Whatever your pre-season predictions – and mine were optimistically for a mid-table finish – life back in the Premier League was never going to be easy. The distinct lack of summer transfer activity simply meant that we were, Robbie Brady apart, going with substantially the same squad that got us relegated back in May 2014.
For many pundits, City were simplistically viewed as lacking genuine Premier League quality, thereby firmly putting us into the category of relegation certainties.
Now, as we rapidly approach the season’s half way point, it’s stating the obvious that we’re not where we want to be and that the pundits’ pre-season predictions are now generally being mirrored by many City fans’ own sense of foreboding.
To be fair, in most matches, City have given competitive performances, at least in part, and there also seems an overall sense that performances have merited more points on the board. However, there’s an equally common perception that, all too frequently, City’s own woeful defending just makes the overall survival task so much more difficult than it really should be.
Is it unsurprising, with 16 Premier League games played, that only four teams – Bournemouth, Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa – have conceded more goals than City?
What is perhaps more surprising is that City’s 18 goals scored is actually currently better than no less than five other teams – Villa, Stoke, West Brom, Swansea and Sunderland, with Newcastle and seventh placed Watford also on 18.
And, whilst the headline figure may look moderately impressive in comparison to our competitors, the underlying detail actually tells a different picture.
The hard facts are these.
Our 18 goals have actually been scored by TEN different players, with Nathan Redmond being top-scorer with FOUR goals. Perhaps more telling, our main three strikers – Cameron Jerome, Dieumerci Mbokani and Lewis Grabban – have just FIVE goals between them.
That’s simply not good enough.
Arguably, many will perceive that playing with just one up front is the root cause of the problem; yet most Premier League teams play that way but don’t seem have similar goal scoring issues.
So, is it simply a case of the main strikers “not being up to it”, or, are there other associated problems?
Certainly, when playing with just one up front, there is a greater emphasis on the role of your “Number Ten”.
For City, that’s usually Wes. Two goals, plus five assists, from eleven starts, plus two substitute appearances, is also a modest return. And, if that’s perceived as harsh on Wes, he now has ten goals in 74 starts and 21 substitute appearances. That’s roughly a one goal in every eight Premier League games.
However, before I get accused of being on an “anti-Wes” crusade, there are clearly other problems to be addressed.
So, here goes.
Everton, as we all know, are distinctly better than your average Premier League team, having far more resources available to them than City. That said, there was one telling difference between the two sides on Saturday: the transition from defence to offence.
They frequently countered with pace and often had three, four and, in one case in the first half, five players racing forwards in support of the man in possession. It wasn’t “gung-ho” or all-out attack. It was co-ordinated, combining pace with movement and seeking to overload areas where City were short in numbers.
By contrast, City’s approach couldn’t have been starker. Jerome was often isolated, Wes frequently outnumbered by three or four Everton midfield players, the build-up play out from the back was usually half-paced and speed of movement of the ball through midfield all too often painfully slow.
City rarely manage to counter-attack the opposition at pace – and not just on Saturday – and, when they do, frequently struggle to get sufficient numbers forwards, unless, of course, it’s for a free kick or corner routine.
Overall, City’s approach during the opening weeks of this season was often too open and expansive. We looked like regular scorers, but, also, frequent conceders. The change in emphasis following the Newcastle defeat was necessary but, whilst it tightened things up at the back, it also reduced our effectiveness offensively. Yet somewhere between the two approaches, there has to be a plan which recognises both our inherent weaknesses, whilst also yielding a greater points return?
Forthcoming team selections; whether it means dropping the captain, sacrificing a crowd’s favourite, or a misfiring striker, will be critical. This simply isn’t the time for accommodating non-performing players.
And, critically, the additions of at least two or three quality players during the transfer window is absolutely essential to give a realistic chance of avoiding relegation.
I still believe that there’s little to choose between 14th placed Bournemouth and 19th placed Sunderland – although I exclude Chelsea from relegation candidates. However, we can’t go simply hoping that there are three worse teams than us.
It may be stating the obvious, but, January is simply HUGE, both on and off the field. Time to deliver, in both areas.
“On the Ball City…”