I'm loath to repeat the same mistake, so I'll try not to. Suffice to say that I think things are progressing fairly well.

Juve player ratings

Given Could not have done much with Gianetti's goal, otherwise had a good game. Probably his last game for City, if he goes somewhere on loan in January. 6

Richards Promoted to the captaincy, for the first time since under Eriksson, which was nice to see. Played well enough, impressing with an early run and cross down the right, although again he failed to get sufficiently tight to stop del Piero from crossing to Gianetti for their goal. 6

Boateng Moved inside and looked very composed. Might suffer in the immediate term for his versatility (I think our best back four is Kolarov-Kompany-Kolo-Zabaleta) but in time it will be to his credit. 7

Boyata A bit slow getting to Gianetti when Juventus scored. Otherwise he played fine, games against this level of opposition can only be beneficial in his development. 6

Bridge Fine, really. Attacked fairly well and did better up against Miloš Krasić than one might have expected. 6

Milner Performing the same job he did in the home game with Red Bull Salzburg - as Patrick Vieira's legs - and did so fairly effectively. He linked well with Johnson on the left (his movement isn't quite as brainless as some like to make out, me included) and caused problems. 6

Vieira Quite a comfortable evening out at his old club, Vieira is perfect for these games, when he can take a step back and pick out his passes. There is a question over whether Mancini will stick with Given, Bridge, Vieira etc in the knock-out rounds. Maybe for Aris, but not beyond that I imagine. 6

SWP Lively - no one could ever doubt his enthusiasm. Ran often at Armand Traoré, with some success, although not enough to displace David Silva any time soon. 6

Nimely His first start for City, playing just off Jô, and I was fairly impressed. He's lively, he runs around a lot, he likes to shoot: not the finished product, of course, but this was his first start. Wouldn't mind seeing more of him this season. 6

Always at the heart of the story. His finishing was not quite what it might have been, as he missed two or three decent chances. That said, he had one goal wrongly disallowed for offside, and his movement is a bit more purposeful and helpful than it used to be - he doesn't just stand still on the touch-line any more. But he good his goal very well indeed, spinning and clipping it into the bottom corner. This is a former Brazil international, remember, and there's certainly a decent player in there somewhere. 6

Johnson Our best forward, as he usually is in the Europa League. Had some fun against a very isolated Zdeněk Grygera early on, and looked closest to creating chances for us. Played the through ball from which Jô scored in the second half. 7


Zabaleta Gave us a bit more in midfield, when we needed it. 7

Chantler Too late to mark n/a

Friday, 17 December 2010

Easy then hard

It certainly could have been worse. We've drawn Aris Thessaloniki in the last 32 of the Europa League. They finished fourth in Superleague Greece last year, play in black and yellow, and feature Mehdi Nafti, formerly of Birmingham City.

We play them in Greece on 17 February, then at CoMS on 24 February.

From then on it's harder. If we beat Aris (which we should) then it's the winner of the tie between Beşiktaş and Dynamo Kyiv in the last 16. Not to easy.

Beşiktaş have some wonderful attacking players, including Quaresma, Guti and Simao, and one of the best atmospheres in Europe. Going there will not be easy.

Dynamo Kyiv is not only really very far away, but also, by all accounts 'a difficult place to go'. They have a certain Andriy Shevchenko playing for them again now. I'd probably rather draw them than the Turkish side but neither would be easy.

Juventus 1 - 1 City

  • There is not too much to say about this. An experimental side fought from behind to take the point that guaranteed our winning Group A, as Lech Poznan could only score once in Salzburg. It's obviously beneficial for us to be seeded, although I'm not too keen on playing Napoli or Sevilla over two legs. As I write we're ten minutes away from the draw, though.

  • As with the recent home win over Red Bull Salzburg, Mancini abandoned his possession approach we see in the Premier League, playing a much more direct 4-2-4. Again Patrick Vieira (all brain, no legs) partnered James Milner (ahem) in central midfield, with Adam Johnson and Shaun Wright-Phillips either side of Alex Nimely and Jô up front. We started well, direct, high-tempo and with Johnson repeatedly isolating the right-back. An early goal would have been nice, but it didn't come and a much more experienced and able Juventus side soon came into the game.

  • Niccolo Gianetti (me neither) put them ahead just before the break, with blame to be apportioned two thirds to Micah Richards and one third to Dedryck Boyata. I was impressed with how we continued to play after the break, though, and we deserved our equaliser. Jô, abysmal until that point, received a pass from Johnson, spun and slid the ball past Alex Manninger. Things don't often come off for Jô, but when they do he has the ability of making you wonder if Kia Joorabchian might not be that bad after all.

  • Juventus did not look desperate for a winner and with Lech failing to score the extra goals they needed in Austria the game drifted off into the cold night. A decent showing from some of the players - though how frustrated Johnson must be in playing with some of those clowns - and now we're through. The serious stuff starts in February.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

'He can change his mind'

Roberto Mancini spoke publicly about the the Tévez situation for the first time yesterday, at the press conference before today's game with Juventus.

Of course, Mancini is always going to be tactical rather than honest in this sort of situation. So we shouldn't take his statements as an honest and incisive analysis of the situation. And yet, there was something in Mancini's relaxed demeanour (even with the Woody Allen glasses) that suggested that the whole situation is not quite as irreconcilable as it might seem.
"If Carlos is unhappy, and he's scored ten goals and played very well, then I hope that he's unhappy like that all season! But I don't think he is really unhappy. He can change his mind.

