The three-month hiatus, during which time football became a virtual irrelevance, played a cruel trick with the collective mind.
It convinced us the “little miracle” of which Daniel Farke spoke at length was do-able. And no football – with far more important things going on in the world – meant the agonising and the navel-gazing stopped for a while.
For all the wrong reasons, we were spared the weekly inquest into what had gone wrong the previous weekend and why they had, again, come up just short.
For us, the break, from a pure footballing perspective, was something of a relief. A break from the stress, the frustration and said disheartening weekly debates/arguments.
And then, as Project Restart became a thing and it became apparent that they would again be kicking a ball in anger under the banner 2019/20, some unjustified belief started seeping into our thoughts.
Given the length of the layoff, maybe, just maybe, the reset would work in our favour. Refreshed limbs and minds would hopefully reinvigorate our battle against the drop, with a break longer than a normal preseason effectively giving Team Farke an opportunity to shake off some of the baggage of a tough season.
At least that was what we told ourselves.
As it’s transpired, that was no more than straw clutching of the very highest order.
Instead, surprise surprise, those players who were not good enough before the break are still not good enough. In fact, minus a buoyant home crowd to help raise an extra couple of percentage points out of the players to help bridge the quality gap, their deficiencies have been further exposed.
Against Southampton, there were some misgivings about the desire and application of some players – misgivings that were challenged by Farke – but that wasn’t the issue last night. No lack of effort or determination. Instead, it boiled down to two very common themes: the inability to defend set-pieces, and a dearth of quality in the attacking third.
The latter wasn’t helped I guess by benching the three players who have, in fleeting moments, offered some invention and inspiration in the final third over the course of the season, but I accepted Farke’s pre-match reasoning and there was enough evidence in last night’s first half to suggest it was a plan that had legs.
It also permitted him the option of bringing Pukki, Buendia and Cantwell on when Everton legs and minds were tiring, assuming City were still in the game and there was still a game there to be won. More on that in a bit.
But the plan worked to a point. Team Farke had clearly identified Everton’s fullbacks – Coleman and Digne – as key to the way they play and decided that Onel Hernandez and Lukas Rupp would do more to quell their threat than Emi Buendia and Todd Cantwell.
And in that respect, it was job done with the added bonus of Onel also being City’s most potent attacking force. Rather than sitting in front of Jamal Lewis and offering protection, Hernandez was able to curtail Coleman’s attacking instincts by forcing him to defend. It worked.
On the other side, Rupp, in his own limited way, sat in front of Aarons, and denied Digne the chance to continually bomb on in a Leighton Baines style. It was, kind of, job done in a tentative, less-than-thrilling way, which I’m not sure warranted the mockery of Lineker at halftime.
The BBC’s finest claimed to have watched a lot of football since the restart so I was therefore a tad surprised he found the entertainment level so shocking when it was on a par with most other games. But I digress…
For City, what followed was sadly reminiscent of so much that has gone before this season, with the early second-half initiative ceded to a team who’d been reminded at halftime that an increase in tempo was required.
Even before Michael Keane’s winner, Everton had shown signs of life and, let’s be honest, not a single City supporter would have been surprised to see the Everton centre-back head home, virtually unchallenged, from what was no more than an okay-ish delivery.
I’m not going to revive the zonal marking debate other than to say when it’s executed properly it’s every bit as effective as man-to-man marking. We just don’t execute it well enough. Nothing like well enough.
Even more disheartening was that the goal literally signalled the end of City’s challenge for the evening. No lack of effort, plenty of huffing and puffing, and a few nice touches from Pukki and Buendia following their introductions, but not once in that second-half did they sting the palms of Jordan Pickford.
Of all the damning statistics floating around, the one that tells the tale of City not extracting even a single point from a losing position this season is the one that hurts the most. It’s also the one that’s most damaging to the players’ own belief in their ability to scrap out a point from a losing position.
It’s no coincidence that City and those other teams around us (well, above us) at the bottom have struggled since the restart. Grounds with no fans have taken away one of the few remaining X-factors in the elite game. Apart from appearing soulless and a bit lifeless, the game’s been stripped bare, leaving quality as the key determining factor.
To use a terrible analogy, think of F1 and the drivers all being asked to drive exactly the same car with exactly the same spec on a bone dry track. Lewis Hamilton would win because he’s the best driver.
And that’s why, despite two straight defeats City are still just the equivalent of two wins away from catching the pack.
But let’s not go there again. There’s zero evidence of this being a relegation ‘battle’. This is a gentle, serene slide back to the Championship.