It was far from the most aesthetically pleasing goal the old place has seen but Ricky van Wolfswinkel’s bundled effort – from a towering Leroy Fer header – will be remembered as the one that set his City ball rolling.
The first of many we hope.
Whether that is the case looks to depend less on the Dutchman’s quality – last night’s ‘taster’ suggests he has that in abundance – but more to do with City finding a way of playing that will provide him with the ammunition. That will surely come with time and a little patience.
The friendly with Real Sociedad – played in front of a crowd of over 14,000 – provided most of those present with their first ‘live’ glimpse of Hughton’s summer purchases and there was little to disappoint; the 1-1 scoreline almost an irrelevance.
Typically, the Spaniards were comfortable in possession and the longer the game went on, the more they looked likely to snatch a late winner, but for the most part City matched them and whetted nicely the appetite for the season ahead.
Aside from the Wolf’s goal, all of the new boys played their part but with Martin Olsson arguably the pick of the bunch with a powerful and pacy display down the left side.
The Swede is without doubt going to give Javier Garrido a run for his money this season, with his penchant for ‘bombing on’ not dissimilar to that of a certain Bolton Wanderers left-back; the extra yard and a half of pace that accompanies it the main difference between the two.
Nathan Redmond was another who caught the eye; a small bundle of energy with dancing feet who looks more than capable of giving a full-back or two a rough ride this season. His partnership with Olsson certainly showed oodles of promise with both looking likely to inject some zip into City’s play this season – a dearth of pace one of the criticisms labelled at Hughton’s class of 2012/13.
The two Dutchman were – for this game at least – cast in the roles of lone striker and number 10, with Fer being asked to ‘do a Wes’ and provide the support for his compatriot. While clearly doing so in a very different way to Hoolahan, Fer used his power and skill to get on the ball and link up well with the holding midfielders – Bradley Johnson and Jonny Howson – and van Wolfswinkel.
In the second period – upon the introduction of Hoolahan – Fer was dropped back into one of the defensive midfield positions and, in fairness, probably looked a little more comfortable and involved. The dilemma for Hughton will be how to best harness the talents of the FC Twente man who looks every inch the archetypal box-to-box midfielder in a system that doesn’t easily accommodate one.
Either way, Fer showed more than enough to suggest good things in the coming nine months, even if it now looks likely he will miss the opener against Everton courtesy of two yellow cards kindly carried-forward by the Dutch FA.
The non-appearance of John Ruddy – while predictably triggering conspiracy theories abound – was explained afterwards by Hughton to be the upshot of a minor back injury sustained in training, but yet gave Mark Bunn another chance to remind us what a capable deputy he is.
The back-four looked solid enough throughout – a horror back-pass from Michael Turner aside – and handled the talented Basque outfit with reasonable comfort. With Russell Martin – in addition to being captain for the night – lining up in the centre of defence, it permitted a start at right-back for Steven Whittaker whose link-up with Robert Snodgrass rarely fails to produce a solid looking right side.
Whether Hughton’s starting XI provided one giant clue to the likely XI to face Everton will remain a mystery for now – although the suspension of Fer may scupper that particular plan – but with Sebastien Bassong unlikely to make it, the Martin/Turner partnership looks uppermost in his current thoughts.
Similarly the prospect of a lone striker, in the form of van Wolfswinkel, with a number 10 in just behind looks likely to again get the nod ahead of a front two, but possibly means a place on the bench for Gary Hooper for starters.
One of Hughton’s biggest conundrums looks likely to be the aforementioned battle for left-back, with Garrido and Olsson both wholly capable but in very different ways; the ‘horses for courses’ selection policy most probably the answer.
All in all, an entertaining and interesting evening, which – from the world’s biggest hater of friendlies – I guarantee is praise indeed; Gowers Junior also gracing the old place with his presence and unique take on events. Did you know, for example, that Steven Whittaker is a dead ringer for ‘HRH Prince William’?
Respect is also due to the two small pockets of Real Sociedad fans who added a certain no sé lo que to the occasion.
Not long now to the real thing with just the small matter of Panathinaikos to negotiate before Everton become the sole focus of our attention.
Let’s just remember… ‘Feed the Wolf and he will score’.