"Do I want him to stay? Absolutely. He has a contract, and he is our player. It's my belief that Carlos will stay with us, I think that he will continue to play for us."
Ultimately, the longer this goes on the less certain I am about it. The shifting rationales from the Tévez/Joorabchian camp are so fickle and flippant that it undermines the credibility of any case that they make. So much so that I am beginning to doubt just how relevant the home-sickness complaint is. I mean, if all it boiled down to was his craving his daughters' company so deeply that he could not bear to be in Manchester any more, then why not just say that? Football fans are idiots but we're not heartless: I'd like to think that there would be some degree of sympathy on a personal level if he said this.

But it increasingly feels as if even the homesickness, which I always thought was explanation, masked byother excuses, might in fact be a mask itself; the face, in fact, being Joorabchian's relationship with Garry Cook. I'd hate to accuse a father of lying about his relationship with his children but if this is a purely personal matter then why does Tévez not just come out and say exactly that?

Which is a long way of saying that I am increasingly baffled and put off by the whole sordid affair, and I am less confident than ever in any prediction that I might make.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Edin Džeko's Christmas letter

I know the letter was written earlier in the season. I know that Džeko, a Bosnian Muslim, doesn't celebrate Christmas. But there's still something charmingly festive about Edin Džeko writing to City asking for us to buy him, as reported in today's Mail and Guardian.

It could not have been too different from the letter some of us wrote to Father Christmas in Decembers past. Dear Garry Cook, it might have started, This year I've been a very good boy, I've scored 56 in 81 in the Bundesliga in the last two and a half years (73 in 102 in all competitions!), and what I really want for Christmas this year is a transfer to your club, because, well, I've always been a big fan and when I was growing up in Sarajevo I used to watch the 'FA Carling Premiership' on television and I saw Niall Quinn flicking it on to Paul Walsh and thought - that is the sort of centre forward I wanted to become. So, Garry Cook, please fulfil my Christmas wish and bring me to City.

Or something like that. We've certainly been interested in Džeko before, and we went in for him in the summer. Nothing came of it, and I presumed that was because he'd rather a move to Italy or Spain. But if he is as interested in City as this suggests, well, that's a big deal. It's a particularly pleasing piece of news because, as you might have noticed, the future of Carlos Tévez as a Manchester City player is not too secure at the moment. We're certainly going to be looking to pick someone up in the transfer window, we've made advances in this direction before, and now it looks as if things might be a touch more mutual than we first imagined. Forgive me if I buy myself a DZEKO replica shirt for Christmas.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

More on Tévez

A few days into what looks increasingly like our annual Christmas crisis, and the future of Carlos Tévez looks only marginally clearer. There have been two material developments of note: a statement issued by Tévez's camp on Sunday night, and his return to Carrington this morning.

The statement, in which he says his "relationship with certain executives and individuals at the club has broken down and is now beyond repair", was not the statement of a man bluffing his way to a new contract. Rather, his ever-changing rationale for his desire to leave smacks of a man desperate to get out of Manchester as quickly as possible. As every schoolboy who hasn't done his Physics homework knows, one excuse is better than many. So for Tévez to change his target from Roberto Mancini to Garry Cook and Brian Marwood does rather lessen the credibility of his critique.

Having seen this on Sunday, I presumed we'd seen the last of him at City. But he has attended training today, perhaps in the light of news that the club would take him and Kia Joorabchian to court should he go all Bob Crow on us. While I'm increasingly sure that he's going to leave, it does sound as if Real Madrid (by far his most plausible destination), will not pay for him in January. That being the case, we might well have a disgruntled Tévez, naturally stripped of the armband and back in the ranks, shuffling around until June. This wouldn't be an obviously bad outcome, he played some good football while in his final months at Old Trafford. It would also allow us to take more time over the selection and recruitment of his replacement. If the club don't want that (as would be very understandable) then he can be loaned back to Boca Juniors for a few months, as Robinho was this time last year.

So most of the possible outcomes are still in play, although I do think his staying here long term is a real long-shot now. Mancini will speak with him on Friday when the team return from Turin.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Tévez, etc

Just when things were starting to look really rather promising, this happens.

It's a disappointment, certainly. The timing is a surprise. It's not exactly the behaviour you'd want from a club captain; I don't think it's what Scott of the Antarctic would have done.

That said, if you didn't think that Tévez was a disagreeable individual, bolshy, abrasive, volatile, and under the thumb of Kia Joorabchian then, well, you hadn't really been paying attention. I don't think we can have too many complaints, either. If Tévez was more like, say, James Milner then he'd still be a squad player at United. Those very qualities that propelled him out of United and towards City are the very same ones we're being stung by now. Those that live by the sword, etc.

I'm not entirely sure how this will play out. It's not obvious to me that this isn't just a Rooney-style play for more money. Note City's suggestions that he'd been asking for a new contract. If it is then he's not the first player to hold City to ransom (I think the man that opened the scoring on Saturday earns a bit), and I'm sure that we'll do the decent thing and pay up. That's not to say that I don't think he's homesick, and that he doesn't want to go back to Buenos Aires, I'm sure he does, but just that selling him to Boca Juniors looks very unlikely from here.

Option 3 is that he finds playing under Roberto Mancini so anathema that he wants to go to Real Madrid or Inter. Maybe, maybe not. Madrid is a plausible destination, given Gonzalo Higuaín's injury, but if he doesn't like Mancini I can't see him getting on under Rafa Benítez. Moreover, I'm just not sure his relationship with Mancini is quite that bad. His record under him has been exceptional, and clearly plays hard for the manager. His two best mates, Pablo Zabaleta and David Silva, have been playing very good football for the last month or two, and have demonstrably good relations with the boss. There's no question of an anti-managerial clique, led by Tévez, as there was with the Robinho/Hughes relationship.

