Three league games and a Carabao Cup match into the new season and Daniel Farke’s second season is off to a tepid start.
The fact that none of the league games culminated in a win, and that our one point garnered so far would have been zero points but for a last-minute intervention by Onel Hernandez on the opening day has moved the Canary Call Panickometer needle from “Disappointed” to “Angry” and dangerously close to “Full on S*itfit”.
So, when the dust has settled, and the toys are back in the pram after the late Bramall Lane despair, what have we learned from our skirmishes so far this season?
1. Our soft underbelly remains. Last season we combined some great performances against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Cardiff etc, with a maddening inability to finish teams off when we had them on the ropes and a penchant for conceding goals that were eminently avoidable. Nothing about our early season form appears to have changed in that regard.
2. We are attacking more effectively. The big worry was that without the goals and assists of Messrs Maddison and Murphy that made up the vast majority of our attacking threat last year we would be every bit as toothless as Iwan Roberts.
Ironically while I would love some of the menace of the Welsh marauder to add a battering ram to the current options, the fact is that a loanee, a free signing, and a German third division striker, have been able to feed off better quality supply than was available for much of the last campaign and we are looking dangerous in front of goal once more.
Our goalscoring return of three in two away matches and six in two home games is better than expected and without some profligate finishing should have been even more. We are moving the ball more quickly through the thirds which was the chief criticism last year.
3. After the home defeat to WBA, Daniel Farke stated that the defensive mistakes occurring now are less serious than a year ago when we were butchered at Villa Park and The Den. He cited the fact that the current errors are individual one-offs and not collective ineptitude as was the case last August. To a certain extent, I agree. However, matches in this league are won and lost on tiny fractions.
Points won from a moment of outstanding skill pale in comparison to those lost to a moment of poor concentration and minor error. Generally, we defend quite well, but our ability to look solid for 85 minutes and then concede at the death against the likes of Birmingham and Sheffield United, just at the point where we should be most alert and on the ball is not the basis for a successful, mentally durable, team. Psychologically we look weak.
4. Onel Hernandez looks fantastic. A constant headache for opposing fullbacks, his rapid dribbling and superb delivery has created chances aplenty. You have to think that the more Hernandez, Rhodes and Pukki get to know each other, the more chances are going to come. A real area of hope moving forward.
5. Tetbull is not what it was. Last season the nine times the duo started together City were unbeaten and looked much more solid. This season they look, collectively and individually, weak links. Whilst our play down the flanks has been pleasingly accelerated, the speed of ball movement from the defensive midfield area has been every bit as insipid and uninspired as it was at the worst points of the last campaign.
It’s premature to talk about replacing either in my opinion but we need some sign that these guys can be a part of an exciting new attack, and not anchors weighing us down, particularly when the defence is having so many porous moments.
6. There is more to come from the summer signings. Whilst Jordan Rhodes and Teemu Pukki are ticking along nicely already and Ben Marshall and Tim Krul have settled well they all should move up a gear as they continue to attune to their surroundings and the abilities and movements of their team-mates. Add in the exciting potential of a fully-fit Emi Buendia acclimatised to the English game and the vagaries of the Championship and the near future looks intriguing.
7. Round pegs and square holes. We’ve had right-footed left-backs, Teemu Pukki who doesn’t really track back playing as an attacking central midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 formation, and the Hoolahan-esque one-footedness of Kenny McLean trying to shoe-horn his impressive left peg into service as a wide-right midfielder.
Marco Stiepermann who played as a left back for much of last season seems to have sworn off the position with an almost religious fervour as throughout pre-season and the start of this campaign we’ve fielded, Husband, Pinto, Aarons, briefly Thompson, and Lewis and only the latter would realistically have been expected to start at LB ahead of the German when push came to competitive shove. Instead, Farke has given him repeated opportunities to stake a claim as an attacking midfielder, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it’s curious how resolute Farke has been in avoiding a return to defensive duties for Stiepermann. Whilst the attacking has improved you have to wonder how much more effective we could be with left-footers on the left side and vice-versa.
The next three games ahead of the international break are already being billed as “Must win” in some quarters, and whilst Stuart Webber is unlikely to be swayed so early in the season, if we don’t pick up some points or, god forbid, lose at Portman Road, large sections of the fanbase will be mutinous.
Daniel Farke has clearly tried to shift the balance of the side to create more chances and as yet he hasn’t got it quite right. He has to show that he can and soon. The indicators are that the right blend isn’t a million miles away but results are everything and can’t be ignored indefinitely.