Friday 9 November 2012

The Ghost Of Nigel Looms Large At Eastlands...

A large proportion of City fans have always felt the need to single out one player as a boo boy, and at the same time that same group also have a knack of remembering certain former players in far higher regard than they should have been, this trait is currently in full effect at the Etihad and it isn't helping anyone whatsoever.

On Tuesday night aggrieved supporters were muttering quite loudly about the lack of Dutch destroyer Nigel De Jong, and suggesting that his absence was the reason for our 'poor' start to the season, quite how the Dutch man would have stopped either of the Ajax goals however is quite beyond me, but that is just the tip of the ice burg.  Clearly De Jong was a favourite at City, he was a player who always gave his all and during his stay he won a lot of plaudits.  When he first arrived I was not exactly a fan, but over time his combative displays and no nonsense attitude won over the majority, but it did take a few months for him to learn his trade in the Premier League.  Once he found his feet he never really looked back and played a huge part in the clubs upturn in fortunes over the last few years.

Then things turned slightly sour, and this is where these City fans bemoaning his absence seem to miss the point.  Nigel De Jong chose to leave Manchester City, he may not have publicly said it, but that is the uncomfortable truth.  When he aligned himself with Kia Joorabchian and began taking advice from one of the most despicable men in the game, he burnt a lot of bridges at the football club, he knew that and could easily have secured himself a longer stay with the Champions, but he chose not to.  It is widely known and accepted that a contract extension was on the table, it would have seen a hefty pay rise and a good few years tacked onto his deal, De Jong however decided to play hard ball and after speaking with Joorabchian made demands of his own and asked for wages that were supposedly ridiculous.  Throughout the majority of last season, player and club were at stalemate, ever the professional however, performances never dropped and he continued to give his best, the contract wasn't signed though, despite it being left on the table.

His refusal to sign the lucrative deal gave the club very little choice; he had to be sold this Summer in order to recoup some money as opposed to him leaving for nothing next year.  His decision to not sign on the dotted line (something that Silva, Zabaleta, Kompany, even Adam Johnson have done in recent years) was a clear indication from the player that he wasn't that bothered about the football club, and would move onto pastures new in order to secure the biggest salary that he could.  I don't blame De Jong for this, he was a great servant and played a massive part, but noone is bigger than the club, and he chanced his arm to secure himself a bumper pay day, ultimately he failed and the 2 parties went in there separate directions.

So now it surprises me that so many of our supporters blame Mancini, the club, or whoever they can for his departure, when they did a huge amount to try and keep him.  Even if you put these issues to one side, I do wonder whether he would still be as important as he once was had he stayed.  During the early Mancini days, the Dutchman was vital, we played a tight organised defence and midfield, but as the shackles came off last season the midfielder saw less game time, not to belittle his contribution but he was not the vital part of the team that he once was, his presence however did allow us to unleash Yaya Toure further upfield, something that had a massive impact on us taking the title.

There is now though a further problem, and that is the singling out of new boy Javi Garcia, a player who is getting dogs abuse for quite simply not being Nigel De Jong.  Garcia has come in and admittedly struggled during his first couple of months in Manchester, he has looked off the pace and unsure of his exact role in the team, you could say that his first month or so has been exactly the same as the first month that De Jong spent with us, but clearly that is now forgotten and overlooked.  Nigel was 'our warrior, he was our lynch pin, he was one the most important member of our team, he never struggled and was always our star'....rubbish.  Garcia has all the pedigree and potential to be a far superior player to the 27 year old, and yet there are large swathes of our support that don't want to give him that chance.

I am confident that he will come through the other side, the Spaniard has all the characteristics that the Dutch enforcer had, he is committed, hard working and loves to tackle, he can be a new fans favourite with time.  I think people sometimes overlook the difficulties of moving to a new country, a new team, a new league, it takes time for players to adapt, it took De Jong time to adapt.  On top of that has been the niggling injury that he has suffered since his arrival meaning he has missed out on a large amount of training sessions, something that will obviously hugely hinder a new player.  You only have to look at how much difference a preseason can make to a players performance level to see that Garcia is really up against it when it comes to integrating himself into the side.

