Manchester City 0 Middlesbrough 2 | Match Thoughts and Manuel Pellegrini’s Future In Doubt

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message Moyes Out Football Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the Showsec stewards wear black cotton gloves.

City was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Super Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: loan out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the deadwood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

———————————————–

Oh dear oh dear. The feeling that a tide turned yesterday was commonplace as City do what they do best by yet again underperforming against a championship side in the FA Cup. It’s a miracle we won it a few seasons ago.

And to repeat the theme of previous cup performances, it was a team on paper that was more than good enough to come away with a victory. Unfortunately, that is not how it panned out, and the manager now finds himself under enormous pressure.

There was little surprise to see Caballero get the keeper’s spot, with City often using the No. 2 in domestic cup games. Boyata depressingly appeared in central defence, but he was the least of City’s problems on the day. Milner got his coveted central midfield slot, though perhaps he’d have preferred to have bene further up the field more often. Jovetic supported Aguero.

And so to the game – well I want to talk more about the future, so I will be brief, you’ll be glad to know. It was a game of two halves, City dominant in the first half but not incisive enough, with the opposition goalkeeper predictably in top form. This is a team after all with an excellent defensive record, so there were few surprises in the resilience they showed. Still, at half-time, there was little need to panic, a situation that changed in the second half. City fell to pieces at the back, were ponderous upfront and got exactly what they deserved.

The first goal summed up City’s recent defensive performances. A terrible back-pass, a keeper who decided to kick instead of jumping on the ball, then Fernando completed his horror-show with an appalling attempt to clear off the line. Even after the ball had begun its journey towards the net, the ball should have been cleared. As for Csballero, I thought he was clearly fouled, not that you will see it mentioned anywhere, but his approach to the ball didn’t help matters. Just poor all round.

After that, you would reasonably expect an onslaught from City to get back into the game, and whilst they upped the tempo for a short while, they had little to give, their legs seemingly gone, substitutions utterly ineffective, and as they piled forward at the end, were caught with a classic sucker punch, helping Boro with some more appalling defending. Out the cup again, at home again, to a lower-league side, again, and the visitors could have had at least two extra goals in the second half, only Lampard’s deflected shot against the post close to keeping City in the cup.

The depressing fact is that not one player could hold his head high after that performance. A few did ok, and it is hard to excel without those around you doing likewise, but no one prospered. Kompany was bordering on awful, if not fully within awful, clearly not fit, and I doubt Aguero was either. Many fans panicked when Aguero appeared in the mid-week friendly (briefly), but how can he get fit if we don’t play him? A friendly was a perfect opportunity. It does concern me that such players take so long to get back to fitness though. Boyata was far from the worst player on the pitch, but we know what he is, so there’s little more to add. Fernando was as bad as ever, Caballero could be partly blamed for the goal and a poor kick-out almost allowed the visitors a second game but he also made good saves. Milner couldn’t prosper in a new role, the full-backs couldn’t impose themselves and Jovetic did ok but still not enough. The subs made no difference.

So a strong side failed again, but a side that was still flawed. There was simply no reason not to pick our strongest side yesterday. I can understand the keeper-switch, but little else. Why pick Boyata and force Kompany out of position? We can’t blame our defeat simply on defence, as we couldn’t score, though we had a couple of quite strong penalty claims (the one I have seen replayed on Aguero certainly wasn’t), but we shouldn’t need to rely on penalties to win and a shaky defence unsettles a whole team. It’s not as if we haven’t been through all this before, and yet our manager seems incapable of learning. Unfit players shouldn’t be on the pitch, and whilst the manager continues to make changes to the team every week, I think it affects our performances.

And if ever there was a match to show how much we miss Yaya, the player many wanted driven out the club because he had a bit of a strop amidst the grief of losing his brother and because he made the quite sensible point of not knowing what the future holds. I won’t be too upset of Ivory Coast lose their final group game.

To blame the midweek travels on defeat seems laughable to me, but it is another stick to beat the team/manager/club with, and City left themselves open to criticism by arriving back just the day before, not that it matters as they won’t get jetlag from that distance flight, will have been pampered all week, and warm weather breaks can be beneficial. Obviously it would have been easier to go somewhere like Spain, but our owners aren’t from there. Still, they could have come back Thursday, but loads of team played friendlies across the continent during the week. Anyway, we’ve been playing this way for weeks, so it was merely a continuation of form. Middlesbrough played a competitive team during the week, so there are no excuses for the defeat. A shaky defence has conceded two at home in four out of the last five games, and it is at home that our season has unravelled, a new phenomenon for this successful team.

