Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last five months, you’ll know that this season has been crazy. Leicester finished 14th last season and now they’re top of the league with only two defeats. Crazy. Adam Lallana scored a 95th minute winner to give Liverpool a 5-4 win over Norwich in today’s early kick off. Crazy. Manchester United have had two shots on target in their last 180 minutes of football. Crazy.
Crazy, crazy, crazy – at least, that’s what they say. For me, there’s nothing too kooky about a team playing with desire and energy far superior to any other topping the division or an appalling defence conceding a few goals. Unanticipated? Yes, but not crazy. In football, you get what you deserve.
The word has been severely overused this term. Cheikhou Kouyaté, who placed Yaya Touré in third when submitting his Ballon d’Or votes in November, scampering past his ‘idol’ to set up Enner Valencia for a first-minute opener is not crazy, but a by-product of negligent defending. Valencia adding to his tally by latching on to a long throw-in, catching Otamendi out of position and poking past Hart isn’t crazy either, it’s just shite defending. Plain old inexcusably horrendous defending that we’ve been forced to deal with week after week after week. Nothing crazy about that.
There’s nothing crazy about Sergio Agüero being absolutely bloody brilliant, either; and honestly, where would we be without him? West Ham’s performance in the 2-2 draw on Saturday evening was all about team cohesion with Alex Song, Mark Noble and Dimitri Payet coordinating a vibrant display that demonstrated just how serious the Hammers are about making the top six. Ours, on the other hand, was all about the artistry of an individual.
And that shouldn’t have been the case with ten other talented players alongside him. Having exceptional players at our disposal hands us the luxury of being able to watch an individual single-handedly shove us out of the firing line from time to time, but relying on the brilliance of one man should not be the weekly chore that it has become for City fans. We’re lucky in that we can get by with just a couple of players playing well, but our aspirations should be much higher than just getting by. Imagine where we could be if the whole team put in a shift.
Of course, the club’s aspirations are much higher, and that’s why we’re trying so hard to bring in Pep Guardiola at the end of the season. “Trying, you say? It’s already done!” – maybe, but you just know there’s a cock up waiting to happen. Either way, Pellegrini is going to be replaced in May and today was another reminder that change is probably coming at the right time.
I’m a huge fan of Manuel. I think he’s dealt with the ongoing speculation impeccably and in the humble fashion that has endeared him to all of us, but he’s a one-trick pony when it comes to tactics and he doesn’t seem to learn from previous games where a certain system has either worked or failed miserably. Away from home, playing Touré in a midfield two usually fails miserably and surprise, surprise, it did again today. Slag his defensive abilities and comical attempts at tracking back off all you like, Touré shouldn’t be given defensive responsibilities when Fernandinho, Delph and Fernando are all available to play. People will be defending him in blogs, articles and video interviews even after the poor bloke dies and you can bet that there’ll even be a few insufferable bastards who visit his grave to tell him how shit he was at protecting the four in 100 years time, but it’s pretty clear to me that Touré’s strengths lie further up the pitch and that his manager should know that. Touré was undone too easily for the opening goal and it was a shocking start for us.
Valencia’s goal received an uncharacteristically ferocious response with Agüero and Silva combining dangerously inside the host’s half. The pants nearly came off when Sergio’s audacious half-volleyed lob came off the far post, but the woodwork meant that Dele Alli’s effort earlier in the day would remain the number one goal of the season contender. This was the fast, incisive football we’ve been craving all season and we were rewarded for our efforts after just nine minutes when Sergio was brought down by Jenkinson in the 18-yard-box. Up stepped the Argentine to roll in the equaliser and burst the Hammer’s bubble.
It was the Sergio show for the next ten minutes. His touch was back, his strength was there and he was running at and turning his opponents for fun. Every week he’s made a small step towards his best and the manager must be given credit for managing his game time so sensibly. It’s a shame that the same can’t be said for his handling of Kevin De Bruyne, who, for the third game running, looked thoroughly bollocksed. Despite missing our first four games, Kev has made only two fewer appearances (19) in the league than Joe Hart (21) this term and it’s clear that he’s being overused. When selecting his starting eleven, Manuel should operate using the two ‘F’s: fatigue and form – and right now, De Bruyne is being afflicted by both.
Bilić’s side were in control for the rest of the first half. Dimitri Payet has undoubtedly been one of the captures of the summer and had a pearler of a free-kick denied by an ever better save from Hart. Leaping into the air like a Shortfin mako shark after its dinner, Hart proved once again why he is up there with the elite goalkeepers in Europe. Agüero’s contribution further up the pitch is incredibly important; but without the heroics of Harty this season, we’d be much further down the table.
With Navas, De Bruyne, Silva and Touré struggling in their respective positions, West Ham made a bright start to the second half. Delph, who was also kept on the fringes of the game, had a dragged attempt hit the post, but the hosts were in front again after just 10 minutes. Shrugging Otamendi out of sight, Valencia latched on to an Antonio throw-in and stabbed past Hart in a move that really threw our calamity of a defence under the spotlight. It was embarrassing stuff from Nico who took 10 seconds to realise the throw-in had actually been taken. One pundit commented rather humorously that it was the second time he’d left Valencia for us; but all jokes aside, is he reliable enough? Are we getting our money’s worth? The jury is still out.
We were second to everything in the second half and could have done with bringing Fernandinho on. Bilić is a smart manager and had his side feasting on every loose ball and awkward touch that we made. It sent us into panic, and with too many attacking players on the pitch, there wasn’t enough of a midfield presence to obstruct the runs of Song and Payet who were fantastic. It was one of those games in which the determination and energy of Fernandinho could possibly have swung things in our favour, but the Brazilian was never summoned from the bench. Instead, the pace of Sterling and Iheanacho was called upon and it was the latter who made the biggest impact. Doing the job that Silva had failed to do all game, Kelechi drove at West Ham’s back line with purpose, forcing Cresswell into a mistake that saw the ball fall into the path of Agüero. You know what happens next.
The expression on Sergio’s face told a story. At first, I thought the goal had been disallowed. There was no emotion from him. This was all just routine for a man so used to digging his teammates out of holes.
A stoppage-time header from Kouyaté rattled both the bar and my heart, but we escaped with a draw. On the negative side, we’re still far too reliant on moments of individual excellence and look no closer to putting a title-winning run together. Silva, De Bruyne and Touré – be it fatigue, being played out of position or simply just a lack of form – are struggling and our defence continues to disappoint. On the positive side, however, a real understanding has been established between Sergio and Kelechi that should tempt Pellegrini into fielding the two together on a more regular basis. Kelechi is a creative player capable of playing in the number 10 role and we’ll see if Manuel has the gonads to go with form over experience and sub in the Nigerian for Silva when we meet Everton in the second leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final on Wednesday. That would be the perfect way to show how much faith he has in him and I really believe he could make a difference for us as we move into the business end of the campaign.
A big change in style is needed if we’re going to fend off Everton and make it to Wembley next week and the responsibility shouldn’t fall upon just one man’s head.
… and because it’d be unfair to leave it out, Joe Hart’s save.