Sunday, 30 May 2010

Late surge from SWP?

For all the talk about Adam Johnson, it appears this evening that Shaun Wright-Phillips probably has an equal chance of making Fabio Capello's 23 man squad. This is my best guess of the situation after Johnson played only five minutes of the Mexico and Japan friendlies.

Wright-Phillips played the whole second half today, though, playing from the left as he did at the Boleyn Ground (a selection which I imagine might have been prompted by Fabio Capello.) He looked a better fit there than Aaron Lennon did, drifting inside, linking well with Ashley Cole, and trying a few shots.

Enough to muscle his way onto the plane? Probably not. But my rough guess is that he's probably about 4-1 to join the select, similar odds as those I'd give AJ.

Striker departures rumoured

Just two rumours of interest in today's papers, both involving the possible departures of diffident dreadlocked strikers of ours. Not that I want to draw too much of a comparison between Jô and Emmanuel Adebayor: 14 league goals for £25m is better value for money than one league goal for £19m.

But if we sign Edin Džeko then Adebayor's future will be perilous, and so the Mail on Sunday's suggestion that AC Milan enquired after him this week is quite plausible. He would probably improve them.

Less plausible is the rumour in the News of the World that Jô might be included as part of a fee for David Silva. Valencia were interested in him when we signed him two years ago but if we want to convince them to give us their best player it's a funny way of going about it. He would not exactly be a like-for-like replacement for David Villa.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Sport: City bid for Yaya, Ibra, Alves

More transfer gossip coming from the Spanish tabloids today, and fairly interesting too. This is from Sport, which is Barcelona based and is well placed for stories regarding transfers in and out of Barça. The article in question says that an MCFC delegation was in Barcelona recently to talk of the transfers of three players.

First, of Yaya Touré: the report claims that we bid €20m (£17m) for the Ivorian with just two years left on his contract. Mancini is keen on his physicality and dynamism; I think he is close to being the box to box shuttler that we need. Barcelona's initial negotiating position was to demand €35m (£29.7m) but apparently they could settle on €30m (£25.5m). Interestingly enough, the report claims that the sticking point is Yaya himself. Despite the promise of playing with his brother he would rather play for Chelsea, from whom he is awaiting an offer.

Next up: Ibra. The article says after the signing of David Villa he is close to leaving the Nou Camp. While he is not keen on a club of City's size, nor on the English weather, he is keen on continuing to earn €9m per year. He would probably prefer a move to either Milan club though. I'm not keen on him at City, for reasons I've gone into before.

And then Dani Alves, for whom we reportedly bid €45m (£38.2m), instantly and understanably rejected, given his importance to the side.

Higuaín, Gago bid denied

Another transfer rumour to develop in recent days is that we are putting together a double bid for Real Madrid's two Argentines; Gonzalo Higuaín and Fernando Gago. This started with an article in Marca last week, reported upon here. The initial report included Rafael van der Vaart but his name was excluded from later reporting.

I think this one can probably be discounted: City clearly briefed journalists that they had no interest in Gago or Higuaín, and Jorge Valdano said that Higuaín is not for sale. That said, Mancini has expressed an enthusiasm for Gago in the past and I can't see Mourinho being too keen on hanging on to him.

'City got in touch with us'

Confirmation in Saturday's Guardian from Valencia President Manuel Llorente that we have been in touch to negotiate for David Silva:

"The news is true," the Valencia president, Manuel Llorente, said. "City got in touch with us to ask for a meeting but then they informed us that they could not come and that they intend to do so a little further down the line."

The reason for the postponement is not clear but there have been preliminary talks about rearranging for next week and the fact Valencia appear willing to entertain City's two main negotiators suggests the Spanish club would let the player go, providing the price is right. "We would not sell for below €30m (£25.6m)," Llorente said.

This shows how serious we are about Silva. But our buying him or not will not be dependant upon negotiating a fee with Valencia. It hinges on Silva's enthusiasm to trade Valencia, and a potential move to Real Madrid or Barcelona in the near future, for Manchester City. And that sounds like a strange move.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Silva linked

Today's serious transfer rumours cover two players: Edin Džeko and David Silva. I've blogged on Džeko, now it's Silva time. Danny Taylor says that he is 'the primary target', while Mark Ogden writes that we are confident of getting our man and will table a 'substantial offer.'

This is a different category of player from Edin Džeko, Jérôme Boateng and so forth: he's a regular target of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United, and so for us to be linked with him implies that we may yet attempt the galáctico chasing our fifth place finish might have precluded. We have been interested in Silva before, Hughes wanted him in the January 2009 window but Valencia asked for £135m when we enquired after his and David Villa's asking prices.

Which demonstrates that any move to City for David Silva would be one more cash-driven than perhaps any transfer yet. Valencia, having already sold David Villa to Barcelona for €40m this summer, do not need to sell. That's not to say that they cannot be persuaded with an ocean liner-sized offer. But I can't see our getting him for this side of €50m. What's more, I can't see David Silva waking up every morning wishing he was a Manchester City player. He's now the key man at Valencia, who will be playing Champions League football next season. He could comfortably step up into either of Spain's top sides. He's already won a European Championship and could well win a World Cup this summer. Manchester City is not an obvious move for him right now.

So I suppose this is one of those transfer rumours that I am not too excited about, because I can't see him playing for City with much enthusiasm. That's not to say, though, that he would be anything but a privilege to watch in a City shirt. He is a footballer of real nuance and craft, a left-footed creative wide player unlike many others in the Premier League. He would provide a refreshingly different option for us. I can't see this one happening, and I'd love to see him play for City I suppose. But this one doesn't quite make sense to me just now.

Džeko linked

Two new and fairly fast moving transfer stories emerged yesterday evening, regarding our interest in Edin Džeko and David Silva. I'll blog about David Silva later but for now it's all about the man for Sarajevo.

This story started yesterday afternoon with Sky Sports News' 'understanding' that we were in talks with his representatives over a move. Speculation was inevitable this weekend as Džeko has a €40m (£34m) release clause in his contract which expires on Monday. Steve McClaren said in his unveiling as Wolfsburg manager that once the clause has expired his club can 'take a little bit more control over the situation'; meaning, presumably, that they can prevent his leaving or at least demand an extortionate fee. Pursuing the logic of this, MCFC have 72 hours to scrape together the £34m if we want him to be ours.

But I don't think it's that simple. Reports from Ian Herbert and Mark Ogden in today's papers suggest that we are relaxed about letting the deadline pass, comforted by the fact that we have no rival suitors. Come Monday we can negotiate a fee with Wolfsburg free from the pressures of an expiring clause, a fee Ian Herbert expects to be 'at a far lower price' than the €40m. Which implies a firm confidence on our part that we can tempt him to MCFC. Wolfsburg have no financial need to sell and so if they do it will because of enthusiasm for the move on the player's part. So at this point we can say City might well reel this one in.

So, what do I make of this? Christmas Eve enthusiasm, on two counts. The first is that Džeko is the type of player I want us to sign. He's young enough, at 24, with the most fertile years of his career still ahead of him. He is currently playing for a good team in a good league but having already won Bundesliga last season he may well be eager to try elsewhere. Of course our wages will be a factor in his enthusiasm but he would also see us as one of the most upwardly-mobile sides in one of Europe's most exciting divisions. The contrasts with Emmanuel Adebayor, Gareth Barry, Joleon Lescott and Kolo Touré are obvious. I've written enough times that players like Džeko, like Jérôme Boateng, are those around whom I want us to build. On an emotional level, too, I prefer seeing us buy from abroad. Another disconcerting element of our summer 2009 recruitment was that we were buying players with whom I was already deeply familiar from their time in the Premier League. It was Aston Villa's Gareth Barry, Arsenal's Kolo Touré - and in some sense it still is. It's harder to take them to heart. But when we signed Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany or Nigel de Jong they felt identifiably ours in a way that the others did not. Hence how quickly I fell for the class of summer 2007.

The second is that Džeko is the type of player I want us to sign. He's the partner Carlos Tévez has been waiting for. As regular readers know (and many disagree with me here), I don't think Adebayor is a good fit. He doesn't hold the ball up, use his physique, manipulate defenders or create space. Roque Santa Cruz can do all this when he plays but his body cannot be trusted. I know who I would most like, who does all these things as well as scoring thirty goals in a debut season including both in a European Cup final. But if I blog any more about Diego Milito I'll look like a stalker. And Milito is either going to be playing for Inter or Real Madrid next season - we don't have a shot. So Džeko is the next best option.

