The season is at a distinct crossroads for Manchester City at present and it seems as good a time as any to analyse the positives that have propelled them, in contrast to recent seasons at this stage, into the top-half and also the negatives that have forced limitations on them to break into the elusive top-four.
It has all seemed too good to be true at times, by complete coincidence over the Christmas period this particular author encountered the book ‘Sven-Goran Eriksson On Football with Doctor Willi Railo’ and decided to read it in an attempt to get inside the mind of the man he had castigated, somewhat harshly the natives of Sweden believe, considering the method of exit from Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006, only a couple of years beforehand.
In a similar style to Nick Leeson’s book ‘Back from the brink — Coping with stress ‘ which was written in conjunction with a top psychologist, this title takes the format of analysing certain behavioural trends of sportsmen, such as their psychology, mental blocks, performance anxieties and then Eriksson offers examples from his time in management whereby such factors may have been apparent, commencing from around the time when his little fancied IFK Gothenburg team upset the odds and defeated SV Hamburg 3-0 in the 1982 UEFA Cup Final up to the days when his England tenure was in its infancy.
Without going into too much detail, there are clearly aspects of it that apply to the way events have unfolded in the last six months or so. Consider the following mental goal, barrier-breaking, and this quote from Eriksson on Lazio’s Scudetto triumph in 2000:
‘As I have said, the club hadn’t won anything particular for 26 years. We were obliged to begin to work with the idea that Lazio would in fact be able to win the Italian League. But it took time for the players to accept that they didn’t necessarily have to finish after Milan and Juventus. And in 2000 we won Lo Scudetto.’
Not to say that Manchester City will be winning the Premiership this year, of course, considering the power of their cross-city rivals and Arsenal, but one doesn’t have to look too far to see that when he described the City project as a challenging one, there are clear parallels with the above.
Eriksson was then asked by Railo to sum up his football philosophy, and was duly informed:
‘Play offensively (mentally and physically), quick passing, think ahead, plenty of running off the ball, close the gaps, organise the team and team management, be positive, stick up for your team, be loyal and accept that people are different.’
Again, looking at the manner of City’s performances this term one could generally find many of the factors in the wins. Another interesting example notes how the Swede tries ‘very hard’ to read the personalities in a team to ensure everybody’s needs are met — think Stephen Ireland’s absence from the Eire team squad late last year along with his rash challenge at Spurs and it may offer evidence as to why Eriksson wasn’t fuming with the player. Hopefully this has given some indication as to how he has lifted City from their relative gloom in recent years, and turned the team into winners at home more often than losers. A football fan doesn’t have to look far to see how critical self-belief can be; a plethora of FA Cup Third-Round upsets in early January and Greece’s Euro 2004 success are just two that spring to mind.
All seemed rosy in the Eastlands garden early on in the 2007/8 campaign as Eriksson’s hastily assembled array of international talent made an exceptional impact on the Premiership. Readers will no doubt be aware by now of most of them, but it is a key reason behind the season hitherto and warrants some analysis.
Geovanni — Whisked from under the nose of Harry Redknapp in the summer, the Brazilian is a testament to Eriksson’s preference for players that have technical ability than those who win tackles and has chipped in with three goals, one of which endeared him to the fans — no prizes for guessing who it was against. Rumoured to be a target for Deportivo La Coruna recently.
Rolando Bianchi — The big-money signing from Reggina is another favourite of the fans. Another parallel of Geovanni, he has been constantly linked away from Eastlands but has kept his head down and came to prominence with real poaching instincts to score against Bolton, Aston Villa and Spurs in December. A spectacular 20-yard strike saw off Bristol City back in August, too. Has been criticised by a minority for going down too easily at times, but ploughing the lone furrow up front, which is elaborated on below and lack of chances couldn’t see him described as a failure.
Elano Blumer — Made a real impact in the opening months of the campaign and was instrumental for City. Travelling with Brazil and picking up an injury in October, however, contributed to a dip in form that he seems to be struggling to escape from. The fact defenders are a lot wiser to him nowadays won’t help his cause either. Elano was being linked with Inter a few weeks ago, but these links appear very tenuous.
