Suddenly for Manchester City it isn’t looking so bad

I know as a stone cold fact that my reaction when I read the team sheet last Sunday for Manchester City’s visit to Craven Cottage was shared by several other members of my blue brethren. I’ll be honest, I was clenched slightly when I saw that, occupying the left flank, with his wild hair and woolly gloves, would be Jô, the forgotten Brazilian striker. He’s the man that had been on the receiving end of some of the harshest of my long-winded metaphors. He surely wasn’t the best option for that flank in that game?

So, after several mouthfuls of humble pie, I would go as far as saying that Jô’s career at City might not have been as finished as I, and many other blues, had previously stated. From what we’ve seen of him – under both Mark Hughes and Roberto Mancini – it’s pretty clear that he’s not going to be a twenty-a-season striker. But it turns out that he’s pretty good at winning the ball in the air and being the height that can get the knock downs for (and thereby creating chances for) the midget forward line that combines Silva and Tevez. In fact, he was a pretty good outlet for a long ball from Joe Hart, whenever the City keeper wanted to spring a quick break.

The 1-4 victory at Craven Cottage was probably City’s best performance of the season. The passing was slick, the attack play left Fulham flummoxed and the scoreline was dominant, yet didn’t flatter the visitors. And, from what I could see, at least, there was very little difference in the way the side set up against both Fulham and Birmingham, the week earlier. Yet, the 0-0 with Birmingham is probably up there with City’s worst performance of the season.

The biggest difference was simply that City moved the ball much quicker. While knocking the ball around in front of Birmingham kept the possession stat for that game nice and high, it didn’t have too much of an effect against the well organised defence of a team playing for a draw. The problem was that City couldn’t find an opening and that was simply because, with each player taking three or four touches, there was too much time for the defence to get back into position.

Contrast that with last Sunday. Take the third goal, scored by Yaya Touré, as an example. In the passage that led to the chance, there were 26 City passes without a Fulham touch and, in that build up, only Tevez and Silva had more than two touches of the ball. And both of them were running at the heart of the Fulham defence when doing so.

By moving the ball so quickly, Fulham players were dragged out of position and couldn’t get back in time to defend the attack properly. It led to gaps that were exploited, instead of a brick wall that was run into, as had happened the week before.

Of course, playing away from home had some influence on that performance. Intrinsically, it’s always going to be down to the home side to come out and try to open their opposition up. Fulham were never going to sit back as much as Birmingham did and, in theory, those gaps were more likely to have been there and have been found. Throw in a former City manager, a bit of poor form on both sides and some ill-feeling stirred up by the press, despite both parties playing their rivalry down, and you have a home team that’s desperate to teach their visitors a lesson.

And an away side that were given a little help into finding their form, obviously.

Nevertheless, don’t take anything away from City’s performance: tactically, they were spot on with their style of play, speed of play and how they set up. In fact, Roberto Mancini has managed to silence any criticisms of City being too defensive, yet stick to his guns and change very little. Apart from the personnel.

The interesting aspect of Mancini’s line-up against Fulham is that it was very Mark Hughes-esque. Seven of the starting eleven were signed by Hughes for City (only Hart, Kolarov, Silva and Yaya Touré weren’t) and the fact that he decided to go with Jô over, perhaps, Adam Johnson or James Milner, shows one of two things.
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First, it shows that Mancini isn’t trying to remove all traces of Mark Hughes from the City dressing room, as had been suggested in some newspapers. In fact, that would be a completely destructive thing to do, given that the spine of the team – Kompany, de Jong and Tevez – were all Mark Hughes signings, and we’ve seen how vulnerable City are when just one of the three aren’t available.

Second, it also shows that Mancini isn’t afraid to make bold decisions. He’s been under some quite heavy criticism these past few weeks and, if Jô hadn’t been able to put in a good performance and had played as many City fans (myself included and humble pie still being eaten) had expected he would, that criticism would have been tripled. What Jô doesn’t bring to the team in dribbling, crossing and shooting, he does bring in aerial ability.

Of course, the result on Sunday did mean that City fans were able to gloat. I saw various messages on Twitter about how the result proved Mancini was the better manager, how it showed that Hughes shouldn’t have been in charge of City and was right to have been sacked, how we would have lost that game under the old regime, etc etc. It did open my eyes to the fact that, while the above statements are nothing more than smug and condescending, it’s all water under the bridge now.

So what if Hughes felt Mancini stabbed him in the back? They’re managing at different clubs and Hughes is hardly going to care that much about City now that he has everything at Fulham to worry about. In fact, I suspect he’ll only be caring about City twice a season (unless the cup competitions draw the teams together).

And, while I didn’t agree at the time with the sacking of Mark Hughes, I did also say what was done was done and there could be no going back. Though, looking at the position City are now in – and there’s no way of being able to tell what would have happened if Hughes was still in charge – perhaps it would be apt to say that my feelings on the matter have changed. Now I just regret the way it was done, but not what was done.

Last weekend was a non-event when it came to Hughes vs. Mancini; it was always going to be. But when it came to Fulham vs. Manchester City, it most definitely wasn’t. We saw, perhaps for the first time this season, what City are capable of when they get it right going forward.

After the recent ‘crisis’, City are currently three points off the top of the league. Some crisis that is – that’s a crisis in the same way that running out of toilet paper is. Squatting, you waddle in a rather undignified manner, with trousers around ankles, away from the bathroom into the landing where the additional loo roll is kept, but the embarrassment only lasts for a short time and everything is back to normal afterwards. In fact, that’s pretty much how City played against United and Birmingham.

But, with a dominant victory over Fulham under the belts, there can’t be a better time to get back to winning ways. The coming fixtures are all winnable (in fact, if City are aiming to finish in fourth or above, they are fixtures they should be looking to win): Stoke (a), Bolton (h), West Ham (a), Everton (h), Newcastle (a) and Aston Villa (h). None will be easy (with the very odd exception, are they ever in the Premier League?) and I would genuinely take a point at Stoke if you offered now, but there’s no reason why City could still be within touching distance of the leaders on the other side of Christmas.

It’s a bit cliché to say that the Premier League is the most open it’s ever been while the calendar still says November, and it’s far too easy to do so. But we usually get quite a good idea by Christmas as to who will be around the top of the table by the end of the season. With City having dispatched Liverpool and Chelsea already, this season, and taken a point from Tottenham and Manchester United, there’s no reason to think it’s impossible. Even in the defeat against Arsenal, City looked dangerous and competitive, despite having a man fewer for 86 minutes.

All that and only really firing on all cylinders last Sunday.

Suddenly, it’s not looking so bad.

Written By David Mooney