Mark Lawrenson wound me up on Friday. Not for the first time.
Stuart Webber tells us to ‘ignore the noise’ but when it’s Lawrenson it’s not easy
But it wasn’t the fact that he Lawro predicted a City defeat – he does that every week. Instead, it was his description of City as being in “freefall” that really ground my gears.
Yet, after ploughing through 92 minutes of City vs Brighton, it’s hard to disagree with him.
We’re wilting. Devoid of ideas. Brittle at the back. Toothless in attack.
I’m sorry, but we are.
We cling onto the occasional flicker, like the restored Marco Stierpermann hitting the crossbar when it was still 0-0, or the belief that a fit-again Onel Hernandez will rip up Premier League right-backs as he did those in the Championship, but given everything else that is happening between these fleeting moments of hope, it’s straw-clutching.
The mitigation remains. We do have personnel issues at centre-back which have in turn led to the same issues in the central midfield pairing designed to offer protection to the defence. That’s not changed and can’t be ignored but equally awaiting the return of Christoph Zimmermann while collecting no points along the way creates its own pressure.
It also places Zimmermann on a plinth, which for someone who’s barely set foot in the Premier League is an unfair burden.
As Ben Godfrey is discovering the hard way, being a good centre-back in the Championship means diddly-squat when you come up against battle-hardened and top-level Premier League opponents. As courageous and fearless as Zimmermann is, and he is, I worry those expecting him to step in and cure all of our defensive ills are going to be disappointed.
It does go without saying, however, that said defensive shield will benefit enormously from having a Tettey or an Amadou in there, arguably even both on away days where we’re not expecting to have too much of the ball.
Right now, that area of the pitch is a massive concern. I’m loathed to use ‘hot knife through butter’ because the lads in there are giving their all, but whichever permutation Daniel Farke uses isn’t offering enough protection to the back-four.
Tom Trybull, Kenny McLean and Mo Leitner haven’t become bad players overnight, but there looks to be no pairing from that trio that’s going to be robust and physical enough to repel what seems at the moment to be wave after wave of attack.
The volume and frequency of chances created by Brighton yesterday were frightening and is becoming an alarming theme of late.
That lack of an effective defensive shield is just as troubling as the shortcomings across the back-four and all feed into the same unsolvable equation – at least unsolvable while Farke is so limited in options.
Equally troubling though is the way City are unable to execute when they do have the ball, in stark contrast to last season.
There were some unhappy parallels with England in yesterday’s Rugby World Cup Final, with those in white looking a shadow of the team who beat the All Blacks as they struggled with precision and to execute moves that one week earlier were done without thinking.
Likewise, City’s ebb and flow of last season has all but disappeared and that seamless way we were able to smoothly shift the ball through the thirds and work openings for Teemu Pukki feels little more than a distant memory. And for that, we can’t blame the injury crisis.
Instead, it boils down to being unable to execute that same style against opponents who are better and whose gameplan involves stopping us doing the things we’re good at.
Burnley provided the template that others have followed – to press high and energetically, and either force a mistake or force us to go long. What we haven’t yet properly cracked is how to successfully pass out of that high press in the Premier League. Against technicians who are as good and in most cases better, that’s another strand to our game that isn’t functioning.
Of course, the upshot of all of this is that confidence and belief start to wane… the very things we were bursting full of last season and which underpinned our surge to glory have been dented, and nothing happens as second-nature any more.
Importantly, Stuart Webber and Farke will still continue to believe and having been lucky enough to chat to Stuart on the Sunday after the Bournemouth game, I know he believes more fit bodies will offer the head coach more options going forward. To paraphrase, ‘how many Premier League teams would be able to operate successfully with one fit centre back?’
And of course, he’s right.
But that still leaves us with a conundrum… how to find a way to start picking up points.
Friday is obviously massive and Sky Sports will be framing it as a “relegation six-pointer” but it’s not. Even if we were to lose there would still be 26 games left to free ourselves from this mire, but equally a win would lift the mood and, more importantly, reinstill some of the belief that has gone missing.
We’re in a hole, of that there’s no doubt, but we need to reset and go again on Friday. A win, as unlikely that may appear right now, and the world will feel a very different place.
And it’d shut Lawro up.