THE SANE SAGA
The summer months seemed to be fuelled with constant Chinese whispers surrounding Leroy Sane’s future at the club. The rumour mill was working overtime daily throughout social media – one minute, he was off to Bayern Munich, and then he wasn’t, then he was – with nobody coming out to confirm or deny.
It got to the point where I was just frustrated with it all. It felt like somebody, whether it was Sane’s agent, or a family member, was playing silly beggars and causing mischief in the middle of it all. Now I’m a big fan of Sane’s footballing skills, capabilities and potential. When he’s in the mood, he plays some idyllic, almost poetic football. A dreamy winger, who can dance to his own rhythm and weave a magic spell over opposition defenders who struggle to even come close to keeping up with him.
But it’s only ever if he’s in the mood – and that’s a problem. He can be so frustrating to watch because, more often than not, he’s his own worst enemy. One of his biggest flaws seems to be his complete disregard for tracking back – and we’ve seen that drive Pep crazy on a number of occasions. For Pep’s system to work, it has to be a team effort. Individuals can’t become passengers if they don’t pull their weight across the park. Even Aguero has become much more of a team player, particularly last season, with helping out at the back helping to make him an even more rounded player.
The German’s temperament doesn’t help him either, and his adolescent attitude has got him in trouble on more than one occasion. But he’s still only 23, and if anybody can nurture and develop him, surely that person is Pep. But how good is their relationship and does Sane have enough respect for him? We’ve seen Pep improve so many players – more recently, we’ve witnessed Sterling and Zinchenko blossom under his tutelage, so there’s no reason why Sane couldn‘t go on to be one of the world’s best players in a couple of years.
Maybe he’s being poorly advised, greedy, naïve or even perversely loving all the attention and speculation, but by the time the Community Shield rolled around, I just wanted a resolution to the situation – one way or another. I’d love him to choose City and commit his future to us, but if he’s playing the game (or the people nearest to him are), then no one player is bigger than the club.
When I saw that Sane was starting against Liverpool in that Community Shield game, I was admittedly intrigued to see how he’d play. Then, bam, 12 minutes in and he’s substituted with an ACL injury. You couldn’t make it up. Refusing Pep’s medical Mr Magic, Dr Cujat, in Barcelona for the necessary surgery, Sane favoured Professor Fink – the German FA’s go-to surgeon. It’s looking like it’ll be 2020 before we see Leroy playing football again – and it’ll probably be then before we reach a conclusion to this transfer/contract saga.
If he doesn’t want to commit – get the £120 million from Bayern and lets all move on with our lives.
DÉJÀ VU – IT’S GETTING VARCICAL
Something tells me that a lot of people are going to be writing about this, given the amount talking about it, and we’re probably all already bored of it so early into the season. But, it’s a huge talking point and there’s no hiding from that, so it has to be addressed and discussed – especially when it’s already costing teams valuable goals and points in the League. What am I talking about? Of course, it’s VAR.
We all knew that VAR was coming this season and, despite it being trialled in various places and active in the Women’s World Cup this summer, none of us knew how it would really fit in when it came to the Premier League and how it would work. It’s important to make sure it’s not confused in any way with goal-line technology though: that’s something that is technically sound, faultless and not down to human perception in any way whatsoever. It’s annoyed me because I’ve heard some people use the World Cup final goal in 1966 as an example for VAR and that’s just silly – that’s goal-line technology and it’s been in place for a while.
City fans have already felt the full force of VAR decisions during the first couple of games of the season: the Sterling goal that was ruled offside during the 5-0 win at West Ham on the opening weekend, the Jesus goal that was disallowed during the 2-2 draw against Spurs at the Etihad, the Rodri penalty that should’ve been during the same game and the Sterling penalty shout at Bournemouth.
