A gulf almost bridged





In the end, a hugely fortunate, if deserved, deflection preserved Manchester City’s unbeaten start to the season which has seen them drop just 2 points while scoring at will against often traumatised opponents.

Given the disparity between the two competing clubs – in finance, experience and recent history – the unrestrained celebrations of City (which shouldn’t be begrudged) at the final whistle spoke volumes about a feisty, enthralling game where the winners had to strain every sinew and draw deep on their considerable reserves of talent to overcome their relentlessly dogged hosts.

The petrodollar funded City have created a formidable squad of world class players, Delph and Walker notwithstanding, and look to be marching towards the title virtually unopposed with a scintillating style of play which forces even the best in the division in to defensive shells. Those who don’t are routinely annihilated by City’s ruthless exploitation of space – the most improved team in the Premier League, Watford, didn’t adapt their own refreshingly expansive style and conceded 6 at home.

Faced with his most formidable challenge to date, David Wagner devised a plan to have a chance of being competitive. With an opponent containing threat from all areas and a penchant for playing between the lines, the strategy he adopted was far more complex than simply putting everyone behind the ball and the cliché “parking the bus” completely under estimates the planning required to execute it.

Foregoing possession and ensuring that players do not over commit in rare forays forward was essential to the containment plan with obvious detrimental impact on the home team’s threat – but added to the essential values of hard work and tenacity were the rather more cerebral qualities of intelligence, concentration and patience.

City’s threats are legion. In De Bruyne and Silva they possess two of the best and most creative midfield players in the world. Out wide, the much improved Sterling and Sane offer outstanding pace and trickery (with Sterling’s wing supplemented by the very swift Walker), Aguero is amongst the best penalty box strikers on the planet and Fernandinho is more than capable of hurting teams when he arrives in the area.

The scale of the home team’s task was monumental and a narrow defeat a huge achievement considering the gulf in quality.

Wagner’s plans worked particularly well in the first half with the midfield triumvirate of Williams, Hogg and Mooy largely stifling De Bruyne and Silva and restricting City’s usual intricate moves between the lines – the number of overhit passes by the visitors was no coincidence as their range was disrupted.

On the rare occasions that City broke free from the shackles, Malone prevented Sterling a clear shot at goal, Schindler crunched in to Aguero when it looked like the Argentinian would add to his record City goal haul and Fernandinho was forced in to an additional touch before firing over, failing to capitalise on Sterling’s excellent movement which created the chance.

Lössl had little but routine work to do, other than a good stop from Aguero before Sterling’s miss, as his colleagues frustrated their illustrious opponents.

Transition, however, was inevitably difficult and largely rested on the huge shoulders of Depoitre. Unable to provide quick support to him, the Belgian’s hold up play was essential if Town were to trouble the visitors in any meaningful way, but other than an ambitious Smith effort which sailed over the bar, Town were entirely on the back foot for the first 40 minutes as they concentrated on repelling.

The final 5 minutes of the half turned the game on it’s head. A rare attack resulted in a corner – the first of 3 in a spell where City’s intensity appeared to drop off – and Schindler’s flick on presented a good chance at the far post which his central defensive partner Zanka was unable to convert.

Town then broke up another City attack and Depoitre skilfully flicked the ball around his compatriot Kompany before waiting for just the right moment to release Ince down the right. The immediate threat was cut out by Delph at the expense of a second home corner from which, Kompany nervously headed over his own bar for the third.

Ince swung this delivery to the near post with Schindler timing his run to perfection for another flick on. This time, Otamendi was unable to get out of the way and the ball cannoned off him in to the net. Incredibly, Town were in the lead and the noise levels, already tremendous, reached a crescendo.

The lead came against the run of play, but not against the run of the plan. Subduing City’s talent had taken immense amounts of courage and resilience but also had the effect of frustrating the visitors and impacting on their concentration. The 3 corners unsettled the champions elect – up to that point, Kompany and Otamendi had enjoyed relatively comfortable lives and maybe complacency set in as Schindler created two chances from them.