Vedran Corluka — Very elegant, versatile player who is rarely fazed and is comfortable at right-back, centre-back or as a holding midfielder when Dietmar Hamann has been absent. A superb acquisition who could be seen as lazy at times but mistakes are few and far between, such is his confidence.
Martin Petrov — Explosive Bulgarian winger who took a while adapting to the Premiership after shaking off an old injury. Initially had a tendency to pull the trigger from unrealistic distances and angles but now seems content to cause full-backs, as Lucas Neill and Zurab Khizanishvili can testify, real problems. He was a big favourite at Wolfsburg before a more lukewarm spell for Atletico Madrid, but it is not only City fans who are enjoying the talents of this sublime left-winger, a position that has died out a little over the last decade.
Javier Garrido — Initially looked very comfortable, slotted in superbly from the word go and looked a steal at £1.5m. Yet he had a very poor game at Chelsea in the 6-0 thrashing and has lost his place to the more streetwise Michael Ball recently. Has been a good signing, but in all honesty his positional play at left-back can leave a lot to be desired and he has struggled against the Premiership’s better wingers.
Gelson Fernandes — Has looked very promising as a defensive-minded midfielder and could fill the role next term should Hamann struggle with age. Described as the best young player in Switzerland before he came, Fernandes is multi-lingual and scored an impressive goal at Newcastle recently to secure a 2-0 win.
Valeri Bojinov — Suffered a cruel injury in the Manchester derby success back in August, but received treatment in Rome and now appears not far off a return to the reserves. It is a shame he has missed so much of the campaign but if he can come back well, the player who made his debut in Italy at 15 should surely contribute to City’s stuttering campaign. Didn’t set the world on fire at Juventus or Fiorentina but definitely has a lot to offer.
Nery Alberto Castillo — Another explosive player in the mould of Petrov who is well-known to the more studious football fans around the globe, Castillo was informed by Elano he would regret going to Shakhtar and so it proved. The only trouble is, however, he may be regretting joining City having paid half the transfer fee, looking well off the pace and then breaking a bone in his shoulder against West Ham. Should return to the fold in March but in truth, it should be next season before we see anything resembling Castillo’s magical talent.
Eriksson wasn’t averse to using some of the talents already at the club, and he has benefited from that in the form of Michael Johnson, Stephen Ireland, a revitalised Hamann and a defensive spine of Joe Hart, Micah Richards, Nedum Onuoha on occasions and Richard Dunne. The reasons behind this aren’t difficult to ascertain: City’s real problems in 2006-7 were going offensive, the defence was relatively stable considering the league position, though to use the book as a reference point again it is clear Eriksson believed such existing players had the right amount of talent and positive mindsets.
The choice of Dunne as captain wasn’t one of the more challenging decisions he had to make, but consider the type of player the Irishman is and then the following:
‘Lazio’s captain had to be a symbol for the team. He could have been one of the natural leaders, but not necessarily. You don’t normally select a new player to be captain, as he won’t know the players, the club or the environment.’
Positives and negatives:
It’s difficult to put the proverbial finger, as a fan, on what exactly concerns this one so maybe it is best to do some of it in the form of points:
The home form — It makes a big change to see City so difficult to beat at home.
The signings — They have already been touched upon, but the way they have gelled together and manifested themselves into such a good unit can only bear testament to Eriksson’s shrewdness. Whether there is anything in the story that he signed most of them having watched tapes is unknown, but Kevin Keegan did the same thing during his reign at City, signing the Argentinian forward Matias Vuoso for around £4m and he didn’t get a game!
The youngsters — A large part of the credit must go to Jim Cassell at the academy and Stuart Pearce to an extent. The academy has brought through something in the region of 25 players to the first team in recent years with the likes of Joey Barton and Micah Richards gaining caps for England. Joe Hart and Gelson Fernandes look like they could be very polished Premiership performers for years to come.