I'm not going to go so far as to predict that he'll stay at City, but that's not obviously a much less likely outcome than any other scenario right now. I'm sure there will be another statement from the player this week, and then an answer, one way or the other, before Christmas. I do think, though, that this has shown Mancini's decision to make him captain to have failed. The logic was sound enough but clearly the armband itself is insufficient in inducing Carlos to conduct himself like an adult. So, like Danny, I would not be surprised to see it change - either reverting to Kolo, which would be fair enough, or switching to Vincent Kompany, who would be perfect in the role.

However it turns out, though, it's a shame and a disappointment when things were otherwise looking up. More later in the week, I'm sure.

West Ham player ratings

Hart A very low-key afternoon out. Made two or three comfortable saves and could not do much about the late consolation goal we conceded. 6

Boateng Possibly his best game yet for City. Defensively secure - looked more attuned to the pace of the Premier League than he had done so far - and was effective going forward, always showing for the ball and putting in some fairly good crosses. 7

Kolo Touré Not a difficult game but he played well, making his tackles and using the ball smartly. Captain for the day, and maybe for some time to come. 7

Kompany Dominant against an admittedly limited threat. Made twelve successful tackles, which is a lot. Never looked troubled. 7

Zabaleta Moved out to left-back in the absence of Kolarov. Had a difficult start up against Barrera, and his fellow Pablo beat him three or four times early on. But he recovered and improved as the game went on. 7

de Jong Domineering in central midfield, he was increasingly influential as the game went on. It was his tackle and through ball to Yaya that created our second goal - his progressive passing is an improvement on last year. 8

Silva Excellent, again. Drifting in off the right into the middle, he left our play fairly lopsided but was free to dictate play from between the lines. Completed 76 passes (from 88), including the through-ball to Adam Johnson for our third goal. We're so lucky to have him. 8

Yaya Touré Clearly settling into the rhythms of English football, his bouncing barrel runs through the middle of the pitch are unique within the Premier League. He scored our first goal, and made the second - firing the ball in via Rob Green's back and his near post. I am increasingly impressed by him. 8

Barry Low key, but still effective. Kept things moving in midfield, making 65 passes, and it was his patient square ball to Yaya that created the first goal. Made a few useful interventions, he's bigger than he looks and not afraid to put his body on the line. 7

Deployed as he was at Craven Cottage, in the left channel, supporting Mario Balotelli and adding a bit more height to the forward line. Neat enough without ever quite influencing the game. Moved up front when Balotelli went off, and hit a shot at the far post into the top tier. 5

Balotelli Trusted to lead the line, but he was poor. Missed one good chance in the first half but didn't contribute much else (his work off the ball can be a bit Robinho). Got into one of his moods in the second half, and Mancini did well to withdraw him before he got sent off. 4


Johnson Had half an hour on the left wing, and while he didn't influence play too much he took his goal very well: run between two defenders and past Rob Green. 6

Milner Too late n/a

Saturday, 11 December 2010

West Ham 1 - 3 City

  • Our fifth away win of the season, and we go second, for tonight at least. Efficiency, control, discipline, shape; they might not be enough for some people but they'll certainly do for me. We won today without really having to stretch ourselves. We defended well enough, we kept the ball, and we scored at hinge moments. At no point did it look as if we would not win. I'd probably rather it felt like a siege repelled, a raid, a pillage. Aways wins like that are fun. But it doesn't, and it wasn't. It was a stroll.

  • And all of this without Carlos Tévez. Insofar as today was difficult, it's because we missed our captain. There's just no way of substituting his unique gifts into a team that's deprived of him. Roberto Mancini moved Mario Balotelli up front, with Jô preferred to Adam Johnson and James Milner on the left wing. We did miss Carlos, certainly, and the rest of the forward players noticeably had to work harder in his absence. Neither Balotelli nor Jô played particularly well, as it happened, but with David Silva and Yaya Touré such a mix of the subtle and the, well, unsubtle just behind them it wasn't a problem.

  • We started well enough, quick to move the ball out wide but generally patient in our delivery. There was more value than usual in crossing the ball but with neither of our tall forwards looking that sharp nothing was quite coming off. But it was an intelligent move that led to our first goal: Gareth Barry had the ball in a wide position and rather than swinging it into the box he rolled it back to Yaya, finally spare, who fired it high into the net. Once ahead we looked comfortable. We are perfectly set up to defend leads in away games, as we all know.
  • West Ham did have a good spell at the start of the second half, and we were briefly under some pressure. But as they came at us the game opened up, and Yaya and Silva started to find more space in their half. There was clearly a goal coming, and a definitive one, and it was ours. Yaya tore down the left channel, found an opening and slammed the ball in via the post and Rob Green. At 2-0 the outcome was certain. Adam Johnson came on and scored a third: slid in by a pass from David Silva that no one else on the pitch would even have spotted. Characteristic play from a beautiful footballer.

  • West Ham scored a late consolation, which was a shame for my fantasy league team more than anything else. (I have Boateng and Kolo). I wish I could say now that we passed a test, or showed our mettle, or ran through a wall, or some other cliche of hardship and achievement. But we didn't, really. We beat a poor team in an atmosphere-free away game. We did so comfortably, which I suppose is noteworthy. But overall this will go down as a decent three points and that's it. Not much learnt either. The media might take from it that David Silva is a gift of a player, and that Yaya is not a defensive midfielder - but we knew all that anyway.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Bolton player ratings

Hart His worst performance of the season, lucky to leave without conceding. His decision making under Bolton's aerial assault was very shaky, and had things broken differently we might have conceded from one of his mistakes. Distribution fairly brainless at times. 4

Zabaleta Currently playing the best football of his time at City, he was very good again yesterday. Dealt well with returning blue Martin Petrov, and contributed well in the final third: getting in two good goalscoring positions but doing nothing with either. I still think he's a yard of pace away from being a top quality full-back, but his consistency and reliability are exceptional. 7