He looks like a genuinely excellent player. His record at Wolfsburg is exceptional. After a necessary bedding-in season he has scored 48 in 66 Bundesliga games, 65 in 87 in all competitions. It's a remarkable record, which won him the Player of the Season award, as well as the Bundesliga itself in 2008/09, and the top scorer gong in 2009/10. Raphael Honigstein named him the third best player in Germany this season, on account of his 22 goals and 10 assists, calling him 'Europe's most technically gifted target man.' Tor-Kristian Karlsen, who used to work in the Bundesliga as a scout says that he has 'absolutely everything' and would 'fit the bill in any of the top teams.'

There's a lot here to be excited about. But let's wait and see how it plays out.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Micah linked with Spurs again

This rumour is fairly resilient: Micah Richards linked with a £9m move to Tottenham Hotspur.

Yes, it's only in The Sun again, but don't forget that The Sun also employs a certain Harry Redknapp and that he is not averse to generating momentum for his intended transfers through it. With rumours of a move for Gregory van der Wiel, plus the arrival of Jérôme Boateng - it could well be Micah Richards who makes way.

'We could use a good right-back'

Just because something is true it does not mean that you have to say it.

Nigel de Jong has implored MCFC to buy Ajax's young right-back Gregory van der Wiel, currently alongside de Jong in the Dutch squad. He said:

"I know that Greg is on our wanted list at Manchester City." De Jong told the Daily Star.

"I have pleaded with them to sign him, as we could use a good right-back.

"The tempo of English football will make him stronger still and I've recommended him to City's management."

True enough - we could use a good right back. But I'm not sure this is de Jong's jurisdiction, and even then I think it's only worth buying if we can seriously upgrade on Zabaleta, Richards and of course Jérôme Boateng. But it's interesting in further revealing 'the Boateng plan' - that is, young, talented players based on the continent.

Neither de Jong nor van der Wiel played in Holland's 2-1 friendly win over Mexico last night, which I will be reporting on as part of another new project soon to be confirmed.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

'It's something I'm sure he'll be open to'

That's Stephen Warnock, talking about his Villa and England team-mate James Milner, who might be more open to a summer transfer than we first thought:

"Of course we want him [Milner] at Villa next season but I think, if the price is right, it's very difficult for a club to turn it down," Warnock said. "From his point of view, if there's a chance to play at a higher level, then it's something that I'm sure he'll be open to."

Speaking after England's 3-1 win over Mexico last night, in which Milner started, Warnock, who was an unused substitute, added: "I don't think the amount of attention James is getting is a surprise. Everyone knows his ability and what he's about, and what he has put in on the pitch at Villa this year.

Busy day for blues in friendlies

Various City players played in World Cup warm-ups this week. Adam Johnson and Joe Hart did their chances of making the 23 man squad some good with strong substitute appearances.

And Carlos Tevez scored for Argentina in their 5-0 defeat of Canada. There were also goals for former blue Chris Killen and still a blue (just) Valeri Bozhinov.

Ireland wants out

Sad but not surprising news in Tuesday's 'papers: Stephen Ireland is looking to leave City after a spirit-sapping season. This is no real surprise: Ireland has fallen, in the space of a year, from our best and most important player - our talisman, and - as an Academy graduate - a symbol of the club's enduring soul, to the same misfiring misfit he looked under Stuart Pearce. People say he's regressed to his state two or three years ago, which is true enough, but his excellence in 2008/09 showed that there is another way. That revelation, after the 5-1 against Hull, or his goal in Hamburg, that he could be our Scholes, our Gerrard will be difficult to shake off.

But if we're going to progress we need less sentimentality, not more: and a cool analysis will tell that Ireland and MCFC are now moving in opposite directions. He would not be a bad squad player to have, but he's 24 and keen to be playing regularly. If he can't at City then he will elsewhere.

The suggestion in The Guardian is that he might well go to Everton, in part exchange for Mikel Arteta. It's no secret that we need a creative midfielder, and that Arteta is a very good one. Mark Hughes was interested and it sounds as if the Player Acquisition Group might also be. I have my reservations here. I'm not too keen on our signing players from the Premier League, and one of the reasons for this is the considerable ill will we generated during our pursuit of Joleon Lescott. I'd rather not go through that again this summer. And on a practical level I imagine the Lescott saga will make David Moyes and Bill Kenwright even less keen on selling us Arteta than they would have otherwise been.

But the idea of using Ireland as a makeweight for a deal is a plausible one, as much for Arteta as for James Milner. Ireland would be an interesting replacement for Milner - he's a different type of player, with much less tactical discipline and much more magic - but he could be the man to bring an extra dimension to an Aston Villa side in some need of one. And Martin O'Neill might well see himself as the right sort of manager to put an arm on the shoulder of his fellow Irishman and coax his genius back out of him.

So these are all realistic scenarios. And I'd much rather Ireland went to either of these two than to his boyhood club across town.

Monday, 24 May 2010

The other one that got away

Diego Milito was not the only member of José Mourinho's treble winners who Mark Hughes pursued.

Remember this?

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The one that got away

This morning's papers are understandably full of praise for Diego Milito. If you weren't watching 'il Principe' scored twice last night to win the European Cup for Inter, his twenty-ninth and thirtieth goals of a treble-winning season.

There is an article about him by Peter Jenson in the Independent on Sunday which is very good, but for one glaring factual inaccuracy: it claims that Spurs were the only English side interested in Milito two summers ago, when he left relegated Real Zaragoza to return to Genoa, where he had eighteen profilic months in Serie B. It's true that Spurs bid for him that summer, but so did City.

It was the summer that started with Mark Hughes' appointment and ended with the ADUG takeover. Before the money flooded in Hughes made some astute signings: Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany at £6m each still looks like excellent business. We signed Jô but that was driven by a combination of Tord Grip, Eriksson, Thaksin and Garry Cook: Hughes had no input. Hughes wanted a centre forward of his own, and Milito and Roque Santa Cruz were the targets. Once Sam Allardyce made it clear Santa Cruz was staying put we bid £10m for Milito.

Zaragoza will have wanted more, but as a relegated club they were not in a stong negotiating position; the accepted a similar bid from Genoa. The fact is that Milito chose to return to his former club ahead of a move to MCFC. Hughes spent the £10m on Shaun Wright-Phillips instead, and we spent most of 2008/09 with Felipe Caicedo up front. Milito had an excellent season at Genoa, and was recruited by Mourinho's Inter the following summer. You know the rest.

Regardless of his shortcomings, I did think Hughes always had a very good eye for a player.

Friday, 21 May 2010

'Do I expect to be at Villa next season? I don't know'

I'd always been under the impression that James Milner would not be interested in a move to City. There's something about his attitude, his maturity, his self-definition against the Bentley-driving set which makes you think he almost models himself on the Johnny Haynes, Duncan Edwards generation of footballers. I naturally presumed he had little interest in moving to our arriviste outfit, preferring to stick with Aston Villa unless and until he gets that phone call from Sir Alex Ferguson.

Which is why our £20m bid took me by surprise. As Danny wrote, our making a formal bid implies some level of contact between MCFC and James Milner, and an indication of interest from the player. Not every indication of interest leads to final agreement - Samuel Eto'o and John Terry both indicated sufficient interest to MCFC last summer to induce formal bids from us for them, though neither decided to join. But our bid certainly reflects a flicker.

This flicker of interest was further revealed yesterday by Milner's comments in an interview on England duty, where he declined the opportunity to commit his future to Villa:
"I want to finish my career, go into my trophy room and see winners' medals," he said. "I've enjoyed my time at Aston Villa, it's a great club to be at and we are moving forward in the right direction ," Milner said. "Do I expect to be at Villa next season? I don't know. I've worked as hard as I can and concentrated on club football while the season has been on. Now it has finished, I'm focusing on England - and that's the only thing I am focusing on. To be linked with any clubs is flattering but I'm just concentrating on England at this time."
Now, this is some way short of what the papers call a 'come and get me plea.' But it's not nothing. I remain unsure whether or not Milner will join us this summer. I am more confident of it, though, after reading these comments than I was before. That said, if Chelsea are as interested as The Sun say they are, then he's as good as theirs. Either way, it's time for Garry Cook to get back on the phone.

World Cup Blog

During the World Cup I'll be updating TLDORC with news of the progress of City legends present and past: no bad pass or missed tackle from Chris Killen, Gelson Fernandes or Dickson Etuhu will go unmentioned on here.

