“I can see a very nervy one-nil victory,” I said, when taking part in a game of Predict The Manchester City Score for a City podcast that I host, expecting Wolves to come to The City of Manchester Stadium, park the bus and for it to be all City, yet the team being unable to find the second goal (leading to a tense final few moments). As happened with Blackpool. And Bolton. And Birmingham (though City failed to get the first goal).
I, unlike Mick McCarthy, hadn’t done my homework on the opposition. Credit where it’s due, Wolves didn’t get what they deserved from their performance – City were only good for about 15 minutes of the entire match. The rest of the time they were distinctly average, while Wolves pressed and caused trouble every time they went into the home side’s box. McCarthy didn’t give the home defence time to pass the ball out, which led to long balls and, subsequently, City losing possession.
In many ways, I was actually quite close to reading the game correctly, though for entirely the wrong reasons. City did win by one goal. It was a nervy finish, where Wolves threw the kitchen sink. I couldn’t have been more wrong about the middle bit, though.
Having scored four times, it seems silly talking about a nervy finish. I thought the days of cowering behind the person in front of me, watching both teams score freely, were over when Roberto Mancini arrived. It’s rare that a team will score three times against City (though Wolves have scored five in total this season, which, I suspect, will be the most any team scores against them – tempting fate, obviously).
Nevertheless, City were 4-1 up with 25 minutes to play. And, having been fortunate to have gone in to the dressing rooms from a first half dominated by the visitors at 1-1, everybody in the stadium thought they had ridden their luck and were now pumping up the goal difference (which will never do any harm, especially since City are now suddenly considered title challengers – yeah, I know, crazy, what with never having been near it before). But, a silly penalty and a goal that might or might not have crossed the line later, and suddenly, the comeback was on, when it really shouldn’t have been.
In many ways, I hope that this is a lesson to some (not all) City fans. Far too many of us (me included, on several occasions, this season) seem to think that all the club needs to do to win a game by three, four, five goals is to walk out onto the pitch. “It’s only Wolves, we will win this game at a canter” is a phrase that tripped far too easily off the tongue over the past week. A fortnight earlier, it was “It’s only Blackpool, we can beat these easily.”
Yet neither turned out to be straightforward in the end.
No game in this league is easy. It’s a cliché I know and I feel very dirty for writing it, but it’s true: all games are difficult, but some games are more difficult than others. But with the investment comes a raise in expectations and ‘four goals good, two goals bad’ appears to have become the philosophy for certain people. The more important philosophy, though, should be ‘four goals good, two goals good also, as long as we’ve kept a clean sheet’.
Granted, those who expected City to win big before kick off on Saturday almost had a point – from being 4-1 up on 66 minutes, it should have finished as a big win. In fact, the three conceded goals worry me a little: a poor clearance from a normally reliable centre-back (made up by his equaliser), a needless foul for a penalty, and a free header from a corner (whether it actually crossed the line or not – in fact, this argument is a nice excuse for losing a goal through poor marking). I expect these defensive frailties are a blip, because, despite Saturday’s result, City’s defence is still the best in the league: 19 conceded in 23 matches, compared to Manchester United’s 19 in 21 and Chelsea’s 19 in 22.
Despite the criticism of having been playing defensive football, yet still having scored more than Tottenham, the team dubbed as the season’s entertainers by Fleet Street, City have been picking up results. When flowing attacking moves have been seen on the pitch and when the team is leading by a couple of goals, it’s become the fashion for the City fans to sing ‘boring, boring City’ in an ironic manner. I’ll admit, it does make me smile.
That and winning more games, these days. That bit is quite a bonus to being a City fan at the moment, especially considering we once saw only 10 home league goals in one season not so long ago. And three of them came in one game. Good Lord, if you missed that game with Fulham, you missed 30% of the home goals scored that campaign. That was ‘boring, boring City’.
But, if being solid at the back, keeping clean sheets (11 in the league this season) and winning games by one or two goals is considered boring, then I’ll take that boring City over the one that both scores and concedes for fun. I know that the latter might be more entertaining for the neutral, but I’m not a neutral. And City have caused more than enough people to develop heart conditions over the years, it’s only fair they stop.
In fact, call me selfish, but I’d actually quite like to win something in the next few seasons and, by keeping clean sheets, any team will win more than they draw. Any good team is built on solid foundations and behind the best defence in the Premier League (containing who I believe is the best defender in the Premier League in Vincent Kompany) is one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League.
Roberto Mancini has shown this season that he likes his defence tight and, on the whole, it has been. He doesn’t underestimate the opposition as it seems a lot of fans have been doing recently. He doesn’t think that a game will be a walkover because the opposition are below seventh in the table. It would be nice to score six or seven in a match, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a necessity. It’s high time that fans didn’t go to games and get frustrated that the team isn’t three goals up at half time (slight exaggeration, I know).
Mancini’s City aren’t a machine that grinds out 1-0 victories with unattractive football. There’s good football played along the way. In fact, no, there’s been some excellent football played along the way. So perhaps a more appropriate chant would be ‘efficient, efficient City’.
Though, I suppose, that doesn’t quite scan.