After what feels like an age (really, it’s been two months), I can finally sit down and write again. You miss a couple of issues and, suddenly, we’re at Christmas already – how times flies when you’re having fun! But really, looking after the boys and spending most of November in and out of hospital (I’m fine now, finally) sadly meant I had no opportunity to sit down and write, but I am here, determined, and ready to dissect all the latest goings-on in the world of Manchester City. I’ve not missed that much, have I? Of course I have.
BACK TO LIFE, BACK TO REALITY
Once upon a time, Manchester City set the football world on fire with some of the best football you and I have ever seen. It was breathtaking, scintillating, pure unadulterated fantasy football.
Opposition teams couldn’t get near us. Defenders were left dizzy and breathless as the players in sky blue ran rings around them. We swept teams to one side with our pace, passing and pressing. We won everything in English football. We dominated. We were remarkable.
This season, compared to the previous two, was always going to prove a tough act to follow. In stark contrast, it’s been significantly underwhelming. I think there’s a big split between fans who either a) refuse to criticise Pep or point the finger at anybody in general because of recent successes and b) fans who call a spade a spade, point out what is/has been going wrong and get slated by the fans in point A. All in all, it’s a bit stale and a bit of a mess.
The inquest began in earnest after the Newcastle game, was put on hold after our stupendous 4-1 win at Turf Moor, then resurrected after the Derby Day defeat. I’ve always believed that it’s fair to heap praise when it’s due, but similarly, be able to criticise or question things when necessary. The results against Norwich, Wolves, Newcastle, Liverpool and United were all reasonably alarming in their own right: we all saw the fine margins of last season. We knew Liverpool coming so close and missing out would sting. They’ve lived that experience – yes, winning the Champions League is some achievement, but don’t let that convince you that the one they really wanted ended up adorned in sky blue ribbons.
They’ve clearly channelled that anger, upset and frustration and brought it forward with gusto into this season. They want it, bad. So, so bad. Yes, they’ve had huge chunks of luck and decisions, but they’ve ran with it and, as of yet, haven’t taken their eyes off the ball. City, in comparison this season, have looked complacent. We have lacked desire and heart. At the moment we’re missing passion, fire and guts. Remember when Liam Gallagher snarled, ‘you can have it all, but how much do you want it?’ The same can be said for City. How much do you want it? Not enough it would seem.
A lack of leadership is obvious. As much as I respect and adore David Silva in equal measures, he is not captain material. A captain is a leader: somebody with fire in their belly, an abundance of passion and who leads both with their heart and their voice. I’m not saying David Silva doesn’t have those qualities, but he’s hardly firing the boys up and motivating them to victory, is he? It’s clichéd at this point to mention Mr Manchester City, Vincent Kompany, but it’s also ignorance not to. He was the man first on the team sheet for a big occasion, because you knew he’d excel in dragging the team kicking and screaming towards three points. We knew his departure would leave an irreplaceable void – not only in defence, but in leadership. It’s never been more evident than it is this season.
One of my main concerns has been that we’ve really missed Fernandinho’s presence in his natural defensive midfield position. With our defence looking increasingly frail, we’ve really missed the protection Ferna gives to the back line, and the gritty tenacity he brings, shifting defence to attack. But Ferna isn’t getting any younger and that’s a tough position to expect him to play and rely on him for most games. Then came the Burnley game – and the best performance I’ve seen so far from Rodri in a City shirt. His man of the match display was pivotal to City’s 4-1 win: his movement on and off the ball, his strength, passing, physicality, the way he read the game – and that’s all before I mention his thunderbolt of a goal. If he stays fully fit and in that form, Ferna can stay in the back line until Laporte comes back for all I care. When the Spaniard signed, we knew he was capable of great things – I’m glad we’ve seen a glimpse of what he is capable of and I hope that’s just a teaser of things to come from him.
Another worrying trait has been sup-par displays from players who usually run the show. Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo, David Silva (who has been overplayed – Phil Foden, anyone?), even Raheem Sterling to an extent. With Pep preferring to play Gundogan in midfield alongside either Rodri or David Silva, play has been more laboured, more pedestrian, compared to our usual zip and passing press. The defence – where to start? John Stones – is he good enough? For me, he seems to need his hand holding quite a lot, and without Laporte by his side, has looked a bit lost. Does the quality of Laporte actually flatter Stones and are we seeing him for the defender he really is – just a bit mediocre? Poor Fernandinho has been thrown into the lion’s den, having to do his best in his new centre back role until Laporte’s return in February.
