I’m writing this a couple of days after City’s 1-1 draw against Leeds United at Elland Road. Our season has been underway for a couple of weeks now, but has already been halted for the next fortnight due to international games. Safe to say, it’s been a very interesting start.
I’ll try and separate the sensational and the rational because the reaction between City fans has been so incredibly indifferent. I’d like to think I always just tell it as it is, although a few people do seem to think I’m always a bit too optimistic. I do like to find a positive in any situation and that applies to life in a broader aspect too. For City, as I see it at this moment in time, certainly seem to be in a state of flux.
KEEPING HIS GUARD UP
Pep Guardiola. The enigma himself. Rumours swirled throughout the six-week break regarding his future at City and none of those have been addressed yet. I never wanted to enter the new season knowing that, as it stands, it’s Pep’s last season in charge at the Etihad.
I always wanted some clarification and reassurance. My feeling was that we could do with no uncertainty in any way. As the games go by, the last thing anybody would need would be question marks over the manager’s future at the club and a potential saga detracting and distracting from what is happening on the pitch.
I feel like at the moment, I’m always looking for clues. Perhaps I’m overthinking it. I do that a lot. But I’m looking at Pep’s body language, trying to over-analyse what he says. What does that mean? Should I read further into that? Is he happy? Does he really care anymore? I’m driving myself a bit crazy with it and it’s absolutely not how I wanted the season to go.
Would I be doing that is everything was going tremendous on the pitch and we were sitting pretty at the top of the League? Possibly not. But I feel like it’s not helping anybody knowing that, at the moment, City could have a new manager next season.
Two important points here. Some fans don’t mind that. A section of Blues genuinely feel like Pep’s time here is done. In some ways, it feels like a transitional season. Are the signings he has made enough? Has he not been given more money to spend because some of it is being held back for a new manager next season to spend on a striker, amongst other positions? One said if the results continue like this, he should be sacked by Christmas. Reactionary or realistic? Everybody is entitled to their opinion after all. Have City become too predictable? Have teams sussed us out? Does Pep react too slowly to change games?
The second point is Pep has nothing to prove to anybody. Least of all, you and me. Yes, the Champions League saga will always be his achilles heel at City, as it was at Bayern. Should his time at the club be judged solely on his failures in that competition? No. It’s completely wrong to ignore everything else he has achieved at City: the record point tallies the trophies won, the domestic treble, not to mention watching some of the best football I’ve ever seen any players play in a City shirt.
I feel like the past five years have gone by in the blink of an eye. Time flies when you’re having fun; maybe it’s only recently when the party seems to have slowed down that I’ve realised how close we are to seeing the end of Pep at City. For me, it would be a travesty. For others, the time has come.
I do have to admit though, I’m still not over the Lyon game. I don’t think I’ll ever understand what really happened in Lisbon that night. The King of overthinking, yet a revolutionary football genius all the same.
ALL BETS ARE OFF
After the 5-2 Leicester defeat and the 1-1 draw at Leeds, a lot of blues were panicking. Questions over our defence, questions about Pep’s future and questions about our new signings and if they’re good enough. With starting the season after most other teams due to the Champions League last season, we’re already playing catch-up – and the heat was on.
Then Super Sunday happened.
Leicester – the team who beat us comprehensively just a week previous, albeit with the help of three penalties due to some school-boy defending by City, lost at home to West Ham 3-0. A surprise for a team that had started the season so well.
Next up, United. With an indifferent start, Spurs’ manager Jose Mourinho travelled to his old stomping ground Old Trafford, with a point to prove. Boy did he do that. A 6-1 thumping of United at home doesn’t happen every week (good memories for us blues!). It was another Solksjaer disaster class – how Leicester got £80 million for Harry Maguire will always be one of life’s biggest mysteries.
Just when we thought the day had served up enough surprises, along came Liverpool.
With three wins from three games, Klopp’s side had started the season strongly. Who would’ve thought that a visit to Villa Park would involve a complete capitulation from the current champions? A mess from kick off right through to the final whistle, Villa put in the most incredible performance to dominate and penetrate; resulting in a 7-2 victory for the home side. The biggest ever defeat that a reigning Premier League-winning side has ever suffered: leaving everybody stunned and bemused as to what twists and turns the day had served up.
