Monday, 10 May 2010

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.

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