Then we have the full backs. One of the key factors in making Pep’s style of football work is his full backs. But we’ve had no consistency in those positions throughout the season. Admittedly, his hand has been forced with injuries, and Zinchenko having a spell on the sidelines, but it’s left us with Angelino, Kyle Walker and Joan Cancelo. I am a fan of Walker: for me, he starts as often as he can for us. I’ve not really seen enough of Angelino, or Cancelo, to pass a fair judgement. Mendy of course has been blighted with injury since he came to City, and from what I’ve seen of him so far, I worry that he will never hit the form he had at Monaco for us. His passes into the box are blistering, but often land in no man’s land. That’s a lot of money to spend on a key position and not see any dividends. So you see the struggle with full backs and how, when they play such a vital role in Pep’s style of football, how imperative they are to the success of the team. A lot of fans question why we let Danilo go and signed Cancelo if he’s not going to feature more. That’s one for Pep to answer.
Gabriel Jesus. With Sergio Aguero injured, Jesus had featured in every game. He’s always split opinion – but he did show versatility at Turf Moor, with a 20 yard curler that was nothing short of exquisite. He also added to that and could’ve had a hat trick, proving that he’s not just the ‘tap-in merchant’ that many have written him off as. But at Newcastle and during the Derby, he had a couple of guilt-edged chances that Aguero would’ve unquestionably buried. Like Kompany, Aguero will be like replacing the irreplaceable once he leaves the Etihad, but Jesus certainly isn’t his replacement. It’s clear we will need a striker once the Argentine decides to head for pastures new, but I can’t bear to think about that just yet. We create so many chances, but of late have been so wasteful of front of goal, and that’s proved vital to not securing wins recently.
THE GAME PLAN
The past two seasons, when we were playing the best football of our lives, teams struggled to get anywhere near us. This campaign, I feel that we’ve been found out to a certain extent. Teams have found a way to limit and stifle our system and to ferment our game play. By sitting deep, frustrating us, then hitting us when they can on the counter, they know against our defence, they’ve got a huge chance of scoring – and we’ve seen it too many times already this season.
The Burnley game was much more like the City we’ve become accustomed to watching the past couple of seasons. The energy, pace, high pressing play was all back and worked a treat. They say the best form of defence is attack; no more so was this evident than throughout 90 minutes of dominant possession at Turf Moor. The players who had previously put in dubious shifts really stepped it up and it was a huge confidence boost all round.
But then came the Derby. So, with the benefit of hindsight, did that Burnley win flatter us, or am I being really cynical? Crystal Palace had just beaten them, and after our win, they lost 5-0 to Spurs, despite Spurs putting in a woeful performance against United the game beforehand. So that tells you the extent of just how bad a spell Burnley was going through at the time. The post-match celebrations from Pep and the lads now look slightly bizarre, although at the time, that win should’ve been the springboard for us to really push on into some really tricky festive fixtures.
We know the football these players are capable of playing. We have match winners, who can and do produce something out of nothing in the blink of an eye. There are still so many things to play for this season. But it’s naïve not to notice a couple of things that just aren’t going to plan so far this season. By highlighting them, it doesn’t mean I’m any less of a fan, nor does it detract from the astounding achievements City have enjoyed in recent times. You can only live in the here and now and judge on the football you are watching week in, week out now. I never thought I’d be blessed enough to see my club win silverware, let alone everything that has gone along with that of late. If that all ends tomorrow; it was mind-blowing while it lasted, and I can just get back to going to the match, turning up, no expectations, trying to enjoy the football, seeing my friends, happy days. We’re not spoilt, nor do I know any fans in sky blue that are, and we must remember that. What will be, will be. The club will still be here when the players and Pep decide to move on (which could potentially be at the end of this season, are you ready to possibly contemplate that?) – it’s the only thing we’ve ever known – and nothing will ever change that.
