Howard Hockin: A Tale of Two Cities (a look at Manchester City’s mentality)

It seems like a lifetime ago. I was writing my dissertation on how the inspiration for the “Red Terror” favoured by the Russian Bolsheviks lay in the French Revolution. I had no grey hairs, the world had never heard of Facebook or Twitter, and knew little of Donald Trump’s tiny, tiny hands. Sad.

Football was soon to “not-quite-come-home”, the Tories were unravelling under the slate-grey John Major, and Blackburn Rovers were going for the Premier League title, up against Manchester United, no less. Manchester City were fighting relegation, so little surprise there.

The problem was City now had to face Blackburn, at a muddy Ewood Park, and their own battles meant no leeway could be given to a team with the SAS up front, a team who would only lose one other game at home that season.

So the joy and relief was palpable when Nicky Summerbee’s shot was palmed out by Tim Flowers and the onrushing Paul Walsh swept the ball home to put City 3-2 up, a lead they would hold on to, completing a fine 2nd half comeback after trailing at the break. It was 1995 and City would stay up with four points to spare, and Blackburn would win the title. I had to find a job, had no money, but City were safe for another year, and only another year. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

City fans could not know the other relevance of that night, however – because it was the last time City would overturn a half-time deficit away from home in the Premier League, and turn it into a victory, for another – well, I don’t know, as we have reached 2017, and the feat hasn’t been repeated since.

Twenty two years. You’d get less for murder. During that period there were 94 games with a half-time deficit, of which 11 ended in draws and 83 in defeat.

And it’s a statistic that has been on my mind again recently, as that non-penalty award against Everton the other week got me agitated. It’s hard to argue that not getting a penalty could make much difference in a 4-0 defeat, though Gary Lineker was keen to suggest our penalty against West Ham before adding four more was a turning point the previous week. However, this is City, and there’s the nagging feeling in my head that when we score first we are a joy to watch, but under adversity, we are most certainly not – and thus that non-penalty could have been crucial. The feeling may not be true, but it’s there nonetheless, even if Spurs and Andre Marriner rather ruined our latest two goal lead.

Hence my mention of the stat about coming from behind. Is this a team that is mentally weak? And what does that even mean? Does a team need a leader, a Roy Keane, a shouter, or is good football more important than a never-say-die attitude? Influential footballers or commanding footballers? Do City now need both?

The problem with this stat is that it is such an arbitrary choice. The laws of the game dictate a break halfway through the game, so stats can be created around this break – but should mental strength be judged just by how a team reacts after a break, an orange segment and a stand-up routine from Eddie Large? There are surely other factors – coming from behind at any stage in the game, late winners, late equalizers, performances that stats cannot measure, such as City’s recent victory over Burnley with 10 men – and what the stat clearly fails to address is cup games, home games, rallying to get a draw and the rather pertinent point that City weren’t that good for much of the period in question. And as shown by the continental practice of rotating captains, often awarding the honour to the oldest or longest serving player, it is perhaps more of a British characteristic to seek a warrior on the pitch to aid performance.

With all this in mind, I had a look at results over the past few seasons, to get a general view of how City do when we go behind – and it’s crucial this season when City are more prone than anyone to concede an early goal, more prone than any team to concede from the first shot on goal, the last six shots against City having ended up in the back of the net.

A delve through the past few seasons shows plenty of evidence for both sides of the argument. Let’s take the 2015/16 season for example. A disappointing season, as we all waited for our saviour to turn up. In the league, City were behind at half-time in 9 league games – 4 at home, 5 away. They went on to lose all 9. However in cup competitions we see a rather different picture – we came from behind to defeat Borussia Monchengladbach, held our nerve in a cup final penalty shoot-out (having come from behind in fine style in the 2nd leg of the semi-final) and in the season as a whole scored 6 late winners and came from behind in the second half at Watford. There was a fair bit of resilience in Paris too that proved crucial to reaching the semi-final of the Champions League.

The previous season? Well this wasn’t the greatest of seasons either, but it’s interesting (to me, if no one else) to note that City only trailed at half-time in four league games – we went on to lose three and draw one. Again, the cups show greater resilience. We came from behind against Bayern Munich to defeat them. Twice, if we also lump in a previous encounter. We did the same at home to Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup, throwing in a late winner for good measure.

2013/14 shows a similar theme – behind at half-time in the league in only four games, and we went on to lose all four. There was a stirring comeback in the League Cup final against Sunderland though, and we saw off Watford in the FA Cup after a disastrous first half. Was mental strength in abundance at Wembley, or did individual brilliance shine through?

And this season? A comeback against Arsenal has banished another unpalatable stat regarding home game comebacks, and then of course there was the Barcelona game. Plenty of resilience, as seen at Turf Moor, but not consistently.

But for me there are two clear example of the team’s resilience – namely both title winning season run-ins. Of course the narrative was painted that our rivals both choked at the last hurdle, handing us undeserved titles. There is after all always a caveat when City win any game (Bayern Munich weren’t trying, penalty not given, kit clash, sun was in their eyes), but on both occasions the City team kept their nerve and won a succession of tough, nervy games. United at home, Newcastle away, THAT GAME, Everton away, and more.

But back to the present day. When Everton’s second goal went in, I had zero faith in City staging a comeback – the game was pretty much up in my eyes. Putting my endless pessimism to one side, that lack of hope is not necessarily down to me sensing a soft underbelly in this Manchester City team, more just a comment on our current form, or level of performance. Or maybe it’s just our inability to ever put in a good performance on Merseyside.

So for me, there’s no perfect formula for resilience on a football pitch, for overcoming pitfalls. Even today there is an article in the Mirror suggesting City need Arsenal’s mental strength to be more successful, an Arsenal side that annually bottle a title challenge. Yes they have scored plenty of late goals, but they have had fortune and they have had skill, and good teams tend to score late goals as they do more of the attacking and a “lesser” opposition often retreats to the edge of its box and relinquishes possession. Maybe City simply need a big man to lump it up to instead, but the City team is capable of fighting to the end, as they showed in Pep’s first game. This season alone we have scored late goals against Sunderland, West Ham, Borussia Monchengladbach, Stoke City, Steaua Bucharest, West Brom, Leicester City, Watford, Crystal Palace, Hull City and West Ham – they just weren’t all winners.

You put a fighter in the side and you lose a separate quality elsewhere. Teams often need guidance on the pitch, they need organisation and a kick up the backside. The nagging feeling persists that the City team of recent years can sometimes lack resilience and let its collective heads drop.

In the end though, good players, the roar of a crowd and moments of quality are just as important as a shouter and a captain with blood running down his shirt.

Wouldn’t mind signing that Vidal though.

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