Strolling through Bishops Park on Saturday afternoon, baked in the south-west London sunshine amidst a sea of yellow and green optimism, I could not have been more content. Collectively, we were all aware of the significance of what was about to come; the opening of a new epoch for City, the beginning of a new Daniel Farke-led odyssey inspired by Germanic innovation and continental aesthetics. After three long months, football was back.
And so were the usual accompaniments. The inevitable plethora of defensive mishaps to keep us all on our toes, the relentless cacophony of noise emitted from the Putney End, the timeless and enduring magic of the brilliant Wes Hoolahan. Some things in football never change.
But Saturday also marked a sense of change in addition to such aforementioned continuity. We saw our new manager employ his tactical flexibility, altering the system once in each half in order to reinforce our backline and to enhance creativity at the other end of the pitch. We saw new signings Harrison Reed and Marley Watkins play superbly in midfield, the former effortlessly winning and retaining possession and the latter battling laudably despite being profligate with three guilt-edged chances. Most fundamentally, we saw signs of hope.
Christoph Zimmerman was terrific at the back, thwarting Fulham’s attacking trio of Sone Aluko, Floyd Ayite and Neeskens Kebano on so many occasions. Zimmerman’s presence remained visible throughout at the Cottage, representing a beacon of defensive hope that may well serve to address last season’s acute deficiencies on a long-term basis. Contrary to the fate of the famous World War One telegram of 1917, this time it was Zimmerman himself who was doing the intercepting.
City showed further signs of promise. Marcel Franke and the bold Russell Martin were impressive despite being left so alarmingly exposed by Farke’s initial 3-5-2, a system that saw City so regularly outdone on the flanks owing to the defensively-inexperienced Yanic Wildschut and the out-of-position James Husband. However, these players will learn. In midfield, James Maddison continually found small pockets of space in order to receive and distribute possession so quickly. Spurred on by his new chant behind him, Angus Gunn looked solid in goal.
What a difference four months makes. City resembled the antithesis of our bogey team last time we met, being completely outplayed at Carrow Road owing to the visitors’ sustained tempo, energy and fluidity on the ball. Saturday was a different story. This was a case of two impressive, well-matched sides competing in an even and open contest, marking a wonderful spectacle to open the season. Long may the entertainment continue.
And then there was Nelson. Nelson, our brilliant, lovable yet volatile striker whose late antics prompted such vehement debate amongst the City faithful. Subsequent interventions from famous fans Jake Humphrey and the divisive Charlie Wyett did little to appease the ensuing situation, merely intensifying opinions and enraging many. Such interjections are unhelpful.
Oliviera should have started. While Farke’s rationale in deploying the more industrious Cameron Jerome as the spearhead of City’s attack was understandable, Nelson’s form since December and his impressive pre-season surely warranted him a place in the German’s inaugural Championship team. When called upon, he took his goal well. However, his following antics were unneeded, representing passion yet publicly humiliating Farke and marring a brilliant away point. Rather than celebrating with the City faithful in a moment of late jubilation, Oliviera appropriated the situation to make it about himself and the manager. A line exists. He crossed it. Pity.
Nevertheless, the Yellow Army continued to sway from one side to the other like daffodils in a summer breeze. The Putney End was rocking, with decibel levels transcending the gap between the away fans and the curious ‘mixed’ section. City rallied. In the face of so much adversity away from home, we showed fight.
This performance represented such a conspicuous shift from last season, a campaign where going a goal behind on the road so frequently led to capitulation and the concession of multiple more. Think Brighton, Reading and Huddersfield. This year appears the opposite, with Farke and his new recruits clearly possessing a more gritty, hungry and determined mentality. As I saw one fan comment on Twitter, this really did feel like a Lambert-era point.
Such psychological resolve was fused with stylistic brilliance. City moved the ball wonderfully on Saturday, shifting it from player to player and third to third with a newfound fluidity and pace that was never witnessed last term. With Tettey and Dorrans, City were too laboured and lateral. With Reed and Maddison – Vrancic was the slowest and least effective of the midfield three – we are a far more dangerous proposition.
And all of this against a good Fulham side, a team who Slavisa Jokanovic has drilled to play with similar values and one who will almost certainly be in the play-off hunt come the end of the season. City did more than hold their own in this battle of possession, passing dynamism and energy, taking on the home side at their own game and looking comfortable in doing so. It really was a great contest.
So the future looks bright. With the arrivals of Tom Trybull of Marco Stiepermann, we are now blessed with further options – albeit unknown ones – from midfield, while the lessons from our visible three at the back shortcomings have been learned the hard way. When Ivo Pinto returns, the potential for a more orthodox back four of Husband, Franke, Zimmerman and Oliviera’s compatriot is a promising one. We must wait and see.
Carrow Road on Sunday awaits. Let us hope we see this new group of players continue to gel, continue to blossom and continue to mould themselves into a genuine and viable Championship force. The foundations were laid in the capital. Farke is aware of the challenges that his side will face. We are all united in a sense of optimism and excitement. City are back, and I could not be happier.