LET’S TALK ABOUT VAR, BABY
Actually, let’s not. No really, let’s not. I read on the King of the Kippax Facebook page that Dave had feedback saying that KK264 was VAR-heavy (not surprised), but I have a feeling that will be a recurring trend throughout the season. I’ll try my best to keep it brief then.
Without going into it too much, the Liverpool game left so many people fuming even more than they already were. All we ask for is consistency and the correct decisions – but, even with the technology being implemented, they’re still getting it wrong. For me, it’s too subjective and open to interpretation. Also, we need transparency with it for the match-going fan: replays on the screens inside the ground and we need to hear the conversations between officials, to hear the reasoning behind their decisions. Until we do, the conspiracy/agenda rumours will be going nowhere.
I even feel like VAR had an impact on the atmosphere at the Derby. Early on, we had a big penalty shout, that was instantly dismissed. They then broke forward, went down the other end and, lo and behold, won a penalty.
Whether it should’ve been a penalty to us or not, at the time, was irrelevant. The instant feeling in the ground was despondency. You can feel the mood – so many people are sick and tired of VAR – something has to change, before fans start to give their verdict with their feet. It’s such a source of frustration and bone of contention for so many people. I’d rather scrap it and go back to basics – at least goal-line technology can never get it wrong eh! Bring back the days of questioning Mark Clattenburg and relying on decisions to even themselves out through the season – surely that can’t be any worse than VAR, particular in its current format.
TRYING TO GIVE US A FAIR PRESS
I’ve been continuing to be asked to do more bits and pieces in the media in the past few months. Despite being in and out of hospital in November, I kept being asked to go on BBC Radio 5 Live. Sometimes they want me to go to the studio and sometimes they can do it over the phone or via Skype, so luckily during this period, I could do all of my interviews from home.
I often get asked to go on BBC Radio Manchester too. The breakfast show with Chelsea and Talking Balls, with Kyle and Gaz, are shows I am invited on a lot. I try and do as many as I can: not only is it great experience for me with having my degree in Sport Journalism, I’m always very conscious that, for such a big club, City don’t have many genuine voices in the media. I’m always keep to represent us in as positive a way as possible, but I will always be open and honest. I don’t like to sugarcoat: quite a few people in the industry like to tow the party line for the sake of preserving relationships or stance, but I think it’s so important to be truthful – whether people respect me for it or not, I’m not sure. But it’s the only way I know.
I was also invited to Media City to film a piece on Raheem Sterling and the Derby for Football Focus. It only took about half an hour and they only used a few seconds of it, but again, it was fantastic to be asked and a pleasure to be involved in.
I’m getting to the point now where I am almost ready to go back to work. I had to take a couple of years off to be with my youngest (I say off, but I’m pretty sure it’s been harder work than most of the jobs I’ve had, although far more rewarding!), but now Noel is almost entitled to his nursery hours, that means some of my time will free up and I’ll be able to look at returning to work.
I’m quite nervous about it all really, as I’ve no idea which job route to go down. I’ve been doing so much voluntary media work over the past few years: writing, podcasting, radio and television, all to keep a foot in the door and of course, for the love of it. But I’m aware that it’s very much a saturated market, and I’m very City-specific, although I’m qualified in sports journalism in the broader sense. I guess the only way I’ll find out is by dipping a toe in the water – if there’s nothing available media-wise, I’ll be more than happy to find a job with my other skill sets. It’s an exciting position to be in – and I have high hopes for 2020. My boys are growing and thriving, so I feel like now is a great time to do something for myself too.
Long before my young children and real life responsibilities came along, there was a time when I went home and away to every game following City – because I could! These days, because of financial restraints and being parents of course, we have to pick and choose our away days carefully. We’re usually pretty lucky to do one a season truth be told, but this season we’ve done Preston, Crystal Palace and Newcastle so far. But it’s Newcastle I’m going to talk about.
Any time alone for my boyfriend Adam and I is incredible precious and rare. He gets up for work at 3am, so generally we go to bed at the same time as the children, about 8pm every night. Whereas most couples get time together once they put their kids to bed, we don’t, so all our waking time together is spent either at work or with the kids. It’s hard to find and address a balance with a young family, and no complaints here as that’s the commitment you make when you have them, but sometimes you just need time alone together. In a relationship, it’s imperative, it’s just we choose to spend our time alone with the boys in blue too.