Kolo Touré Did well enough for half an hour before going off with a calf injury. 6

Kompany Had more to do than he might have expected, but dealt comfortably with all that Bolton had to offer in the air and on the ground. Excellent with the ball at his feet too - one run down the middle and flick out to Kolarov was reminiscent of Lúcio or Piqué. 7

Kolarov Good in some ways, less so in others. Solid defensively, useful in the final third and able to take a proper corner kick, which is a bit of a novelty at City. On the other hand, he might have scored a goal or two and his dismissal was very stupid. If it had cost us two points I would have been furious. 6

de Jong I thought the progressive elements of his game were lacking a bit - his first touch and passing were not as good as they usually are. That said, the destructive aspects of his game were as good as ever, with eight interceptions and six tackles. 6

Silva Delightful. His movement between the lines and his imagination on the ball are as good as anyone else in the Premier League. Created most of our best play, including one of those trademark reverse balls slid between defenders when he's looking the other way, which led to Mario Balotelli hitting the post. Hit the bar himself with a shot on the turn. 8

Yaya Touré I was surprised he played but his contribution was very good, creating the goal for Tévez and always present and useful in the final third. Powerful, dynamic, imaginative: not a defensive midfielder, as it happens. 7

Barry Another solid game from the neutral's favourite: used the ball well enough (50/54 passes) and made some important interventions. I'm not entirely convinced we needed him and de Jong and Yaya from the start but it seemed to work well enough. 6

Balotelli No goals, no bookings, no stamping, no tantrums. What a disappointment. He did hit the post with a very deft finish in the second half (justifying David Platt's suggestion he is the club's most natural finisher), and worked hard defensively: winning one slide-tackle in a full-back position and using his height in our box on set pieces. 6

Tévez Scored the early goal - a good finish - which framed the game. Otherwise he looked very frantic: snatching at shots, collecting a very silly booking that rules him out of the game on Saturday, and of course arguing with the boss over his substitution. I don't really care about the fuss: if you're surprised that Tévez reveals himself to be a spiky, feisty and difficult character then you can't have been paying attention for the last few years. We'll miss him at the Boleyn Ground. 7


Lescott Played for an hour or so, did well in the air but is noticeably more hoofy in his distribution than Kolo or Kompany. 6

Milner Too late n/a

Saturday, 4 December 2010

City 1 - 0 Bolton

  • Our first home league win for more than two months. A strange game; 1-0 feels like one of least appropriate possible score lines. After Carlos Tévez put us ahead in the opening minutes we created enough chances to win the game by an innings, but we were terribly profligate and Bolton had some spells of pressure of their own. A late red card for Aleksandar Kolarov left us hanging on to our lead. But, unlike last Saturday, we held on for the three points.

  • I was hoping for a test to this season's most troubling question: do we still have the imagination required to break down teams that come to Eastlands and defend? Unfortunately, we didn't get an answer. Bolton came out and gave us a good game, defending at times but also committing men and attacking with variety and inhibition. Given our inability to double our lead, there were spells of tension. But Bolton's approach meant that we were always going to create chances, and on a better day we might have scored four or five. Had Bolton been less attacking, though, we would have created less. So it's not a very helpful test of the proposition that we struggle to break down teams that come to Eastlands to defend.

  • But it's worth remembering just how much our goal framed the whole match. It's quite possible that Bolton came with a plan to defend (although I doubt it), but once Tévez had caught Gary Cahill on the turn and finished well the whole pattern was set. In brief, we enjoyed periods of possession, with the occasional move of real intelligence, and created more than enough chances to kill the game. David Silva was the outstanding player, as usual, but both full-backs, Mario Balotelli and Yaya Touré were all lively too. Interspersed among our periods of pressure were good spells from Bolton, which involved a healthy mixture of both pre-Coyle and post-Coyle approaches from Bolton (although some would see that the genius of Coyle is his own ability synthesise 'authentic' Bolton into a new creation of his own). Joe Hart did not have the best game and Bolton did have a few half-chances.

  • But we held on, even with Kolarov sent off for picking up a second yellow card. In the scheme of things, beating Bolton 1-0 at home is not a huge achievement. But every time we cling on to a lead, particularly having been reduced to ten men, it can only strengthen the sense that this is a team that is shuffling in the right direction. West Ham next Saturday, without our captain, will be a very different sort of test.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

RBS player ratings

Given Almost nothing to do on one of his occasional European run-outs. Will be interesting to see if he plays in the knock-out rounds. 6

Solid defensively, not that he had too much to do, but attacked well down the right too. Games like this should help his adjustment to English football, which still has some way to come. 7

Kolo Touré Carried the ball out of defence well, helping to drive some of our attacks forwards at times. 6

Lescott Caused problems in the opposition box. Not sure when he'll next get a game though. 6

Regular Zabaleta watchers will know one of the new strengths to his game is crossing with his left foot, and it was his ball from wide that Balotelli volleyed in for our first goal. Worked very hard, useful going forwards and effective at the back. 7

Vieira A fairly easy game, sat in front of the back four, passed the ball well - one through ball to Balotelli in the first half was excellent. Broke forward to set up Balotelli's second goal. 7

His best game yet for City, in an energetic central midfield role. He was everywhere, making tackles and starting attacks. An interesting central altenative to Barry and Yaya in future. 8

SWP Classic Shaun: always keen to take people on, chase lost causes and lead attacks. Not everything came off but he was always entertaining and often a threat. 7

One embarrassing bit of play-acting aside, this wasn't too bad a performance. Didn't look like scoring but linked well with others and unlucky not to get passed to occasionally. 6

Another incident-crammed performance. There were two goals, the first of exceptional technical quality, no celebrations, at least one dive and a handful of other chances. The more you see of him the more you realise that it is entirely within his power to be one of the great strikers of the 2010s; there's nothing he doesn't have. 8

A good performance that will remind Mancini of Johnson's talents. Not only did he take his goal excellently, but his all round game was very good: he won the ball for Balotelli's second goal and played one or two excellent passes. Deserves another go in the Premier League. 8


Richards Too late to mark n/a

Adebayor Selfish n/a

City 3 - 0 Red Bull Salzburg

  • Progress to the last 32. It's what we wanted and it's what we achieved, thanks also to Lech Poznań holding out for a draw against Juventus. We haven't ensured that we win the group yet: that comes down to the last match. But it was a comfortable win, achieved without requiring a minute from the team's spine: Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Nigel de Jong, Gareth Barry, David Silva and Carlos Tévez all sat it out.