It definitely put our 1-1 draw against Leeds into perspective. Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds have been playing some swashbuckling football and to go there and get a point could ultimately prove to be important. Not many other teams will get anything from their visits there, although I sense if both teams would’ve been playing in front of a sell-out crowd at Elland Road, the result could’ve been very different.
That’s the thing to remember. There are so many contributing factors to this extraordinary, unprecedented season, that mean that we may just have to embrace the madness that unfolds. Players having to self-isolate and miss games due to producing a positive Covid test, no crowds generally meaning that home advantage doesn’t exist anymore and tiredness from players who didn’t have much of a break and no pre-season of note. All bets are off.
WELCOME TO THE PLEASUREDOME
Much has been said about the new signings that City have made. Plenty of people have been questioning if they’re enough, or good enough.
Nathan Ake, a 25 year old Dutch defender, was signed from Bournemouth and initially, seemed to leave quite a few people under-whelmed. Signing a defender from a relegated club, will he be good enough?
I was cautiously enthusiastic. He can play either centre back or full back, which is always a bonus, it helps to have that versatility. Plus what I loved was the well wishes that he received: a lot of people spoke very highly of him and you can see the impact he had amongst his team-mates. He adds some much needed height too and, from what we’ve seen so far, he’s been consistent and reliable.
One signing I was really excited about was Ferran Torres. A highly rated 20 year old midfielder from Valencia, Torres is tipped to be the best winger coming out of Spain right now. He’s made an interesting start at City: he scored at Turf Moor during the Carabao Cup fourth round win there and he got two assists so far. His blend of attributes makes him such a dynamic player – a winger who loves to cut inside, take players on and shoot. Pace and trickery in abundance. But one thing I’ve already noticed about him is his work rate – something that certainly sets him apart from the winger we’ve just sold to Bayern Munich. A few blues have called him a ‘luxury signing,’ but I think he’ll prove a snip and do really well for us. I’m excited to see how he develops and progresses at City.
Finally – Ruben Dias. Arguably the position we were all desperate to strength in was centre back and, after a summer of ‘will-they, won’t they’ surrounding Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, it was Dias who was announced just days before the window shut.
Signed from Benfica, Dias was club captain before departing for Manchester. I won’t profess to know much about the Portuguese international, because I don’t, but he looked promising on his debut against Leeds. A few fans were torn about what they wanted from a centre back: do we sign a younger player and hope he grows and develops in the back line, or do we bring somebody in who is more experienced and can hit the ground running.
We know we’ve had problems surrounding our defence, perhaps even before Vincent Kompany left. People keep saying we haven’t replaced Komps – how do you replace the irreplaceable? You don’t. You can’t. Not only for his defending, but his attitude, passion and leadership. We’ve lacked in all those departments since he left. It’s his qualities we’ve desperately missed and could really do with.
You knew as soon as you saw him in the line-up, we’d fight. That’s what I can deal with. I can cope with a defeat, so long as the players battle, fight and look like they care. If it’s all half-hearted, with a lack of desire, it’s bitterly disappointing. All you want as a fan is to see the players play like you wish you could if you were out on that pitch.
But with Nicolas Otamendi gone, John Stones in and out of the team through injury and players testing positive for Covid so missing games, are the signings enough? For me, the left back position has always been a problem right back to having Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolorov.
It has always been ‘square peg, round hole’ when it comes to left backs. When we signed Ben Mendy, we thought our prayers had been answered. Then he suffered a horrific knee injury. Delph and Zinchenko were asked to fill in and did remarkably well at the time, given the circumstances. Both were playing out of position and helped us cope, helped us to silverware.
Now Delph has long gone – Zinchenko is not a left back. I’d always said I hadn’t seen enough of Mendy to be able to judge his ability – he’s been unlucky with injuries at City and been in and out of the first team. But I do feel like now, I’ve seen enough. I’ve been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for so much now. He’s had a pass because of his injuries, but I can’t continue to defend him and deflect from what is glaringly obvious – he’s just not good enough.
