City fans headed to the New York Stadium bleary-eyed after the latest transfer deadline day for many a year.
The upshot was two unknown strikers and an experienced defender in, balanced by the much-expected departure of Andrew Omobamidele – only his destination proving to be a surprise.
It was not the only surprise awaiting Canary fans. Certainly, the line-up was as expected, with Adam Idah replacing Josh Sargent but otherwise unchanged.
Rotherham began the game on the front foot, pinning City back with an aggressive high press. Their solution to nullifying the threat posed by Jonathon (five-in-a) Rowe was to push Lembikisa high up the pitch in order to blunt the Canaries’ attacking intent by suffocating him with defensive duties. The overload on the right was also causing Dimi Giannoulis a headache.
For the opening 10 minutes, City were rocked back on their heels. It took until the 9th minute before City attacked with any fluency – Giannoulis and Rowe combining on the left only for the cross to be cleared. From the subsequent throw, Giannoulis took the ball wide but was unable to stop it from running out of play – one of a number of such incidents that dogged City, particularly in the first half.
After those opening 10 minutes, City appeared to have weathered the storm. The Rotherham press was less intense and on 12, City created their best chance. Rowe cut inside before playing the ball to Giannoulis. His cutback was met by Gabriel Sara who really should have done better than hit his shot high and wide.
With the threat from the Rotherham press diminished, City conspired to engineer problems for themselves. Much like in the pre-season games, they suffered from a rash of simple passes being poorly played and ending up at the feet of the opposition.
On 14, it was Shane Duffy’s turn. A poor ball played out, Sara never looked committed to the 50/50 ball before Rotherham got a shot away well above Angus Gunn’s goal.
Five minutes later, Sara himself played a blind pass. Rotherham gathered the ball before Onyedinma got the shot away, Gunn saving at the expense of a corner. The ball in was cleared, conceding a throw. Blackett wound up a long throw into the box, which was nodded down for the unmarked Lembikisa to smash home from the edge of the area.
The Rotherham players celebrated like they had won the game. But straight from the kick-off, Rowe was put through on the keeper. His poked effort was scrambled clear and Rotherham pushed City back again.
City created a few chances but every time they did so, the ball seemed to get stuck under the players’ feet and the moment disappeared.
City continued to create their own problems. On 34 minutes, Giannoulis needlessly gave the ball away and then committed a foul in his attempt to make amends. Cafu played the ball in but former Canary Jordan Hugill handled the ball, earning a yellow card for his efforts.
Only minutes later, Hugill was smiling. A Rotherham throw was not defended well. They created an overload on the right that enabled Cafu to cross unmarked. Hugill got across Duffy and nodded home.
Changes were expected at half-time, yet none came. Instead, an invigorated City emerged.
Sara lost the ball, again, but this time won it back and powered forward to win a corner. This was played in low only for Kenny McLean to shoot wide.
On 49, City struck back with a slick move. Idah played a chip pass wide to Rowe who did really well to beat two players and cross for Christian Fassnacht to tap in.
City were resurgent and it felt like there would be only one winner at that point.
Yet instead of imposing themselves upon Rotherham, they gradually faded. Unlike the first half, they won most of the 50/50 balls. The Rotherham threat, especially on the break, was largely nullified, yet somehow they failed to fashion many clear opportunities on goal.
They had pressure. On 60 minutes, a clear handball in the area was ignored, Idah got a shot in which was saved at the near post. City then had a spell of pressure where, no matter who the ball came to, they could not get a shot away.
On 61, Rotherham broke the City pressure and it took a superb tackle from Rowe on Hugill to stop it. Unfortunately, the new City Talisman appeared to injure himself in the process and took no further part in the game, being replaced by Przemysław Placheta.
City continued to apply pressure. Sara played a superb ball to Jack Stacey, only for his cross to be bundled away at the near post.
On 76, Idah gave way for Liam Gibbs – slightly surprising as the Irishman looked like a different player after the break – that’s to say one who was participating in the game.
Sam McCallum replaced Giannoulis, the Greek having one of those games that he has periodically when he looks way out of his depth. Finally, Tony Springett replaced the tiring Fassnacht.
The changes did little to enhance City as an attacking force. Placheta seemed to be deployed in a role more infield, allowing McCallum space on the overlap. Given the Poles’ pace, he was given precious few opportunities to demonstrate it in the closing stages.
Springett did well, but more often than not his final delivery was lacking, while Gibbs proved that he is no substitute striker.
It was like winding the clock back six months for the final 15 minutes as City, for all their possession and endeavour, failed to muster a serious threat on the Rotherham goal, even after seven minutes of added time.
It would be all too easy to blame the defeat on the absence of Sargent. Without a doubt, City missed his energy and pressing – Idah has a lot of work to do there. They also missed the understanding that he has formed with Ashley Barnes but to lay the blame solely on the American’s absence would be to ignore the plethora of other issues evident yesterday.
In the first half, City were flaccid. They gave the ball away too often when not under threat. They surrendered every 50/50 ball.
In the second half, the final ball was often poor and City lacked imagination – as well as a goal threat up front.
The real issue is simply that once the starting XI run out of steam, City have few, if any, weapons to bring off the bench. This may change with the return to fitness of Borja Sainz and new signing Hwang Ui-jo but both are unknown quantities and new to the Championship.
City have not become a bad team overnight. But they did have a bad day. We now have the international break to rebuild and restore, before the frenzy starts again against Stoke.