  • If we can have one complaint is that it should have been more. We could have won by five or six, and had we done so then winning Group A would have been easier. But it's certainly worth commenting, positively, on just how many chances we created. I don't know whether it was a response to recent criticisms, or just to the personnel available, but Roberto Mancini betrayed himself last night, with thrilling consequences.

  • We set up in a 4-2-4 that owed much more to Mark Hughes than to anything we've seen in 2010. No 'three defensive midfielders' here, no 'broken team': but cavalier, expansive football. The feeling of its being a Mark Hughes tribute evening was only enhanced by the inclusions of Shay Given, Joleon Lescott and Shaun Wright-Phillips. SWP played wide on the right, with Adam Johnson on the left, and Mario Balotelli and Jô up front.

  • They ripped into them from the start. It helped that Red Bull Salzburg were just as limited as they were in Austria, but even then I was surprised by the number of opportunities we created. We were 1-0 up at half time, Mario Balotelli hooking in a Pablo Zabaleta cross over his shoulder on the volley, although it could have been more. Balotelli was put through on goal twice, and both times chose the wrong option: once shooting rather than squaring, and diving the next.

  • There was some frustration early in the second half: we've all seen City too many times not to worry when so many chances go begging in a 1-0 lead. But Balotelli scored his second, tapping in from Jô's pass after Johnson won the ball in midfield. Johnson scored the third himself, swerving past three defenders and clipping the ball round the keeper with his right foot. One of the best goals we've seen this season.

Monday, 29 November 2010

TLDORC November Awards

At first glance it was not as good a month as it ought to have been. We're being held to very high standards this season and a return of three draws, two wins and a loss isn't as good as it should have been. Certainly nine points from a possible fifteen in the Premier League feels probably two points shy from what we should have achieved. But nevertheless I emerge from November with a stronger sense of the unity and coherence of the side than I did before. We did throw away points, in failing to beat Birmingham City at home and in discarding that lead at Stoke. But the performances at the Hawthorns and at Craven Cottage were two of the best I've ever witnessed as a City fan. (I appreciate that going to the games we win in any given month will always skew my analysis). To win twice on the road with that level of discipline, control and invention is a serious achievement. Add to that a second half performance at Stoke that was as good as any and of course the solidity of the draw with Manchester United and things feel like they're starting to come together. There's still concerns, of course: we don't score enough goals. Fourth is still going to be a battle. But I think we're moving in the right direction.

Lech Poznań (a) 1-3 (thoughts)
West Bromwich Albion (a) 2-0 (thoughts, ratings, reax)
Manchester United (h) 0-0 (thoughts, ratings)
Birmingham City (h) 0-0 (thoughts)
Fulham (a) 4-1 (thoughts, ratings)
Stoke City (a) 1-1 (thoughts, ratings)

Player of the Month

Very even, this month. There was no obvious stand out performer, but rather a number of consistent and successful performers in a range of positions. Pablo Zabaleta played his best football for some time before getting a ban for accumulated yellows, Nigel de Jong reminded everyone just how important he is in those tough away games while David Silva continued to play a level football that few sets of supporters are lucky enough to witness. His passing against West Brom remains the best artistic performance in any medium. I know he'd be many people's choice for Player of November and with very good reason. He's a football genius. But I'm not going to give it to him this month. Instead it can only be Vincent Kompany, again. I suppose the difference is that while Silva's performances are linked to those of the team (he plays well, we play well), Kompany is always excellent, whether the other ten players are or not. After making an uncharacteristic mistake in October (conceding that penalty against Arsenal), he was back to his faultless best in November. I could list everything he does well but I've done it so many times you'd all just switch off. You know why I love him, and you love him too, for the same reasons.

Performance of the Month

I'd love to give this to Mario Balotelli against West Brom but the real answer is David Silva against West Brom. He's a better passer than Ali Benarbia.

Goal of the Month

Micah Richards against Stoke, I think. Though Yaya Touré against Fulham did not go unappreciated.

Stoke player ratings

Hart Dealt well under the aerial barrage of Stoke, better than Shay Given did last season. Both his decisions and execution when the ball came into the box were good. Only a harsh critic would say he might have done better with the goal. 7

Richards Preferred to Jérôme Boateng at right back, and had a characteristically mixed game. Scored a very good goal, which required a level of imagination and technical ability I must admit to thinking was beyond him. That said, there were times when I thought he could have helped us stretch the play a bit further in the attacking phase. Defensively he was doing ok until he abandoned Matthew Etherington in stoppage time, with predictable consequences. 6

Kolo Touré Generally stood up well to the challenge of Stoke, making eight out of twelve attempted tackles. His passing was generally good, too, but the one time he did give the ball away led to Stoke's goal. To compound it, he lost the first ball to Kenwyne Jones. If he'd avoided either of those errors we would have won the game. 6

Kompany Another strong performance. Won six out of nine tackles, although his passing was not quite as good as it has been recently. Again, the goal we conceded was nothing to do with him. Early favourite for Player of the Season. 7

