Saturday, January 24, 2015

QUALITY IN DEPTH

Manchester City 0 Middlesbrough 2
All hail the Cup that runneth over and spills unmentionable stuff all over your going-out trousers.

There will be some who bemoan the fact that Manchester City's players only arrived back from their warm weather training ("lucrative Middle East friendly" when translated into Sanskrit) the day before this game and - in fact - it is written in the Bumper Book of Elijah, that "he who cometh out of the desert and doth not give himself enough time to empty his plimsoles of sand, will fall into a deep pool of his own excrement. Try telling Fernando Reges and Dedryck Boyata about that just at the moment.

And if you do, then tell Captain Vincent too.

City carved out enough chances in a lively first half to have been well ahead, despite the sand-filled (or was it cement?) boots. You got the distinct impression that the deeply fragrant Phil Dowd could be a game changer with his nonchalant waving away of a City penalty for hand ball, but, in the end Middlesbrough didn't need him. They did it all by themselves (with minimal help from a troublingly obliging City defence), and with something to spare too.

The second half saw quite the most eye-watering transformation since Frank Maloney shipped up in Harley Street. City, nonchalant to the point of being criminally negligent, suddenly looked like long flights in and out of the promised land did mean something after all.

There were culprits all over the pitch, so it would be childish to pick out Kompany, Boyata and Fernando for special mention, but Saturday evening was never a time to be completely grown up, so let's do just that. Kompany did not look fit, Boyata did what he always does and Fernando's grim antics will have made some people pine for Javier Garcia, never mind Nigel de Jong.

City became more ragged and less convincing as time dripped by.

The thought crossed gently through the mind that Manuel Pellegrini is still to make a convincing purchase in the transfer market. All of City's Big Football Men were brought in under Roberto Mancini. Yaya, David Silva and Aguero all arrived on the Italian's watch, whilst the currently strangely diminished Kompany came in under Mark Hughes. Yes, those were the days of building the powerbase, but equivalent amounts have been spent since then on the likes of Fernandinho and Mangala with far smaller returns. Maybe FFP has destroyed the club's ability to bid for the real superstars, but the calibre and capability of new recruits is clearly on a different scale these days.

There is something to be said for having two players of equal ability for each position, but City have clearly not managed to purchase this dream.


Where does this all leave City then? Well, after an equally limp exit from the League Cup to Newcastle and a widening gap at that top of the Premier League, some might say its time to concentrate on the Champions League. That of course, sounds like the man in the pub making plans to take Demi Moore down to The Golden Dragon for a steaming hot plate of chicken chop suey, but it is suddenly the only competition where City will start in February with a clean bill of health.

Ironically, it is also the only competition where an upward trend can be noticed. The 3-2 skipping-out-of-the-grave win against Bayern and the amazingly adroit showing in Rome pulled the club through to the knockout phases as only the 7th team in Champions League history to qualify from the initial groups after failing to win any of their first 4 games. That statistic certainly has something of the night about it and City will need to be quite something again if they want to put anything more than a small twig in Barcelona's spokes. Still, it will be nice starting that tie as the continental version of Middlesbrough entering the grey precincts of Manchester in the FA Cup.

Expectations low, output high.

In the meantime, we will enjoy the view of Bradford City and Palace and Leicester and West Brom in the 5th round. We will wait to see if Cambridge and Preston can join them in the world's most revered cup competition and secretly inside we will chuckle that the old pot can still throw up all these dramatic, romantic storylines that mean we can never take it - or the opponents it throws up - for granted.

Friday, January 23, 2015

BORO v CITY: A LONG HISTORY OF DISASTER

1974-75, Maine Road: Colin Bell speeds towards the midfield barrier of pre-baldness David Armstong and pre-curling tongues Graeme Souness in a two-one home win for the Blues


