Our Stewart summed up the dilemma perfectly in his City vs Huddersfield preview:
Do we have a strong Championship squad, made to look average by inept coaching? Or an average Championship squad, whose limitations can’t be concealed by its coaches?
Tis a question that remains unanswered. Ultimately, we may end up concluding we have the worst of both worlds – an average squad being further hindered by inept coaching.
But it is worth reminding ourselves that yesterday’s defeat was only City’s second in nine, and after Saturday’s win over Huddersfield we were all a little giddy from going within touching distance of the playoff places, but yesterday’s performance highlighted why Stew felt compelled to ask the first of those two questions.
The narrative will, of course, be around the sending off of Borja Sainz and how, with ten men for almost an hour, they came within an Alex Palmer fingertip of a point – the West Brom keeper somehow tipping Hwang Ui-jo’s late header past the post – but we cannot ignore the fact that City were under the pump solidly for the 33 minutes before the Spaniard’s red card.
The sending-off just meant any chance City had of turning the relentless navy and white tide had all but gone.
It was the second time in ten days that City had played occupants of the top six away from home and the second time they had gone with limited ambition, a desire to not over-commit, to keep it tight, and with a reliance on snatching a goal (or two) on the break.
Against Ipswich, it was job done – albeit it took that lot missing a hatful of first-half chances for the plan to come to fruition – and, yesterday, Wagner was quick to argue the plan would have again worked had it not been for that later intervention by Palmer’s fingertip.
But, come on … on both occasions, from a City perspective it was desperate stuff, and the complete antithesis of the front-foot, attacking football that Ben Knapper revealed as his style of choice. In truth, this doesn’t even feel like Wagner’s football of choice, and is nothing like the high-tempo, ‘heavy metal’ gegenpress football we were promised.
Instead, this is a head coach who has strayed miles away from his core footballing ideals and who has completely abandoned a methodology that he himself, with the help of Jurgen Klopp, developed.
There is something jarring about the way this team is set up to absorb pressure from teams who Wagner, it seems, has decided are better than us; the irony being when this set of players is given license to ‘have a go’ and play at a higher tempo they look infinitely more dangerous.
Yesterday, the defence-first approach was further enhanced by Sainz’s red card, particularly at half-time when City’s most potent attacking threat, Jonathan Rowe, was sacrificed to accommodate two new centre-backs in the form of Danny Batth and the fit-again Grant Hanley.
The plan was sound enough I guess – to play with three narrow centre-backs to help absorb the inevitable West Brom pressure while using the full-backs higher up the pitch, as wing-backs, to provide attacking impetus down the sides. The problem is, in Wagner-world that ‘back three’ is never given a chance to work and instead reverts almost immediately to a back five, with both fullbacks sitting tight.
As such, the Baggies were invited on and were challenged by City’s back five to break them, which they duly did. And one goal was always going to be enough.
With Wagner having all but given up on his team as an attacking force it was going to take a miracle to get something from the game; a miracle that wasn’t forthcoming.
And so in 12th we now find ourselves – still only two points shy of the playoff places but now with five teams between us and sixth-placed Sunderland. This really is an extraordinarily ordinary Championship – so many mediocre teams battling to try and emerge from the mid-table scrum.
At the weekend, it felt like City were well placed to be that team but, as was pointed out, the six games to follow would be the real acid test of the worthiness (or otherwise) as contenders. Yesterday wasn’t the ideal start to that mini-league.
Defeat at the Hawthorns was no disgrace, of course – plenty of teams will go there and come away with nothing – but it was the manner of defeat and the limited trust Wagner appears to have in this team as an attacking force against good sides that made it so disappointing.
Whether this team is good enough to thrive if the handbrake is wholly released remains an unknown but what is clear is that Wagner’s reluctance to do so is borne of the risk of exposing again the defensive frailties so evident in early/mid-autumn.
Part of the problem for Wagner, and all of us, is that what’s left is a bit dull – especially on the road – but even more problematic is that if we are to emerge from the pack as genuine contenders, then we need to find a way to beat some of the good teams.
Unless they can find a way to that, then mid-table mediocrity beckons.
Anyway… to The Den.