Despite rarely getting forward, it was probably Wagner’s finest 45 minutes as Town manager; City is on a different football planet, with a world class manager, wealth beyond imagination and a depth of squad to make eyes water.

The second half was a little different. Transition, already difficult, became tortuously improbable – though it should be said that City illegally prevented breakaways on several occasions without incurring punishment from a referee who, while getting most decisions right, failed to apply equal justice – and even Mooy’s vision was severely impaired by the lack of options available to him.

While the same fundamentals were in place, incessant pressure invariably brings reward and the restart seemed to catch Town a little cold as Sterling – the stand out player for the visitors – got the better of Van La Parra and Malone twice. Both occasions resulted in penalty appeals and both were legitimate. While Lössl’s interruption of the England international was deemed, rather generously, fair, Malone’s was not – even if it was the softer of the two. City’s targeting of Town’s left had paid immediate dividend and Aguero rolled the penalty in after waiting for Lössl’s dive.

To their credit, Town stuck to their task despite the blow of seeing their lead wiped out within a couple of minutes of the restart and the expected flow of goals from the visitors failed to materialise.

The defensive plan continued to work, though City’s penetration of the box increased and pressure on the excellent Schindler and Zanka intensified. Williams, Mooy and Hogg remained effective against the disappointing De Bruyne but the equally masterful Silva exerted more influence.

Desperate clearances became more prominent, as did the feistiness of the contest. A coming together between Walker and Van La Parra resulted in no free kick or booking, perhaps correctly, but lead to a spat between the £50M man and a furious Wagner. Despite a string of obscenities directed towards Town’s coach, only Wagner was spoken to by the referee whose curious interpretation of appropriate punishment baffled and enraged the crowd throughout the half and even after the final whistle had blown.

The raucous atmosphere, interruptions and the increased ugliness helped the home team, however, as City’s flow was impeded and their frustration mounted.

It was perhaps inevitable that the home side became more ragged as time passed and a clumsy challenge by Hogg – punished, of course, by a booking – gave Sane a chance from a free kick. With Lössl motionless, the young German’s effort cannoned off the bar (and actually achieved a better level of transition than Town had created, only for an unpunished De Bruyne to try to prevent the counter with a hand). De Bruyne’s body check of Van La Parra, again thwarting transition was also unpunished while a similar offence by Malone saw the full back yellow carded. The inconsistency was hugely frustrating.

Fernandinho was booked for an outrageous dive, however.

Last ditch challenges and scrappy play from City restricted the visitors but the pressure on the home side was unrelenting and clever balls in to the box became more prevalent, even if composure was strangely lacking in players of such talent.

When it came, late in the game, the winner was more than a little fortuitous. The ever dangerous Sterling attempted a one two with De Bruyne, the Belgian’s attempted return deflected in to the path of Aguero whose shot was saved by Lössl only for the ball to hit Sterling and loop agonisingly in to the net.

Cruel as the circumstances were, City’s fortune had been earned and, indeed, Sterling’s was too.

A late Mooy free kick, a half chance for substitute Mounié and a decent run by Quaner which lead to a corner saw Town come back in to the game a little in the latter stages but their inability to capitalise on the spaces left by City’s incessant attacking ultimately cost them a point. It should be said that the visitors ability to recover possession was also a major factor and they were helped by several illegal interventions as already described.

City’s relief was evident. They ran the clock down effectively – helped, again, by a referee who allowed them ridiculous amounts of time to take injury time free kicks without adding anything on – and the final act was them taking the ball in to the corner resulting in an altercation started by Sané with Van La Parra which continued after the final whistle. True to form, referee Pawson meted out a yellow card for the German and a potentially damaging red for Van La Parra.

It was a stupid, if provoked, piece of indiscipline from the Dutchman (who has plenty of form in this area) and rather soured what had been a remarkable, if unsuccessful, home display.