But I'm also doing another blog entirely about the World Cup, imaginatively entitled 'World Cup Blog.' Unlike TLDORC my financial future is linked to its success, so if you could go on it you would be doing me a big favour. I hope it will be a decent read, too.

Check it out HERE.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Gourcuff, Ibrahimović linked

Two more rumours today - Bordeaux's Yoann Gourcuff and Barcelona's Zlatan Ibrahimović.

Barcelona's signing David Villa for €40m has inevitably raised questions over the future of Zlatan Ibrahimović . And, given how well he did under Roberto Mancini at Inter, we are inevitably linked. Today's M.E.N. says that City are 'set to step up their interest' which could mean almost anything. I think this is fairly easy journalism, but then I do think the following points are true: Barcelona would sell if a big bid came in, Roberto Mancini is interested, we could afford the fee and the wages. The only absent side of the square is Ibra's enthusiasm: he does have a fairly high opinion of his own abilities, and I'm not sure he'd want to play Europa League football.

The next is Gourcuff: a graceful, classical No. 10 who won the French league with Bordeaux in 2008/09 but who might now join the exodus from the Chaban-Delmas along with Laurent Blanc and Marouane Chamakh. According to Ian Herbert Mancini 'has an interest' in Gourcuff, and 'a move for a player valued at £21 million is a possibility.' Like the Ibra rumour, I'll wait till there a few more leaves on this tree before writing more about it, suffice to say that Gourcuff isn't quite the dynamic box-to-box player some think we need, but would certainly be a marvellous addition to our attacking options. He's a joy to watch.

Hamann back in the game

Good to see MCFC legend (53 games, 2006-09) Dietmar Hamann back in the game after a well deserved sabbatical last year: he is to become a Player-Coach at MK Dons.

He may have been poor under Stuart Pearce and under Mark Hughes for the first half of the Sven-Göran Eriksson season he was genuinely excellent.

What we need

I should have done this a while ago but just to briefly sketch out what I think we need this summer, in order of descending priority:
  • A creative, goal scoring midfielder. It's one area where we have been seriously lacking compared to last season, with the decline of Stephen Ireland and no one to take his place. Of course our 4-2-4 formation requires our two central midfielders to play fairly cautiously, but I think that our use of this system is itself a function of paucity of options. Too often last season we looked one or two dimensional - firing the ball out to the wide men, or hoping that Carlos Tévez could conjure something up himself, without having any real creative presence. We could sit tight and hope that Stephen Ireland becomes the player he was threatening to be in 2008/09, but with all that's riding on our 2010/11 campaign I think we will invest here. The names are familiar by now: James Milner, Marek Hamsik, Steven Gerrard, Mesut Özil, but I'm sure this is the number one priority of the Player Acquisition Group.
  • A competent left back. I'm afraid I don't think Wayne Bridge is up to it. Coming to City from a fairly successful Premier League career he should not have needed time to bed in. And so the fact that, after eighteen months in blue, he still can't really tackle or cross that well can only be a matter of concern. I know we're not going to get Patrice Evra or Ashley Cole - we may have to look abroad to upgrade - but I'm sure Mancini knows of someone in Serie A or elsewhere who can do this better than Bridge. There's talk of signing David Luiz and, exciting as that is, I'd rather have a specialist.
  • A better partner for Tévez. As I've kept on saying all season, I don't think Emmanuel Adebayor is a particularly good partner for Carlos Tévez. His hold up and link up play is patchy, he drifts in and out of the game, he gets literally sidetracked and starts popping up in wide positions. That's not to say I don't think he has his uses, but I do think we need someone who can bring the best out of our best player. Someone who can bring the best out of Tévez is Roque Santa Cruz, who is a much better partner, such is the quality of his hold-up play (c.f. Craven Cottage, March 2010), but his body cannot be relied upon. I don't know what the answer is to this - I think Mancini thinks it is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but expect to see the usual names linked: Edin Dzeko, Óscar Cardozo etc etc.
  • Cover across the defence. I don't think we can improve on Micah Richards and Pablo Zabaleta, with only Europa League football to tempt players with, but I do sometimes feel we could do with a third option given Zabaleta's occasional midfield deployment and Micah Richards' fitness issues. Preferably someone who can play at centre back, too, given our patchy record there last season. This is solved entirely by Jérôme Boateng, who can play right back and centre back, thus relegating this to the bottom of the priority list.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

£20m Milner bid (rejected)

That's what's being widely reported, by Sky Sports amongst others.

I'm sure Villa will reject this one, but I'm also sure that if Milner wants to come to MCFC we will be able to negotiate a (much higher) price for him with his club.

Your move, James.

UPDATE: This has been 'firmly rejected' by Aston Villa.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Academy players

One of disappointing things about post-takeover City is the diminished role of the Academy players. This has been highlighted by Nedum Onuoha's recent comments of dissatisfaction with Roberto Mancini over his lack of playing time. On top of the unclear futures of Stephen Ireland, Micah Richards and Shaun Wright-Phillips this could make for a summer where we lose all of those players with whom we enjoy that special bond.

It's a relief to read, then, that we might keep those players to satisfy a UEFA minimum of home grown players. Of course, I'd rather keep them because they were important members of the team. But any situation in which they stay is better than every situation in which they don't.

And don't forget Michael Johnson, who provides one of his monthly fitness updates on the official site today. Back in September, apparently.

Papers: €25m Luiz bid

A continuation of a pre-existing rumour in today's papers: a bid for Benfica's Brazilian defender David Luiz. Jason Burt writes in the Telegraph that we are to bid €25m (£21.5m), to steal him away from the also-interested Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona. There's a multi-author story in the Daily Mail saying that our offer is £25million.

We've heard this one a few weeks ago. It certainly fits with what I'm calling the 'Boateng plan' (but which could also be dubbed the 'Adam Johnson plan') - he is the right age, at 23, with a successful record in club football to date, European experience and the hunger and ambition to do something special at City; a safer bet than relying on players with names already made.

And David Luiz would be a good fit at City too. Even with Jérôme Boateng we could well go for another defender, given Luiz's ability to play left-back - he could well be first choice there - and the fact that Boateng and Kompany could themselves be needed in other positions. Plus Luiz is a good player. I've seen him a few times this season for Benfica and while I've only really had eyes for Ángel Di María, Luiz has looked quick, powerful and composed. Tor-Kristian Karlsen, scout and transfer expert, certainly rates him. He has written on Twitter that Luiz is 'the player to buy' from Benfica, as he's ready for the EPL. Since then he has written that Luiz is:
better in the centre, but does a good job at left-back despite being right footed. the main attraction are the playing skills.
amazing coup by man city if they land david luiz. wonderful def; elegant, xlnt on the ball, pacey, versatile, commanding. he's got it all
And then on a Luiz/Boateng comparison:
boateng more of a classical 'stopper', david more classy and refined. good signings.
They both sound very good. Let's hope we see one or both at City soon.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Season ratings: forwards

Emmanuel Adebayor (29 starts, 14 goals)

Another player for whom it is difficult to focus on the football. His stamp and his slide against Arsenal, the horrors he faced in Cabinda, and his later four match ban not only distracted attention from his performances but also broke up any momentum or consistency he might have generated. To look at the statistics alone, 14 goals from 25 Premier League goals looks good, a ratio (0.56 goals/game) not too far away from what we had expected from him. But how many City fans will say that they have been genuinely impressed by him? He puts in more bad performances than good ones, certainly, and when he is bad he is useless: lazy and distracted, listless and diffident. And he is no partner for Carlos Tévez, which should really be the first priority of a centre forward of ours. I think he'll stay, but I'd be surprised if the Player Acquisition Group isn't seeking out an upgrade. B

Craig Bellamy
(31 starts, 11 goals)

The surprise story of the season. After knee problems last spring, and the acquisition of new forwards in the summer I thought he would be a perennial backup this year. But that was to underestimate Mark Hughes' faith in him. He made the left hand side of the 4-2-4 his own, at the expense of Robinho and Martin Petrov. He started the season at a compelling pace: quick, fiery, almost embarrassingly competitive. Before Tévez got fit it was Bellamy who was carrying the side; scoring our second and making our fourth in the 4-2 with Arsenal before scoring two huge goals in the 4-3 derby at Old Trafford - performances that won him the TLDORC Player of September. That capacity for big game performances was further shown by his two goals at Stamford Bridge, to go with his pair at O.T. But the key fact about Bellamy was that he was Mark Hughes' man, his favourite, his protégé, his enforcer, his ambassador. And so when Hughes left so did much of Bellamy's connection with the club. There was a continued pattern of stories coming from the club of Bellamy's discontent with Roberto Mancini, and while he continued to work hard on the pitch he did seem to revel in his triumphs a bit less than before. Everything that made him such an effective performer under a manager he believed him makes him an incongrouous presence now. Do not be surprised by a summer move to Spurs. A-