Clearly if we had signed him earlier in preseason as opposed to deadline day things would have been better, but that is not the players fault.  Garcia has the chance to be a hugely important player in our side, and ultimately a better one than the player he has replaced due to his improved technical ability, but our supporters have to give him time to adapt to his new club, in the same way that we had to with De Jong.

Friday 2 November 2012

Rumour Mill: "....You sign Shinji, we sign Hideke Ishige...."

The transfer window is shut, and therefore the rumour mill has been fairly quiet of late,  today though it has lobbed something out in our direction, and no it isn't some bizarre link between us and Nani.

In the Summer our neighbours in Stretford replaced Park with Kagawa, a move that many suggested was all about shirt sales in the lucrative Asian market, claims that to be honest are beyond ridiculous due to the fact that the Japanese international is actually a high quality player who will offer United a lot when he gets upto speed with the Premier League.  Not to be outdone it appears that we are preparing to make a splash into the same market by running the rule over the Asian Young Player of the Year, Hideki Ishige.

The midfielder is currently playing for the wonderfully named Shimizu S-Pulse in the J-League.  The 18 year old is only 13 games into his professional footballing career, but he already has some serious expectations placed on his shoulders, and we all know that doesn't always pan out positively.  There are some reports in Japan suggesting that a formal bid has already been lodged from City, but these claims appear to be someway wide of the mark; it is true however that he has been offered a trial with the English champions, allowing Roberto Mancini and his staff to run the rule over the youngster.

This isn't the first time we've brought a player in on trial, Israeli Nir Biton has spent a couple of spells with us including our preseason training camp this Summer, a bid was never formalised though despite a couple of impressive performances thus highlighting that Ishige will have to show some real signs of quality during this trial period should he want to secure a permanent move to the Etihad.

His current manager at S-Pulse, Afshin Ghotbi, has confirmed interest in the Japan Under 17 international.  Speaking to Japan's Kyodo News he said:

"If you want to build top-class players, you have to give them various experiences and opportunities to see first-hand what the world level is about…And what better experience for Ishige than to train with the first team of Manchester City and have Roberto Mancini see him first hand and train with some of the top players in the world."

That is not to say that we are a shoe in for his signature, clearly whenever a youngster is available there is widespread interest and when there is perceived to be huge amounts of potential involved, this interest is multiplied many times, something confirmed by Ghotbi.

"There is interest in him, not just Man City but many clubs in Europe and he deserves it. He's a real fantastic talent…As far as I'm concerned, he's not for sale and we want him to be a part of S-Pulse for the next few years to come. There has been no offer, City just want to see him and we are doing the same with other players with other clubs."

You would imagine that even with interest from other parties, we must be towards the top of his list should an offer be formalised.  It would be hard to imagine the player wanting to move elsewhere after getting to know the City squad and coaching staff, clearly he may not enjoy his experience at Carrington, but if he does I would imagine we would become favourites for his signature.

Nothing is concrete yet, but should the trial pass successfully it could be an interesting story to watch develop, it certainly fits into our ambition to recruit the best young talent in the game, and with the new additions of Begiristain and Sorrano it is an approach that I expect to see us stick with, after all it worked for them at Barcelona, so why can't it here?

Thursday 25 October 2012

At What Point Does European Underperformance Outshine Domestic Prominence?

To say that our performance in this years Champions League was dismal would probably be selling it short, it was worse than that.  Last year was probably just as bad, our only 2 victories in the competition coming against a team that were relegated that same season. During this same period our domestic form has been superb, having said that many would argue it has still been subpar considering the amount of money lavished on our squad.

Why then the problems when it comes to European competition?  Some will point the fingers at the players, but for me that doesn't make a huge amount of sense, this isn't a one off, how can we play so well in the league and then so badly in Europe every time we take to the field, if this was a freak occurance maybe the playing staff could be blamed but we've been average at best in the elite competition for 2 years, the problem must lie else where.

