1) This is getting embarrassing now
When you go into a game actively expecting to lose 4-0, something is badly wrong. At the end of a week when the world lost Prince, Stoke partied not like it was 1999, but 1998. All this needed was Shaun Goater casually lobbing the sumo version of Neville Southall.
It’s one thing to be on the beach because your season is over, but this feels like a wider malaise. Every area of the team is defective. Conceding goals is causing us to give up entirely. We look slow, predictable, porous, tired, uninterested. The calibre of the teams dishing out these spankings might be high, but that’s no excuse – we’d managed some form of result against each of Liverpool, Spurs and Man City earlier in the season. Again, our stomach for a challenge simply isn’t there.
This latest humping followed the same pattern as the Spurs game. We were competitive until they scored and then the wheels came off, as we slumped back into existential ennui.
It was a strangely low-intensity contest. Man City still have to make sure of their Champions League place, but clearly were looking ahead to Tuesday’s semi-final with Real Madrid. There was no Vincent Kompany in the matchday 18, while the influential Kevin de Bruyne was left on the bench. His services would not be required.
When they were missing key players in December, we eviscerated them in an orgy of flair. On Saturday lunchtime we sleepwalked into their punches and took a dive.
There were few complaints about Mark Hughes’ team selection – as it had in our previous recent thrashings, the starting XI didn’t actually look too bad. If Bojan was unlucky to miss out (it’s really not been a great weekend for pint-sized creative geniuses) then there appeared to be a bit of solidity with Geoff Cameron coming into midfield to add more protection and afford Giannelli Imbula more freedom to roam. There was also a bit more pace in the side thanks to Mame Diouf’s recall.
In all fairness, our defending for the first half an hour or so was much improved. We sensibly sat deeper, the wide players did a job on the home side’s full backs, while in Diouf and Arnautovic we did have outlets that threatened to stretch them. If our main route to goal appeared to through some freak occurrence – Glenn Whelan’s mishit free kick had to be palmed over by Joe Hart, while Marc Muniesa’s cross similarly almost dropped in over the dozing England goalkeeper – Arnie and Joselu were interchanging well, the Austrian getting into the box to put a smart cross onto the striker’s head that he just couldn’t direct away from Hart.
Still, there were warning signs of what was to come. Communication among the back line was sketchy at best, while the midfield constantly gave the ball away. When one Jesus Navas cross was left by the Stoke defence only to bounce off David Silva’s shin, it served only as a grim foreshadowing of what was to come. Navas’ next dangerous cross, a low one across the box, again caught everyone asleep but Phil Bardsley, who hacked away for a corner. We would not escape again.
Another set piece folly, we were again slow to react to Navas’ delivery, with Geoff Cameron trailing Fernando’s run to the near post, allowing the Brazilian to glance a downward header into the far corner. Here we go.
We meandered towards half time attempting to at least keep the scoreline down, but even that proved beyond us. A sharp one-two with Yaya Toure resulted in Nigerian wunderkind Kelechi Iheanacho dashing into the box, and once it became clear to Ryan Shawcross that we wouldn’t catch him, he not-so-subtly yanked him down for the most obvious of penalties. Sergio Aguero did what Sergio Aguero does. It was now just a question of how many.
When Shay Given got married in 2001 he received a blessing from another famous goalkeeper, Pope John Paul II. He’s obviously not as tight with the current Pontiff, as the man upstairs has done him no favours this season. The veteran goalkeeper succumbed to a groin problem that could end his Euro 2016 dreams. The beleaguered Jakob Haugaard emerged for the second half in his stead.
As against Spurs on Monday, we started the second half the brighter of the teams and created a couple of half-decent chances. Diouf threatened to end our season-long goals-from-corners duck, only to see his header flash the wrong side of the post. Great work from Arnie, pretty much the only Stoke player making anything happen, saw him fly past Zabaleta and cross for Joselu, but the attentions of Mangala put the Spaniard off and he shot over when he had to score. Arnie himself had a moment shortly afterwards, haring after a bad backpass only for Hart to pip him to the ball, and forced Hart into a strong save with an angled rasper to boot.
That constituted the sum total of our efforts. Manchester City were soon back on the front foot, and our midfield trio, having a bad day all round, did its best to tee them up. As in recent weeks, we completely lost our shape. The whole ‘deep defending’ plan went out the window too, and defensive line got higher until it was yet again all too easily exploited.
A smart break down the Stoke left caught us on the hop and with Arnie conspicuous by his absence, Zabaleta crossed for Iheanacho – in bags of space – for the youngster to calmly fire in the third. Could it get any easier for the Iheanacho man?