(8 starts, 1 g0al)

This season proved what we all knew last season, even if we did not want to say it: that Robinho was the wrong man at the wrong time, not suited to English football, not interested in Manchester City. Once he broke a bone in his ankle on international duty Hughes was pleased with the chance to give Craig Bellamy a run in the side. The inury put him out for three months, and when he came back he reminded us just how frustrating he was with two terrible performances in those painful defeats at White Hart Lane and Goodison Park. Roberto Mancini had as little time for him as Hughes did, and when he was removed at Everton it was clear his time was up. It was nice he could score one last goal, in the last minute at Scunthorpe, before he left for Santos on a loan deal. I don't expect to see him hurrying back to City in August. D

Roque Santa Cruz (7 starts, 4 goals)

Another of Mark Hughes' overspends on established Premier League players, Santa Cruz was a luxury buy - one that we would surely not have made had we known about signing Emmanuel Adebayor. And even aside from Adebayor, spending £17million on someone with a fitness record as bad as Roque's just does not make sense. I don't think Santa Cruz is a bad player - in fact I quite enjoy watching him, he's a clever target man and is a much more natural partner for
Tévez than Adebayor. But he just can't string two or three games together. It's not his fault he has these problems, but you can't expect any consistency from a man that prone to injuries. C-

Carlos T
évez (38 starts, 29 goals)

The signing, the story, the star of the season. Carlos Tévez was taken from Manchester United in the summer; it was a sign of our progress that we could take advantage of his dispute with the Old Trafford bosses, and there was a hope that he could drag us to the next level, in a way that Robinho could not. At first it did not seem to be working. He was impaired by an injury and seemed, like Adebayor, to be more keen on embarrassing his former club than on doing well for his new one. When he missed those chances to put us 4-2 up against Burnley I must admit to having doubts. But soon enough it clicked. Starting with his goal against Arsenal Reserves at Eastlands, he went on the most remarkable goal-scoring run in years: 24 goals in 22 games. It was enough to win him the December and January awards, and while he spent much of February back in Buenos Aires he returned to win the March award. He showed that he could lead the line as well as anyone, even if he clearly prefers the freedom of the second striker. His ability to carve opportunities and goals from nowhere allowed us to continue scoring, winning and chasing fourth while playing some fairly lifeless football. He might not like Roberto Mancini but he provided him with the breathing space, delivering goals while Mancini focussed his attention on the back four. Tévez finished the season with 23 league goals, the most in the top flight since Franny Lee's 33 in 1971/72. He might have his faults - I still don't trust his penalties - and his agent is clearly an agitator, but for as long as he's at City he is a compelling player, a marvel to watch and a major protagonist in our story. A, and TLDORC Player of 2009/10

Alex Nimley got on at Turf Moor for a few wet minutes. I hope to see more of him next year.

Milner bid reported again

More news on one of our transfer targets in today's papers: both the Mail and the Guardian claim that we are soon to bid £24million for Aston Villa's James Milner - hoping to tie him up before the World Cup, and before Chelsea make a bid.

James Milner would be a perfect solution to our lack of goals and dynamism in midfield. But I can't see it happening. There are players that are willing to take a sideways step to join City, and players that aren't. And I have a strong sense of which bracket Milner belongs to.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Season ratings: midfielders

Gareth Barry (42 starts, 3 goals)

Before the arrival of that striker from Manchester United, Barry was set to be the most important signing of last summer. His experience and assurance meant that Hughes trusted him sufficiently to anchor a 4-2-4 formation, initially alongside Stephen Ireland but then with Nigel de Jong. It worked very well: Barry dictated the tempo of play, tasked with moving the ball quickly to our front players, putting out fires where necessary and, well, 'winning' free-kicks. He faded slightly as the season went on, though, presumably from fatigue - as well as showing a frustrating tendency to hide in the biggest games. By the early months of the Mancini reign he was barely worth his place in the team, and there were rumours of much-needed groin surgery being postponed. But he improved towards the end of the year, and looks unfortunate to have his World Cup jeapordised by an ankle knock. B+

Nigel de Jong (37 starts, 0 goals)

After the bedding in period during the second half of last season he pushed on as we hoped he would this year. Didn't get into the side at first, but as soon as Mark Hughes realised the folly of playing Stephen Ireland deep in a 4-2-4 de Jong was in the side and there to stay. When in the side he did what he does best: patrolling and dominating the space in front of our penalty area like a good guard-dog does his owner's front garden; aggressive, territorial, snarling, relying mainly on the threat of violence but certainly not afraid of hurting intruders' ankles. There are concerns that sometimes he is played when we don't need him, his distribution is cautious rather than creative and so there are matches when we would be better off with Ireland there instead. But there are times when we would be lost without him; he was heroic in the 2-1 win over Chelsea in December, and produced a consistent level of performance throughout the season. A

Stephen Ireland (23 starts, 3 goals)

A sad story. It would be easy to blame the managerial change for Ireland's wretched, regressive season but I think that would not be accurate. The problems started with Mark Hughes' decision to switch from a 4-2-3-1 towards a 4-2-4, with Carlos Tévez playing off a front man. This forced 'Superman' back into a deeper midfield role alongside Barry. And for all his many gifts he didn't have the tactical discipline to do it. He was sidelined for Nigel de Jong, brought out occasionally for his preferred role in a 4-2-3-1. But with Tévez just starting to find his voice, we could not justify playing anyone else in that space behind the front man. When Mancini took over Ireland got a few more games, on the right, even in the hole when Tévez was back in Buenos Aires. Ireland is such a confidence player, though, that he needs a run of games rather than the odd start here or there and he never settled. This is a definitive summer for him. C-

Adam Johnson (14 starts, 1 goal)

The success story of the Mancini era. Bought by Brian Marwood in January - a precursor of the 'Boateng plan' perhaps - from Middlesbrough for £6m. He came off the bench at the KC Stadium for his debut, almost swinging the game back in our favour. His first start was the next match against Bolton, where he won us a penalty and tortured Paul Robinson throughout. A left-footer playing from the right, he might not be in the Leo Messi/Arjen Robben bracket but he does have a touch of magic about him, shown by his willingness to run at defenders and ability to dart either side of them, his taste for a trick and that audacity which inspired his equaliser at Sunderland. I do think at times that he is not as good as he looks: in his four games against United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal he did the sum total of nothing, and was quiet in the play-off with Spurs. But a very promising start to his City career. B+

Martin Petrov (11 starts, 5 goals)

More involved than he was last season. He was always going to find it difficult with Craig Bellamy and Robinho in front of him but did carve out a brief spell in the side under Mark Hughes, scoring in three consecutive appearances in September/October. When Hughes was sacked Petrov played more, scoring the first goal of the Mancini era and continuing to play - atoning for the 8-1 by setting up Benjani's goal at the Riverside - before the arrival of Adam Johnson limited his opportunities. He still has the talents which made him such a favourite under Eriksson: pace, fantastic delivery and an eye for goal. His strikes against West Ham and Scunthorpe were as powerful as anything this season, those against Fulham and Wigan as well crafted. Relative to his limited opportunities he produced very well for us this year. But the problem is that he's 31, his knees cannot be trusted and are only going to get worse. He has only started 19 games in the last two seasons and it's just not enough for him. His contract's out this summer and I can't see him staying. B

Patrick Vieira (8 starts, 1 goal)

Signed in January to be for Mancini what Craig Bellamy was for Mark Hughes: his eyes, ears, and voice in a dressing room predominantly loyal to a previous regime. He may have done that job well, he may not. But on the pitch we could see that he is not the player he was. He was just too slow - not across the pitch, that was expected - but sluggish, dulled, second to everything , unable to turn or retain possession. He did play well against Aston Villa, to be fair, but one good performance out of eight isn't enough to deserve retention. He might well stay, for the benefit of his experience, particularly in Europe, but I can only foresee a peripheral role next year. D

Shaun Wright-Phillips (26 starts, 7 goals)