What is the root of the problem then? In my mind there can only be one, and it comes from the top, the management.  Mancini may have succeeded domestically, but his record in Europe is not just questionable, it is downright poor.  His deficiencies in the competition predate his time in Manchester, he failed continually during his tenure with Inter Milan, on most occasions going out to teams that they should have beaten.  In fact with pretty much the same squad Jose Mourinho won the same competition at his first attempt after Mancini was dismissed for failing at the highest level.  In the immediate aftermath last night Paulo Baldini, the Italian football supremo was quoted as saying:

"When you lose as many (Champions League games) as he has with teams as good as Inter and City, it's not a hex, its bad management"

To be fair it is pretty hard to disagree with that view point, Mr Mancini has done a bad job when it has come to the top competition in Europe, so surely then I can't come back from this point, surely I should want him to receive his marching orders?  Well not exactly, as I just can't justify that decision in my mind, a man that has delivered as much as he has in recent years has a pretty strong bargaining position.  It is amazing how winning the FA Cup and ending our 33 year search for a trophy now seems so long ago, but our success in the Premier League last year has outshone even that, and we are again in a good strong position this time around.  

His tinkering however could threaten to damage all of the good work he has done, I don't walk around with my head in the clouds, at some point our owners are going to want to see European success at our club, I want that too, but whilst we continue to compete and look good domestically I can turn a blind eye to these issues for the time being, but that is the key part 'for the time being'.  

It should not be forgotten that we have been dumped in 2 horrific groups, however that does not change the fact that we should have been good enough to overcome Napoli last year and qualify in 2nd place, and we should have been closer to Dortmund this time around, the less said about the defeat in Amsterdam the better!

In my mind Mancini has already bought himself the rest of this campaign and the chance to start the next, it is a worry that he doesn't appear to be learning from his mistakes in Europe, and maybe things will be no better next year, but sacking someone on the back of a Championship winning season? We aren't Chelsea...but Pep Guardiola is circling.

Monday 1 October 2012

Is Stadium Expansion REALLY a Necessity?

We've all heard them, the boring dull lines about empty seats at City.  Whether it be referring to the ground as the Emptihad or some other equally 'hilarious' and 'witty' retort, we have heard them all, but now the jokes are looking more and more irrelevant.  Last year we managed to sell out for more or less every home game in the Premier League, and for some of those we could probably have shifted a further 10,000 - 15,000 tickets.

This is a relatively new situation; although the stories and claims about attendances at City are well wide of the mark in years gone past we have seen our average attendance drop to around the 40,000 mark, which is still impressive compared to many teams in the top flight but it was well below the levels we are now reaching.

Our success in recent times has brought people back to the club, and regrettably we probably also attract a new breed of football fan as well, people that may not even have considered themselves City fans in the past are now coming to be part of it, and although we may not be overly enthusiastic about these 'new fans' they will play a vital role in us increasing our income and therefore getting closer to the figure we need to reach in order to meet the incoming financial fairplay guidelines.  There has therefore been a clamour for us to increase our capacity, and many have claimed it is vital to our development, I personally am not so sure.

Even though we continually sell out for league games, cup attendances have been pretty poor across the board and I think it is definitely something that needs looking at before we start worrying about increasing the capacity.  We all know that the League Cup is hardly an attractive prospect, but last season just 25,070 saw us in the 3rd round against Birmingham, even the first leg of the semi final against Liverpool failed to ignite the interest of some of our fans with just 36,017 spectators present.  This year hasn't really been any better with our dismal defeat at the hands of Aston Villa watched by just 28,015.

I suppose you could argue that these figures are typical of the League Cup, a competition which is hardly treated as a particularly high priority but these lower attendances spread to European competition as well.  Our first ever appearance in Europe's elite competition was watched by around 44,000, a few thousand short of capacity, these got even worse with 42,000 watching Villareal, we did however finish on somewhat of a high with 46,000 at our meeting with Bayern Munich, probably close to capacity when you consider the amount of seats unavailable on a European night.  Attendances in the Europa League were even lower with neither games with Porto or Sporting managing to break the 40,000 barrier.  With just 2 days to go before our meeting with Borussia Dortmund there are many tickets still available and on a night where we really need a good win that is unfortunate.

So what causes these lower attendances in the cup competitions?  Clearly the League Cup just isn't overly appealing, I also feel the clubs decision to charge between £17 and £22 for adult tickets last week was somewhat farcical.  If they had capped them at £10 we could have got the stadium much nearer to capacity and I feel that was a missed opportunity.  Why though do we struggle for European games?  I suppose the extra expense on top of season tickets may put some people off, but considering we have always dreamt of sitting at footballs top table it seems a shame that uptake isn't higher.  Some say that evening kick offs are more difficult for people that come with children, but that doesn't entirely wash with me, we aren't talking about a post 11 o' clock finish.

