August 26 was a dark day. The date may have little meaning for many of you reading. Indeed, many City fans may have been competing in a local cricket league, on a family holiday somewhere exotic, or instead merely enjoying the summer sun more domestically and perhaps listening to the eloquent Chris Goreham narrating City’s fortunes.
However, for the travelling contingent who were present at the Den, something far more unsavoury was unfolding in front of us.
It had started so brightly. Fresh from arising that morning after a friend’s 21st birthday party in Winchester, I negotiated a lift to Guildford train station where I boarded an early service to Waterloo to meet my brother.
Optimism was abundant. The sun was out. Yellow and green garments became visible as we arrived in London Bridge. A lowly Millwall side were City’s opponents, a game widely perceived as winnable despite the carnage that had been witnessed at a raucous Villa Park just seven days before. We believed.
Ninety minutes and four so avoidable goals later, fans had turned. This represented more than a defeat, instead a first-half characterised by an exhibition in complete defensive incompetence and a second that delineated no tangible signs of fight. Both on the pitch and in the terraces, it really was ugly.
The following day I wrote an article for this website, vehemently criticising the work of both Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke and arguing that on that Saturday’s evidence, they had let us down.
Perhaps it was premature. Indeed, it almost certainly was, but emotions were running high. However, at the time, foreseeing anything other than gloom and an impending campaign of mediocrity became virtually impossible.
But City responded. Four days later, the signing of Grant Hanley was announced from Newcastle United, a recruitment that was pervasively praised in yellow and green circles and one that clearly sought to amend our defensive shortcomings.
We were all aware of the type of player he is. As has been revealed to us over the past few months, he isn’t pretty. He doesn’t try to be. Regardless, the business served to vindicate Webber’s increasingly shrewd judgement, representing a critical turning point in this turbulent season.
Despite a relatively slow start, Hanley has been superb. His presence at the back has had such a significant stabilising influence, not only leading to the growing thwarting of opposition attacks but also catalysing the development of others around him.
It is no coincidence that Christoph Zimmerman’s progress has accelerated so considerably since the pair started playing together. Such a process looks set to continue.
Hanley is a leader. That thick Scottish accent was continually audible from my position in the South Stand over the Christmas period, while his ability to organise was further made conspicuous at both the Pirelli and at Ashton Gate.
Clean sheets were kept at both. That did not come as a surprise. He should surely be a key contender to succeed Ivo Pinto as our captain next season.
From the sixteen games Hanley has started in, we have conceded just sixteen goals. This record incorporates the statistics from a less impressive start, including defeats against Wolves, Cardiff and Brentford.
Since our stalemate in Staffordshire on December 30, his presence at the back has seen City concede just four goals in eight. He – and those around him – is constantly improving.
Of course, he is not alone in his importance to City. The blossoming Zimmerman has been magnificent in recent weeks, dominating aerial duals and winning tackles on a regular basis at both Griffin Park and during that pride-inducing televised game at Stamford Bridge.
The brilliance of both defenders has somewhat overshadowed the performances of Timm Klose, a player who remains vital but perhaps not to the extent to which Hanley and Zimmerman are. Few would have predicted such a narrative.
Farke also deserves considerable credit. The squad he inherited was one that leaked goals on such an alarming scale last season, appearing incapable of conceding less than two away from home and so frequently showing a complete lack of resilience and character. Although he may have somewhat stifled our attacking prowess owing to his insistence of patient, possession-based build up, he has commendably addressed the area that needed such urgent treatment.
With away trips to Derby and Wolves imminent, the following weeks look set to determine the fate of City’s season. A result at the iPro on Saturday would be colossal.
Although a late play-off push may not appear out of reach – and not necessarily in City’s interests given the thin nature of our squad and the inevitable departure of James Maddison in the summer – a continuation of our recent form may see us emerge as a contender from the growing mid-table Championship pack.
If such a development is to occur, Hanley’s presence in that growingly effective back three will almost certainly be critical. He may not be flashy. He may not possess the ability to pick out team mates with fifty-yard passes. But he doesn’t care.