The one man who lost most from the Hughes/Mancini changeover. For the first part of the season, he was integral - playing on the right of our 4-2-4, scoring and providing assists. Those two final high points of the Hughes era - the Eastlands defeats of Chelsea and Arsenal Reserves - when it looked as if Hughes had cracked it, but just weeks before he was dismissed - were personal successes for Shaun, excellent in both games. But Mancini clearly didn't like him so much; preferring Adam Johnson on the right wing and therefore relegating Wright-Phillips to a role from the bench. His run to set up Craig Bellamy against Villa was a thrilling reminder of what he can do, if only Mancini could let him. Another popular home-grown player whose future at MCFC is unclear. B-

The other midfielders to play a part are all Academy graduates. Greg Cunningham and Abdi Ibrahim both snatched a few minutes here and there, primarily in the FA Cup but with some EPL exposure too. Vladimir Weiss played a few League Cup games, and scored his first senior goal at Eastlands in the 3-0 against Arsenal Reserves, before struggling in the rain at the Riverside and then going on loan to Bolton. Michael Johnson did well to recover from his groin and core problems - came on twice, scoring against Scunthorpe - before rupturing his cruciate ligaments in training and missing the rest of the season. A real shame.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Season ratings: defence

Dedryck Boyata (5 starts, 0 goals)

Our Young Player of the Year started his MCFC career with an appropriately wet baptism, starting at a rain-soaked Middlesbrough in what could have been a difficult cup tie. He played well, though, well enough to be trusted with starting both of the League Cup semi-finals - with Kolo Touré on international duty and Joleon Lescott injured. Even in those games he looked assured, such was the influence of his compatriot Vincent Kompany. When Lescott and Touré returned Boyata returned to reserve football but it was certainly a promising start. He must be one of the biggest players at the club physically, and while he clearly has a lot of development left in front of him his new five year contract shows that he could just make it. B

Wayne Bridge (28 starts, 0 goals)

It's too easy to forget about the football. This winter Wayne Bridge was caught up in one of the most distracting off-field stories in football's sordid recent history. The natural instinct is sympathy, and rightly so. But we shouldn't let those feelings cloud our rational judgement. Because there is no way of avoiding the fact that Bridge had a very poor season. The errors that stained his start at City are still here: the worst was letting the ball hit his back for Burnley's third at Eastlands. He is vulnerable defensively, too timid in the tackle too often. He makes clever runs going forward but his crossing is woeful; 47 attempted this season, and none successfully completed. I no longer see him on a big improvement on what we have, and am sure that we will upgrade here this summer. Could anyone honestly argue for his inclusion in the World Cup squad had he been available? C

Javi Garrido (10 starts, 1 goal)

Far down the pecking order at the start of the season, he looked set for a January departure. But like many of the remaining Eriksson buys he benefited from Mancini's blank slate, and came into the side in January. He did what we all knew he could: slow but technically competent left-back play, not keen on physical contact but effective with his left boot. He reminded us of his dead-ball clinicism with a free kick at Molineux, his second goal for the club, just as good as his strike against Liverpool last season. Along with Benjani and Martin Petrov he atoned for the 8-1 with that cup win at the Riverside. It can't have been enough to fully impress Mancini, though, as he was out of the side when Bridge got fit. Staying next season is possible but probably unlikely. B-

Vincent Kompany (27 starts, 2 goals)

For the second consecutive season he misses out on an A, and a real shot at Player of the Season only because of his injury record. He didn't start a league game until November; but once he did he played almost continuously at centre-back. We had always known he could play there, but I never knew he would be quite this good. At times - more often than not, even - he looks like one of the league's most natural centre-backs. His physicality, his authority, his gifts with the ball on the deck or in the air; he is certainly the most talented defender at the club and if not quite of the Rio Ferdinand/Ledley King bracket then not too far away. He would certainly be a better captain than our current incumbent - he's louder and braver, as well as being a better player. If he can stay fit through 2010/11 he must have a good chance. A-

Joleon Lescott (23 starts, 2 goals)

It's unfair to blame players for the money spent on them. £24million was always an inflated sum for Lescott, and I fear it will make his debut season look worse than it was. He certainly struggled at first, forging no sort of partnership with Kolo Touré, and costing those goals that cost those points that cost Mark Hughes his job. Just as his form was starting to improve he over-extended his knee and missed two months, allowing Vincent Kompany to return to the side. Lescott returned in February, quickly rediscovering his form and starting to look like the commanding defender so impressive at Everton. He even won TLDORC Player of February. But another bad injury at Sunderland put him out for the last two months of the season and cost him a World Cup spot. Like many he must fear that City will move on beyond him this summer, especially targeting cheaper foreign-based defenders. B

Nedum Onuoha (7 starts, 2 goals)

For all the club's assurances to the contrary, it looks ever harder fo Academy players to become first team regulars at City. Onuoha had an excellent 2008/09 season, playing centre-back alongside Richard Dunne from Christmas onwards. But we bought two centre-backs last summer and Onuoha went to the back of the queue. Naturally this curtailed his gametime and he made only sporadic appearances this year. He played well enough, filling in at right back and centre back. But the fact is he is further away from being a regular than he was last year, and with Mancini set to bring in more defenders this is only going to get worse. B-

Micah Richards (25 starts, 3 goals)

Unlike Nedum Onuoha, Micah Richards continued to play football this year. As with last season, he continued to rotate the right-back slot with Pablo Zabaleta. He probably improved on last year; there are fewer defensive calamities, fewer moments of ill-discipline. His performance at Old Trafford in the League Cup semi final was very good, and made up for his errors there in the league. The raw materials are still there: he is physically imposing, he is unstoppable while running with the ball, magnetic in the air and so forth. But he is not much better, technically or tactically, than he was when he broke into the side four years ago. And I think this means he's not in our first choice team. He's still only 21, though, so time is on his side. B-

Sylvinho (9 starts, 1 goal)

Brought in to provide cover and experience at left-back. He got his chance in those final games of the Mark Hughes era, where we conceded three goals in three consecutive games. This should not reflect too badly on Sylvinho, but he was painfully exposed up against Aaron Lennon's pace at White Hart Lane. He continued to play under Mancini, demonstrating on his occassional outings in midfield that while his pace has gone the sharpness of his touch and his football remain unblunted. As with Garrido, opportunities were limited once Bridge got fit. A contract for next year remains possible. C+

Kolo Touré (35 starts, 2 goals)

One of Mark Hughes' mis-steps last summer. Not just signing him from Arsenal for £16m, but making him captain, therefore depriving the team of leadership and making it harder to drop him. It's fair to say that Touré is not the player he once was. He is strangely diffident with the ball around him; just when you want someone to fill the Richard Dunne role of throwing himself the ball at any cost, Touré looks unwilling to do so. His positioning is suspect. His clearances are haphazard. To say nothing of the vacuum of leadership represented by his captaincy; such is his silence, his spells of panic, his lack of organisational rigour. That said, he improved in Mancini's final months - and has perhaps saved himself from being moved on in the summer. But more minuses than pluses, certainly. C+

Pablo Zabaleta (30 starts, 0 goals)

A season very similar to last year: solid and committed performances in a range of positions. He started off sharing the right-back role with Micah Richards, and had a fairly poor start to the season. His indiscipline - in terms of positioning and conceding silly free-kicks - let him down, as shown by his eventual ban for ten bookings. But he settled down as the season went on, filling in at defensive midfield - including a fantastic performance in the 4-2 at Stamford Bridge - and even putting a few good shifts in at left-back and right-midfield. He might not be a world class right back but he's capable at a Europa League level and a very useful squad player to have. Consistency, versatility, determination - it's an important combination and I'm sure he will be able to replicate it next season. B+

And let's not forget Richard Dunne - a genuine MCFC legend - who played the first two games of the season before being sold to Aston Villa to make way for Joleon Lescott.

Hamšík, Balotelli, Luiz all linked

I've written before about the 'Boateng plan', and how our long interests would be best served by the recruitment of players who are young, hungry and who would like to win things with City - rather than those players falling under 'the Torres plan.' The last few days have seen transfer rumours suggesting that Mancini and the Player Acquisition Group feel this too. We have been linked with moves for 22 year old Marek Hamšík, 19 year old Mario Balotelli and 23 year old David Luiz.

First Oliver Kay wrote in The Times of Hamšík and Balotelli:

After several weeks of discussions over his transfer strategy with the club’s hierarchy, Roberto Mancini, the City manager, has urged his board to proceed with bids for Hamsik and Balotelli as he looks to reinforce a squad that narrowly missed out on a top-four finish in the Barclays Premier League.

The challenge for Mancini will be in convincing the players that they can fulfil their ambitions with City. after the club’s failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Then there was this by Stuart Brennan in the Manchester Evening News regarding Luiz:

The Blues have been tracking the 6ft 2ins Benfica star for some time, and face stiff competition from Real Madrid and Barcelona.