I have heard it mentioned that the players are not playing for the manager from quite a few players, but can’t comprehend why that would be. He is hardly a nasty man, and whilst a manager is the natural focus of a team, I am fed up of players not taking responsibility for performances. They should not need firing up for this match, unless they think less of the FA Cup than us fans.

But yesterday I felt a distinct change of mood from fans, though some of that can be attributed to anger shortly after full-time that won’t reflect general views once the dust has settled. Nevertheless, I heard a “Pellegrini out!” shout at the match, and I don’t think he was joking. The man that won us two trophies in his first season and oversaw a club record equalling run of victories just three weeks ago is once more a fraud. That’s modern football for you. There comes a time in every City manager’s stewardship when fans are calling for his head. How hard can it be to find a manager who is consistently successful? Very hard, obviously.
Some fans have never warmed to Pellegrini, many because they never wanted Mancini to go, though as this meant they were willing to accept a season of failure from him, then presumably they must allow the same from Pellegrini? Agreed? There’s no right or wrong answer to the question of whether a manager should be allowed a bad season or not, but many do wonder how much Pellegrini has truly achieved.
I’m no  Pellegrini apologist, I have no strong feelings about the man, and know little of what goes on behind the scenes, but I applauded his appointment as he has ended the back page off-field headlines of his predecessor and been more holistic, ahem. His tactics baffle me sometimes, but then so has every manager’s at some point. He’s had things go against him this season – the return of World Cup players, the injuries, the Yaya sideshow, Fernandinho’s four-month shock after the Germany match, Financial Fair play restrictions, referees’ consistent reluctance to award us penalties and more, but he has still failed to gee up the team sometimes, the defence is not good enough, the approach play further upfield regularly ponderous, and last season’s scoring spree is a distant memory. Players have regressed recently, but injuries and rotation have played their part. Attention has also turned to his transfer dealings, but was it Pellegrini signing these players? He has input but it’s not all on him. Some players take time and we deal with one hand tied behind our back because of Platini et al. We live at a time of a competitive transfer market, and any top player we are after will be chased by at least one other big club also. We have to cut our cloth accordingly, and seem to have taken a one-year pinch until we are running at profit, as we will be doing by the end of his year.

Whatever you think of Pellgrini, he’s not going anywhere before season-end, and nor should he. I support him because I am sick of us ignoring our potted history and changing managers all the time, and if you think we can just go out and pick whatever manager we want to replace him, you are deluded. Anyway, six months down the line there’ll be fans calling for his replacement’s head anyway, so what’s the point? There’s still time to make this season a success and with Bony, Yaya, Nasri and a fit Kompany and Aguero in the team we will of course be a completely different proposition. That doesn’t change the fact that come Monday evening it will be depressing hearing the cup draw and thinking about how we royally screwed up another cup campaign. When will we learn?

Somehow though, City will not be hogging the limelight today due to the incompetence of other teams. Chelsea’ collapse beggared belief, and whilst you could see City’s exit as an opportunity lost with so many other big teams already out or struggling to progress, the same will apply to how they see it, so it works both ways. Of course the doomsayers have already written United’s name on the cup, a team that couldn’t score against a League 2 side. You can see why they are favourites though, as it has all opened up nicely for them.

So we go to the big one, Chelsea away, and defeat will really pile pressure on the manager and nearly finish our title campaign. Questions need to be asked as to who we play, including our captain, and Pellegrini has a lot of work to do this week. We will learn more about this team and its desire by the end of next Saturday. We’ve been here before, and it’s time for another response to the critics.

Manchester City 2 Sheffield Wednesday 1 | Match Thoughts as the Birthday Boy Spares City’s Blushes

Phew –etc etc- reading these match blogs must be like Groundhog Day.

The magic of the FA Cup was here at last, and it is interesting that it still seems to mean more than the Champions League – the atmosphere was (initially) better and the day seemed more special with a near-capacity crowd, though this was obviously helped by competitive ticket pricing, which yet again has got the crowds in. It is nice to see an away crowd fill a whole stand too, what with it being such a rare sight.

The team was obviously going to be significantly changed from that which faced Sunderland just three days previous, and there was little to surprise. Caballero kept his place in goals, Kolarov and Sagna started as full-backs, and it was Mangala who partnered Boyata, a player who exists for days like this. Milner was a predictable starter as was Lampard. With Yaya off to Africa this week, he was bound to feature, as was Jovetic as the only fit forward player. The team picked itself once you considered how Pellegrini has treated such matches in the past.