I picked the Hilton at Newcastle Gateshead for our stay (no we’re not posh, it was the same price as the Travelodge for some reason!) and, because it was a 12:30pm Saturday kick off, we decided to stay on the Friday night to make a bit more of it. Adam got the day off work and we travelled there early afternoon, arriving at around 3pm. Could you imagine our surprise when, after 140 miles of driving, we pulled onto the car park to see the City team coach there too. It was funny because I’d joked with Adam about the team possibly staying there, but he didn’t think they would because the hotel was in the Quayside vicinity, notorious with noisy partygoers. The coach driver told us he was off to pick the team up from their flight to Tyneside and they’d be back at the hotel around 6pm. We didn’t stick around for their arrival as we had plans, but a couple of blues did. They told us there were whisked in the side entrance surrounded and shielded by security, ‘prima donnas’ was the term used.
So a delightful evening was had: we went for a really impressive curry, followed by a few pints of Red Stripe in a local indie bar called The Dog and Parrot, and then back to the hotel for a nightcap before a full night’s sleep – rare, very rare! We spotted some of the coaching staff in the bar having a couple of pints, but the team must’ve been all cosied up, ready for their early rise and preparation for St James Park.
The next morning, our lie in was cut short because of the early kick off (I know, I know, we didn’t have it as bad as the blues who travelled up there on the day, so we headed to breakfast and mused over the day ahead. Sausages and egg done, we went back to the room to collect our bags – and, as the lift doors opened to our floor, who was walking towards us? Only a certain Pep Guardiola. It was a real Sliding Doors moment (literally). A couple of minutes earlier or later, and we wouldn’t have seen him. I found it strange that he was on his own: he was quiet, but humoured our requests for selfies and was nothing but polite and gracious to us. We watched as he entered the lift alone, then the doors shut and he was gone.
Adam and I looked at each other in bemusement. I almost felt like I’d imagined the moment, because it was so surreal. There was nobody else around, just us and Pep. Turned out, the team and staff stayed on the same floor as us, so we probably could’ve waited and met them all as they headed to the game, but we didn’t want to harass them. Seeing our mugs pounce on them before going to the match was the last thing they’d want and, by this time, I was ready for a pre-game beer.
As it turned out, the game ended up a 2-2 draw and the mood was decidedly sombre at the final whistle. But for us, the whole night away had been nothing but perfect – the result would’ve just been a welcome bonus. The journey home was full of discussions of ‘where do we go from here’, reflecting on a game that we could’ve easily won 4-2 if we would’ve taken our chances. But we never take the opportunity for an away day for granted. I think I’m on 48 out of the 92 grounds so far, so I’ll keep going when the Grandparent babysitters kindly allow it, and hope to keep making the memories that surround away days and make them so special too.
It’s the season of good will to all men (and women!), which in footballing terms means the games come thick and fast and the turkey dinner will come with far fewer pigs in blankets for Pep and co.
We’ve got some tough fixtures ahead of us: thankfully the Champions League will be over until February, so we don’t have to concern ourselves with that for the next couple of months. Arsenal have struggled under Freddie, but could pose us a few problems with their pace upfront. Leicester – oh Leicester – are looking like (barring a miracle, come on, let’s be honest now!) the only team capable of stopping Liverpool from winning the title and Jamie Vardy loves scoring against us, so that’ll be fun. Wolves have already beat us this season and Sheffield United are doing really well on the road. Into 2020 and it’s Everton and Port Vale in the FA Cup. And breathe.
We know we’re more than capable of producing on the way. We know we’ve got the players, who have got the skill. But have they got the focus and longing for it? Or has the concentration and physical and mental strength it took to reach the heady heights of the past two seasons taken its toll? They might be sportsmen, but they’re only human after all, and then of course form has led to questions about Pep’s future after this current season. Much may depend on what happens in the Champions League, so far now, that’s an unanswered question. Along with so many that current form has raised.
Enjoy Christmas, whether you’ve been naughty or nice, and I’ll see you on the other side. Loud, proud, loyal and still optimistic, no matter what Father Christmas (and VAR) decides to bring our mighty blues this festive season.