Similar resilience will be needed against Arsenal on Wednesday who play with the type of intricacy Town largely subdued in this game, but the absence of Van La Parra is a blow.

However, Town can take enormous pride from a great performance against a ludicrously talented team and, hopefully, augurs well for contests against significantly less well endowed opponents in the future.


Town fail to pop post Palace cherry




Disastrous decisions by a truly appalling referee completely upended a very promising, progressive start from a Town team finally allowed expression away from the comforts of home.

As the visitors took the game to the Cherries, excellent build up play was blighted by the now chronic lack of potency in front of goal. A good effort by Van La Parra was saved well, Malone bumbled through on the right before toe poking just wide and Bournemouth blocked out more attempts as Town took control.

The harsh reality, however, is that being on top without translating superiority in to goals renders it pointless, and you become vulnerable to those moments in a game which can determine outcomes.

When it came, the decisive moment was hugely unfair, on several levels, for the Terriers.

Firstly, a dangerous lunge on Hadergjonaj which left the Swiss rolling was deemed fair by Lee Probert and his better positioned assistant.

This left the left wing open for the home side and though Cranie snuffed out the danger he conceded a corner which would have to be defended with one man short.

It also left Mooy to mark the six yard box where Hadergjonaj would have been and neither he nor Lössl covered themselves in glory with their defending of a ball converted by Wilson.

1 down after dominating, a double injustice was to visit Town just minutes later as a decent Mooy tackle – he clearly got the ball – was deemed a foul.

Holding a high line as effectively as they normally do, the linesman’s flag stayed defiantly down as two offside home players attacked the ball with Wilson winning the race to put the home side 2 up with a smart finish.

The assistant – who had already missed a couple of pretty obvious offside calls – may have been distracted by a Bournemouth player being deliberately 5 yards offside who then stepped back so as not to be involved in play, but that hardly excuses another woeful piece of officiating.

Recovering from being just one down has been a struggle since Wagner arrived, so the second blow felt terminal for the visitors.

Unsurprisingly, the Cherries became much livelier after the gifts had been bestowed upon them and their ascendency threatened to overwhelm their opponents, though Town finished the half strongly and had an apparent lifeline thrown at them.

Simon Francis had already been booked for a foul on the lively Van La Parra and when the Dutchman took a ball on the halfway line and threatened an under strength home defence, the full back took him out with a late, ill timed challenge.

Remarkably, but in keeping with his overall incompetence, Probert appeared to play on before his torpor was disturbed (presumably by the fourth official rather than the idiot with the apparently heavy flag) and a free kick and second yellow was signaled.

As West Brom found last week, playing against 10 men – particularly at this level – is not quite the advantage it appears.

Well drilled teams can easily create a defensive block as we did and the extra man can be negated.

To take advantage requires patience and guile but Town possessed little of either in a second half where overwhelming possession created fewer opportunities than in the first half and they compounded their inability to trouble the home defence with complacency at the back leading to 2 further Bournemouth goals and a score line which was cruel but hopefully educational.

Malone, who had shone going forward in the first half, attempted one too many mazy dribbles and in a dangerous area, allowing Arter to dispossess him, turn defenders and produce a finish of some quality.

The relish with which Arter pounced and his conviction that he was going to score sharply contrasted with Town’s uncertainties and propensity to freeze when opportunity knocks.

Town’s desperation for a first away goal since August was an ugly mess and the home side merely had to wait patiently for the chance to break (again, like us last week).

Ake was immense for the home side and looked every inch a £20M defender but Town facilitated his performance with high long balls once Mounié had joined Depoitre to little effect.

If the third goal had been the final nail in the coffin, the fourth shoveled on the dirt.

The excellent Wilson – playing his first game since a long injury – bagged his hat trick with a good finish as Town’s depleted defence crumbled for a final time. Bournemouth should have scored a 5th too as the visitors melted.

