This was the game that never should have been. After the defeat last week, I, like many other City fans, had been hitting refresh on the sports news channels to see if David Wagner had resigned or been sacked. He hadn’t and he wasn’t and so City limped miserably into this fixture against Blackburn.
With my green and yellow tinted glasses on, it didn’t start too badly. Marcelino Nunez and Hwang Ui-jo were leading the press and hurrying and harrying the makeshift Blackburn defence. Onel Hernandez intercepted a poor ball played as a result of the press and played it inside to Nunez who blasted high and wide.
Kenny McLean then ran out from the back, but his through ball to Hwang was cut out. Then City attacked down the right but the cross was cut out and Blackburn took possession of the ball.
This triggered a three or four-minute spell when Blackburn had City confined into their half. There was no real threat or worry and City looked to be defending well. However, whenever they cleared the ball, they conspired ways to return the ball to the visitors.
And yet again, it was too easy. Rankin-Costello was in acres of space on the right. A ball from Hill found him with Hernandez lamely tracking back, he played it into Dolan who was on the blind side of Shane Duffy and strolled into the area to stroke past George Long, despite the efforts of Jaden Warner to close him down.
You could see the shoulders of the City players visibly drop. They tried to come back but the attacks were laboured and lame with little or no goal threat.
Then it was 0-2.
Dolan simply wanted the ball more than the City midfield, brushing off two powderpuff tackles before playing the ball to Szmodics in acres of space who blasted home. The boos rang out briefly followed by a short chorus of ‘Sack the board’ and ‘Wagner out’.
Nunez tried to get things going with a superb long diagonal ball to Jack Stacey. He controlled it but his cross was blocked for a corner to City. The set piece was easily cleared but Jon Rowe won the ball back and, surrounded by defenders and with no options, he inevitably conceded possession.
It took until 35 minutes for City to put together a decent, sustained period of possession. There were a few neat touches and some promising positions but no composure in the final third. The closest was a Hernandez shot pulled wide. Even when Stacey did produce a threatening cross, when Blackburn cleared the ball they were able to break with pace.
As the half-time whistle blew, a brief chorus of boos rang out once more, followed by a return to the funereal atmosphere, more like a game played in lockdown.
I presume Wagner told the players to be more aggressive at halftime. Ten seconds into the second half Duffy lunged into a tackle, boot up. To be fair his leading foot won the ball cleanly but his trailing leg cleaned out the Blackburn player earning him a yellow card.
Two minutes into the half, it was the turn of Gabriel Sara to play a long, curling diagonal ball, this time to Dimi Giannoulis but the Greek’s first touch was awful and the ball went out for a goal kick.
Then City won a free kick after Sara was fouled. Rowe got a flick on the ball but it came to Blackburn who broke with purpose. Sara jogged to close down Costello who squared the ball across the area, where Giannoulis had given Szmodics the freedom of Carrow Road, and it was 3-0.
City were handed a lifeline though. Costello made a mistake and Hernandez pounced before Wharton brought him down for a straight red card.
Nunez took the subsequent free kick which was comfortable for keeper Wahlstedt to take.
Finally, City began to show a little spirit. There was a slick interchange on the left and Sara burst into the box. His shot was saved and Hwang hit the rebound wide.
Wagner then made a quadruple change. Off went Stacey, Duffy, Giannoulis and Hernandez. On came Kellen Fisher, Przemysław Placheta, Christian Fassnacht and Borja Sainz, with McLean dropping notionally to centre-back.
Instantly, Placheta had the burners on, sailed past the full-back and delivered a superb cross into the box, which was cleared but came back to the Pole who won a corner.
Moments later, Placheta did it again. This time Fassnacht got on the end of the cross and his header brought a diving save from Wahlstedt. From the corner, City got the flick at the near post. Rowe attempted an acrobatic overhead kick, but the ball dropped behind Sainz who couldn’t get in a position to tap it home.
And sadly, this was the story of the rest of the game.
City created some good opportunities. Placheta delivered some dangerous crosses. But in the end, as industrious as Hwang was outside of the penalty box, he posed almost zero threat from each cross, despite the obvious discomfort of Wahlstedt every time the ball came in.
It begs the question of why the more muscular Adam Idah was not considered as an option.
When the fourth official signalled six minutes of extra time, it felt like salt in the wound. However, one minute into the added time, Placheta hit a cross-cum-shot from the left. Wahlstedt beat it away but it fell for Gabriel Sara to stroke home.
City had chances to force another two minutes later – another good ball from Nunez was cleared to Hwang, he cut back but his shot was hacked clear. City played it back in and somehow, among the goalmouth scramble, the visitors cleared it.
As the final whistle went, once again, the library atmosphere was disturbed by a brief chorus of boos but most of the City fans were already on their way out, shaking their heads.
This was, charitably, a limp City performance. Players were hiding when City were in possession. When City were out of possession, there was no fight or desire to win the ball back quickly. The tactics Wagner employs demand this but the tactics he deploys also leave City chronically exposed at the back.
The defenders were always running backwards chasing the ball, rather than being able to get ahead of the play and set themselves. And when City did attack, it was so pedestrian that it gave Blackburn ample opportunity to get back and reset.
It would seem that the wider management of the club is paralysed by indecision. They must surely realise that the time is up for Wagner. Although Ashley Barnes was a significant part of the early season success, they must realise that even his imminent return cannot lift the current on-pitch malaise and save Wagner.
It seems that hands are being firmly sat on until the arrival of the new Sporting Director – still some three weeks away.
With the decline in morale, effort and performance accelerating with every game, the prospect of three more games of this dross is neither appetizing nor good for what, let’s face it, is rapidly becoming a battle against relegation.