The problem was, Pellegrini was come unstuck in such matches before, as have his predecessors. The 3-0 home defeat to Nottingham Forest still annoys me, but there have been many horror shows since, and they all follow the same routine. Blackburn away last season, then Wigan, and the first-half capitulation to Watford all spring to mind. The routine? Well, the manager picks a weakened side, a side still far superior to that of the opposition, the opposition raise their game, we struggle and play like strangers, and we pay the price. Thankfully this time, we just about got away with it.

And it is amazing how many times a few changes leaves a side so impotent. It’s usually the spine missing that does this, and as most of that spine was injured anyway, perhaps we should have seen it coming. Partnering Mangala, a player who has improved but is still finding his feet, with Boyata, a player who will never reach the heights, was a risky tactic and so it proved when their rather large striker Nuhiu seemed to don an invisibility cloak with no one tracking his run to put the visitors ahead.

Jermaine Jenas, an excellent addition to the Match of the Day sofa (there is no sofa really) blamed Mangala for the goal, but I don’t. To start with Mangala has got a woeful Kolarov on one side and Boyata on the other – good luck with that. Yes he was poor positionally, allowing May to run down the wing, but greater blame for me lies with Boyata who for some reason decides to amble towards May rather than track the runner and goal-scorer, whilst Sagna huffed and puffed and couldn’t get close to him.

So how could a team dismantled 7-0 just months before be posing such a problem? Well of course that day was all down to the second half, but this felt different. At half-time, pessimism overflowing, I would have taken a draw – stay in the cup and all that. Lampard flashed a shot wide, but in the first half City were totally lacking inspiration, incision, or any player who could make a difference. Their keeper was not tested, a worrying sign.

It was clear we needed a playmaker – specifically Silva needed to come on, and preferably Nasri too, and that’s what happened. There can be little criticism though of Pellegrini for their original omission though even if the team was lacking without them, as when he picked Silva for a game at home to Newcastle in the other cup, he was crucified.

Thankfully it all turned out well in the end. Sheffield Wednesday had the odd foray forwards, but were clearly tiring, and Silva presence soon turned crucial, a lovely pass through to Milner who nutmegged the keeper to level the scores. A nice present for the birthday boy, though there was better to come.

And then, late on. A cut-back from Navas, a flick-on from Silva, and Milner, played onside by a sliding defender near the touchline finished it off to send City into the fourth round and unlike last year preserve the joyous opportunity of a mid-season friendly in the UAE.

It’s sad to see Kolarov once more arguing with members of the crowd. It isn’t surprising though, the way a minority of our fans act sometimes. However bad a player might perform, personal insults are the sign of a cretin. Kolarov has been awful the last two games but he is coming back from injury and has shown in the past he needs a run of games to produce his best form. That’s not to excuse just how bad he has been at times, nor does it excuse abusing a player. Still, that’s nothing compared to the guy sat behind me, a masterclass in dumbness for 90 minutes that had me begging for mercy.

Elsewhere, Lampard was not as effective as we had hoped – maybe he is our super sub. Sagna was just ok, as usual, Navas grew into the game and again made his mark defensively, making a great block before setting up the winner. Caballero might not have the backing of our fans as a viable alternative to Hart, but when looking at distribution, there is only one winner, and it isn’t Joe. He had no chance with their goal. Jovetic frustrated again – I’m not sure, as others are, that he isn’t good enough, I just don’t think he fits in the team, and certainly doesn’t know his role in a team without any other strikers. As for Yaya, I may be doing him a disservice, but he had the air of a man trying to avoid over-exertion or injury before a major tournament.

The most important factor has been largely overlooked. Against Burnley, City kicked the wrong way in the first half, and we all saw what happened. Don’t do it again please – we kick towards the North Stand in the second half, it’s just the way of the world.

So onwards and upwards, with three trophies still to fight for. Only time will tell who will be back from injury in the coming weeks, though I’d expect our captain to be the first. Either way, it should be a rather different team next week.

As for the magic of the cup, there’s still two days of games to come – what an utter disgrace.

Over in Spain, David Moyes was masterminding a victory over Barcelona, so if he can do it…?

 

Manchester City 3 Sunderland 2 | Match Report from the Etihad | City Go Joint-Top After Nervy Win

Please Manchester City, don’t make this the sign of things to come for 2015. Another phew, another three points gained, and City joint top of the league. In the end, it was fully merited.