The creativity — Some of the one-touch football, such as Michael Johnson’s play with Elano to see off Villa at home and the quality of the goals in both games against Newcastle, for instance, has been a joy to watch. It has brought back some fans who became grossly unhappy with the fare on offer during the 2006-7 campaign.
The system — This goes both in the positive and negative columns for this writer. All of the above points, youngsters aside, are in one way or another down to the system Eriksson has employed.
The away form — City’s failure to win on the road in the final part of 2007, after such a promising opening at West Ham, was hugely disappointing. Granted, the win at Newcastle ensured a bright start to 2008, but overall City have been nowhere near good enough. They could have lost by 6 at Blackburn, did so at Chelsea and thrown away leads at Aston Villa, Wigan (where European rivals Everton have just won) and Fulham.
The system — This is explored more below, but it goes without saying its disappointing to see City so formidable at home and so toothless away. Whether some of that is down to the mindset of the players, as perhaps is the case with Fulham, who knows, but at times they have just not looked anywhere near like getting back into games.
Concerns as a fan:
I have always detested the use of personal pronouns in writing, but here it becomes necessary, as it’s encapsulating six months of action so far in the form of feelings, gut reactions, the head and the heart.
I’ve already mentioned in a roundabout way that I wasn’t Eriksson’s biggest fan during his England time — some of his substitutions during the defeat in Belfast in 2005 defied rational thought or belief – but please do not misconstrue this writing as being ungrateful for what he has done, it is merely getting off my chest a few points. One look at his record in club management speaks for itself, too.
Maybe the players have lost some of the motivation they had early on, but I mainly wanted to discuss the formation. 4-5-1 to my mind, is defensive by nature. I have to credit the defence, Chelsea result aside, for the way they have performed, but the formation requires a strong forward to occupy the role of a lone striker and City have Bianchi and Vassell, who are very useful players themselves but I am thinking more of Arsenal’s away form in the run-up to the Champions League Final in 2006. In the Bernabeu, when the Gunners played Henry alone up front, he was immense.
There have been times when we have been lucky at home, no doubt, thinking about the visits from Manchester United, Liverpool, West Ham recently and likes of Reading and Sunderland were within inches or minutes of escaping from the City of Manchester Stadium with a draw. With Arsenal and Everton due to visit in February, I would not bank on that home record staying intact.
The times we have played champagne football, the system has definitely helped in terms of midfielders streaming forward and the fluid interplay which has been a joy to watch. Yet this, in essence, is half the problem, we have been lucky sometimes at home and away from home we closely resemble the team which hangs on in patches of the home matches. At Everton away we had all the possession in the second-half without creating any real efforts until injury-time, against Spurs at home in the Carling Cup we could have played until midnight against ten-men and still probably not scored, but I don’t want to discredit any team for beating City at the end of the day, these are just personal frustrations. I can’t work out whether we have just been plain lucky, or masters at closing games down at home, for instance, and away when we go a goal down there seems to be no plan B.
Teams were nowhere near as aware of key exponents of the fluid interchange such as Elano and Petrov in August, September and October as they are now. This is likely to mean even less chances for a lone forward. An example of this was the way in which Lucas Neill shackled the Bulgarian in the Premiership clash at Eastlands.
I am immensely proud of where we are in the table for once, but there are still grievances like these resonating inside. The Spurs game was a big disappointment in the cup because its opportunities like that, against ten men, which keep the season alive. If we don’t manage to have a successful February even, with a trip to Old Trafford incidentally sandwiched between the above fixtures and no FA Cup path ever guaranteed, we could end up fading into mid-table obscurity with Portsmouth and Blackburn on our coat-tails.
Hopefully, it will be possible to sign Lukasz Podolski from Bayern on loan — as Klinsmann apparently has him in his plans for the summer when he takes the reigns at the Allianz Arena — but we really have to go to a conventional 4-4-2 and start scoring goals or risk being left behind because at the moment City seem to be playing in a completely alternative mentality to the one they had earlier on in the campaign.