Wednesday, 18 August 2010

2010/11 Premiership Year: some Essaying, some Crude Predictions (Vol. II. Manchester City)


For fifteen years now, Manchester City FC have constantly been adjusting. Normally in football this is self-inflicted. City were the bad joke, not just of United, but of the Football League: relegated from the Premiership in 1996, then dropping into the third tier in 1997, not returning to the top flight until 2000. Paul Dickov's 1998 play-off winner is a quieter memory now. No longer can a British journeyman bring the blues to their feet. Not unless Shaun Wright Phillips scores an equally important goal this season. And this is unlikely. An even more emotional and historical moment occurred in 2003 when Maine Road closed for business and the City of Manchester Stadium opened; doubtless the first step-change in the club's ascent as a serious power. But this year's challenge of adjustment will be the most popularized and scrutinized by the media. A supreme test of patience for owners, star-players and fans-with-short-memories awaits.

After a summer when both the transfers in and transfers out columns have bloated with considerable talent, it could take a long time to complete yet another rebuilding process in Manchester. City's five rivals in the top six have blessed themselves with a core for consecutive seasons. Feeling the vertebrae of each, you will find one or more of a goalkeeper, a central defensive pairing and a vital midfield player who have demonstrated loyalty to, or been rewarded by, their club. (Van Der Sar, Ferdinand and Vidic, Fletcher, Scholes, Gomes, King and Dawson, Cech, Terry and Alex, Essien, Lampard, Almunia, Song, Fabregas, Reina, Mascherano, and Gerrard.) No names or partnerships feel permanent on the City teamsheet. To say that this impermanence is good in terms of competition for places is to miss the point. With a squad of players as gifted as any, Manchester City failed to take the battle for fourth to the final day of last season, and one wonders about togetherness, and how sooner it would have been decided if Lennon, Modric and Pavlyuchenko had played more football.

On the plus side, Yaya Toure will protect or replace the increasingly irrelevant Gareth Barry, while a returning Joe Hart could prove a more commanding goalkeeper than the brilliant-on-the-ground but shoddy-in-the-air, Shay Given. However the England No.1 might have to flourish just as much as he did at Birmingham. Dunne out for £5M, Lescott in for £22M was abonimable business. With yet another chopped and changed back four learning to communicate, Bridge possibly out and Kolarov in for £18M could prove even worse. Either zonal or man marking, and the offside trap, become backbreaking when there is no established, well led, defensive unit.

Worse still is the death of the creator. Mancini seems determined to stub out the fire of 4-2-3-1 and brick-up with a 4-3-2-1, fielding three pachyderms in Yaya Toure, Barry and De Jong. So out wide then, and amazingly, Craig Bellamy has been loaned out to Cardiff with the aforementioned Wright Phillips an apparent starter. The shift away from the advanced playmaker was reflected in the decision to sell the Match of the Day luxury player, Stephen Ireland. But if City really are title-challengers, it is asking a lot of Milner to immediately prove himself in such a team, and of World Cup winner David Silva to shrug off his ironically poor form in South Africa, not to mention the pace and dirt and bodily harm he will experience when the DW, the Reebok, the Britannia and Ewood Park beckon. In four seasons with the great David Villa, Silva managed to assist only 8 of his 101 goals. But Silva was instrumental when Valencia were at their most dangerous. Despite just dipping his toes in the water of the Premiership, Silva's passing chalkboard for Saturday's opener against Spurs illustrates how his movement influences play across, and not just up, the pitch. You could perform a comparative study with Dempsey or Modric or Rosicky for instance. Only, we know that Silva is either less injury-prone or statistically superior to any of the above, and with the added validation of the most important sports medals on the planet in his new home.

The Premiership's previous genius-winging imports, Pires (Arsenal's invincibles) and Ginola (Newcastle's better years), were freed by risk-assessing (Wenger) and risk-taking (Keegan) managers. But Silva might be burdened by training and match routines. He is not to be confused with central incisors Xavi, Iniesta or Fabregas, nor with the stuff of strikers; Torres or even the deeper-working Villa. No, Silva must feel obliged to move laterally and, like the aforementioned Sky / Premiership Frenchmen, eat up the pockets of grass that open up in the final third. This is going to take weeks, perhaps months. But we are living in a time in which David Silva is driven and flown around England to play football. If managed properly, and supported by a more able footballer than Wright Phillips, Silva will become an open box of gold, rewarding the workmanship of the midfield and Carlos Tevez. A relatively small portion - a single purchase - of City's spending then, should make them more watchable and more prolific, and hasten their sprint to silverware.

Predicted finish: 5th - A Springtime surge proves too little too late. Europa League is a marathon City might muscle their way through. Thursday nights, Channel Five

Best signing: Yaya Toure - 27, £24M from Barcelona, presence and time on the ball. Terrifying opponent with an immaculate pass completion record. Kolo's more relevant brother is a Nou Camp midfielder (probably) worth £200,000 a week

Youtubed / Football Manager wonderkid: there's no point. Or does grumpy kid, Mario Balotelli, count?

Flop: Every rotated defender

Player of the Season: Joe Hart. Who might also break into PFA team of the season. A goalkeeper with everything

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