I also think we need a striker – but I’d be willing to wait a year for Erling Haaland. That is for sure.
Carrying on with the Mendy talk. I am willing for him to prove me wrong. Please Ben, please do it. But I’m always torn when I watch him. When he’s bombing forward on the wing and whipping in a cross to assist – fantastic. When he’s struggling to defend and committing stupid fouls – not so great. Pep loves nothing more than attacking full backs, but they’ve still got to be able to defend. If Mendy can’t, then he’s a winger, so should be treated as such?
It pains me to single out individual players to subject them to such criticism, but you’ve got to be able to be diagnose problems throughout the team as you see fit. Just don’t message them abuse on social platforms – there’s no need and I’ve seen plenty of people doing it recently. Let’s keep it classy, blues.
Another player that frustrates the life out of me with Riyad Mahrez. You can’t be critical about him on any social media platform, because he has the most loyal, vicious fanboys that defend him every step of the way. It is so perplexing. But there are reasons to be critical.
When he scores, the goals are often remarkable. Thunderbolts. Net rippers. But if Gabriel Jesus was born offside, Mahrez was born selfish. How many times do we see other players in great positions around him and, instead of passing, he shoots? It’s often preferable for him to pass instead of shoot. When he played as a false nine against Leeds, I felt like he impaired instead of inspiring us. He didn’t press like a false nine should, he looked lazy. At times his positioning was far too static. When you’re instructed to play in that role, you should constantly be chasing down the ball. It was exasperating.
Whether we like it or not, this is a transitional period. The team we had during the record-breaking seasons of 2017/18 and 2018/19 has fragmenting and is changing. Evolving. Players come, players go – nothing ever lasts or stays the same forever. Which means patience is required. You can’t win everything all of the time, especially when the clientele is different.
As things stand, it’s Fernandinho’s, Aguero’s and Pep’s last season. Think about that for a minute and think about how influential, important and crucial all three have been to City’s successes.
I understand that having a manager of the calibre of Pep sends the expectations into the stratosphere – especially with the silverware and the achievements we have reached during his tenure. Seeing Liverpool romp the Premier League last season has added to that pressure. Competition is good – and winning silverware creates a lifestyle as a fan that is insatiable and addictive.
There are plenty of positives. Kevin De Bruyne – finally winning individual awards to recognise the exceptional talent that he is – is in my opinion, the best midfielder in the world right now and he plays for Manchester City. Phil Foden, England drama aside, is one of the countries finest young players and he is finally getting consistent game time. 17 year-old Liam Delap, one of our EDS stars, scored an incredible goal during his debut in the Carabao Cup game against Bournemouth and looks to be another encouraging Academy player. Raheem Sterling has now scored 34 goals in all competitions since the start of last season. That’s just for starters. Look for positives and you will find them.
There does seem to be a divide between fans on social media. Some fans are just really happy to enjoy the ride – they may mention the ‘good old days of York away’ for perspective and context every now and again, so their criticism of any current results are minimal. ‘We’re not really here’, ‘going down with a billion in the bank’, let’s just see what happens next week.
Generally these fans are branded ‘happy clappy’, ‘living in the past’ and ‘delusional’ by other fans – the fans who are ‘hyper critical’: these tend to be fans who are in the ‘Pep Out’ category. A defeat triggers a deluge of reproach and condemnation. They tend to refer to themselves are mere ‘realists’, thinking the club are papering over their many cracks and that the team have problems all over the pitch, from the goalkeeper to the strike force and beyond. A win creates ‘smoke and mirrors’ for these supporters – you do tend to wonder, with that much pessimism in their lives just from City alone, how they’re coping with life in general in 2020.
I would like to think I’m a bit of both. I’m capable of referencing our time in Division Two with nostalgia, whilst still recognising that we do live in the here and now and it’s only right and fair to judge a game off our current circumstances and not by which division City played football in 20-odd years ago. When we have a stormer and tear a team apart, I will heap praise on every player where it is due. Likewise, if we have a stinker, I’ll rightly criticise. It’s all about having a balance and being honest. Just call it as you see it.