It is difficult not to be angry about the appalling decisions which turned the game in the home side’s favour, but the injustices gloss over the major failing of creating too few chances and converting even fewer.

The problem away from home is acute, but despite some good victories on home soil, it would be naive to believe the lack of goals isn’t systemic – relying on opposition errors or wonder goals isn’t sustainable.

Palmer’s return may be the key since it will push Ince right and free up the increasingly effective Van La Parra, but this does place a burden on relatively inexperienced shoulders. It may be a little harsh, but the demotion of Kachunga, sadly out of his depth, cannot arrive quickly enough.

With 3 very difficult games on the horizon – two of which seem wholly insurmountable challenges – a slow descent to a more realistic league position seems inevitable, though the breathing space already achieved should leave us above water as more winnable games reappear.

The traveling support continues to back the team in adversity and instinctively recognizes that Town are falling foul of circumstances away from home, but their patience is not endless and a goal on a foreign field would be welcome.


Indefatigable Town thwart Baggies



Tony Pulis’s band of entertainers rolled in to town on the back of a poor run of form which, nevertheless, failed to persuade the survival specialist to deviate from his strategy of muscular containment, with most of the flair available to him sitting watching his animated arse for an hour.

His team, along with his former club Stoke, are synonymous with gritty survival which eventually turns to drudgery and fear as the joy of the sport is sucked out for the sake of a continuing presence at the top table – a flaw in the Premier League circus as the inherent inequalities between the truly global clubs and the strivers encourages extreme pragmatism and systematically quells adventure.

Should they survive – and 15 points from 11 games increases the possibility substantially – Town may well be forced down a similar path, but, for now, there is nothing but unbridled enthusiasm for a side which harnessed collective spirit, individual talent and dogged endeavour to produce an excellent home record upon which their fate will rest.

The understandable euphoria surrounding the victory over Manchester United was accompanied by the slight concern that the triumph would be the high point of the season but, if anything, there was at least as much to admire in this victory over a club with massive experience of gaining points from the less glamorous top flight fixtures and as the drama unfolded, all of the qualities created by Wagner in his 2 year tenure were displayed.

In the first hour, the Baggies were rarely allowed to settle despite the visitors having slightly the better of the opening exchanges. The best chance they had fell to Rodriguez but his effort was well blocked by Schindler and their threat receded as the half progressed while Town slowly took hold of possession.

With Van La Parra lively and productive, Town had the one player on the pitch with the ability to surprise – his equal ability to frustrate was largely missing, making him potent and the obvious key to unlocking West Brom’s disciplined defending. A decent effort which cleared the bar quite comfortably signalled the Dutchman’s intent to make his mark on the game while the hard working Ince blazed over when the ball fell to him in the area. A better effort was comfortably saved and the ex-Derby man’s hunt for a goal continues.

The visitors’ game plan – conceding possession and looking to free their two front men on the break – was largely thwarted by Town pressing back their two full backs and not allowing them to venture forward to any real effect, but a potentially dangerous break by Robson-Kanu was halted illegally by Schindler to earn the German a soft booking (his Welsh opponent was as guilty of holding and while the free kick was given the right way, the booking was ill deserved).

Up to that point, despite a bizarre denial of an obvious corner to the home side early on, the officials had handled a physical contest reasonably well but that was to change significantly for the rest of the game with Roger East’s inconsistent approach to punishment of foul play enraging the raucous home support (just minutes after the Schindler booking, Robson-Kanu was forgiven a cynical foul on Van La Parra) – as often happens, refereeing incompetence inadvertently assists the aggrieved and an already fully engaged home support ramped up the atmosphere to truly play a 12th (and then 11th) man role.