Kolarov Good, again. Made some important tackles and interceptions and was a constant threat in the final third. His delivery is good and he knows how to trouble defences. Only going to improve. 7

de Jong Felt rather subdued in what should have been his sort of match. Only made two tackles, although in mitigation there wasn't much play for him to break down - the ball was just being fired over his head. Good in the second half as we controlled possession, and completed over 40 passes (53/61) for the fifth consecutive Premier League game. 6

Silva Beautiful as ever. Any suggestion that he 'wouldn't fancy it' on a cold November afternoon at the Britannia was shown up to be facile and lazy. He was our best attacking player, dancing across the frost and constantly exploring for space. In the first half completed 17 from 22 passes, but drifted inside after the break and contributed 38 from 38, allowing us to control possession. What a frustration for him that we couldn't hold the lead. 7

Milner Moved into his Aston Villa role of central midfield in the absence of Yaya Touré. Unfortunately he could never really get into the game, noticeably our worst passer from midfield, making just 21 from 36. That said, he did work hard and if he'd still been on in stoppage time he might just have tracked Etherington into the box. 5

Barry Very good, I thought. One of his intelligent, mature, hard-working midfield performances that we don't really see enough of, but are noticeably useful when they do happen. He effectively did de Jong's job for him, making nine out of nine attempted tackles, as well as contributing another important passing performance: 55/61. More of the same, please. 7

Balotelli Uncharacteristically low profile. No goals, no acts of violence, not even a booking. Quite a few dives, though, which were enjoyable enough. 6

Tévez A bit quiet. Understandably so, given how he's run himself into the ground twice a week for the last year and a bit. But nothing really came off for him. Suspect he'll get a rest on Wednesday night. 6


Johnson Quiet n/a

Jo Too late to mark n/a

Stoke 1 - 1 City

  • Certainly a sense of disappointment: it's impossible to lose two points in stoppage time without one. But also some pride at another good away performance, and an acknowledgement that we dealt better with Tony Pulis' idiosyncratic approach to football than we have done in the past. I would have taken a point before the game and so cannot be too upset with the result, even if the manner of its achieving was imperfect.

  • As good as the second half was, we cannot ignore Stoke's superiority in the first half. We conceded as many goal-scoring chances as we have done in any half of Premier League football this season. Joe Hart was better at dealing with the trebuchet approach than Shay Given but Stoke were sharper to us on second balls and probably ought to have scored one or two. We had a few glimmers of opportunities on the break but David Silva's genius was just beyond his reach; those no-look reverse balls into the channels weren't quite coming off.
  • But the second half was a different country. In that respect this was a lot like the draw at White Hart Lane on opening day. First half, we were buffeted, could not get a foothold in the game and were lucky to still be at 0-0 at half-time. But in the second half we played the game we wanted to play, controlled possession and looked much more assured. This was the way of it on Saturday: we kept the ball excellently in the second half, as David Silva dropped centrally to dominate the midfield. We spent most of the half camped on the edge of the Stoke box, waiting for a space to materialise. When we finally broke through, it was from a surprise source: Micah Richards spun a defender and fired into the bottom corner.
  • I must admit to being confident we'd hold on. Our ball retention is sufficiently good that we are adept at holding onto leads, even on the road. We were doing fine until Kolo Touré gave the ball away, lost the return header to Kenywne Jones. Micah Richards then got sucked towards Tuncay and away from Matthew Etherington, who received the Turk's back-heel and equalised. A good goal, certainly, but still a frustrating one to concede, especially that late. Much like the result, then.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Fulham player ratings

Hart Not too much to do, really. Fulham's threat was primarily aerial and Hart did well with it. Distribution targeted towards Jô, with some success. 7

Zabaleta Clearly enjoying his football at the moment, here he combined the usual defensive solidity with real contribution in shooting positions. Not only did he score his second ever goal for City from a similar distance as his first ever, his second half shot was flicked in by his compatriot and mate Tévez. 8

Kolo Touré Another lesson in calm competence. Kolo won six tackles and did not misplace a single pass. After a brief return to his form of last seaon his partnership with Vincent Kompany feels as good as ever right now. 7

Kompany His performances are of such a consistent high level that you almost take them for granted. He was very good, as usual, winning headers and making one crucial block from Andy Johnson in the second half. Unlike Kolo, he misplaced one pass. 7

Kolarov Best performance yet for City. Clearly a very canny defender but a real threat in the final third. His runs down the left and his crossing were both useful and he nearly scored on the break in the first half. Knows how to take a corner, which makes a nice change. 8

de Jong As usual, indispensable in these sort of games. I can't conceive of an away win without him. He is so important, not just with his breaking up of play (four interceptions, four tackles) but his ability to retain possession in difficult positions just by turing and playing the simple pass. He completed 45 from 48 attempted passes, and is always at the pivot of those long spells of possession we enjoy when ahead. 8

Yaya Touré Has an important job as a link between the defensive seven and the attacking three, and he got forward well. Took his goal calmly. Not quite on the same wavelength as team-mates but that will come. 7

Barry Much better than for England in mid-week. Top of the passing stats, again, with 53 completed from 56, including that smart ball to Tévez for our opening goal. So important, alongside de Jong, at keeping the ball but also adept at moving it forward when required. Good stuff. 8

Silva Not just creative and surprising - but both of those, as ever - but also hard working defensively. Any suggestions that he was the new Robinho have been shown up as absurd. Did not score or create but still confused Dickson Etuhu will his ability to appear where least expected. 7

Tévez Probably his best performance of the season. Scored two and could have had a few more, Fulham just had no way of stopping him. His movement, strength and drive - what makes him such a compelling footballer - were all on show. Dropping back into the inside right channel and running at defenders was thrilling. The fact that we played the ball to his feet rather than over his head was not unconnected with this. 8

A surprise pick on the left wing, he was useful at winning the ball in the air and his all-round play wasn't too bad. Could have scored had his captain not taken the selfish option and refused to square the ball. 6


Johnson One run or two, and some hard defensive work. 7

Milner Too late to mark n/a

Vieira Too late to mark n/a

Fulham 1 - 4 City

  • For the second time this month we have confronted a mudslide of negativity, accusations regarding harmony off the pitch and imagination on it with the sort of brave, proud away win that can shape a season. Just like the win at the Hawthorns, yesterday's victory came after a decent performance against a strong team and a poor showing against a weak side, and a definite sense of points dropped. And just that that 2-0 it was achieved with some excellent football, a touch of swagger and a very definite sense of solidarity, with each other and of course with Roberto Mancini.