The main arguments of the three decisions were: it was Sterling’s arm that was apparently 1mm offside for the first offence. Are players allowed to score with their arms now? If not, the goal should’ve stood and we’ve since seen goals stand for a similar ‘offence’. Where’s the consistency? The Jesus goal vs. Spurs: it struck Laporte’s arm during the build-up play and was struck off because of this and because of the new handball rules that have been introduced this season. How the Frenchman could’ve moved his arm away is beyond me and beyond anybody else who thought the decision was ludicrous and extreme. The decision didn’t even come from referee Michael Oliver; it came from the VAR control room down south. The Rodri penalty shout: Lamela was all over him and dragged him down in the area. Oliver should’ve reviewed it. The Sterling penalty shout at the Vitality Stadium: VAR did review this and still said it wasn’t a penalty, despite the football confirming the foot stamp in graphic detail?
It’s infuriating, baffling, frustrating and, ultimately, punishing to see the introduction of Video Assistant Referee leave fans asking even more questions instead of giving us the answers we need from it. My main problem with it and with all refereeing is the inconsistency. We see week in, week out, decisions given for teams, with similar decisions not given for others and, at this level of football, it’s just not good enough. When the margins are so fine between win, lose or draw and every goal and point counts, decisions have to be right if there’s been a system implemented by the powers that be for this.
The other issue is that it can be largely down to human interpretation of the rules and each individual is different, with varying degrees of perception, which makes the consistency almost impossible to find. The Jesus goal vs. Spurs, a last-minute winner, saw City drop two points because it was disallowed. Some may argue that the Blues should’ve wrapped it up earlier in the game considering they had 30 chances to do so, but the one that went in shouldn’t have really been disallowed, and that’s turned three points into one, meaning, despite it being still early days in the title race, City already trail Liverpool in the hunt for our third Premier League title on the bounce.
It’s also a bit puzzling that referees have been disencouraged from using the touch-line screens to review incidents. Surely that’s what they’re there for? I understand it can slow the game down, but the whole purpose of VAR is to get the decisions right, and if they need to use the screens, it should be encouraged. Likewise, officials shouldn’t be afraid of feeling like they’re undermining the referee by potentially giving a decision that contradicts his. I think the main thing is that it should be remembered and reminded that VAR is there for the clear and obvious, not for every little niggling and dubious event.
As a match-going fan, who was there for both of the VAR incidents in both games against Spurs (in the Champions League quarter final back in April and the recent Premier League game against Poch’s side), the Sterling and Jesus’ disallowed last-minute winners, my experience of VAR has obviously left me asking huge questions. There is nothing in football quite like celebrating a last-minute winner: the adrenaline that rushes through every inch of your body, that provokes delirium and bedlam in the stands and makes you hug total strangers. Leaping into their arms and acquiring bruises that you question the next day, the unachievable high and sense of ecstasy only available through football, a feeling worthy of addiction that we constantly seek out week in, week out. So to go from that, to crashing back down to earth with a bump, wondering what has gone on and being kept in the dark, is disconcerting at best.
Is VAR denying us the right of celebrating goals naturally? Is it stunting the natural rhythm of football for the very reason it was invented? Is it over-analysis and extreme? Do we actually need it? I was one of the advocates of VAR: I wanted decisions to be right, but at what cost? Are we sacrificing the very heart and soul of football for a flawed system that will almost never be 100% accurate? If so, maybe we should go back to basics and just endure the swings and roundabouts of inconsistent refereeing and football karma. Football was never supposed to be a hyper-technical sport: the most technical aspect should be the lines drawn around the pitch and the tactics played on it. I feel like VAR has left people exasperated, scratching their heads and longing for the simpler days of debating offside decisions in the pub post-match, without watching lines being drawn on a screen and measurements being drawn.
The ultimate problem is that it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon, so is it a case of put up and shut up, or will we continue to witness the demise of the beauty of the game? I fear the latter – same time, same place next month?
