I need to tread a bit carefully. I took some mild stick on Twitter yesterday for suggesting those who bemoaned City’s performance in the 2-0 defeat by Celtic were blubbing prematurely.
As I’ve said many times before, I pay little heed to results and performances in friendlies – even those that occur just seven days before the start of the season. But some do.
I can’t comment on what occurred on #NCFC Facebook as I don’t do Facebook, but am told that, typically, there was a brouhaha over the result, the performance, and everything that went with it. Twitter too, which I do frequent, was full of folk questioning the direction in which Dean Smith is taking us.
But what it looked like to me was City losing 2-0 to a decent Celtic side who, unusually for a friendly, benefitted from home advantage; whose first goal was clearly offside (not that it *really* matters); while City played okay but will obviously be better when our two new signings are fit.
Even at this relatively late stage, it’s still about getting minutes in the legs with some, like Andrew Onobamidele, getting a full 90 minutes for the first time – one of the big downsides to having a bloated squad.
There are just too many examples of a good pre-season equating to a bad start to the campaign and vice-versa – not least the pre-season of 2009-10 under poor ol’ Gunny – to get too invested in the outcome of every friendly.
Why should a 2-0 defeat by Celtic be any more significant than a 3-0 win in Marseilles?
One of the big questions being asked is around there being no identifiable pattern of play under Dean Smith and Craig Shakespeare – a point also raised during the second half of last season.
But, for me, it’s still a bit too soon.
To throw that one at Smith and Shakespeare when they were in the midst of a futile relegation battle seems a bit harsh, given they were trying every which way to try and find a formula that would earn some points.
In the end, of course, they neither found a formula nor enough points, but I had no problem with them trying different formations, personnel, and methods when firefighting in the most hostile of footballing environments.
And pre-season is pre-season – the time when you do experiment and try things you’ll be looking to use over the course of the season.
If after, say, ten games there is no discernible style of play then it does become an issue worthy of discussion, but this feels too soon. And I also think we’ve become a little precious over having a certain way of playing. In fact, we’ve been spoilt.
Under Daniel Farke there was undoubtedly a ‘way’ – a method of play that was clear and obvious, and would have been identifiable if the colour of the shirts and the players wearing them were changed – and can now be seen in Mönchengladbach.
There was a beauty to it. Football in its purest form. A perfect hybrid of the Netherland’s total football of the 1970s and Barcelona’s tiki-taka of the late Noughties/early-2010s. It was special.
But when Farke left he took Farkeball with him, and it isn’t for everyone (especially in the River End). There are plenty of managers and coaches who deem it one-dimensional and too easy to neutralise.
And, let’s be honest, until Farkeball became a thing, did we have an easily identifiable Norwich City way? Did Alex Neil have a style of play that had Alex Neil stamped all over it?
No, he didn’t, it was a hybrid of passing when passing was needed and going into the channels when the time was right.
And I couldn’t tell you in precise terms what the Paul Lambert way was when he was here, other than it was effective.
I’ll pass on Chris Hughton because, unfortunately, he did have a style all of his own, but my point is that prior to Farke, we’ve had managers whose style of play was adaptable depending on the personnel available and the opposition.
And besides, I don’t believe Dean Smith – someone whose teams have always had a reputation for playing possession-based, attacking football – would have been brought in if he was going to divert too far away from our existing method. The sporting director model is, after all, predicated on the idea that personnel can change but the basic method remains.
I do however sense there are some waiting for Smith to fail; who are looking to latch onto every negative in order to crank up the pressure. For a few that view has been formed simply because he is not Daniel Farke.
I admit the jury is still out and, to be honest, Smith wouldn’t have been my first choice, but he has to be given a chance. Right now he’s being judged on a Premier League disaster that was not of his making and a pre-season in which, if results do matter, we’ve won five and lost one.
But I fear for him.
There will almost inevitably be a hangover from last season, not least because those new faces brought in to freshen things up are yet to appear, and even in our last two Championship-winning seasons we were slow starters.
Smith doesn’t have the same credits in the bank that enabled Farke to ride out those difficult few weeks – in fact, he has none – and so an opening six games of D-L-L-W-L-D (as in 2018-19) or an opening four of W-D-L-L (2020-21) will make last night’s mild brouhaha seem like a W.I. tea party.
He and Shakey desperately need wins on the board from the get-go.
On a more cheerful note, I couldn’t conclude without mentioning the performance of one Todd Cantwell at Celtic Park. While he may have faded a little in the final 20, for 70 minutes it was the Cantwell we all love – the one who’s committed and who looks to get on the ball and makes things happen.
To hear Dean Smith describe him as “being in a good place” and playing well is a bonus few of us saw coming.
Omobamidele too was mentioned in despatches, and so impressed have the coaching team been with the young Irishman over pre-season, I sense the battle may now be between Grant Hanley and Ben Gibson to see who partners him.
Anyway… whatever occurs in the next few weeks, we’ll be doing it without Christos Tzolis and Pierre Lees-Melou; the young Greek international departing on loan for the season to FC Twente, and the French beanpole heading off back to France to sign for Stade Brest on a permanent deal.
It seems Monsieur Lees-Melou declared his intention to depart early on in pre-season and so if he didn’t want to be here to help overcome a disastrous relegation that he was an integral part of, then to say a curt au revoir was undoubtedly the right thing to do.
We’ll manage without you, Pierre.
So, just 90 minutes of pre-season left – this afternoon against Hibs.
Whether we’ll be enjoying some Sunshine on Leith or whether there’ll be more ammunition for those looking for some, will all be revealed around 4pm this afternoon.
Either way, I’ll be giving Twitter a swerve. 😀
On the Ball City…