But manager Roberto Mancini has identified the 23-year-old as a major star of the future - and he likes the fact that Luiz, principally a central defender, is also comfortable at left-back and as a defensive midfielder.

These three are all plausible: they fit into the strategy laid out in the Jérôme Boateng transfer - young, talented, playing for a good side in a good foreign league. It's a nice change from the Hughes approach of established Premier League stars, and not just from a novelty perspective either.

To take the three rumours one by one: I haven't seen Hamšík play too much but he's certainly very highly rated. He is a goalscoring midfielder, which is what we need - Gabriele Marcotti has said he could be the new Frank Lampard. I think we might struggle to tempt him though. He will be playing Europa League football with Napoli next season, and apparently could soon agree a new contract. But if he doesn't there is an opening there.

Balotelli is a move that makes sense. He has fallen out with almost everyone at Inter, having enjoyed a warm-enough relationship with Roberto Mancini before Mourinho's arrival. A summer departure is likely. His agent has since denied that he might move to City, but this is a fairly resilient rumour. I'm not very enthusiastic about this move. He's clearly talented, but also troubled. This is not what we need right now. That's not to say that it won't happen, though.

Finally Luiz. He looks very good when I've seen him; he's big, quick, and technically excellent. But if he came to City he would be denying himself Champions League football next season, something he earnt by winning the Liga Sagres this year. Had we got fourth it might just have been plausible. Not anymore though.

Vieira misses out

One City player who won't be making the World Cup is Patrick Vieira, who suprisingly missed out on Raymond Domenech's squad.

It is a disappointment for him, having come to City largely to play his way into the France squad. I suppose it's legitimate decision from Domenech, given that Vieira has produced one good performance in a few months at City. But there is always a worry with Domenech that even when he reaches the right decision he gets there via the wrong reasons.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Gelson in Swiss squad

Another City legend to be starring at the World Cup: Gelson Fernandes has made Ottmar Hitzfeld's 23 man Swiss squad.

His midfield battle with Xavi and Cesc Fàbregas in Durban on 16 June will be one of the most hotly contested in the group stages.

Ela, Robi make Seleção squad

Two MCFC legends - Elano and Robinho - have made Dunga's final squad of 23 for the World Cup.

Sylvinho, Jô, Geovanni and Glauber did not.

Season ratings: Goalkeepers

Márton Fülöp (3 starts, 0 goals)

Brought in under controversial circumstances to cover for Shay Given's dislocated shoulder, he had the chance to make himself a cult hero at City. Taking us to the Champions League would make his saves the modern day equivalent of Emile Mpenza's relegation-preventing goals in 2007. But it was not to be. He started shakily, conceding from a weak John Carew shot at Eastlands. He improved, and made an excellent save or two against Spurs. We could quibble with his spilling Younes Kaboul's cross into the path of Peter Crouch but that might be a bit much. Against West Ham he made another few good saves. Overall a good goalkeeper for us; our failure to grasp fourth was by no means his fault. B

Shay Given (44 starts, 0 goals)

Remains the best piece of business of the Mark Hughes era. He continued his excellent form from the back end of the last season, making saves that few others in the Premier League could produce. Up until Christmas he was just perfect: our best player, and one of the best in the Premier League. He won the TLDORC Player of November, in large part due to his penalty save from James McFadden at St. Andrew's, which saved us a point. The following month he saved a spot-kick from Frank Lampard at Eastlands, saving us two points. This was the high point of his season. He was said to be a Mark Hughes loyalist who complained on his removal, and his season was never quite so good again. February, and the Stoke City trilogy, represented the nadir: he missed two Rory Delap long throws to concede to headers, and one long distance low roller from Glenn Whelan. The old accusation that he was stuck to his line returned, and the form of Joe Hart for Birmingham made some City fans (but not this one) doubt that we had the best 'keeper we could have. His form improved later on this season, and a serious shoulder injury disrupted our push for fourth. But with Hart due to return next season, and Given unlikely to make opening day, it is quite possible that our best player of 2009 could not be first choice by the end of 2010. A-

Two other 'keepers featured. First there was specialist deputy 'keeper Stuart Taylor, who played in the FA Cup match at Scunthorpe and managed to concede twice in an otherwise comfortable game. He ought to have replaced Shay Given when the Irishman went down at the Emirates but Taylor himself was injured. This left Gunnar Nielsen with fifteen or so easy minutes of his own to negotiate.

Four blues in Capello's 30

Over the next few weeks TLDORC will focus on the progress of current and former MCFC players (and managers) at the World Cup in South Africa. This starts with the squad announcements - today Fabio Capello confirmed his preliminary thirty man roster.

And there are four MCFC players: Joe Hart, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Adam Johnson and Gareth Barry. This is good news, and a relief in Barry's case because of the rumours he might be ruled out by that ankle injury. I fear AJ and SWP might be competing for one place, such are the pressures of squeezing 30 into 23, but this is good news and reflects well on the club.

It is a disappointment that Joleon Lescott could not recover from injury in time to make it. And I remember spending most of 2007/08 smug at the prospect of having Micah Richards and Michael Johnson in the South Africa 2010 squad.

Ireland's future

Mancini has said that Stephen Ireland can still have a future at City if his focus is correct:

He [Ireland] has also had a separate meeting with Mancini and his representatives will be having talks with the chief executive, Garry Cook, this week before deciding whether to put in an official transfer request.

"I spoke to Stephen two weeks ago but we must speak again soon," said Mancini, who flew today to Abu Dhabi for his end-of-season debrief with the City chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak. "I don't know what he is thinking about his future but, for me, Stephen is a fantastic player and if he can change his head I think he can start to play like last season [2008-09] again."

I'm sure he is right. One of the many disappointing aspects of Ireland's season is that we often make a presumption that a young player's progress is bankable - that a good season or spell means the establishment of a new base-line from which he can advance. This season just gone shows that this is not true; Ireland has regressed to his Pearce/Eriksson form - talented but patchy, prone to letting the game pass him by and clearly at the mercy of his own confidence-swings. We know what he is capable of but it will take a lot of work from all sides to bring it out of him again in 2010/11.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The Torres and Boateng plans

There are very broadly speaking two transfer plans for this summer. One is for the brightest of stars, the galácticos, or those we could tempt to play for City. The other is to sign younger, hungrier players, less famous but not too far behind in terms of ability. Both of these plans are embodied by high profile and strongly desired players. The former by Fernando Torres, the latter by Jérôme Boateng. I know which policy I prefer. We are more likely to succeed in the long term with ambitious players with careers ahead of them: signings along the lines of Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany, Nigel de Jong - or, from Chelsea's time, Arjen Robben, Petr Čech and Michael Essien. Signing expensive established stars is both fairly vulgar and no guarantee of success.

Fortunately from my point of view, or failure to qualify for the Champions League football might preclude our pursuing 'the Torres strategy' this season. Mancini spoke of our pursuit of El Niño today:

"Can we attract the top, top players, like Torres? I don't know, but I don't think so," he said in The Sun.

"If we finished in the top four, it would be better and easier to attract them.

"In this situation it is different. There are probably some players who want to play in the Champions League and not in the Europa League."

I imagine this is representative of our pursuit of many other players in a similar bracket. The names are omnipresent, but I am sure we will go for - at the least - David Villa, Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Gonzalo Higuaín. None of these I imagine will now join us. And, to be frank, if they do then we need to ask serious and legitimate questions about their motivation. So I imagine we will switch focus to other targets. Targets like 21 year old HSV defender Jérôme Boateng. This deal is understood to be done, and Mancini said today:

“Boateng is a good player, a young player and strong. He plays for the national team and we have a good chance to get him.

“We are quite close to signing him.”

“He can play central defender, right defender, or in the middle, three different positions. If we find a player like that, who can play in two or three different positions, it is better for us.

“Next year we will play in four different competitions, which means playing every three days, so we need those players who can play in a few different positions.”

There's not really much more to say. This looks certain to happen. And once we've got him we need to go for a goal-scoring midfielder, a competent left back and maybe another centre forward. But I'll write more about transfer policy in due course.

Season review

Our first full season since the takeover, the first with the full benefit of our unprecedented spending binge certainly delivered on its promise. By any and every reasonable metric this was our best season for at least twenty years.