This is the beauty of Hanley, a player who accepts his own limitations and plays the game with a pragmatic awareness of them. For as long as he remains a component of this City defence, it is difficult to see a repeat of August 26 reoccurring anytime soon.
Tony Brown says
Spot on. I think only dressing room etiquette in the form of ‘time served’ has prevented Farke from making Hanley captain, I agree, he’s the nailed on choice.
As I said on another forum, there is a ‘cautious optimism’ pervading NCFC fans and as you say Will a result at the iPro would be seen as a massive achievement (I’d settle for a draw right now!!).
I like the fact that we are conceding far fewer goals and whilst I’m not alone in wanting to see us score more, DF has brought players in during the last transfer window, who, once they have become used to the Championship style of play will start to deliver.
London Canary says
I think Pinto has been a good (but not great Captain) so far this season, he has played very well but I think slightly lacks the presence and booming voice required. I completely agree, if Hanley stays then he should be captain next season with Pinto as vice but I would hope this is done in a way that recognises his contribution this season.
Klose is an interesting one this season, on the games I have watched, I would almost rate him as our 3rd choice CB which is no disrespect to him, only an indication of how good the other two have been. If someone where to come in with an offer for him over the summer, I would not be too upset if he left as we have a similar replacement (albeit without the pedigree) in Raggett and when Franke returns from loan, I am sure there is a good player in there still.
Michael D says
Yes, great column Will, and Hanley is certainly slowly collecting a huge fan base at Norwich. One point you haven’t mentioned is the confidence he has also given Zimmermann and Klose to bomb forward at times in recent games – I would credit Tettey’s presence at helping that too. It has been wonderful to see the blossoming relationship between Zimm, Timm and Himm. In spite of the revelation of James Maddison this season, maybe the founding of this defensive triplet may be the most important building block for the future of this squad. Especially, as you say, because though Klose has been important in the process (and it was his initial return that helped Zimmermann first settle down), he is not indispensable now. We have Raggett waiting in the wings too now, and if Timm doesn’t in fact stay, I expect Franke to return too – who hasn’t yet had the benefit of playing with more experienced CBs in our squad yet. It has been incredibly reassuring to see the difference that Hanley has made. And whilst there are plenty, justifiably, bemoaning our lack of scoring opportunities up front still, I would under no circumstances like to go back to the endless nerves created by our hopeless defending of last season.
General Melchett says
Hanley is as you say a rock on which we should build and looks natural Captain material. But I think you sell him a little short. That he doesn’t often hit 50yrd passes for our forwards to run on to, does not mean that he is incapable. I forget which game it was but I saw him do just that releasing Josh Murphy having stroad out of defence and pinged a beauty right to left for him to collect and run goalward. That our tactics dictate that the short measured pass is the more desired route, means perhaps we see less of it.
Cyprus Canary says
Spot on General he has in fact done so several times this season and in a team so slow to move from defense to attack it could be a nice surprise weapon.
Keith B says
One thing puzzles me – why are you thinking he will be needed to succeed Pinto as captain? Is Ivo jumping ship in the summer? Is he even out of contract?
Gary Field says
Contracted until 2019, but, I guess, whether he stays will be dependent on the player himself and whether the Club receives any offers they’re minded to accept.
David Bowers says
I agree that Hanley has done well. In fact all the defense has improved their performances over the recent months.
I can’t help but think this in large part due to the formation we play. Depending which positions you count as ‘defensive’ as many as 70% of our team ‘s primary job is to protect the goal. I’d hope any team with that formation would be difficult to score against. If that’s what we need to do to get through the season I’m fine with it. But the downside is obvious, we have no attacking structure and are reliant on wonder strikes. Again, I’m not against a Trybull or Maddison 30 yarder. But if Maddison goes in the summer, what’s our plan? Are we ever going to be able to play an attacking formation?
In the summer we are due to lose Tettey, Gunn, and Reed.