Whatever the reason is, I think it demonstrates that there is no urgent need for stadium expansion.  Interestingly we are still to hit capacity for the Sunderland game this coming weekend, previous home games in the league have sold out weeks before hand, whether this is an impact of our less than stellar performances so far this season isn't entirely clear but I suspect it is a big part of it.  In my mind there is nothing worse than watching a game in a stadium that is too big, where there are just as many empty seats as there are occupied ones.  It is clear that we could sell maybe 3 or 4 thousand more tickets for a standard league game but with European games and domestic cup games not managing to entirely captivate our support I don't see the need for an additional 15,000 seats at this stage in our development.

Clearly there will be a time when this may be a more pressing matter, if our recent success continues I am sure attendances and clamour for tickets will continue to increase, but until that happens I think we are much better hanging fire and enjoying what we already have.

Friday 21 September 2012

Is It Time To Reassess Our Striking Options?

Going into this season it seemed pretty clear that Tevez and Aguero was going to be our front line of choice; the understanding they demonstrated at the back end of last season was very impressive, and whilst I wouldn't go as far as to say the return of Tevez propelled us to the Premier League title, it clearly had an impact, regaining a player of that ability would be a boost to any team.  Outside of those 2 however things are a bit more unclear.

After Aguero went off early in our first game against Southampton, the 2nd striking spot become up for grabs.  It was Edin Dzeko that got the nod on that occasion and he marked it with an important goal, despite this however it was Mario Balotelli that was favoured in the intervening weeks. He started at Anfield and was largely ineffective, in fact when he was replaced by the Bosnian on the hour mark we began to look a lot more threatening.  On the back of that Dzeko started the following week at home to QPR, now despite the odd mistake he got on the scoresheet again and went very close on another couple of occasions; despite adding his 2nd goal of the season, it was the goal less Italian that was restored to the starting line up for the trip to Stoke.  Again he struggled to make an impact on the game, and even though he was only given a couple of minutes on the pitch, Dzeko was only denied his 3rd goal of the season by a miraculous goal line clearance.

It therefore surprised me going into the Real game on Tuesday evening that people were questioning the absence of Balotelli from the squad.  There was only space for 2 forwards on the bench, clearly Aguero was going to make it in case we were really in need of a forward, and therefore I ask why would the Italian be picked over the Bosnian?

I don't want it to appear like I am getting on the back of Mario Balotelli, he has demonstrated that he is a player with huge amounts of potential, and that is the key word, potential, he isn't even close to being the player he can and hopefully will be.  After an excellent European Championships where it appeared he had finally thrown away the histrionics, and where he was scoring spectacular goals on a regular basis it was pretty clear that he would begin the season as our 3rd choice, but something now doesn't seem right about that.  He simply hasn't made an impact so far this campaign, and granted it is only early days and I am not writing him off, but I do feel it is time for him to sit out a few games while Dzeko is given more of a crack of the whip.

Despite scoring 19 goals last season including one on the final day against QPR, our supporters have never totally taken to Dzeko and he has been openly criticised by some, but yet we have a tendency to worship Balotelli (17 goals) as the 2nd coming.  Obviously as supporters we do like Mario because of his antics, he's a story and he is funny, whilst Dzeko is more of an easy target because of his semi regular mistakes on the field and his somewhat questionable technical ability.  In terms of a striking comparison though the goal scoring records speak for themselves.

Whatever it is that Mancini doesn't like about Edin I am unsure, he clearly has a very close relationship with Balotelli, but i'd prefer it if he focused on what was best for the team and at this point in time it would be to field Dzeko ahead of the erratic Italian.  It is pretty evident that he is a confidence striker, he started last season like a train, but then for no real reason he found himself benched and from that point he never managed to get himself back to his early season form.  After he notched his 3rd of the season against Madrid on Tuesday I would find it farcical if he continues to be overlooked. 