This was our best league finish since the 1990/91 and 91/92 fifth placed finishes - to find anything better than that you'd have to go back to fourth in 1977/78. Of the 38 game top flight seasons (1988/89 to 1990/91 and since 1995/96) this was our best points ever return, our most wins, our most goals scored. (Unfortunately from my perspective it was not as good as 1991/92 where we took 20 wins and 71 points from our 42 games.) Even then 73 league goals is our most in a top flight season since the aforementioned 77/78 when we got 74. Of those 73, 23 were scored by Carlos Tévez - the most in a top flight season since Franny Lee's 33 in 1971/72. Throw on top of this our first major semi-final since 1981 and it was clearly a year progress and achievement.

It leaves us with some deeply and richly pressed memories. The double over the Champions (something we did under Eriksson) forms the obvious highlight. The 4-2 win at Stamford Bridge, with the obvious subplot, was our best game of the year - the sacking of a previously impregnable citadel, our best result on the road since that redemptive win at Ewood Park ten years ago. Just as that was the idealised Mancini performance: cautious and counter-attacking, the home win in December was the ideal Hughes display - bold, aggressive, physical and dominant. Also in that vein were wins over Arsenal and Arsenal Reserves, even if the former was rather sullied by Adebayor's conduct. Then there were a few satisfying away wins, particularly at Fratton Park, Ewood Park and Craven Cottage where we had previously poor records.

Which all prompts the question, why doesn't it quite feel this good? I'm certainly proud of our progress, and will cherish and cultivate some of the memories. Spending £17.99 on the DVD is a no-brainer. But there is the slightest tinge of disappointment. I suppose this is a function of our missing out on fourth place. Fourth would have brought Champions League football to City next year and the chance to unlock the true potential of the ADUG money. Without it we face some good fun in the Europa League but more of the same in terms of player acquisition. So even though the requirement at the start of the season was sixth the collapse of Liverpool made fourth a real possibility - and we were strong favourites with a few weeks left. I wish I could say I'm delighted with fifth because our target was sixth but there is still some feeling of an opportunity missed. As there is over our semi-final exit and continuing trophy famine.

That opportunity was clear from quite early on, and was recognised as one by the board. And it was a hungry desire to take that bait, to squeeze ourselves into that space, that led to Mark Hughes' dismissal in December. This, more than anything else, is why 2010/11 doesn't feel quite as good as it ought to. What is a sacking of a manger but a punishment for poor performance, a repudiation of recent events? Removing Hughes made the first half of the season look like a failure in retrospect. Similarly, discontent at the rank unfairness of the sacking soured some of Mancini's early reign.

There was a strange feel to Mancini's run since Christmas. He was given a very difficult job: parachuted into a league he had no experience of, in the season's mid-stream, asked to improve the 'results trajectory' of a squad of players assembled by and loyal to his martyred predecessor. I think he did very well: in the Premier League he won eleven, drew five and lost five. But managing Hughes' squad, with only one addition of his own, a focus on defensive solidity and some fairly functional football created a feel of a team being dragged over the line rather than pursuing it with any verve or confidence. The rumour of Mancini's possible dismissal only enhanced the sense of discontent and short-termism around the club. But the unambiguous backing of the board has put an end to this.

I fear this has all gone a bit too gloomy, too down on what has been an excellent season. That's not my intention. There is no doubt that this has been an excellent season. We clearly have the core of a good team, with some quality players well bedded into the side. With a few more additions representing Mancini's stamp on the side we can see if the manager's team-building abilities match his tactical nous. We have made great strides this season. Strides consistent with our spending but great strides nevertheless. We're not where we hoped to be but this can be safely categorised as a transitional season in our great continuing enterprise. Three or four new players and we can hope for a step or two further in the league and the cups next season.

TLDORC May awards

It made a nice change having something to play for in May. Having kept in the race all season we had three games - two at home against our rivals - to win fourth place and bring in the next major phase of the ADUG project. It started well with a good 3-1 win over Aston Villa, when an early concession was overhauled by two minutes of Magic Johnson just before half time. This set up the definitive match with Spurs, our biggest game since Gillingham. But the game exposed what all observers had known all season: that Spurs are a better team, more coherent and fluent than we are yet. We had enough of the ball but created nothing, 0-0 would not have been enough and Peter Crouch's header sealed their place in next year's Champions League. A disappointment and a set-back but not a shock as such. And the news that it would not effect Roberto Mancini's continued management was a relief to hear. This rendered our final game at the Boleyn Ground devoid of any meaning, and after a good first half it drifted into a very comfortable 1-1; our last competitive game for fourteen weeks.

Aston Villa (h) 3-1 (thoughts, ratings, reax, more reax)
Tottenham Hotspur (h) 0-1 (thoughts, ratings, reax)
West Ham United (a) 1-1 (thoughts, ratings)

Player of the Month

I can't keep just denying it from him. Vincent Kompany has been one of our best and most consistent players since coming into the team in November, frequently running his teammates close for this award. I've been close to awarding him for months, but he keeps getting muscled out - in a way that never happens on the football pitch. Not this time. Kompany had another excellent month in May. He was his competent, confident, comfortable self; shaming his experienced partner and captain Kolo Touré with his calm head and leadership skills. If he put one foot wrong in May it was losing Peter Crouch for his first half header against the post in our challenge-ender at Eastlands. Maybe he could have been closer to Crouch for the goal. But I think he's been close to flawless this month. Better than Touré or Joleon Lescott have been at any point this year.

Performance of the month

Adam Johnson for his game-changing spell against Villa. Had we gone into half-time 1-0 down we might have lost, and never had the thrill of a sundown shoot-out with Spurs four days later. But for two sparks of audacity: one run at Steven Warnock and induced penalty, one careful wait and pass to Manu Adebayor set up two goals. We went into half time ahead and won the game.

Goal of the month

I love watching Shaun Wright-Phillips run. It's to do with his size, his low centre of gravity, the way he almost leans back and swings through lateral movements off either foot. We haven't seen it enough under Mancini, so it was a thrill to see him do it so well in his cameo against Villa. Craig Bellamy's finish was good too.

West Ham player ratings

Fulop Presumably his last game for MCFC, but he will leave with our best wishes after another competent performance. Made a few routine saves and one brave one at the feet of Ilan. Badly let down by the back four for the goal. 7

Zabaleta Caught out by Luis Boa Morte for the goal but other than that he was exceptional. West Ham's narrow 4-1-4-1 offered us space down both flanks, and Zabaleta advanced with unusual freedom. He even got into goal-scoring position once or twice, missing a great chance late in the first half. Threw himself into everything, taking a few hits along the way. As ever, shunted around the pitch later on: twenty minutes or so at left back, three minutes on the right wing. 7

Touré Never looked too comfortable up against a fairly patchy Carlton Cole, he was turned more often than he ought to be and was left footed by Diamanti for West Ham's goal. Guillhermo Franco gave him an equally difficult time. 5

Kompany Another excellent performance from the most gifted defender at the club. I don't think there are many other centre-backs in the Premier League as comfortable bringing the ball from the back as Kompany is. Won almost every challenge in the air and on the ground. 7

Sylvinho It sounds as if this was a goodbye game for Sylvinho. Shuttled willingly up and down the left, linking well with Wright-Phillips and putting in a good cross or two. Some fairly wild shooting in the second half. 6

Johnson Our best attacking outlet, again. With no Bellamy or Carlos Tévez on the pitch our gameplan seemed to be getting the ball to him quickly, isolating him against Daprela. He ran into good positions, put in some fine crosses - including one with his weaker foot for our goal - and could have won us a penalty. I fear an embryonic reputation for going down easily might have counted against him. 8

De Jong Overmanned in midfield a few times, he did fairly well stemming the West Ham attacks with some of his patented tackles. Clearly playing with confidence he impressed with a few neat touches and turns, trying to help the attacks once or twice. 6

Vieira I fear his performance against Villa was the exception that proves the rule: he was back to his sluggish 35 year old self yesterday. Embarrassed by Scott Parker's energy a few times, he did not give de Jong enough assistance at times. One or two lovely passes though. Future in doubt but I'd give him a 60% chance of staying. 5

SWP A delight for City fans to see him back in the side, he replaced Bellamy playing from the left - which will also have impressed Franco Baldini. He is quite well suited to the role, with his ability to wriggle through small spaces and a better football brain than some give him credit for. He linked very well with Sylvinho and the strikers, and scored with an uncharacteristic header. His first Premier League goal since November, which says much about his season. 7

Adebayor A performance to sum up his season. Some moments of real quality: outpacing Daprela down our left wing, some touches and movements that not many other strikers could replicate. But some poor finishes and bizarre decisions showed us his other side. 6