I never thought in my wildest dreams, I’d live to see City win the trophies we have done. I could’ve never predicted that I’d go to Wembley that many times to the point where I’ve actually now lost count. I am so grateful, so appreciative for all the incredible memories City have given me. Of course I want to keep experiencing that – winning is infectious – once you’ve tasted it, you want more. It’s addictive. My eldest has been to dozens of matches and still never seen us get beat. He’s been to Wembley three times and had a 100% win record there. He doesn’t know he’s born.
But I’m also realistic. You can’t win everything all the time, you just can’t. You can’t win every single game. I do believe that, at the time of writing, we seem to be in a situation where to a certain extent, we have been found out. We don’t have much of a Plan B - but when Plan A works, it’s spectacular. Plan B seems to be whipping crosses in to our strikers, who aren’t the tallest of people, which normally isn’t effective. Teams know that we struggle against the low block: sit your team behind the ball, absorb the initial 25 minutes of pressure, frustrate us, limit our movement and attack us on the counter to exploit our vulnerabilities and you’re in with a chance. That’s the situation we find ourselves in right now. So where do we go from here?
Of course, what most fans do agree on is that football without fans just isn’t anywhere near the same. With the introduction of VAR, the ridiculous hand ball rule and now, Covid, fans are becoming increasingly disillusioned with what once was the beautiful game. How is it fair that, in early October, you could go to a cinema to watch a live football game, but not be sat outside, watching the game itself for real?
Plans were in place for fans to return to grounds in a staged approach, so only allowing a certain amount of fans in at once, but I don’t believe it’s remotely fair to let any fans in until all fans can return. What fun is it being selected to go to a game, when none of your mates will be there, because the selection process is a lottery as to who gets let in and who doesn’t? The whole part of what makes match day so special is the fellow blues you endure, or enjoy it, with. I miss it more than I ever thought possible. But I’m prepared to wait for the day when we can all enjoy it together.
TALKING US UP
As usual, I’ve been keeping really busy. 2020 has been such a difficult year for everybody: I’ve been pre-occupied with my children and other work projects, but my media work has increased again post-lockdown.
I made the difficult decision to finish contributing to the ‘Forever Blue’ podcast. It was something I’d been thinking about for a long time. I’m beyond grateful for the opportunities that have come my way as a result of being involved in such a platform, but I felt the time was right to walk away to experiment with other avenues.
I’m being asked onto BBC Radio Manchester’s ‘Talking Balls’ show a couple of times a week. I think both Kyle and Gaz are brilliantly talented (although I’ve seen Dave say otherwise in here before, can’t win them all!) and it’s a pleasure to be involved with such a great show.
I still get asked to go on BBC Radio 5 Live, it’s always the breakfast show. I was asked to film a piece for Football Focus alongside my partner and two children and I’ve been booked to go onto BBC Radio 5 Live Sport to appear on ‘The Squad’, a popular show that is broadcast on Sundays.
I’ve also had a few messages from different City fan-based media outlets asking me to be involved. I’ve recorded a few Bolt from The Blue podcasts (alongside KotK’s very own Colin Savage), been on the Manchester is Blue video channel and quite a few video interviews for Man City Fan TV. I’m sure at this point, people will be sick of the sight and sound of me!
I am always astonished that people think I talk any sense. Writing has been my comfort zone for over 20 years, so I always feel nervous about pushing myself to try new things. For the most time, I do try and embrace everything that comes my way and I’m learning to develop a thick skin as opinions are always varied. I just try to stay true to myself and honest. I think if you put on a persona or try to be controversial, it’ll ultimately backfire.
I’m just so appreciative to anybody who gives me any feedback or even listens/reads. I’ll keep it up until somebody tells me I’m stealing a living! Thank you if you take the time to get in touch – it means the world to be doing what I enjoy, knowing that somewhere along the time, a few people may actually agree or like my opinion or optimism. Some don’t, but those tend to be the ones that don’t even like themselves, so I’ll take that with a pinch of salt.
Here’s hoping that everybody is doing okay through this hideously surreal year and that we will be all back having a beer together in the not-too-distant future.
Those were the days – and they will be again. They’ll be worth the wait.