1975-76 League Cup semi final second leg, Maine Road. The Daily Mirror brings all the action from a memorable night as City reach Wembley after a 4-0 (4-1 on aggregrate) victory. Even the Beatles leave centre stage.
1978-79 Programme cover from the New Year's Day clash between the clubs. Peter Barnes is the thinly disguised Santa in this typically 70s "festive scene".
1978-79 Image from the same game in a subsequent programme, as Kaziu Deyna shoots for goal in the Maine Road clash, which ended 1-0 for City.
1978-79 Here is how the programme covered Deyna's winner in the same match, a 52nd minute shot with the right foot to seal the win for City.
1979-80 Programme cover from the next season, with a photo of future blue Bobby McDonald sporting the, er, famous brown of Coventry City
1979-80 For the second season running, Kaziu Deyna was the match winner. He famously swung on the crossbar after this late goal. He also scored the winner against league champions Nottingham Forest in a memorable week for the Polish star.
1979-80 Steve Daley's City career was not exactly blessed and in the Boro home game he even managed to break a toe.
1980-81 Ayresome Park. A hard fought 2-2 draw in the North East included this unfortunate goal for the home side, as Steve Mackenzie deflects the ball past reserve 'keeper Keith MacRae.
1980-81 Programme cover from the Maine Road game, won 3-2 by City
1981-82 Jim Platt looks transfixed as Trevor Francis slides in to score at Maine Road.
1981-82 Francis celebrates scoring in the same game
1981-82 Joe Corrigan under attack in the game at Ayresome Park in the same season, a dull 0-0 draw in front of just 11,709 spectators.
1983-84 The clubs meet again in the 2nd division. Here's Derk Parlane putting City ahead at Maine Road in the Blues' 2-1 victory, a win that put them 2nd in the table.
1983-84 Same game, different scorer. This is Jim Tomie, the new Kevin Keegan, making it two for City with a stylish waft of his right leg. The Kippax looks packed but Peter Swales' special crowd figure for that game was 24,466
1983-84 Alex Williams takes action in the 0-0 Ayresome Park draw, possibly the worst I have ever felt at a football match. Cold, hunger-over, hungry, bored and expecting a chasing through the streets of Middlesbrough at the end. Halcyon Days.
1984-85 The clubs are about to exit the 2nd division using spearate doors. David Phillips has just knocked another nail in the Boro coffin at Maine Road.
1991-92 An early season Premier League nightmare for Paul Lake, as he collpases at Ayresome Park, one and a bit games into a painful comeback bid. This would be the beginning of the end of his promising City career, as City lost the will to play and went down 2-0. Niall Quinn was sent off to cap an awful night.
1996-97 2nd division City give Premier League big spenders (yes, I know) Boro a real game in the 5th round of the Cup, but a late clincher from the slippers Juninho takes the visitors through, on their way to meet Chelsea in the Wembley final.
1997-98 Now the sides meet again in the league, 2nd division, with City heading downwards towards the 3rd. Uwe Rosler bangs in a dramatic Maine Road winner against table toppers Boro. A great day to be at Maine Road in a season of disasters.
1997-98 Kind Observer headline from the same match, as City prepare another false dawn for us all. Next game we went to Crewe and lost 1-0.
1997-98 Uwe Rosler's shorts are high, as are feelings in Maine Road as he salutes the North Stand after putting City ahead
2000-01 Maine Road witnesses Boro for the last time, as Gianluca Festa scores in a dull 1-1 draw with both sides back in the Premier League.
2000-01 A wild and ragged game at The Riverside, with Keith O'Neill sent off for lunging at Gerard Wiekens and a perfectly good Danny Tiatto winner ruled out for an offside that wasn't.
2000-01 More action from the same game, with City desperately in search of points to stay afloat. Yet another relegation would follow at the end of the season.
2002-03 City are at The Riverside again after a season in the second tier. Nicolas Anelka joins the action in a 3-1 defeat.
2002-03 Newsof the World report on another drab 0-0 draw, this time at the City of Manchester Stadium. 
2003-04 Paulo Wnachope fights for the ball with Franck Queudreu in a 1-2 City defeat on the penultimate day of the season at the Riverside.
2004-05 Another Boro win at the Riverside, where City's record is extremely poor.
2004-05 Perhaps the oddest moment of the lot, as Stuart Pearce *tweaks* his tactics, bringing on a second keeper to try and force the goal that would qualify City for the UEFA Cup. Strangely enough, it didn't work.
2004-05 Even worse is to come as Robbie Fowler's injury time penalty is saved by Mark Schwarzer and Boro go into Europe instead.
2006-07 Richard Dunne turns away in delight after scoring at the correct end in the sides' meeting in Manchester, a 1-0 win for City.
2007-08 Another *interesting* moment between the sides, as Elano finds some electric pace to exit the playing surface after an astonishing 1-8 reverse on the final day of the season. Sven Goran Eriksson thanks the fans for their support as the axe falls on him and the curtain falls on a complete debacle.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

GEEKSHEETS: ARSENAL home

Contrary to the firm and lucid words of that good fellow Manuel Pellegrini (to the effect that there were two reasons for City's defeat here, a wrongly awarded penalty and a lack of creativity), I put it to you that there were in fact three reasons and not one of them was a wrongly awarded penalty.

