For the neutral yesterday’s six-goal extravaganza at Elland Road was in thriller territory – no question.
The side with nothing to play for except pride zooms off into a three-goal lead by virtue of some precise and scintillating counter-attacking football, only for their opponents – for whom the game is literally ‘must win’ – to claw their way back into the game, get level and threaten to win it.
Throw into that same pot a full, noisy, pulsating stadium and a red card for the nasty party-pooping visitors and you have a fine advert for Championship football.
But we’re not neutral. And even though it doesn’t really matter any more, to have given the long-suffering away-day faithful the memory of an Elland Road victory to help soften slightly the pain of many of the catastrophes that have gone before would have been fitting.
That it didn’t happen however came as no surprise. For the umpteenth time this season when away from the comfort of Carrow Road oodles of good work was undone thanks to a resolve that can only be described as lily-livered. (Actually, that’s not true – other adjectives are available but I’m sticking with lily-livered).
With only one game to go, to dissect why we suffer so badly when the pressure dial goes beyond half-way is pointless but there’s no doubting much of it boils down to the basics of defending as highlighted so eloquently on Friday by fellow columnist, James Finbow: concentration, communication and organisation.
City appear reasonably capable of doing all of the above when playing at home, with the crowd and a fair wind behind them, but when in unfamiliar surroundings and when said pressure dial starts to flicker into life the three defensive basics simply go out of the window.
As James’ alluded to, the organisational element can be achieved, theoretically, by monotonous training ground drills that hammer it into the psyche so much it becomes second nature. Tony Pulis has made a career out of it. But it still needs a mental resolve to carry out said routines when the head is fuzzy and the flak is flying.
That’s when it falls down and is why the man whose initials are SW (I vowed not to harp on about him again this morning) will be looking, with his team, to offer the Class of 2018 a solid base from which to perform – be they at home or away.
Yet talk of a complete overhaul with as few as twelve of the existing squad still in situ brings with it risk – at least an element of it.
The current squad, for all its undeniable faults, has an attacking edge that’s matched by very few in the Championship. To take a sledgehammer to that part of the squad threatens to throw a baby or two out with the bathwater.
The SW man and his new head coach may of course decide that’s a worthy price to pay if it means defensive solidity, and as I wrote last Sunday this new iteration must be built from back to front, but there’s clearly a balance to be struck with good, solid, old-fashioned Championship style defending not being achieved at the expense of attacking thrust.
The man who I was not going to mention but have now done so three times is evidently a smart operator and will be acutely aware of this, and will have admired (and noted) along with the rest of us how City were able to give the Leeds defence the ‘hot knife through butter’ treatment in yesterday’s first-half. So we have to trust his judgement.
The Alan Irvine factor continues to be impossible to ignore and as caretaker managers go he’s been a calm and reassuring presence – the press boys and girls in particular all speaking very highly of him with regard to their dealings – and he’s gradually stamped his own mark on how the side plays.
His impact on Alex Pritchard has been obvious to all, even to the extent that he’s now popping up on radars we probably don’t want him to, but so too his ability to get a tune out of Steven Naismith, which for the most part eluded Alex Neil.
His late rush of blood aside – indiscipline is another trait that has to be addressed by the new regime – Naismith offered up another reminder of why the club fought so hard to sign him in the first place, and when he clicks there is no doubting his quality. So far it hasn’t happened often enough but that good player that tormented Premier League defences is still in there.
The issue with Naismith however isn’t rooted solely in matters of the footballing variety. That he’s a pain in the backside for defenders when he’s on it is no longer in doubt (even though Gowers Snr steadfastly refuses to accept it) but has he offered the club value for money? And, given his hefty burden on the payroll, is he likely to offer value for money going forward?
A rhetorical question perhaps and also, for obvious reasons, most probably a moot point.
Sunderland were unwilling to match his current wages in January, at 30 he’s unlikely to be offered a better payday elsewhere (even in the lower half of the Prem), and even if an enquiry were forthcoming any deal would necessitate the club making a hefty loss on its £8.5m outlay.
My rudimentary maths and gut tell me he’s here for the duration of his contract, so perhaps we should embrace all that he has to offer the side, accept his ‘edge’ for what it is and squeeze every last drop out of our investment. And lump on him hitting double-figures next season.
So, just one to go. And while yesterday offered entertainment, it also offered frustration. Standard.
Oh, did I mention we scuppered Leeds’ whole season? 😉
Don’t forget to ‘tune in’ to MFW tomorrow morning. At 8am I’ll be hitting ‘go’ on Stewart Lewis’ enlightening interview with City’s managing director, Steve Stone. Not one to be missed.