Shambolic… woeful… outclassed… pitiful… pathetic…
Take your pick.
Personally, I’m inclined to hone in on ‘outclassed’ because the one thing that wasn’t lacking yesterday was effort. No one stopped running, no tackles were shirked and the heads didn’t drop on the pitch as they did off it. But my god did City come up short. So vast was the gulf in quality, it felt like two teams playing two different sports.
Yes, Arsenal are a good side and, pound-for-pound, are always going to be better than us, but for that gulf in quality to be so pronounced and so obvious was hard to stomach.
The deficiencies in this team – at least when playing in the Premier League – are too numerous to list, and would take us way beyond a thousand words, so I’ll spare you, but suffice to say it doesn’t need someone with a UEFA Pro Licence to see that this team has nothing like enough goals in it to be competitive.
Nowhere near. Not even close.
EIGHT goals at almost the halfway point of a Premier League season. Eight.
For that particular stat, I’ll call on another of my five opening adjectives – pathetic.
The onus placed on Teemu Pukki to deliver goals is, quite frankly, ridiculous. So too the way he is asked to lead the line with so little support; usually being asked to grapple with two or more defenders for loose balls and scraps. To have left him so high and dry and with so little by the way of challenge has to be a failure of the recruitment process.
It was clear from the disaster that was 2019/20 that the squad needed to find other routes to goal when playing in the Premier League but, as it’s transpired, not one had been discovered or added. We hoped that Milot Rashica would chip in as he did with Werder Bremen, that Christos Tzolis would kick on and even that Josh Sargent would challenge Pukki for his place. But no.
In fairness, we were quietly excited at the prospect and not too many people questioned the logic behind those signings at the time but in the Premier League said trio have produced not a single goal and just one measly assist between them.
In fact, don’t bother looking too closely at any of the stats. I’ll save you the trouble: they’re horrific.
By any given metric, this season has been rotten, not to mention embarrassing – two more adjectives I erroneously missed in my opening line.
As someone pointed out on Twitter… we’re currently the San Marino of the Premier League – an analogy that’s impossible to contest.
But how the hell have we ended up here?
How can we go from being so imperious in the Championship to being so abject in the Premer League in a few short months?
Of course it’s literally a different league and, of course, there are leagues within that league, which means you find yourself up against clubs that are, financially, in a different stratosphere to us, but we have to question why we’re sooo far off the pace.
And I know we’ve been dealt a crappy hand as a result of covid-related absences and injuries, but others have struggled similarly and been forced to play games without it ending in total embarrassment.
As things stand, only the England cricket team can challenge us on that front.
But, returning to why we are where we are, I guess, looking back, the rot started to set in when we failed miserably to fill the voids left by the departing Emi Buendia and Oliver Skipp. Realistically, there was never a question of retaining the services of either but, equally, there’s no disputing they were the two key components of last season’s title-winning team.
Take either out of that team and we don’t win the title. I’m not sure we even get promoted.
So for neither to be replaced, either like-for-like or with players of differing qualities, was never going to end well. As it happened, the closest we got to an Oliver Skipp was a Mathias Normann who, in the end, had a skillset that was nothing like the Tottenham man.
Normann is a fine player, probably our best, but not the rock-solid, dependable shield to the back-four that we needed.
Neither did Webber deliver us a team with more energy, physicality and size. He knew it was desperately needed, even spoke of it, but within the constraints of his budget was unable to bring in players who, aside from the technical aspect, would make us less likely to be bullied and harder to play against.
Yesterday, as in most games, City were lightweight, powderpuff and very easy to play against. A box that never got ticked.
That we came up short in that regard before a ball was even kicked was – in hindsight admittedly – another failure of recruitment.
In terms of cash spent, the quoted £50 million was by some way a record for this club and put us up there with the big spenders of the summer, but, let’s be honest, it was a net spend of around £14 million. The large bulk of it was funded by the Buendia to Villa sale – as is the wont of a self-funded club.
And in terms of salaries paid, our pot will be one of the lowest, probably the lowest in the Premier League – another factor that made Webber’s job in the summer doubly difficult.
And why is our pot the smallest? Well, it’s because we’re what we self-describe as the only ‘self-funded’ club in the top two divisions. A noble aim by the noblest owners in English football, but it’s becoming ever more apparent that, as hard as we try, it’s a model that’s completely at odds with being competitive in the Premier League.
Time and time again we convince ourselves that next time it will be different, that this time we’re better prepared and that lessons will have been learned from last time, but nothing changes. In fact, we’re getting less competitive as the seasons go by.
Alex Neil’s class of 2015-16 was better than this team but missed out on safety by five points. Even Daniel Farke’s class of 2019-20, who came up short by 14 points, picked up the odd good win with the odd good performance prior to Project Restart.
Despite being essentially made up of Championship players – most of whom proved themselves not good enough for the Premier League – that team was equally as competitive as this one, yet was still miles away from being good enough.
This squad and team has been carefully and deliberately re-jigged and re-vamped, yet still resembles a ragtag of decent Championship-level pros who have been thrown together after just a couple of training sessions.
No obvious system, no obvious plan, no obvious strategy, that ultimately results in games, like yesterday, when it appears a lower division outfit is being taught a harsh lesson by a team from two or three divisions higher up the ladder.
And none of the above is intended as a slight on Dean Smith and Craig Shakespeare. The best-prepared game plan will be undone in seconds when the players are not good enough to implement it. Yesterday’s lasted six minutes.
S&S must surely, in a quiet moment, ask themselves what they were thinking when they said ‘yes’ to Webber.
As a club, we’ve been on a thrilling ride since Webber and Farke teamed up in May 2017, but any success in the Championship invariably ends in gut-wrenching disappointment when we bang our heads on that glass ceiling pitched just below 18th place in the Premier League.
The current model, however we try and spin it, is never going to smash through that glass.
Not for the first time, those at the top need to ask themselves what they want this football club to be.
While you’re here…
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