1) WELL DRILLED VISITORS Arsenal played (excellently) a structure that they seem seldom to be even mildly bothered with. In its solidity and depth, it stifled City at source, blocked the talents of David Silva and Sergio Aguero and paved the way for the fast forward-breaking players to shift into gear. In this respect, the defensive play of Coquelin was imperious, as was fellow reserve Bellerin at right back, who gave Milner no chance to shine at all. Standing out even more was a player, who has often appeared lightweight and ill at ease against the really top sides, Santi Cazorla. A vivid display from him put even David Silva in the shade. By finally embracing the idea that Arsenal don't have to be aesthetically perfect every week, Wenger managed to blunt City's own beautiful build-up play in the process.

2) DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD STALENESS In choosing Fernando and Fernandinho, Pellegrini supplied the game with a midfield duo who managed only to duplicate each other's simple stuff, and in Fernando's case, not to any great standard. Missing was the thrust of Yaya Touré and the variety of passing he and Samir Nasri provide. Although Fernandinho was successful with a number of early diagonal balls out to Jesus Navas, as the game wore on, they both got bogged down trying to play short balls that were intercepted time and time again by a hungry and well drilled Arsenal middle order. Playing this duo has worked in away games, where a certain tightness can function to the teams benefit, but here, in a home game where City had the onus of splitting a tightly packed Arsenal open, they were too alike. In this respect, Pellegrini's post match analysis was correct. One wonders then, in retrospect, why he played them both? Presumably he thought that Arsene Wenger would wait until hell freezes over before setting up Arsenal to play like they did.

3) POST INJURY STIFFNESS Once again City's main players looked like they had been hurried back into action a little too quickly. Was Vincent Kompany ready? Although he started well, his passing was a little ragged and he over-elaborated on several occasions. Worse still he picked up a booking for pulling down Giroud and - worse again - he gave away the penalty that set Arsenal on their way, by standing in the way of Nacho Monreal. Despite Pellegrini's protestations, it looked like a good shout by refere Mike Dean. Meanwhile Sergio Aguero looked off the pace at first but grew into the game as City took over in the second period. Still, by the end, he was caught out by the pace of Kieran Gibbs and pulled him back, earning himself a yellow card.

You can read here my ESPNFC player ratings for City


Sunday, January 11, 2015

DAYS OF HOPE

On Sunday 21st April 2002 Manchester City successfully completed their promotion season under Kevin Keegan and claimed the unrestrained cheers of a 34,657 sell-out crowd at Maine Road. Keegan had brought the club back from the wilderness and into the Premier League. Many in the crowd that day could not remember the last season City had entertained us so royally from start to finish, possibly because such a thing more than likely simply did not exist.
 
That last match, a 3-1 win over Portsmouth, will remain in the memories for many reasons, not least the stunning 108 goals scored to equal City’s all-time record. Stuart Pearce’s last minute penalty miss had put a typically City cork in a season of incessantly flowing champagne. It was also Pearce’s last game in 20 years of professional football and the miss left him hanging forlornly on 99 career goals.
 
There was laughter and there were tears for the end of a season so full of brisk attacking football, so many goals and so many fabulous team performances.
 
City finished ten points clear of West Brom with a goal difference of +54. The Premier League awaited Keegan’s maestros and a summer of high anticipation awaited the rest of us.
 
For much of that season – and indeed for the final part of the Portsmouth game – Keegan had chosen to play with a midfield, which was vibrant, fluid, technically brilliant and collectively unstoppable. It was an engine room that purred and cantered through so many games, creating and indeed scoring an absolute hatful of goals.
 
It is ironic then, in the light of this week’s atrocities in Paris, to remember that it was a midfield containing a pair of down to earth Brits (Shaun Wright Philips and Kevin Horlock), plus the most unlikely pairing of creative magicians the English game had seen for a very long time: one, Eyal Berkovic, an Israeli, a Jew, had played the day the Twin Towers fell, in a Worthington Cup tie at Notts County, a match which surely would have been better off being cancelled. The other, Ali Bernabia, an Algerian Muslim, joined the club two days later and made his debut in the very next game, a 3-0 home win over Birmingham, where he marked an astonishingly accomplished debut with a plethora of laser-accurate passes and an assist for one of Shaun Goater’s two goals.
 