On a miserable day, as rain lashed down on half the crowd, there was a surprise in store as Caballero was picked in nets. The first reaction in the pub was that Hart had been on the lash the previous night, which is of course ridiculous. Pellegrini no doubt rates Caballero, a keeper he knows well, and I suspect does not see him as particularly inferior to Hart. He perhaps feels he cannot sit on the bench all season. With him likely to play in the cup, it is likely that the manager decided he needed a couple of games in succession. This was naturally a decision met with shock from fans who have already decided he is no better than our previous back-up Pantilimon (one of the best players yesterday) despite knowing nothing about the man. Hart made a bad mistake against West Brom and didn’t cover himself in glory for Burnley’s opening goal – if Caballero did the same he’d be vilified. Sadly for those that deride our Number 2, he didn’t really put a foot wrong on the day, being blameless for both goals.

Elewhere, Clichy returned, and Milner was once more rested. Jovetic returned to give the side something close to a striker on the pitch.

If ever the description “a game of two halves” was needed, it was for this game. For the first half. Sunderland defended in numbers, as City probed and probed and probed, without success. Sunderland barely ventured forward, but repelled anything City had to offer with ease. Caballero saved well from one Larsson free kick after a blatant foul had been ignored by yet another appalling referee to pass through the Etihad, and whilst City created the odd half-chance, there was little to excite. Yaya Toure and Fernandinho completed 199 passes, out of 209 attempts. The problem was, most of it was sideways, endlessly probing in front of two banks of four.

The second half? Yeah, that was a bit different. To let slip a two-goal lead at home to a team struggling for form is careless, but to do it twice, in four days, is simply unacceptable. Thankfully, it didn’t matter in the end, and the day improved thereafter. City have often relied on genius when struggling to break down a stubborn team, and like at Wembley against the same side, cometh the hour, cometh Yaya. Toure has tended to welly plenty of shots into Row Z recently, but when he has shot on target they tend to go in. At just under the speed-limit, his blockbuster to open the scoring against Sunderland was stunning, and another reminder of how he will be missed in the next month or more, the ball still rising as it hit the back of the net.

Soon after, another exquisite goal. Jovetic laid it off to Clichy, he returned the ball in pinpoint fashion, and a beautiful flick from Jovetic doubled the lead. Surely now we could relax?

Nope. The goals spurred Sunderland into some attacking intent, and they constantly posed a threat, making you wonder why they hadn’t shown this ambition earlier. In no time at all, City had spectacularly shot themselves in the foot once more, and it wouldn’t be City if it wasn’t two old boys that inflicted the damage. Jack Rodwell was left unmarked at a corner to head home after Caballero had saved an earlier shot then Zabaleta chopped down Billy Jones. It was a penalty, and Adam Johnson shot in the place that statistically leads to more success than anywhere else – down the middle.

And yet there was little time to mope. Just two minutes later, Frank Lampard reminded us why City were so desperate to extend his stay in Manchester with a sublime header to restore the lead, after another exquisite assist from Clichy. It was a great piece of skill, Lampard static and boots planted in the ground, allowing the ball to come to him before the most precise of headers inside the post. Relief swept round the ground.

After that, the game should have been put to bed. City were rampant – Navas ended the game hitting the post and forcing a great save from Pantilimon. Fernandinho also forced an excellent save but should have scored. Lampard could have had a hat-trick, and Milner fluffed his lines late on. Thankfully, City didn’t pay for such profligacy.

Thirty-two attempts to four tells just part of the story, as it didn’t feel like that type of game, where one team totally dominates. City’s twelve shots on target was the most by any Premier League team this season, mostly due to the late barrage and a crazy second half.

For once, Silva and Nasri were not the stars of the show, though they were central to much of the play throughout. Caballero did fine in the sort of conditions any keeper must dread, whilst Gael Clichy continued his resurgence, with two excellent assists. For me, Clichy’s main problem has always been his tendency to cut back when receiving the ball out wide. So it was nice to see him feed balls into the box this time instead. He did this numerous times, and on another day could have had even more success. Navas was excellent, perhaps man of the match, whilst Yaya and Fernandinho controlled the midfield. I thought Mangala too had a good day, though I still feel the defence lacks organisation sometimes when opposition teams break.

Still, it’s been a great six weeks or so. The Burnley result still annoys me each time I think about it, though they showed at Newcastle that they are no mugs and also displayed the merits of a settled side. It’s time to forget that though, as City have reined in Chelsea, albeit with an easier fixture list, have dropped two points in 11 games, and sit at the top of the table with their London rivals as we head into FA Cup weekend. All in all, a job very well done in recent times with the spine of the team largely absent. Chelsea’s capitulation later in the day was as welcome as it was surprising, and shows not only the rigours of the winter schedule, but that, like any other season, there are many twists and turns to come. Every year it seems a team is made champions-elect before October has ended, and every year they end up falling away at some point.