  • So it was the perfect time to produce what was one of the best performances of the season. (Pace Gareth Barry I'd still have the 1-0 win over Chelsea at the top.) Aside from the implications in the Premier League table, just imagine the whole 'Hughes >>> Mancini' narrative that had been fairly pregnant all of last week. But from the moment of Carlos Tévez's fifth minute goal the result looked secure. Our three man midfield dominated possession throughout, and while it can be a hindrance when we're drawing at home, it's perfect when we're ahead on the road.

  • With as much midfield control as we had, it was a case of picking our moments in the final third. Fulham were accomodating: all of our goals were probably preventable, the first and third most obviously. But that is to take nothing away from what was our best attacking display this season. Not only were Tévez and Silva predictably wonderful, but they had more support from deep and wide than ever before this season. This was not the 'broken team' we've seen a lot this year: Aleksandar Kolarov, Pablo Zabaleta and Yaya Touré all attacked whenever possible, allowing us the numbers in the final third we've barely put together this year. Zabaleta scored one and set up another, while Kolarov could have scored and was always a threat with his crossing. I don't know if this was a new approach, but it certainly worked.

  • Fulham didn't have too much of a threat of their own. They had a plan to move the ball wide and swing in crosses, but with only Andy Johnson up front it was not as effective as it would be should they sign Roque Santa Cruz in January. Vincent Kompany and Kolo Touré were as reliable as ever, and aside from their goal Joe Hart had a quiet afternoon. Again, the defensive functionality of the de Jong-Barry-Yaya screen was clear.

  • So despite everything we are three points off the top. It's been a strange season so far, and just like Arsenal and Spurs we have won away games we'd be expected to lose and not won home games we really should have won. After a difficult trip to Stoke City our fixtures start to clear up a bit. If key players stay fit we could have a fruitful December, hopefully without any of the painful convulsions of last Christmas.

Friday, 19 November 2010

City 0 - 0 Birmingham

  • Again, sorry for being late on this. Circumstances have combined to inhibit, severely, my ability to blog recently. I didn't watch this game, and I'm pleased that I didn't.
  • Because if the Manchester derby represented the good side of the Mancini system (and I maintain that it did), this represented its inherent problems. As much as we might like to write this off as a freak result we know that it is not one: we are just not set up to break down teams that park the bus.
  • Last year we relied on Carlos Tévez to bail us out in similar situations. But he did not produce here and so neither did the team. And while I've come to think that Roberto Mancini is in a different league from Mark Hughes, I do think that under Hughes we were much better set to win these games. With Stephen Ireland and Robinho given freedom to play we would nearly always break the opposition down early and score a few. Now, we're still playing cautiously for too long.
  • But we're still fourth! Things are better than they seem. A win on Sunday would be nice, mind.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Birmingham preview

I'm perfectly happy to settle for a point against United as long as we can take maximum points at home against lesser sides. This isn't something we have done too well this season, dropping two points against Blackburn Rovers in September.

While I won't criticise Roberto Mancini's tactics from Wednesday, there is a legitimate concern over our approach in these games. The set up of the side, the famous 'broken team', is not designed to break down teams that defend deep and in numbers.

So I hope we see some changes tomorrow. Adam Johnson is a must, as, probably, is Aleksandar Kolarov. I've got a sense Yaya Touré might be rested (he's still exhausted after trying at West Brom), so I wouldn't mind seeing James Milner playing centrally. Emmanuel Adebayor instead of Carlos Tévez is a long shot but would not be a surprise.

I just hope we can get an early goal. Last year we scored just in time and won easily, 5-1. A goal or two in the first half hour and it will be a comfortable afternoon. Prediction: 3-0.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

United player ratings

Hart Only had two meaningful saves to make - from Patrice Evra in the first half and Dimitar Berbatov in the second. Other than that it was a fairly quiet day, one of his high points was athletically preventing a corner. 7

Boateng Defensively solid, again, winning three tackles - two of which were right on the edge of our box. I suppose I'm still waiting, though, to see the same cavalier runs we saw in the World Cup. He didn't make one successful pass in the final third. Whether this is to do with instruction from Mancini or adjustment from the Premier League isn't clear yet. 6

Kolo Touré Another decent performance. Willing to put his foot on the ball (we could never have knocked it around in defence if we still had Richard Dunne) and kept his position well. Lost out in the air to Javier Hernandez when he came on, but otherwise fine. 7

Kompany Second only to Paul Scholes in passes completed last night, with 60 to the little master's 68. The importance of retaining possession from the back to the Mancini plan cannot be underestimated. Defended excellently, too, always in the right place and making three important interceptions. 8

Zabaleta His second consecutive strong performance from left-back. Why Mancini played Wayne Bridge earlier in the season remains a mystery. He kept Nani quiet, holding his position, not diving in, and while he's not a naturally attacking full-back he gave it a decent try and actually had our best chance of the second half. Didn't even get booked! 7

de Jong Did a good job of limiting United's attacking opportunities even while they were allowed to dominate possession. His positional awareness is excellent (he's really not a 'rich man's Michael Brown'), while three interceptions and five tackles kept United at bay. Invaluable in games like these. 8