With opportunities at a premium, it took a moment of pure magic to break West Brom’s stranglehold on Town’s attacking intent. A dubious decision in Town’s favour following a tussle between Hogg and Rodriguez allowed Mooy to release Van La Parra. Despite over running the ball, possession was retained by Malone who found the Dutchman in a little space. Few in the crowd were urging the previously misfiring Van La Parra to shoot but he curled an absolute beauty past a planted Foster who could only watch on as the ball found the top corner.

Momentarily stunned, the crowd’s disbelief turned to joy – as any fool knows, when Town score first, they almost always win.

The goal was just reward both for the player, by far the most progressive on the field, and the team, who had played with great energy and far more adventure than their opponents and coming just before half time, it was psychologically important too.

A low key opening to the second half augured well for the Terriers – Pulis’s conservatism was unchanged and, bewilderingly, so was his team as he continued to leave more talented individuals on the bench.

All was about to change however when the impressive Hegazy slipped past a couple of challenges as he brought the ball out of defence only to be clattered by Schindler on the halfway line. A second booking was inevitable and even the softness of his first does not relieve the normally unflappable German of responsibility for leaving his team a man down, but the enormous amount of goodwill the man has earned over the past year and a bit precludes too much admonition.

Not surprisingly, Pulis turned around to summon his spurned talent – the visiting support must have felt huge frustration that it took his opponent going down to ten men before deciding a little “bravery” was in order.

With Phillips, Rondón and McClean replacing the ineffective Robson-Kanu and a couple of more defensive players, the game took on an entirely different hue. Wagner responded with defensive substitutions – Cranie and Williams replacing Kachunga and Van La Parra – while Schindler was replaced with 3 and a half stands full of enraged Yorkshire men.

Immediately reverting to the deep defensive block which had been so effective against Manchester United, but one man short, the last half hour plus 6 minutes injury time saw Town exhibit enormous resilience to restrict the Baggies to a rather mechanical dominance. Despite the concession of too many free kicks and corners which could have played to the visitors’ obvious strengths, the defence, brilliantly marshalled by the ever improving Zanka, held firm with blocks and clearances while occasionally breaking forward using the strength and deceptive skills of Depoitre.

If they could be criticised, Town should have made more of the couple of times they exposed West Brom’s new found attacking intent, but that would be slightly churlish given the circumstances.

In normal time, the closest the visitors came to an equaliser, and a platform for all 3 points, was a Rondón header which flashed just wide but their dominance was not translating in to genuine chances on the whole.

The atmosphere in this desperate period was scintillating and drove the team in their endeavours. With a referee seemingly determined to assist the away side – only he can explain how McClean’s attempted assault on Ince was not a red card offence and his other decisions were determinedly in West Brom’s favour – and incessant, if rarely penetrative, pressure, the support was ramped up to insane levels and, unprovable as it is, must have given the players added resilience and desire.

As the minutes crawled by, the admiration for Wagner’s adaptability and his players’ bravery grew. Every single one of them strained every sinew to keep the opponent at bay and it rarely looked excessively desperate until natural fatigue set in during the long injury time as minds yearned for the final whistle.

At this point, the previously untroubled Lössl stepped up to make two outstanding saves; the first to his right and the second, even more impressive stop, to his left. After his Anfield penalty save and his heroics to achieve a 5th clean sheet to preserve 3 points, the aberration at Swansea can be consigned to history.

The final whistle brought more than 3 thoroughly deserved points, it brought immense pride in a squad which responded magnificently to adversity – for all the brickbats West Brom are attracting, they remain a hugely experienced team in the Premier League with not a little talent (even if criminally under used by Pulis in this encounter), and Town’s suppression of them was masterly.

The collective effort, from the stands, to the coaching staff and the players made for a memorable experience every bit as important and thrilling as the previous home victory and Town go in to yet another international break in a much stronger position in their quest for survival.

Irrepressible at home, Wagner will no doubt be aware that he needs a better formula for away games and we need to create more and better chances to improve our goal tally, but this was a hugely important victory over a struggling but dangerous outfit.

These are the days.