This may sound like me being a ‘debbie downer’, but they’re simple facts and I’m wondering if what we’re seeing is the master plan, or a short term fix. I wasn’t a big fan of Alex Neil, but at this time last season we were in 8th vs. 13th. So I’m struggling to see where the progress is, we just shifted the issue from one end of the pitch to the other.
Gary Gowers says
I hear you Dave, and there’s no debate to be had if you’re comparing 8th v 13th. By that barometer, there has been no progress.
But that 8th place was reached with a bloated squad, full of overpaid and under-performing ‘names’. Pound-for-pound that 8th place was rotten ‘value’ and was haemorrhaging the club money. It was a set-up that was clearly unsustainable.
Your point about Hanley and co excelling as the system is set up to defend is also a fair one – we were leaking goals like the proverbial sieve and so in order to stem the flow the defensive issues had to be addressed and have been, but partly at the expense of our attacking threat.
In fairness though, Farke has made no bones about this; even agreeing with your point post-match at the weekend (“We need more runners from midfield in advanced positions”). I’d be more concerned if he was claiming this iteration to be the finished product, but the signings of Hernandez, Srbeny and Leitner (albeit on loan) have been made with a view to improving us in the attacking third.
Only time will tell if they are good enough to do that.
David Bowers says
I’m 90% with you, except we’re still hemorrhaging cash and will be for the foreseeable future. I know that’s being worked on, but non player costs last season we’re 30M and and our revenue post parachute payments will be 30M. So the sums don’t work. 12 months from now we may be saying “13th was achieved by a squad hemorrhaging the club money”.
Also, for what it’s worth, the Alex Neil era is responsible for any money generated from Maddison, and of course Pritchard. Even Murphy’s sale in the summer, his value was created under Neil.
It would be wrong to assign all the negatives of poor signings to Neil and all the benefits of his good signings to the Webber era. Really that starts in earnest when his signings are sold for profit. We may find that it’s easier to turn a 5M signing into a 12M sale, than a 1M signing to a 7M sale.
Anyway, back to Hanley.
Gary Gowers says
Tbh… *whispers* Can’t disagree with any of that Dave.
Michael D says
I agree with you on this Gary. It is also one reason why, stalwart as he has been this season, Alex Tettey’s contract on his wages, will not be renewed. I’m sure DF loves his defensive solidity, but he would also like a player in there that can pick a better pass, since in general Alex does not advance us down the pitch. It will be interesting to see if the balance changes if Leitner is brought in alongside Tettey (even if harsh on Trybull), and how that affects our forward momentum. And I would expect more emphasis now on those runners in coming games. It will be interesting to see how this formation evolves, as Farke gradually brings more of his own ethos to it.
Alex B says
As of today’s breaking news, Tettey is in talks to extend his contract. He must be open to a drop in money which possibly would still be more than he would get from Rosenborg.
Dave (and Gary). DF said in one of his interviews last week after the transfer window had closed, that the two signings and two loans were ‘to improve our OFFENSIVE capability. Yes Dave you’re quite correct when you compare our current league position with the same time last year, but in the meantime, we exited both cups by the narrowest of margins, we already have 12 clean sheets and OK, we have a negative goal difference, but most of that damage was done in a couple of games early in the season. I’d also agree that we need to score more goals, but if you look at the stats from the Middlesbrough game, their keeper made 5 saves and 5 shots were blocked – so I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before our conversion rate increases.
Gary mentions the fact that the majority of the team last season were playing in the PL the previous season and were FULLY aware of what was needed to compete in the Championship and were in the twilight of their careers, whereas now ……….
David Bowers says
I get your point about the clean sheets and cup games. I also understand that our winter signings were attacking.
For me what will be interesting is what Farke does with them and what then happens to our defensive setup. How do we perform if we have to go to a flat back four, or lose our defensive midfielders? Essentially, did we solve our defensive woes by improved training, better tactics, higher quality players. Or did we just through numbers at it.