Credit also to the Sunderland fans, who showed tremendous restraint in waiting over 35 minutes before singing “where were you when you were shit?”
Well done lads.

Apropos of nothing, Sunderland’s average attendance in the 2003/04 season was 27,119, when they were, as the records show, shit.

It’s fair to say it wasn’t a good day for referees – City got off lightly in the end. The game is faster than ever and to err is human, though the incompetence of booking Sergio Aguero for being chopped down in the penalty area or giving Liverpool a penalty because the ball hit a Leicester player’s head should not go unpunished, a couple of the roster of referees simply not up to the job. The speed of the modern game, that means a linesman can’t even spot a goalkeeper handle the ball three yards outside the area, only aids the calls for a greater use of technology. I’m fed up of games being decided on bad calls or the whim of a referee deciding what counts as handball.

More debate on empty seats, as people who had purchased tickets simply decided not to turn up. It happens a lot recently, the tiresome debate about empty seats often refers to seats sold rather than an inability to sell out games, and you can understand on this day more than most why people didn’t make it. Poor weather (not that this is much of an excuse), a hungover world and a game on telly will have persuaded many not to bother. The family stand, an ill-thought out idea in the first place, is usually the worst to suffer, apart from the predictable gaping holes in the corporate sections. There was much debate on message boards after the game about why it happens, and if fans should be embarrassed, but at the end of the day, the last time I checked we lived in a democracy and people can choose whether to go or not. I can’t speak as my Xmas works do left me incapable of attending the Crystal Palace game, though that was a one-off, and I don’t think the gaps week-in, week-out are due to City fans all being alcoholics. Players must be baffled at finishing matches in front of a half-empty stadium though, especially for games that hang in the balance. A lot of fans don’t seem that bothered right now.

Having said all that, a game on New Years’ Day is a game too far. Jamie Redknapp was in full UKIP mode this week, disparaging foreign managers coming over here and criticising our traditions. I mentioned in the last report how managers are simply looking at the welfare of players that have to play every few days, but whatever, tradition didn’t seem to extend to the football league, who despite having a season with eight extra games to fit in, didn’t feel the need to cram yet another game in to the festive period. What a disgusting two-fingered salute to tradition, eh Jamie?
I keep hearing that fans demand all these games, but I’d love to know how they came to this conclusion, as I certainly don’t, and the empty seats yesterday suggested that I am not alone. Now we move on to yet another game, against a team that has had a nice rest this week.

And debate also rages about Frank Lampard’s new contract of course. We cannot as a club boss New York City around if we want to treat the franchise seriously, but City set up the club and it is football’s food chain in full effect – every team pillages those below them in the chain, it has always been thus. He wants to stay, we want him to stay, and it seems he wasn’t on loan so we have the right to sign him on a contract, though that surely requires the agreement of New York City as it overlaps their agreement with the player – therefore, it is surely the case that we have made it worth their while. Time will tell how. I expected that we’d keep him until Yaya’s return, thus allowing him to start New York’s season in their team, but as much as it has annoyed their fans, who I struggle to comprehend are supporting the team and purchased season tickets because of the signing of one 36-year-old, I only care about what is best for City, selfish as that is, so am pleased at the news, and he has shown his worth immediately.
As for New York City, their fans seem surprised that City dictate terms – erm yes, it is clear they take priority, you wouldn’t have Lampard, Villa or a club without our owners, but I accept that this must be a one-off, and the new franchise (what a horrible word) should be allowed to develop unhindered in future, and this unfortunate situation resolved with the odd gift sent their way. For Lampard though, he has somewhat burned his bridges, and may get a rather cooler reception when he does turn up in New York, assuming that day ever arrives.

The important factor in all of this is quite simple however – the right decision was the one that enrages Arsene Wenger and Chelsea fans the most, so for that reason, well done City.

And no, of course we shouldn’t sign Steven Gerrard, who has been one of the giants of the Premier League era. Perhaps we could persuade Gerrard and Wesley Sneijder to sample the delights of the Big Apple instead? And if season tickets have been purchased due to a concerted media campaign based around the imminent arrival of Frank Lampard, then the offer of a refund should be made. I’d wager very few would take up that offer.

2014 was a great year. A league title, a cup, a place on the parade bus, a new job, and I even met James (the band, not a random bloke in the pub), and to top it off, finally learned how to poach an egg. What a year, here’s to more of the same for the blues in 2015, and I hope you all have a great year, thanks for your tremendous support.