Iheanacho madness would run wild again 10 minutes later, when he collected Wilfried Bony’s reverse pass, went round the hesitant Haugaard and stroked into an empty net. In the end, they’d barely had to break sweat to make it a rout.
12 goals conceded in four games now, with the team crumbling and losing its discipline in all three. What is most alarming is that Mark Hughes appears to have no idea how to arrest this slump. He’s pleading for the season not to be judged on the last three games, rightly so, but it’s up to him to get a reaction from this rabble. Defeat, even heavy defeat, can be tolerated up to a point. Lily-livered surrenders cannot.
2) We need to talk about Ryan
Everything will be ok when Ryan Shawcross comes back. That was the mantra. He was the hope at the end of the yellow brick road, he was Aslan, ready to come roaring back to Narnia and slay the evils terrorising our defence every week.
It hasn’t panned out like that. Instead, he has been a significant contributor to our rearguard slapstick. The captain is struggling
He simply does not look fit. That is the top and bottom of it. Back injuries tend to take a toll if they’re not 100% sorted, and mobility-wise, Shawcross since his return at Anfield has made Peter Crouch look like a model of poise and dexterity.
Delle Alli consistently made a mug of him when Spurs came to town, and Iheanacho did the same here – young raptors buzzing round a grumpy, wounded T-Rex.
The penalty conceded was in large part down to that loss of mobility, as the young Nigerian fizzed past him as if he was on a skateboard. Nevertheless, it was stupid of Ryan to haul him down. He should have taken his chances rather than giving away such a needless penalty. It’s as if he can’t help himself sometimes; his first instinct is to manhandle the striker. That isn’t always the right option, and it’s unbecoming of a centre back of his class. It played right into the hands of his detractors and their perception of him.
His role in the third wasn’t too clever either – the ball watching that crept into his game on Monday night was in evidence again, as he seem oblivious to Iheanacho’s position in the area, neither getting out to stop him nor getting in a position to block his shot. It was easy for the teenager in the end.
Shawcross appears to have been rushed back to solve our defensive woes. Surely now it is best to give him the last few weeks off to heal properly. Even if he wants to feature, which he obviously does, we owe it to him not to play Russian Roulette with what looks like a long-term problem. The season has gone. Have a rest Ryan. We need you at your best.
It’s time to wrap the captain in cotton wool. But his fitness is no longer something we can take for granted, and we have to start preparing for the future as well. Two quality centre backs are required. One must be a long-term partner for the Shawcross when he is available, as for all Philipp Wollscheid’s improvement, there is not currently a defender on the books worthy of the accolade. The other must be Shawcross’ heir, and we might have to treat Ryan the way Leeds treated Lucas Radebe or Spurs Ledley King; an iconic presence, but one whose fitness is a bonus, not a given.
Bringing in a young pup that Ryan can mould in his own image might be the best option – another no-nonsense type who, like Shawcross, was born to defend. Nurturing the next Ryan Shawcross could be a great project for the current one.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves though. For now, let’s just throw ourselves at the mercy of the cosmos and hope that he is, with the benefit of a proper pre-season, able to get back to his best and put the injury nightmare of the last two seasons behind him.
3) The return of pace offers a straw to clutch at
You have to really, really scrabble round for any positives, but it wasn’t a match entirely devoid of them from our perspective. We did, at least, manage to create two or three really good chances, between the couple that fell to Joselu and Diouf’s header. Arnie and Joselu during the first half showed signs of an understanding, and our number 10 was our best player by a million miles. He created pretty much all of our best chances, he was full of running, popping up all over the final third, and generally seemed to relish being the main man. After his hide and seek performance on Monday, this was much more like it from our outfield player of the season.
Even though Diouf is, as a rule, pretty useless on the wing, desperate times call for desperate measures and the lack of pace in the side meant his return was a welcome one. His performance meanwhile, was a pleasant surprise. He was well up for the physical battle with Kolarov, giving as good as he got, and stuck to him well defensively. He got into good positions, finding space and making himself available, his movement light years ahead of what we’ve seen from other attackers of late. It’s just a shame that he lacks that crucial composure when he does get the ball. He has this knack of slipping just as you think he might do something, and snatching at shots and passes. Calm down, Dioufy!
Still, it was nice to have some energy back in the forward line.
The other ingredients of our better attacking play were the forward runs of Marc Muniesa at left back; during the first half, the young Catalan made some promising incursions down the left, making the most of Arnie’s tendency to drift infield, and he put in some very decent crosses that tested Hart. Alas, defensively Muniesa was very much part of the problem, with a player as average as Jesus Navas (yes, yes, he’s won the world cup, but come on, he is) having far too much joy down the Citeh right.
The commentators were again impressed with Giannelli Imbula, and his strength and forward instincts are impressive. He continues to frustrate more with each passing week though, in his stubborn refusal to lay the ball off when he has the chance. That has to be coached out of him pronto.