RSC A surprise inclusion, he did not do himself much credit given the rumours of a summer clear-out. He looked off the pace, almost static and unable to hold up the ball or bring team-mates into play. It was like a Berbatov or Ibrahimovic off-day but without the potential for occasional moments of brilliance. 4

Subs: Tévez Got the whole stadium going when he came on, and gave us a bit of energy up front. Had our best chance of the second half but Green was too quick for him. 6

Richards A few minutes at right back towards the end. Make a few good surges down the flank. 6

Cunningham Too late to mark n/a

Sunday, 9 May 2010

West Ham 1 - 1 City

  • On reflection it was unlikely to be a classic. With nothing to play for from either side it had a casual, end of term feel, devoid of pressure or meaning. And with both teams coming off seasons of some disappointment and discord it could never quite manage the last day of school, demob happy feel. The first half was good enough: two goals, quite a few chances and an open game. The second half was insipid: neither side eager to invest too much in the match. Short of Carlos Tévez's introduction there was nothing of note.
  • Before the game I worried this would be Craig Bellamy's last game in blue. With his not making the squad of eighteen today, I fear Wednesday's defeat to Spurs was our goodbye. Shaun Wright-Phillips came in on the left wing, which will have pleased the watching Franco Baldini. With Tévez benched Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz started together for the second time this season, the first since the 1-1 draw in Stoke in February. Their height encouraged us to play wide, as did West Ham's very narrow 4-5-1: all of our attacks came from the wings, West Ham's through the middle.
  • We started well enough - most attacks understandably coming through the Pablo Zabaleta/Adam Johnson combination down the right. This was how we scored: Johnson crossing for an uncharacteristic Shaun Wright-Phillips header. Johnson was our sparkiest attacking player, taking on defenders and almost winning us a penalty. This all came, though, after Zabaleta and Kolo Touré switched off to let Luis Boa Morte through follow Alessandro Diamanti's backheel. Once or twice Carlton Cole looked like turning Touré but we were probably marginally the better side.
  • The second half was much less good. West Ham took the game to us, and created the better chances. We were happy to keep the ball, release Johnson up against Daprela and hope for the best. Things mildly improved when Carlos Tévez came on, lifting the whole ground and adding some much needed mobility and purpose to our front line. It wasn't enough, and the game drifted comfortably off to a draw. A dull afternoon, but another exciting summer awaits.

West Ham preview

With the pressure valve of meaning released, this might be rather fun. It's not novel for us to have a relaxed end of term feel in these games - we haven't had a final day game that mattered since Robbie Fowler's unfortunate penalty miss five years ago. But to come as far as we did this year, just short of hauling ourselves up onto the next level, and to lose on Wednesday night, means that this is not quite the same as our usual April/May wind down.

As a game it could go either way. The fact that it is probably Gianfranco Zola's final game in charge of West Ham could lead to a similar pressure-release as we have, and an open game. Equally it could represent the discontent and frustration many people have at the Boleyn Ground with the new owners. A 0-0 and a 4-3 seem equally plausible this morning.

I wouldn't mind seeing some of the kids. Alex Nimely, Abdi Ibrahim, Young Player of the Year Dedryck Boyata - when better to play them? That said, it would be nice to give a good send off to those players who have performed so well this year: Vincent Kompany, Nigel de Jong, Carlos Tévez and Craig Bellamy. Particuarly as I am fairly sure this will be Bellamy's last game as a blue.

Friday, 7 May 2010


If you didn't already know, Carlos Tévez won the Players' and Fans' Player of the Year last night, our first non-Irish winner for six years. Dedryck Boyata won Young Player of the Year.

I'll make my awards on Sunday, Monday or Tuesday evenings. But don't expect me to go against the grain too much on this one, I'm not that much of a contrarian.

Europa League

This has been true for a while, but it feels good to say it now: we have qualified for European football for next season, for the first time on merit since 1977/78. We were in it in 2003/04 and 2008/09 but only due to fair play qualification. Which is nice but does feel rather cheap.

Given that we are guaranteed fifth or sixth place in the Premier League, we will be entering in the play-off round. This means a draw on 6 August and ties on Thursdays 19 and 26 August, and hence our early Premier League fixtures being shifted back to Sundays 22 and 29.

Should we scrape through the play-off we have a group stage that starts in September and ends in December.

The glamour, the prestige, the opened door of Champions League football will be a felt absence at first. But being in the Europa League isn't all bad. For a start it's easier to win than the Champions League. If competing in it increases our chance of ending the trophy drought then that's a good thing. (The obvious counterpoint here is that being in the Champions League would allow us to buy better players and therefore increase our chances of winning any of the domestic trophies.) Looking at this year's field I think we could beat any of the teams in it (possible exception of Benfica), and while of course a long cup campaign is a distinct skill we have got to be among the early favourites.

Then there's the fact that it allows for a more careful pace of change than Champions League football would have done. Had we made fourth it is well known that huge bids would have been made for the world's top players. We wouldn't have signed all of them or even half, but it is a fair prediction that four or five genuinely top bracket players would have arrived. Now we can do things a bit slower, address felt needs, induce more cohesion and coherence within the squad. It's clearly going to be the Jérôme Boateng plan rather than the Fernando Torres plan, which could be in the club's long term interests. As Mancini said - you start with the foundations, not the roof.

So this doesn't mean that next season won't be fun.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

'There's a question mark over next year for me'

Missing out on fourth has hurt. The sense of a gaping missed opportunity, a pause on our progress, ground lost on rivals - it's a big frustration. But I'm not sure it's quite as upsetting as what's happened to Stephen Ireland. Ireland was the best thing about last season, not just a joy to watch on the pitch, but a thrilling promise that the ADUG cash and the Jim Cassell academy boys were compatible; that we could somehow work our own version of Zidanes y Pavones.

This year has been the polar opposite: it's been back to the Pearce and Eriksson era Ireland, patchy, inconsistent, in and out of the side. When Hughes signed Carlos Tévez and played him in the hole there was no space for Ireland in the side. He tried moving him back into a midfield two but Ireland doesn't have the discipline for it. Mancini tried Ireland a few times in his favoured role in 4-2-3-1 but devoid of form and confidence he did little. So it's not a surprise to see Ireland speaking in these terms to the MEN today:
"It's been difficult," said Ireland, talking exclusively at a charity event for Francis House Children's Hospice.

"It's been difficult because I've only played 15 or 16 times which is nowhere near the amount I played last year.

"When I have played, I haven't played in my position and it's been a difficult and frustrating season for me.

"I think there's a question mark over next year for me and I don't know what will happen, but it's out of my hands.
I'm increasingly resigned to his leaving this summer. He's at the age where he if he is not a part of the manager's plans there's little point in his sticking around. It's a shame but Mancini clearly doesn't fancy him and with him sticking around, and linked with other attacking midfielders, Ireland looks even further away from the 2010/11 team. I think he'd be a good buy for Spurs, for Villa, for Everton. I'm terrified, though, of him at United. Actually terrified, too, not like I am of Kolo's positioning or Bridge up against a good winger, but like I am of Sheikh Mansour pulling out his money or City getting kicked out of English football for financial misconduct. Seeing Ireland in a United shirt would honestly remove part of my soul for ever.

Mancini to stay

Confirmation from Khaldoon al Mubarak in an interview he gave today:

"Roberto's going to do a wonderful job for us for many years," Mubarak told Manchester City's official website.

"Roberto is our manager. He's done an excellent job coming in mid-season, organising the team. I'm very happy, and [owner] Sheikh Mansour's delighted with the way he's organised the team."

Mubarak added: "We believe he is definitely the right manager for this club for many years. What he needs this summer is time to prepare and really organise ourselves.

It's a relief to hear this. This has been the fourth consecutive season when, going into the final corner, there have been serious doubts over the manager's position. Stuart Pearce and Sven-Goran Eriksson were sacked at the end of the 2006/07 and 2007/08 seasons respectively, while Hughes and Mancini have survived.

Interestingly enough, the circumstances are almost identical to the confirmation Hughes' position last year. It came after a narrow loss to Spurs, again the penultimate game of the season as City missed out on the European competition we were aiming to qualify for. There was some uncertainty over the future but the day after the game Khaldoon came out and said Hughes was staying. And you know the rest.

Now, I'm not saying that Khaldoon is definitely going to lose faith in Mancini after a string of draws in the autumn, or that Mancio is definitely going to get sacked after a pathetic surrender at White Hart Lane and a mad, pressure-free 4-3 defeat of Sunderland, but, well, it's possible.