The myriad issues of why City have imploded so spectacularly this season have been debated by fans and pundits alike over recent weeks.
One area I don’t think has seen much focus though is the growing disconnect, if not personally, at least philosophically, between the work of Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke.
Until this season everything had been clear. The footballing philosophy of Farke was one of patient, possession-based passing football. Webber would then provide a pipeline of Buendias, Leitners, Trybulls, and McLeans to implement that style. We got it, it worked. There was the occasional miss like a Marley Watkins or a Patrick Roberts, but every signing is essentially a roll of the dice and you have to accept that.
In our first Premier League season we elected to spend nothing, trust in the players and the style that got us there and see how it went, knowing that if we went down we had invested wisely behind the scenes.
For the first 28 games, it wasn’t going brilliantly, but we were competitive. By the time Covid-19 reared its ugly head we had just beaten Leicester and were looking like we’d found a little bit of form that gave us half a chance of making the last ten games interesting at least.
We all know what happened next but we all understood the clear philosophy of what the club was trying to do. The football remained as it was, we banked the money, we strengthened the club.
Webber then had another great summer bringing in players like Ben Gibson, Oliver Skipp and Kieran Dowell who all fit Farke’s system perfectly and we enjoyed our best ever Championship campaign, smashing 97 points for the season.
And then the wheels came off.
I’m not even going to remotely entertain the idea that we could have held Emi Buendia hostage to his contract or thrown money at him to make him stay. He wanted out, Webber made it happen and we got sufficient money for him to be able to fund several other purchases. Webber, Farke, and the vast majority of fans all accept this, with only those who still contend in the virtue of Victorian employment laws bordering upon slavery still arguing that we could have kept him.
However, regardless of how accepting all parties were of losing our best player, we appear to have gone in vastly different directions since that point.
Webber spoke openly about the need for the squad to be bigger, faster and stronger. He then spent our two biggest transfer fees on Christos Tzolis and Rashica who are 5’8 at best and 10 stone sopping wet. Sargent does at least fit the bill in that area, and PierreLees Melou looks big but has yet to suggest he adds any greater physicality than a McLean or a Rupp.
Overall it certainly doesn’t feel like we’re any more competitive physically than we were before the summer recruitment, so if that was the aim we haven’t met the target.
It was then mooted, at least from the Archant lads who generally feed us all the unofficial steers, that we were looking to play more on the break using speedy wingers.
This meant that the signings of Tzolis and Rashica made perfect sense, and you could see scenarios where the two of them and Pukki could maraud into wide-open spaces behind the defence following a clever through ball. That’s happened once, when Pukki scored against Watford, and Tzolis and Rashica haven’t started a game together. So if that was the aim, we haven’t met the target… again.
There appears to have been a conscious effort to move away from the 4-2-3-1 formation that has served us well over four years. That’s fine, things have to progress sometimes in order to avoid stagnation and predictability and Farke has thrown various formations against the wall to try and counter the opposition or build a new style for the team.
But the way we’ve recruited has meant that now we’re unable to go back to 4-2-3-1 even if we wanted to. That system was based around a midfield pivot of two players screening the centre-backs, allowing the full-backs to push on, taking the ball from the back to set up attacks.
It required at least one of the players to be an anchor and have the positional sense and stability to mind the shop at all times.
While we may have spent the summer pining for a Skipp return to the role, that was never to be. We also let his only realistic replacement last season, Alex Tettey, leave and made no effort to replace him.
Mathias Normann has been put forward as the answer to the Skipp position, and he’s an absolutely fabulous midfielder – one of the best we’ve had in years, without question – but of those two midfielders in a pivot, he’s not the anchorman.
He, like McLean, like Lees-Melou, like Gilmour, they all need to have a Tettey or a Skipp holding the fort, to allow them a little more creative licence. They can help out defensively without doubt, but you need a specialist in breaking up play and mucking in with the centre-backs when you’re under the cosh. That’s not Normann’s role.
Whilst Jacob Sorensen was signed as that type of player, he doesn’t have the physical attributes to succeed at this level, and as much as we all like him, Daniel, and 99 per cent of the fan base know this.
Moving on to the strikers, and there are more examples of a strategy for squad building that make no sense.
It’s widely known that we made enquiries about Adam Armstrong at the start of the summer. How far that interest went we don’t know, but it would certainly signal an intent to provide Pukki with some serious competition for his place.
What we then ended up doing was shipping one big backup option in Jordan Hugill out, and bringing a younger big backup option in Josh Sargent. The USA international cost us half as much as Armstrong would have, which can be seen as good business, but in terms of offering competition to Pukki in the way Armstrong would have, he’s half as effective.
Currently, Pukki is pretty much irreplaceable with neither Sargent or Adam Idah looking like viable Premier League starters, particularly if we play one up top.
And if the squad building from Webber has been scattergun, Farke’s attempts to shoehorn these options into a new and improved Premier League version of Farkeball have been even more chaotic.
I’m not going to labour the myriad issues around the inability to find a place for Billy Gilmour or Todd Cantwell or the lack of cohesive team objectives in the various ever-changing selections, suffice to say it’s been a total mess.
Principles abandoned, style sacrificed, chickens headless. And most criminal of all, the players are no longer doing the basics like tracking back, competing regularly or providing the most basic of movement to give their teammates a passing option. And some of the worst offenders are then picked again the following week.
Nothing has been the same since Buendia left. Not because he himself is irreplaceable, because no player is, but because Webber and Farke appear to have had no clear tactical idea of how to play without him.
We’ve brought in alternatives that we haven’t really used, we’ve tried changing the system entirely, which has been a disaster, and we look a million miles away from having anything cohesive and effective to build around.
And we’re only a quarter of the way through the season.