The Man City defence, despite having had well over £100m lavished on it, remains very brittle, and we probably should have made more of the chances we need create. But on days like this, any sign of positivity is a crumb of comfort.
4) Would playing the kids freshen things up?
There is a growing clamour among the support to see some of our under-21 side blooded now that the season is effectively over, and whether in response to that or off his own bat, the manager put Olly Shenton and Choulay – The Artist Formerly Known as Moha – on the bench at the Etihad.
Are the kids ready for Premier League football? At this stage of things, with three games to go and being routinely spanked every week, it barely seems to matter. So who are the leading candidates?
I have to confess to not having seen anything of the u-21s, so can only go on reports from those who have, but the consensus seems to be that Choulay isn’t ready – that he’s quick and direct, but also lightweight and with decision-making that needs to improve dramatically. Given the noises his camp were making when we signed him, he might have expected to feature in the senior side rather more; but it also sounds like we might have thought his development would be a few steps further down the road than it appears to be at present.
With Glenn Whelan looking absolutely knackered there’s certainly a space for a holding midfielder, so former France u-19 midfielder Eddy Lecygne, by all accounts one of the standouts of the youngsters, could be a contender to pick up some minutes. The young Frenchman is supposedly a disciplined, assured presence at the base of midfield, which is exactly what we’re looking for – though he only managed 27 minutes of first team action on loan at struggling Doncaster early in the season.
The cruciate injury to Ibrahim Afellay is a dreadful blow for him and us in this accursed season, but might it open up opportunities for young Shenton? The role behind the striker is the most well-stocked at the club, so possibly not, and with Imbula occupying the deeper role, it’s hard to see where opportunities are going to come for the local lad.
Given that the striking merry-go-round continues, chucking a few more fresh faces into the mix might not hurt. Dom Telford has scored some well-taken goals for the u-21s and for Blackpool, though it has been suggested he lacks the height to be a lone striker. There was a lot of buzz surrounding Julien N’Goy when we signed him, the club allegedly snatching him from the clutches of Manchester United and Real Madrid. Still reportedly raw but quick, powerful, and very much the type of striker who does well in the Premier League, might he be worth at least a few minutes off the bench?
As you can see I’m very much coming at this from a position of ignorance, and my usual stance of youth is that there’s no point in chucking kids in for the sake of it. Now though, we’re in a position where there are no consequences and we literally could not be playing worse. So what the hell? Why not blood a few, infuse the side with a bit of freshness and hunger, and get the fans back onside, before seniors lose them for the rest of the season.
5) Momentum can be a double-edged sword – ask Bolton
The season has turned to dust. It is not a time for knee-jerk reactions, but our record since the turn of the year really doesn’t make for pleasant reading. We have lost over half our matches in that time, and in six of those eight defeats we have conceded three or more goals.
‘Freefall’ might be pushing it, given that our place in the top 10 looks relatively safe for now, but at the start of March we were still very much in the Europa conversation and just about in touch with the Champions League places. We now lie closer points-wise to 15th than 6th.
We are shipping goals at an alarming rate, and while our injury crisis at the back is partly to blame for this, it’s worth pointing out that we had a much worse one last season, when we were unable to put out the same back line in more than five consecutive games, yet conceded fewer goals than this one, when we’ve been able to play the same back four for around one-third of the season – 13 weeks.
Momentum is a mystical quality in football, one that you can’t bottle and sell. The pursuit of it is what caused the manager to stick with the same side for so many games over Christmas, when times were good. But losing can become a habit just as much as winning. It can be one that carries over from one season to the next as well.
Look at Bolton between 2010 and 2012. They were seen as upwardly mobile, Owen Coyle perceived as the man who’d transitioned them towards prettier football. They were sixth at Christmas in 2010. They were eighth going into the FA Cup Semi Final against us. After that almighty bashing we dealt them at Wembley however, they were never quite the same. They proceeded to lose five of their last six games, finishing 14th. They would lose 13 of the first 16 fixtures of the following campaign and end up relegated. They’re not coming back anytime soon.
It’s an extreme example, but it shows how quickly things can change and the parallels are there. This decline of ours needs to be nipped in the bud before the end of the season. Up to now we’ve managed to be able to either defend or score goals. For a while now we’ve been doing neither, and teams that do that over a prolonged period of time get relegated. Just saying.
Only fools and wind-up merchants are calling for Hughes to be sacked. Yet any more defeats – particularly heavy ones – and he may have to answer some awkward questions and have a far less comfortable summer than he and we would have envisaged a month ago.
Hughes needs to show he can stop the rot. It’s time – to quote a great man – to put the right letters together and make a better day.