“BOOOOO!”. The bitter cold that hung in the Etihad Stadium like a winter mist prior to kick off was still there when Mark Clattenburg blew the final whistle at 15.20pm. I felt it in the concourse of block 313 as the girl at the counter passed over my hot dog with a sharp smile and then quickly turned her back to whisper into her colleague’s ear. Had she seen a ghost, a fine male specimen or, most probably, a severely hungover-looking bloke in an oversized pullover? I felt it in the concrete of the walls as I walked down the concourse and towards my seat, in the the travelling Southampton supporters who, despite sitting directly beneath me, failed to make the seat vibrate even once, and most conspicuously in our own supporters who came wielding hats, scarves and throats ready to open up and hiss if City failed to win for the fifth consecutive game in a row. For the first time this season in this 1-1 draw, City probably did fail, and boy did the home support hiss.
Is this what we’ve become? A support base of impatient miseries who under no circumstances shall accept anything less than three points? Yeah, City were poor today, but let’s have some perspective here. We’re top of the Premier League and have lost just twice in 15 games under a manager that has never managed in England before. And that’s not to say English football is this untameable three-headed beast that turns the world’s best coaches into piles of bones, even if sections of the media that guard the English game like Fluffy guarded the Philosopher’s Stone so desperately want that to be the case. Premier League, Ligue 1, Serie A; doesn’t matter. Perching at the top of the league after nine games in any division is an achievement and the team sitting there should not be getting booed for Christ’s sake.
Howard Hockin made a good point after the game. He said we as a support base need to decide whether this will be a transitional season or one where we should be going for the title. Of course, this was always going to be a transitional season under a coach who, probably more than any coach in the world, is so specific on what he wants from his players. You try writing a match report with your back to the laptop and your arse facing the ceiling after years of doing it the conventional way and you’re going to struggle, no matter how good of a writer you are. Perhaps not the best metaphor to use, but that’s the situation our players now find themselves in. New system, new demands; it’s going to take time. I get that performances and results like this are frustrating because at the same time we expect a side of this quality to challenge for the title, but we have to allow some room for error.
Anyway, looking at City’s 1-1 draw with Southampton on Saturday from a completely neutral point of view, it wasn’t good. The passing was no where near crisp enough and we didn’t create enough chances. Flat would be a good word to describe it, and what a shame on a day that felt so big.
Pep Guardiola had passive-aggressively lectured his press conference audience on the sins of false reporting after stories emerged revealing Sergio Agüero could be on his way and that Vincent Kompany, left out of the squad for the trip to Barcelona, was actually fully fit and available. “Before you decide to write he is not in my plans, call me,” responded Pep. And so all eyes were on the teamsheet at 12.30pm; Pep’s decision to start both players, Kompany in the heart of a back three alongside John Stones and Aleksandar Kolarov and Agüero as a lone striker sending out a clear message to those menacing publications. More significantly, though, City needed three points to boost morale after the defeat in Catalonia. Surely Vinny and Sergio were going to make securing the much-needed win a little easier for us.
Their impact was minimal. Agüero’s work-rate was noticeably better but I’m not sure he had a shot on target, while Kompany slotted into the defence nicely but seemed to lack an understanding with Stones whose farcical error gifted Nathan Redmond the opener on 28 minutes. Stones, perhaps half expecting his captain to be sat a little deeper, blindly played a casual pass into the penalty area only to watch Redmond pounce, round Bravo and score. You just can’t afford to make errors of that severity. However, suggestions that Stones is failing to settle into his new home are completely wide of the mark. Actually, the former Everton man has been one of the stars of this new campaign, his cool head and sublime range of passing giving City an excellent base on which to conduct the ‘build-up’, as Guardiola calls it. His error today was costly, but I’ve been well impressed so far.
Redemption was denied moments later when the beady eye of the linesman made sure Stones’s tap in from Kevin De Bruyne’s free-kick was ruled out for offside. It was going to be one of those days.
Oriol Romeu harassing like a pit-bull on viagra, City struggled to take a grip of the game. Fernandinho and Gündoğan were unusually sloppy, while De Bruyne seemed to be suffocated by the sheer amount of attacking players on the pitch. We looked at the line up and gasped, but if there’s anything we’ve learnt from our first 15 games it’s that De Bruyne has to be given space. Without him at his best, City struggle.
The Belgian was replaced by Kelechi Iheanacho at half time and City upped their intensity dramatically. The second half also saw Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané switch wings, Raheem galloping down the right and Sané skating down the left. Both looked dangerous as the side pressed relentlessly for an equaliser and Sané was unlucky not to get on the end of an inviting Sterling ball. The German would be instrumental in Iheanacho’s 55th minute leveler, however, bringing down Fernandinho’s exquisite lobbed pass, skinning his man and presenting Kelechi with a tap in.
If any team were going to go on and win this it would be City, but then that bitter cold returned again. Sterling did his best to propel his team forward, driving into the heart of Southampton’s defence and sliding in David Silva on a few occasions, but in the end there was nothing. Just frustration again, and a load of questions about our inability to put the ball in the back of the net.
And then a quick visit to the other side of town reminded us all that it’s not so bad. Manchester United and José Mourinho were the victims of a 4-0 drubbing at Stamford Bridge today, and a win against the mid-table outfit in the League Cup on Wednesday would go some way to alleviating some of the concerns we have at the moment. That game now feels bigger than ever.