Thursday, 31 March 2016

GET READY FOR A SUMMER OF LOVE...




Cast your minds back to August.



Ah, the start of the 2015/16 season, when Jose’s Chelsea were title contenders, Leicester’s main priority was survival and Brendan Rodgers was still in the dugout at Anfield. Over at the Etihad, a revitalised and pumped Vincent Kompany was back to full fitness and ready to lead his Manchester City team into battle to secure their third Premier League trophy in five seasons. Rumours had been rife that Manuel Pellegrini was set to be replaced by Pep Guardiola – something that hadn’t been confirmed nor denied. So City issued a statement revealing that the Chilean had been offered a two-year contract extension that would see him stay at the club until June 2017.

Well isn’t that lovely; a contract extension that will stop everybody from talking and writing about Pep. A strategic move intended to allow the manager and players to focus solely on winning silverware and to put a stop to those rumours once and for all. Well done City, very holistic of you. Well, holistic, na├»ve or completely pointless.




Five games in and City were flying. With no goals conceded and some stellar performances, including an awe-inspiring 3-0 thumping of Chelsea, everything had clicked for the Blues. The defence solid, the midfield full of creativity and flair and Kun Aguero upfront, no team had come close to looking quite as impressive and threatening.



‘Sheikh Mansour went to Spain in a Lamborghini,’ bellowed the home faithful. ‘Brought us back a manager, Manuel Pellegrini.’



I even penned an article about how at this rate, City could have the title sewn up by Christmas.



How wrong I was.



For nobody could have foreseen the seemingly implausible outstanding season that Leicester have had. Few would have predicted Jose’s departure from Chelsea and well, okay, more than a few would’ve bet on Rodgers appearing in more of a pundit role than a managerial one this year.



But nobody would’ve predicted the cataclysmic collapse of Manchester City. From title favourites to struggling to maintain top four status in a matter of months, the wheels on the bandwagon have come flying off in every which way. Injuries aplenty, insulting prices for a Champions League quarter final home tie and a manager so stubborn it raises even the most mild-mannered fan’s blood pressure; it’s both an embarrassing and perplexing end to a season that started with so much expectation and promise.



GREAT EXPECTATIONS


Expectation is a funny thing. The mentality of fans seems to be two-fold: we plummeted to Division Two 18 years ago so we should just be grateful that we have had this incredible takeover with world class players at our club. On the flip side, it’s time to stop living in the past. Winning the FA Cup, the Premier League, the Capital One Cup and the Community Shield has given a taste of success most fans could only dream about. 



That’s set the standard and left a certain acquired taste in the mouth. Once you experience your football team winning silverware, it’s infectious. The personal memories that accompany the triumphs can’t be underestimated. But success in itself breeds expectation – you only have to look at United and Liverpool to know that. Fans want more of the same – anything less is a disappointment. It can offer conflicting emotions – you don’t want to let go of the past and ‘the journey’, you know you’ll never have an ‘Aguero’ moment again, but that doesn’t mean you want the team to stop progressing and trying to win trophy after trophy.



I’m in the conflicted camp. I don’t want the club to become all corporate and it seems that’s the way it’s heading – targeting the money of the business client and pricing out the working-class hardcore element of the fan-base. It was inevitable. It’s understood that fans can’t expect super signings paying eye-watering wages and state of the art facilities without some form of increase, but where does it end? It’s dangerous ground when the club are constantly implementing cheesy gimmicks and marketing ploys to target a lucrative global audience – alienating and neglecting those 28,000 Maine Road regulars in the process.



DOCTOR, DOCTOR…



It’s an easy excuse to give, but injuries have taken their toll. Incurring so many muscle injuries has got to be looked at by the management and medical staff surely. It’s cost the club no end this season. Kompany, so influential in the heart of defence, has spent more time recovering than playing this season. David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Nicholas Otamendi, Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Wilfried Bony and Samir Nasri to name a few have all spent time in the physio room, leading to a dramatic loss of form for some concerned (sadly, I’m looking at you Spanish Dave). 



Sticking with that thought, under-performing has been a painfully reoccurring theme throughout the season. Sometimes you have to stop sugar-coating and call a spade a spade. Jesus Navas can run and run and run and spend all night running, but the chances are he a) won’t beat his man and b) won’t get a cross in. Maybe c) his shot will go out for a throw in. Bony has been nothing short of a flop in front of goal; with Kelechi Iheanacho impressing when given game time, how and why is it that Pellegrini has stuck with Bony time and time again? It’s indefensible loyalty. Otamendi, frustratingly inconsistent in defence, has a perchance for a slide tackle, which more often than not gets his name in the book.



Mega money signing Sterling has been all potential and no performance, Aleksander Kolarov is akin to a temperamental tortoise (if such a thing should happen to exist) and let’s not even go there with Martin Demichelis (the betting is not acceptable as a smokescreen). The jury is out on Fernando and Eliaqium Mangala is a hell of a lot of money to punt with not much of a result. Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy have been mediocre – they can perform on their day, but mediocre doesn’t win you silverware.



If I was Pep I’d be keeping: Aguero (obvious reasons), Silva (I live in eternal hope that he will find his magic wand again), Hart (England’s number one™), De Bruyne (Belgium’s Frank Lampard), Zabaleta (Mr City) and Fabian Delph (my opinion has changed on him this season). 



