And along came Norwich…
This feels like Groundhog Day. Another Sunday morning on which to reflect on a City performance that had the odd moment but was generally a litany of the half-hearted, the heart-breaking and the inept. A performance that was unworthy of a loyal and loud Yellow Army.
And now, instead of hovering near but not quite in the brown stuff we’re slap bang in the middle of it. Right up to our necks in fact. But that’s what tends to happen when you lose five league games on the bounce and when in that miserable run you’re shipping goals at an average of more than three per game.
And that’s also what tends to occur when you lose eight of your last nine away games.
The punters now understandably expect City to join Aston Villa and Sunderland in the Championship next season and it’s impossible, as things stand, to contest. Even Alastair Campbell of a Tony Blair vintage would struggle to put a positive spin on our predicament. And as the weeks pass there are fewer and fewer positives to cling on to.
Unfortunately, at times like this the blame game kicks in. We need someone on whom to unleash our wrath. It’s human nature. And naturally it’s those deemed to be the weakest link who are on the receiving end. For most of the season it’s been Russ, Graham Dorrans stepped up after the Liverpool game and Ivo Pinto made an early bid after Tuesday’s Tottenham shoeing.
But, tellingly, yesterday it was the manager who was in the sights of Twitter’s #ncfc and Canary Call, the vast majority questioning his insistence on playing players out of position and for continually chopping and changing his starting XI.
And it was not only the chosen XI that was in question but also the formation in which they were set up. I’ll avoid using the shape analogy but to see Jonny Howson and Wes playing right and left respectively when both are infinitely better performers when playing in the centre of the pitch immediately screamed ‘imbalance’, particularly when there were natural wide players on the bench.
But it wasn’t just those two. Questions have to be asked of the inclusion of Youssouf Mulumbu, who looks a shadow of the player who was the glue that held together the West Brom midfield and of whom we saw flashes in pre-season, and the decision to use Robbie Brady as a full-back who can attack rather than a wide midfielder who can defend.
Brady, for me, is the latter of those two options.
It was a starting XI that, in addition to the imbalance, also screamed ‘fragile’ and it was another one of those days when if Villa had been asked to chose opponents against whom they could launch one final, probably futile, assault for survival they would have picked us.
Eighteen other teams in that same position would have requested the same.
Right now we’re the whipping boys; the team everyone wants to play.
In desperate need of a win? Call for Norwich.
Your striker in the midst of a barren run? Call for Norwich.
Cynical maybe, but painfully true right now and has been the case for most of the season. It’s one thing to ship three at home to title-chasing Tottenham but to get turned over by a team who had won only twice all season and who were without their two first-choice strikers is unforgivable.
Villa were awful in yesterday’s first-half – Remi Garde admitted as much – but still, thanks to the softest of soft goals, we went in at half-time a goal behind. And we now lead the table for having conceded most goals from set pieces – the bread and butter of defending.
Gary O’Neil spoke eloquently post-match of his belief in him and his team-mates being able to turn things round in the second half. Alas I had not even the slightest notion of a comeback and suspect I was far from alone.
The BBC Sport Videprinter may as well have read: Aston Villa 1 – 0 Norwich City (Lescott 45′) GAME OVER.
If the first goal was the result of abject defending, the second verged on calamitous and, as a result, the gaze now returns to who should be City’s first-choice keeper. Yet another uncertainty in a team that is positively riddled with them.
The constant need to analyse the opponents of the day and then, from the pool of players available, select the XI best equipped to counteract their strengths has not worked, not least because what was once a team well drilled in its respective roles has now morphed into a mish-mash of individuals trying desperately, and failing, to work as a cohesive unit.
Where once City were organised and slick, now they appear haphazard and disjointed.
At this point I would usually witter on about us being the 20th best resourced side in the league and how to avoid relegation would technically be an over-achievement but after yesterday even that theory is leaking like a sieve. Villa were ordinary – worse than ordinary – and player-for-player City were more than a match for them; the complete antithesis of Tuesday night’s 11 v 11 match up.
And, after us spending around £20 million in the January window, I could have done without Messrs Lineker, Shearer and Wright reminding us on MotD that Leicester City’s starting line-up yesterday was purchased for the grand total of £22.5 million.
But, perhaps we should not forget that this City squad – minus those purchased for the aforementioned £20 million – is the same one that gloriously won at Old Trafford just before Christmas, and which impressed plenty of pundits with its brand of attacking football in the first third of the season.
Hidden in there somewhere is an XI capable of far better than it’s currently delivering. It’s a rotten cliché but there’s no other way of saying it: they need to get back to basics. And that means deciding upon and sticking with a best XI. We have no cup distractions, few excuses for having to rest players and a single goal (you know what I mean).
Oh, and there was one positive: I thought Patrick Bamford looked like he wanted it.
Sorry if that came across as a rant… but it was (and quite a cathartic one too). I hope and pray that normal service can be resumed next Sunday morning and we can dissect an unlikely win over West Ham. Until then…
“City ’til I die”