CASE FOR THE DEFENCE
I’d said before the season even started, that my main concern was the fact that City hadn’t replaced Vincent Kompany. Not that you ever can, because they’re truly humongous boots to fill, but the gap he leaves in our defence, for me, is distinct. I knew that Kyle Walker or Fernandinho could always fill in to a certain extent in central defence, but I felt it imperative to have a true centre back at the heart of the back line. Any injuries to either Stones or Laporte and suddenly we’d be looking pretty light back there. Not even a month into the new campaign, and look what’s happened…
It’s probably not for want of trying, because the Blues were allegedly linked with Harry Maguire throughout the balmy months, but he was apparently out of our price range. Stones has been injured, but looks set to return after the international break. But Laporte’s injury against Brighton (at the time of writing) is currently being assessed by doctors in Barcelona and looks like he will potentially be missing a good few months of the season. Fernandinho was his replacement during that game and did a typically superb job against a plucky Brighton side.
It may be all well and good using Ferna and Walker to fill in, but we tend to be particularly vulnerable at set pieces and definitely suffer from a lack of height at the back. I’ve even seen somebody suggest using Rodri in defence as he’s more physically imposing and potentially adaptable to that move. The worrying thing is that it was my biggest fear during the summer and it’s already come true. Where elsewhere on the pitch we have a multitude of options to rotate, adapt and cover as and when required, once we get started in the Carabao Cup and Champions League, I worry that we could possibly struggle. We brought Angelino back – how ready and capable is he right now?
I do think that Maguire would’ve been a good fit for us, but agree that, at the cost of £90 million, is ridiculously over-priced. I think it’s also important for us to have a real leader on the pitch. As much as I’m a fan of the sentimental nod towards David Silva, for giving him the captain’s armband during his last season at the Etihad, I think it’s important to still have a really passionate and vocal talisman to lead and, again, that influence is missing. Pep would argue that every player is vital on the pitch for that and it’s a team effort, and maybe I’m old school in that regard, but I think the influence of the captain cannot be underestimated. So we await news on Laporte; people normally say no news is good news, but I fear in this instance, it’s anything but.
A PREMIER LEAGUE HAT-TRICK?
Since the season started, I’ve been asked again to do various bits and pieces in the media. I’ve been on BBC Radio 5 Live again twice and featured a few times already on the BBC Radio Manchester show, Talking Balls. To my complete surprise, I was also recently asked to go on Football Focus, a weekly television show on BBC One. Television is usually remarkably out of my comfort zone, so I wasn’t too sure about doing it, but these are all incredible opportunities that I’m lucky to have coming my way, and I’m so grateful for that.
The interview was outside the Etihad ahead of the recent game against Brighton, and was just a casual chat, previewing the match and looking ahead to the season. One of the questions I was asked was, ‘would you prefer it if City won the Premier League again this season, or the Champions League?’ It’s a huge question, one that has proved to be quite decisive amongst our fans. Everybody seems to have their own perception of which trophy is relevant and important to the club and them as fans. The Champions League is the one piece of silverware glaringly missing from our collection: it’s the one many feel Pep will ultimately be judged on throughout his tenure at City, so winning that to many is an absolute necessity. So why do I want us to win the Premier League again?
It’s really difficult to say where we go from here after the last two seasons City have had. Becoming the Centurions, then following that inconceivable achievement up with winning the domestic treble has left the bar set stupendously high. I just believe winning the Premier League is a true test of a team’s mettle across what is week in, week out, a full throttle nine months of graft and pressure. 38 games, 19 teams the length and breadth of the country in varying conditions competing in what is widely regarded to be the toughest and most physical League in the world. Whoever triumphs in May cannot be denied (despite the finest efforts of some of our gutter press) their place in history and this year will be the toughest yet. Whether we like it or not, Liverpool are in a powerful position, with a truly talented young squad. I think it’ll be us and them for a few years to come, battling it out in the fight to not only be the best in England, but the best in Europe too. But we have some of the best creative and attacking players in the world at City – we are lucky to be living in an era where we get to watch De Bruyne, Sterling, Bernardo Silva, David Silva, Aguero all approaching or at the peak of their careers. How many other football fans can say they have the privilege of that? Of watching that calibre of player, every week, play for their team?
Just think, it could be worse. You could be battling it out in the fight to finish 6th. Again.