What about Yaya? The man who splits City fans’ opinions and causes many an argument on social media: a midfielder who can spend 82 minutes meandering round the centre of the pitch when City are a goal behind, looking like he’s walking through sand and thinking about what’s for tea, only to push forward in a surge of blistering pace and not only score the equaliser, but the winner too. He’s frustrating because it’s always on his terms; he plays when he wants to. He doesn’t defend because Yaya ‘doesn’t defend’ and apparently that’s acceptable. He can look like a petulant child who is being dragged round a shopping centre on a Bank Holiday, yet as long as he’s on the pitch he’s capable of producing match-winning moments of brilliance. The politics of Pep, coupled with his mischievous agent, means a question mark hangs over his future at the club.



THAT CHARMING MAN



Back to Pellegrini and that contract extension. It’s been nothing but a PR disaster for City. Of course the future of the manager is going to affect what happens on the pitch- it shouldn’t, but it does. Such instability and unrest has cost the club their third Premier League title. That’s not being arrogant, but having been in an enviable position five games in only to see Leicester run away with it…well, there’s more questions than answers.



Pep coming to City has every fan excited – but what effect has it had on Pellegrini? This Charming Man has transformed into Despised By Most Fans and in most respects, he has been the master of his own downfall, with a catalogue of damning errors/habits that crop up consistently. He never has a Plan B: too many times a team have been allowed to come at City from the off, grab an early goal and defend to secure all three points. We can’t cope with teams who get at us, come at us with pace and we then struggle to break said team down: see West Ham, Liverpool, Spurs and Stoke for further evidence of this. 



His stubbornness: Pellegrini has his favourites and it’s to his detriment that his loyalty has proved unfounded. Bony, Navas and Demichelis all fall into this category. It’s not his style, but a bit of visual passion wouldn’t go amiss – the majority of his time is spent staring into the abyss in an emotionless, hypnotic trance. Let’s be straight – the only trophy won by City this season was decided on penalties, after the team spent the majority of the 120 minutes wasting guilt-edged opportunities. Being wasteful in possession and in front of goal has been the story of the season, along with a criminally leaky defence that has barely been protected by its midfield. 



It’s not been the Pep announcement that proved detrimental to City’s season. The rot had already set in long before the rumours were finally laid to rest, the cracks appearing by October after a 4-1 mauling at White Hart Lane. At this moment, if City’s form doesn’t improve, Pep could realistically be coming to manage a Europa League side (thankfully, the deal is said to be iron clad). The danger is that it’s at no odds to Pellegrini whether City finish in the top four or not (apart from his bonus). Winning the Premier League and the Capital One Cup in his first season has almost glossed over the fact that he inherited a squad that Roberto Mancini helped build – and has merely steered the ship on autopilot. Txixi Begiristain has largely been calling the shots transfer-wise – with entirely mediocre results. 



There’s no doubt it’s an ageing squad with desperate need for renovation. Initially, it was signings like Robinho, Shay Given, Kompany, Zabaleta and Nigel De Jong that signalled the changing of the guard at the club. Then along came Gareth Barry, Kolo Toure, Joleon Lescott, Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez and Craig Bellamy. Building upwards and moving forwards, in came Yaya, Silva, Kolarov, James Milner, Mario Balotelli, Aguero, Nasri and Edin Dzeko. The balance of proven performers and winners at the most elite level in football, coupled with flair and grit, was a recipe for success.



The more recent signings at the club have tended to see City pay an extortionate premium based on a) the fact that it’s City paying and b) potential. I’d put Sterling, Fernando, Mangala and Otamendi in that bracket. A lack of organisation on the pitch, with Kompany invariably out, has been alarming. Yaya is not captain material, whereas Hart is.



But where’s the passion and desire gone, the team spirit, the focus and the will to win silverware? Surely with a new manager around the corner they’d want to be playing to impress, or are they just a bunch of mercenaries after all? With a current manager who has lost the plot, blinded by the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s proving to be a sad end to an era. There is the crumb of comfort that is the Champions League quarter final, but how can a team that can only muster 0-0 draws against Norwich and Aston Villa beat Zlatan and Co? Maybe Typical City still exists after all…



A MUCH NEEDED PEP TALK



Onto the positives and there’s plenty of those. It’s a time to clear the decks and start afresh. Let’s be realistic: rebuilding will be expensive. Sheikh Mansour can afford it and Pep will want, expect and have been promised only the best. It’s standard practise that City are linked with a multitude of players daily, but it’ll be interesting to see who Pep targets to help build is dynasty – and who he opts to show the door to. 


It’s not just at City either. Euro 2016 will fill a void that the Premier League leaves and comings and goings will be sure to fill the back pages during the balmy months. Will Jose replace Louis Van Gaal? Who’s set for the Chelsea job? Will West Ham hold onto Dimitri Payet? Similarly, will Leicester be able to persuade Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez to stay? As for Paul Pogba, that will he or won’t he just refuses to go away.




With only a couple of months to wait until Pep’s arrival, the only silver lining to City’s season (bar a Champions League miracle), is the excitement that a summer of change will bring. New faces create fresh expectation, but healthy optimism. Pep will be sure to guarantee he is fully equipped in all departments to create a force to be reckoned with moving into next season. Not only that, who doesn’t want to see a manager of that calibre in the Premier League? Not only that, but at your football club? As if you needed an excuse to get to the beer garden…