Benarbia, in the twilight of a beautiful career that had mainly been played out in France, would play 41 games that season and Berkovic – hampered by injury – 30. It was their first season together at the heart of the City engine room and it will be remembered for many a long year for the cohesion and spirit shown by the two players.
 
 
 
The following season, the pair would once again feature heavily, Berkovic clocking 28 games and Benarbia contributing to 35, as City easily consolidated their new found place in the elite.
 
In the twisting, fizzing acceleration of the Israeli and the clever, minimalist passing of the little Algerian, City had found a kind of footballing heaven and the two protagonists had found in each other their perfect foil.
 
It was perhaps not so evident then – despite the searing recollection of the attacks on American soil that autumn – but the pair came to symbolise what sport could manage and politicians plainly could not. In light of the many heart-warming reactions to the week’s events in the French capital, it may not after all only be the world of sport where a rapprochement of faiths and backgrounds can work for the harmony of the greater good.
 
 

Friday, January 9, 2015

EVERTON BLUES


Luke O’Farrell
ESPNFC Everton writer gives his opinion on how the Everton/City relationship stands in 2015

On and off the pitch, time has widened the gap between Everton and a Manchester City side who have cemented their place at the top table in recent years. The two are in the same league only by default, particularly on the monetary side. Even the new television deal cannot hide the gulf between the two.
Everton produced record turnover last season of £120.5m; City were not too far away from tripling that with their £347m turnover. As such, the blue half of Manchester barely registers in our thinking, save for the two occasions the sides meet on the pitch.
You are title challengers on a yearly basis and we are Champions League chasers at best – and on current form, we could not be any further away from that goal, or a revitalised City team led by the outstanding Sergio Aguero.

One thing to lessen over time, though, is any ill will previously afforded City. The Joleon Lescott saga is old news and the bitter ramblings once dished out by Mark Hughes and Roberto Mancini no longer concern.
City has the finances, modern stadium and strength in depth Everton can only dream about and yet there is no begrudging your success, which is perhaps due to the similarities of years past, with the two built on a loyal fan base with all too recent memories of bleak days.
As City emerge convincingly from the shadow of their high-profile, more prominent neighbours, Everton aspire to do the same."

Simon Hughes
Everton season ticket holder since the 60s sees his club thrust suddenly and unexpectedly into a crisis of confidence and management
Twitter:

Two years down the line since Everton’s last games against City under Moyes and much has changed. Unfortunately, the overarching picture and likely outcome against City remains pretty much the same. Everton drew that game thanks to a goal bundled in by Fellaini – he doesn’t do pretty – and a resolute defensive performance that was typically Moyes-esque. Fellaini’s gone, so has Moyes, and Everton’s resolute defence now has more holes than my old socks. However, the intervening season, the first under Martinez, was a thing of beauty. Suddenly the Blues were playing expansive, progressive football. We had more possession than we knew what to do with and our fullbacks were spending more time in the opposition area than in our own. We didn’t need money, we had the magic formula. Pass, pass, pass. Typically for Everton we still managed to miss out on the top four due to some late aberrations, but a return to Europe set hearts aflutter and hopes were high for a further push.

Summer was therefore a bit confusing. We had a bit of money, but most of this went on retaining the services of the previously on loan Lukaku and Barry. Besic and Atsu were welcome arrivals, but hardly ones to make an immediate impact. The squad looked good, but not necessarily stronger particularly with players returning from a tiring World Cup. A feeling of slight unease began to creep in when it appeared we had scant pre-season fixtures and were putting them together last minute with all the professionalism of the White Lion second eleven. A slow start ensued, the team looked half-fit at best. We took the lead at newly-promoted Leicester – twice – and threw it away. Two goals up against Arsenal led to an inevitable draw. We took the lead against Palace at home – and lost. A pattern had set in, only interrupted by confident displays in Europe that saw us despatch Lille and Wolfsburg. Injuries, a perennial problem at Goodison have played a part with Barkley, Barry, Stones, Alcaraz, Oviedo, Kone, Mirallas, Coleman, Pienaar, McCarthy and Naismith all spending time out. Just as we seem about to develop a head of steam it comes sputtering to a halt. One nil up against Spurs and Hull led to defeat and a draw.

