It’s certainly a big week – the biggest so far this season.
This evening (thanks fixture computer) sees City face arguably their toughest Championship away day, at Newcastle United, before a tricky looking trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers in front of the awaiting TV cameras.
A win in either of these games would likely see us maintain a position in the top two going into the international break – a far cry from the last one, which saw toys being frantically thrown from prams.
And, Birmingham aside, it’s been a positive start. Moving to the top of the table on the back of five straight wins is the perfect way to head up to Geordie land.
City refused to ‘go for a Burton’ and, despite an impressive display from our first-time visitors, ran out relatively comfortable winners – even allowing for our now customary penalty miss.
Oddly, it almost feels like we are in a false position, partly because we haven’t really played particularly well this season, and also due to the majority of our opponents so far, residing in the lower reaches of the division.
But you can only beat what is put in front of you and the last time we were in this division our Achilles heel was a failure to win against the so-called lesser lights.
It was a wonderful moment to see Ivo Pinto lash in an unstoppable last minute clincher on Saturday and Martin Olsson, who is also playing very well, added a goal himself – both full backs currently offering so much going forward.
We definitely have enough creative spark to scare every single club in this division but there are concerns about the soft underbelly that appears to have rolled over from last season. I worry that a better side will take full advantage, where Burton failed to. The goal we conceded at the weekend was beyond calamitous.
It’s difficult to know what we could change. Michael McGovern has come in and done fine. And at centre back there’s really nothing between Ryan Bennett and Russell Martin – it’s a judgement call. Martin takes too many risks but adds a few goals; Bennett hoofs the ball far too much but appears calmer defensively.
Both have strengths, both have weaknesses – but both are good enough for this level.
Even Timm Klose is looking a little wobbly. He’s like a Rolls Royce whose owner has chosen to take it off-road. I personally think he’s far too good for this division – and I think he knows it too. He isn’t concentrating – but he’s still our best centre back and it’s vital he stays fit.
Rafa Benitez (he won the Champions League by the way – not sure if it’s been mentioned) could do a lot worse than throw Daryl Murphy into the fold. Klose struggled to deal with his physicality back in August.
Last time at St James’ Park, we witnessed one of the most bizarre matches I can recall. It ended 6-2 (as if you’d forgotten…) but had that score line been reversed I doubt many would have been surprised.
It was also the match where Alex Neil began to doubt his own philosophy. Never mind driving a bus through our defence – it could have been a Boeing 747.
As a result Neil went back to the drawing board to try and find a more balanced, defensive mix.
It didn’t really work.
I believe relegation has allowed him to go back to a more open and expansive way of playing, pushing full backs high – and I for one am happy with that, despite the obvious defensive flaws it presents.
Having said that, given last season’s collapse at the same venue, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Alex Tettey return to ‘stiffen up’ the midfield. Offered a choice between Jonny Howson and Graham Dorrans, I’d expect it’d be at the latter’s expense – which would be a shame as he has played exceptionally well since returning from injury.
We will likely face far greater pressure than we have at any time during this season and concentrating defensively while hitting our opponents on the counter attack and being clinical in front of goal will be key to getting a positive result.
Newcastle have been a little hit and miss thus far. From slaughtering QPR in West London, to capitulating at home to Wolves, you feel the ‘Toon’ haven’t quite hit upon the right formula just yet – especially at home. And they will be frustrated following their late draw at Villa Park too, having dominated for long spells.
We know all about Newcastle. They have had a high turnover of players and brought in established Championship players – all for a large profit. They were always likely to have a patchy start given the changes made.
For my money, anyone who finishes above both Norwich and Newcastle will be promoted this season.
But this is a game the home side can’t really afford to lose, even at this early stage. Dropping seven points behind the leaders after only ten games would mean serious questions will be asked of the manager.
Wolves, on the other hand, are a bit of an unknown. Big finance is now available at Molineux, but most seems to have been spent on wages rather than transfer fees at this stage.
The injection of new blood from Benfica gives them a continental flair, and the word from fans is that the style of play under the flamboyant Walter Zenga has improved ten-fold on last season, even if results have, like Newcastle, been up and down.
There’s no reason why we can’t win both matches. Equally, given our poor records at both grounds, it is entirely possible we will lose both – such is the nature of this league.
I’d probably be happy with two draws – keep the unbeaten run going, deny two possible promotion contenders gaining on us – and it would leave us with 22 points from 11 games. Bang on track for the ultimate goal.
Follow James on Twitter @JamesFinbow
Stewart Lewis says
Good stuff, James. Can’t disagree about the wonderful unpredictability.
In terms of playing style – expansive versus cautious – we surely have to take into account the gulf in quality between the Premier League and Championship. In a nutshell, you can get away with things in the Champ that you can’t in the PL (maybe part of Timm Klose’s concentration challenge).
That has to affect our thinking about tactics and selection – though AN probably overdid the tinkering last year. It’ll be most interesting to see him have another crack at it.
But first things first…
General Melchett says
I agree with you, it has been a positive start to the season and I am optomistic we can go to both venues and get results. I think we are gradually improving and some of that maybe a modicum greater stability in line up. When we have both Olsson and Pinto fit and firing we look a much better side and I think there are some signs that Neil is returning to his early footballing philosophies that he seemed to abanden after that Newcastle result.
Keeping it tight and quietening down the crowd to start with will be key. Then when they are feeling the tension we can give them a right good thrashing!
We miss you Superman
Keith B says
I think Tettey will return, but possibly at the expense of Jacob Murphy. Neil is right to defend the young lad’s right to make a few mistakes whilst he’s learning on the job – which basically means his propensity for overdoing it a bit and losing the ball. But it’s not the night for that.
Keep it tight and than try 20 mins at the end from Jacob and Oliveira might be the way to win this one.
A point or more tonight should see Neil take manager of the month with Jacob nabbing the young player award.
Bob in Diss says
Curse that fixture computer.
Not won at St. James since 1985
Not won at Molineux since 1995
Two wins in 4 days – a miracle.
Win and draw – excellent
Two draws – very good
Two defeats – disappointing but not fatal.
Discipline – concentration – precision required.
Stewart Lewis says
Bob in Diss (4): Don’t forget Alex Neil is pretty good at putting those ‘jinxes’ to bed.
We hadn’t beaten Fulham for years…
General Melchett says
Test one failed in spectacularly incompetent Liverpool last season fashion. I have continually defended Bassong as a decent defender at this level, but last night he was indefensively poor. He is far from the only one to blame, the Martin/Bassong pairing has been exposed as inadequate plenty of times before but Klose can’t come back fast enough!
At least we neither got thrashed, which for 30 minutes it looked like we might or will face any better team this season.