There are weaknesses to his game I will hold up my hands and admit that; but he scores goals, something that at the moment Balotelli is failing to do.  With Aguero's likely return on Sunday, both forwards will be on the bench, but I hope it is Dzeko that gets a 30 minute run out as opposed to Mad Mario because he is quite simply in better form at the moment, and surely that is the crucial factor at this time.

Friday 14 September 2012

Is The US Market Worth Bothering With?

As some of you may know I have just returned from an extremely enjoyable trip to New York, it wasn't in anyway football related, but never the less I did have some (lots of) City related thoughts when I was over there, and they helped me form this post in my mind.

Clearly the USA is a country not limited when it comes to 'mainstream' sport, and football (soccer to those crazy scamps) is not one of them.  The game we love falls behind American football, baseball, ice hockey, NASCAR, tiddly winks and competitive chess.  In a country where the competition between sports is so strong, it is not surprising that the English Premier League is pretty low on peoples sporting agenda's (in some cases though it may be higher than their own domestic soccer league, but that's a whole different blog post), but that knowledge is out there and with football mad Latin American communities in each major City there is a fan base to attract, it may be minor compared to their top bracket games, but it does exist.

During my time over there, I saw quite a few United, Liverpool, Chelsea and even an Arsenal shirt, but I saw noone representing the English champions.  Maybe that is to be expected, we have only recent become big news outside of our own country, but considering we spent 2 consecutive preseasons in the States you would think we should maybe have more to show for it.

That isn't to say there are no Manchester City fans in New York, or the country as a whole, clearly there are, in fact 'The Mad Hatter' bar in the city is recommended for all City fans that find themselves over that way, but when you consider the ties we had to the country with former CEO Garry Cooke coming from Nike, and the trips we did over there I just thought we may have had more of an influence than we seem to have.  As with all things though, continued success will clearly spread the word of the club, and these fans and more importantly their money will follow, but I am finding myself begin to wonder if the American market is even one worth pursuing?

As I mentioned, football/soccer just isn't a big deal to mainstream America, sure the Latin population and some of the Afro/Carribean communities prefer it, but if you asked the average man in the street in a small US town to name 3 Premier League teams I suspect it would be a spectacular failure, despite this, numerous clubs every year try to compete with the NFL/NBA/NHL to take some money out of the American public, and over all the years it has only ever really been met with limited success.  There comes a time where you wonder if it would be best to write off trying to 'crack' America and focus on other markets, and I wonder if that is what we are beginning to do.

The Summer of 2012 was our first preseason without Garry Cooke at the helm; and with the change in CEO, there was a change in our preseason tour.  This year the focus seemed to be more on football as opposed to marketing and that is something that I wholeheartedly buy into.  Whereas in the past players have been put through their paces in Los Angeles, this year it was done in a quiet town in the Swiss Alps, the public engagements were gone, and hard work was the focus.

That isn't to say that we didn't do any work trying to spread the brand this Summer, there was a fleeting trip to Asia to play Arsenal and a Malay XI in the birds nest stadium and Kuala Lumpur, clearly this exercise will have aided us and hopefully won us some new supporters, and for me this is a much better use of our time in preseason.  People in the far East are crazy about football, where as the majority of Americans are ambivalent.  It would be a much easier task to convert kids in China, Thailand and Malaysia into City fans than it is in Milwaukee, Des Moines and Atlanta.  

The exposure that the Premier League has in these Asian markets is huge, and although the majority of support is for our rivals due to their success there is still huge opportunities there for us to make the sort of money we need to help meet Financial Fair Play.  Clearly this is not an ideal scenario for supporters that we have in other parts of the world, but if we are cynical and view these tours as nothing more than the money making schemes that they are, then surely it is preferable to focus our efforts on markets with easier and slightly more solid gains.  

It is undeniable that if a few football teams did 'crack' the US, the financial rewards would be huge, but competing against their major sports, as well as the attitude that the majority of Americans seem to have towards football makes it somewhat of an impossible mission in my mind, where as the gains in Asia would be much easier to achieve and potentially far more rewarding.

Sunday 2 September 2012

The Invisible Man Will Return!

Just a quick status update, I am massively snowed under with other stuff because I go away this week, but normal service will resume after next weekend, thanks!