This two up top lark is not working is it.
Despite the best intentions of Team Hughton, the current iteration of 4-4-2 is just not functioning as it does on the Prozone plan. Alas we all know what happens to best made plans.
As things stand the reality compared to the theory is falling horribly short. Faced invariably with a five man midfield City currently find themselves woefully short of possession; on the rare occasion the ball is surrendered by the opposition the dearth of options available usually results in the ball being given back to them.
As my River End neighbour put it: “They [Newcastle] don’t have to do anything to get the ball back. If they’re patient enough we’ll give it to them.”
And that pretty much summed up last night’s first half. Seldom can I recall a forty-five in which City had so little of the ball and – on the rare occasions they did find themselves in possession – being so wasteful with it.
I dare not even enquire as to the successful pass percentage.
Clearly this had much to do with the extra body deployed by Newcastle in the centre of the pitch – Leroy Fer and Bradley Johnson again coming a distant second in the battle for midfield supremacy – but was exacerbated by the technical deficiencies so evident.
Newcastle shifted the ball at speed and with precision. City did so ponderously and carelessly. Newcastle were sharp and bright. City were slow and sluggish.
The result: An opening period so one-sided one half-expected to see a white towel land pitchside from the direction of the City dugout.
But, football being the daft game it is, they were somehow able – thanks to a mixture of rotten luck, rotten finishing, inspired goalkeeping and the odd crossbar – to survive the most humiliating of lessons; the shelter of the dressing room affording them respite from the Toon onslaught and the Carrow Road boos.
There’s no point pretending it was anything other than awful – Hughton admitted as much in conversation with BBC Radio Norfolk’s Chris Goreham – and the fifteen minute interval was wholly insufficient to dissect all the wrongs that had gone before.
The second period – while never reaching the extreme lows of the first – still left plenty of room for improvement, but the fact that Tim Krul ended the game in need of a shower and City themselves hit the woodwork at least provided tangible evidence of an improvement.
Further proof of what a daft game football can be came in the closing stages when Robert Snodgrass came within a whisker of actually winning it for City. From being on their knees, and one blow on the chin from being knocked out, it took a fine save from Krul to save the Toon from defeat.
In my Metro report I used the analogy of Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle, where he absorbed round upon round of punishment from George Foreman while bouncing round the ropes, only to turn the tables and win handsomely once his exhausted opponent was drained of spirit and energy.
In hindsight a better one would have been the pro-wrestling scenario of the plucky, dazed and ‘punch-drunk’ loser finding – from nowhere – the energy and strength to overcome the cocky and over-confident baddie.
Alas both analogies fail at the final hurdle because City had no intention of being so thoroughly outplayed in the first place. For all the accusations to the contrary I have no doubt Hughton had no wish to see his side being so comprehensively outplayed, nor struggle so much in the final third.
As pointed out by one informed City commentator earlier today, it’s a classic chicken and egg situation. By playing five in midfield you increase your chances of creating goalscoring opportunities, but for one striker. But play two strikers and the price you pay is a lack of numbers in the centre of the pitch, and the creativity suffers.
The simple answer of course is to have two central midfielders who can do the job of three but Yaya Toures don’t grow on trees, unless your name is Sheikh Mansour.
With Ricky still struggling to find, and stay on, his feet I have to say I’d be tempted to load the midfield and demand that two of them make it their business to get close to Gary Hooper. At least that way we give ourselves a chance of retaining possession.
The higher the level, the more important it becomes to keep the ball. It’s a mantra that even Andy Townsend tires of repeating (well, maybe not) and at the moment, despite playing at the highest level, we’re just not very good at it.
And on the subject of the technique Premier League-style, I fear some of our current number are not, and will never be, good enough.
However, one who is blessed with a sound technique, but who is struggling a little, is Fer. And while I may be a lone voice, I have a theory with regard to his current plight.
In my simplistic mind City are at their best when they’re playing on the front foot and at a quick tempo; the ball being shifted at pace. We’re not good enough to do the quick-quick-slow thing.
Fer, on the other hand, has a natural tendency – doubtless borne of his Eredivisie background – to slow things down; to do the patient thing when the British tendency is to do things in a forward direction.
And while I’m all for keeping possession (I’ve been harping on about it for months) when the ball is being shifted slowly and deliberately we have enough weak links that eventually it breaks down and the ball is still given away.
What I’m trying to say (but failing…) is that Fer’s natural game currently appears to be at odds with City’s strength and that, in itself, is causing a problem.
I’m unsure however of the solution – and would hate to imagine a City midfield without him – but in order for the side to function as the well-oiled machine we all want it to be this is one of a few circles that need to be squared. And soon.
We’re not a happy little ship at the moment and while Robert Snodgrass has made his peace with the Snake Pit the general atmosphere is getting a little too ‘Worthington’ for my liking.
As ever, it’s nothing that a few wins wouldn’t put right but quite where they’re coming from is the $64,000 question right now.
I guess we have little choice but to fasten our seat belts… this could get rocky.