Questions are now being asked of Martinez, as it does appear that teams have sussed Everton out. We like to pass it about and rarely put crosses in. As a result teams keep it tight and press us in midfield in the knowledge that the distribution from the back – I’m looking at you, Sylvain – is likely to return the ball to them sooner or later. The fact that our full backs charge onwards also leaves gaps in behind for teams who can break quickly. Palace exploited this, so did Hull. God knows what City might make of it. Saturday will provide a major test of Martinez. Naismith, McCarthy and Stones would be ideal for this fixture – and he needs to find a way to get a result. Is he prepared to change his philosophy? Does he know how to? We’ll soon find out, but I fear playing an in-form City will be too much for an Everton lacking energy and confidence.
School of Science solution?
It’s fair to say that this season so far is probably the most bizarre and disheartening I’ve experienced, and I’ve experienced a few. These days football is increasingly predictable (mainly due to the constraints of finance) but no-one predicted the shambles that Everton has become under Martinez, who seemed almost universally well-regarded.

There had been a few warning signs. I’d previously mentioned the ridiculous pre-season preparations. I’ve never know a top-flight team have so few fixtures, almost entirely organised at the last minute and therefore often against poor opposition. We drew with Tranmere and Porto, lost to Leicester, Celta Vigo and Paderborn. Players joined training late. We looked unfit, but it was only pre-season. By contrast Liverpool, a good comparison, played 8 pre-season fixtures almost entirely against top-level opposition. We barely strengthened the squad, but then the squad was pretty strong with decent cover in most positions.

 What was readily apparent at the start of the season was the lack of fitness with the team conceding goals late on and throwing leads away with regularity. This lack of fitness and preparation has translated to all the significant performance stats. We fail to press and close down, we make fewer tackles than any other team, we’re offside more than anyone and make more individual errors – and we get punished for them.

We don’t cross the ball – ever. I’ve never seen a team play with such lack of intensity. We have the two best full-backs in the league and they’ve been reduced to bystanders. Our passing is incredibly slow, so that when the ball reaches a player he’s already closed down. Barry is playing so deep he might as well be in the crowd and we just concede the midfield. He’s been as awful as he was good last year, but still gets picked. Selections and substitutions have been very strange.

Besic is one of the few to play with energy, yet gets ignored or subbed. On numerous occasions we’ve played with three Number 10’s, all getting in each other’s way. Injuries have also played a massive part and we’re missing key, reliable performers like McCarthy, Osman and Stones. The number of hamstring and muscle injuries is ridiculous and you have to wonder what goes on in training. The suggestion is we don’t train on full pitches, we don’t practice defending or corners at either end because it doesn’t fit into the Martinez philosophy. The Head of Medicine has left the club and the Head of Fitness seemingly due to disagreements with Martinez, who is a qualified physio!? Confidence has now gone through the floor and we’re being well beaten and bullied by shit teams. What will happen when we play City doesn’t bear thinking about.

Unless something drastic changes we’ll go down. Martinez doesn’t seem willing to take the pragmatic approach to get results and I don’t think he can turn this around. I think he’s only got a couple of games before this explodes in his face. Personally I’d get McLaren in from Derby (you have no idea how much it hurts to say that) or go for a temporary solution with Joe Royle and Sheedy (both already at the club) just to try to keep us up. Unbelievable
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Monday, January 5, 2015

GEEKSHEET - SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY FA Cup home

More contributions to modern science. This time a detail showing David Silva's "explosive" entry into the game, a shift by Manuel Pellegrini that - along with the simultaneous introduction of Samir Nasri - changed the game in City's favour. An FA Cup tie that was stubbornly refusing to bend City's way, suddenly turned and, with seconds to spare City were through. Player ratings for ESPNFC are here.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

GEEKSHEET - SUNDERLAND home


Hardly Statszone, but here's my contribution to galactic science from the City / Sunderland match. At the end of the stressed out scribbling, man of the match was Yaya Touré for me, aided and abetted by David Silva, Gael Clichy, Stevan Jovetic and the irrepressible Frank Lampard.

Here are the ESPNFC player ratings that it assisted.

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Victim of great Winona Ryder trouser theft; bitter, confused and maladjusted. Watching City since 1974 with fluctuating amounts of disbelief.

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