If it’s the latter that is fine for a cup game and fixing a problem, but as a long term tactic it doesn’t excite me. If we keep the wing backs but ditch the defensive midfielders for something more attacking, then I’m all in.
Colin M says
The real issue over the past few seasons has been a lack of leaders on the pitch. Hanley and Trybull are such characters both making a considerable difference to our collective performance and togetherness. The back division now have an air of calmness, control and authority, Angus Gunn has also contributed hugely to this with his calm and assured composure.
Not sure anyone wants to play us at present, Villa are the form team and will go up along with Wolves but expect a scrap for that final play- off place!
Alex B says
The thing missing is a mention of how good Gunn has been and the confidence he must give the CB’S playing in front of him.
I was expecting Klose to have left during the Jan window to give him a better chance of being selected for the Swiss world cup squad we will see if he is in contention when the next squads are called.
City have a loan watch for players in this country that are playing at other clubs and it makes a good read to see how there are progressing, I read a mention for Cantwell not a lot of his performance just that he played, but not seen much on Franke back to Germany and how he is turning his game around.
So if all the loaned out players return next season and Gunn goes back to Man City we should be in great shape my one wish is that we try and keep Maddison or sign Leitner as his replacement
Leitner’s transfer fee shouldn’t be a problem (if we sell Maddison) but there are several factors making a permanent move unlikely, and Farke has already tried to dampen down any such expectations.
Would he want to swap the German top division for the English second division? And if we have a strict pay ceiling would he happy complying with that?
The better he plays for us then the more chance there is that a bigger richer club somewhere will come in with a more lucrative offer.
Gary Gowers says
I’m with you on this Pab. For all the reasons you state, I find it hard to disagree with those who see him as this season’s Mitchell Dijks. Players who have had even a faint whiff of a Champions League Final are not a natural fit for our new wage structure.
Keith B says
I see we’re getting back to the idea that unless fans can see/hear a player barking out orders on the pitch he can’t be any good as a captain. It’s just not as simple as that.
Seriously, having given Pinto the job then surely as long as he’s a first pick he will keep it, unless he asks to give it up. That doesn’t look like happening – he seems to love the place. So why would Farke risk demotivating him by making an unnecessary change?
Cyprus Canary says
You don’t have to be the captain to make your presence felt on the field. In fact you will see many good teams have several vocal players. On the more general points made concerning our attacking play look at Farke’s previous. He was successful in his previous job not through scoring loads of goals but because of miserly defense. We have been banging on about patience all season and progress has been made defensively but I am concerned that Farke’s idea of success is based around 1: 0 rather than 3: 1.
Keith B says
I sort of agree Cyprus, but then keep thinking about how we complained under Neil and at times, Lambert, about our inability to defend!
I wonder which is worse for the nerves – watching an open game worrying the other lot will score 4 to our 3, or watching a tight game worrying that we’ll never nick that one goal we need to secure the points?
I suppose many managers prefer the latter on the basis that at least if you shut the opposition out altogether you’re guaranteed a point, whilst us fans want the entertainment.
Alex B says
I think it is something like never the twain shall meet as my old dad would say. Those for a strong defence and less goals scored will never agree with those that want more goals scored.
It would be great to have City score more and have exciting games, also to have a plus goal difference but the negative side is conceding more.
David Bowers says
Just to point out, Wolves have both the best attack and best defense in the league. They are not mutually exclusive. We’ve just had managers who seem unable to do both in recent years.
Gary Gowers says
They’re certainly not mutually exclusive, but they are more easily achievable when you have a bigger budget than most, if not all, of the Championship.
David Bowers says
I knew I picked the wrong example. Put it this way, I just went back and looked at all the tables since the turn of the decade. I looked at the playoff positions for those 7 full seasons, which means I’m not looking at the one-off super teams. To scrape into a playoff position, almost without exception, you need…
+15 to +20 GD.
60 to 70 in the GF column.
We are on to score 48 goals, and that’s a season long trend through both good form and bad…