Silva I was hoping he'd do something historic so was a touch disappointed. He got a fair bit of the ball in wide areas but could never quite produce. Admittedly, crossing a 5'7" Carlos Tévez is difficult but he took four or five of our eight corners - when we have some fairly big players in the box - and couldn't beat the first man. 6

Yaya Touré I think he's getting there. Not quite as good as he was against West Brom, but his bounding runs through the middle are clearly one of the few ways to link what Jonathan Wilson has described as our 'broken team.' His decisions and execution in the final third aren't what they should be though. Tired in the second half - I'm not sure he was fully recovered from Sunday - my guess is he'll rest against Birmingham City. 7

Barry Did a crucial job helping out Zabaleta in the left back position, winning four tackles there and making three interceptions. This shut down Nani which was crucial in our keeping a clean sheet. Couldn't complete as many passes as he did last Sunday, and never really got forward, but he did the job that was asked of him. 7

Milner Important work covering Patrice Evra's runs down the left, in a way that Adam Johnson just wouldn't. Didn't produce much going forward; like Silva his corners were poor (though he did win most of them himself). Must wonder what the point is swinging in crosses that get headed away. 6

Tévez I'm not sure he looked 100% fit but there was never a question of his not playing. He scurried around and nearly worked space to shoot a few times but his only decent chance was a free-kick that Edwin van der Sar saved comfortably. Might get a rest on Sunday. 6


A. Johnson Beat his man with his first touch but otherwise quiet. 6

Kolarov Too late to mark n/a

Adebayor Too late to mark n/a

City 0 - 0 United

  • Well that was certainly better than losing in stoppage time. It was a fairly dour game, with only one or two goal-scoring chances at either end. We looked for a 0-0 and we got it. United played nicer football than we did but we're a good enough defensive unit that when we want a clean sheet at home we can usually get one. Some people might criticise Roberto Mancini for being so cautious, but I'm fairly relaxed about it. After the events of the past year or so there are worse things than being very averse to losing derbies.

  • The plan was the same as the Chelsea match. If possible, dominate possession, if not, stifle the opponents and at all costs keep a clean sheet. Then, where possible, breaking through David Silva and Carlos Tévez. It was harder than the Chelsea game: United were much better in midfield. They effectively had Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung in central midfield, outnumbering us, with Scholes and Carrick seeing a lot of the ball. But in terms of goalscoring chances there was one for Patrice Evra in the first half, one for Dimitar Berbatov in the second half and that was it. Our second consecutive clean sheet, I think we're over our brief defensive blip.

  • The second half of the plan - nicking a goal - was harder. In truth, we didn't create a single proper goal-scoring opportunity. With United dominating the midfield, we found some space in wide areas. But with only Tévez up front there was only so much that could come from James Milner and David Silva's crossing. Too many times we swung crosses in and they were repelled by Nemanja Vidic. We won eight corners, and with Vincent Kompany, Jérôme Boateng and both Tourés in the box we ought to have done better with them - but our delivery was never quite there.

  • There were moments when Yaya Touré or Carlos Tévez nearly broke through the middle but United defended too well to gift us the spaces we needed. I'm not entirely sure Carlitos was 100% fit, but this was a further illustration that when he isn't on top of his game we struggle to create chances. Was there anything Mancini could have done differently? Put on Emmauel Adebayor, maybe, for more of an aerial threat. But for whom? We could barely have afforded to lose another man in the middle. Adam Johnson from the start, and risking United full-backs running rampant. Containing United is difficult, and necessitates trade-offs from other areas of the side. I can't say I'm too upset with his decisions.

  • Ultimately, I don't think Mancini's decision today - that not losing was the most important thing - was far wrong. After five straight league derby defeats, three stoppage time derby defeats last season, a run of three defeats that only ended last Sunday, it cannot be underestimated how damaging another defeat would be. Yes, in times gone by, we could go for United, knowing that the difference between no points and three would not make a major difference in a season that would see us finish somewhere in mid-table. But this season is different. We need to be fourth, and we need to be clear-headed about achieving that. This is the game we're in.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Derby preview

The biggest single test of Roberto Mancini's reign so far. There have been bigger games, of course, the League Cup semi-final, the Champions League play-off with Spurs, but that was Mancini doing his best with Mark Hughes' team. This is his team now, he owns it, and his fortunes are entirely married to it.

Of course, we've already beaten the champions this season at home, in what remains the greatest single display of the Mancini system and approach. But this means more in so many ways. I'm not entirely certain that I'd take three points against Chelsea at home and none against United rather than, say, draws against both. I'd certainly have to think hard about it.

What makes this game even more terrifying is that my traditional attempts to play the low-expectation game are getting less and less credible every year. This isn't like the days when Roy Keane, David Beckham and Paul Scholes lined up against Gerard Wiekens, Jim Jeff* Whitley and Ian Bishop, and it's wrong to pretend that it is. As aggregates of player abilities, there is not much between the two squads. On paper, at home, we are not distant outsiders, much as it might comfort me to pretend that we are.

If we lose tonight, it will represent points dropped in a way that has never really been true of derbies before. So what do I expect? A tight game, certainly. I don't think United would be too disappointed with a point. Providing we defend as we can (joint second best defence in the Premier League, even with the recent blip) there's no reason we can't keep a clean sheet.

So I'm going to take the coward's way out and predict 0-0, or at least 0-0 after ninety minutes. Exactly what goes on in the murkiest recesses of Fergie time is anyone's guess.

*Why of course, Gwil. J.