Stagnant, rancid stalemate



Town’s dismal early season form continued as they failed to beat a limited, rugged Cardiff side in a contest barely befitting the top league. On this evidence, both will be back in the Championship next season and relegation may prove a blessed relief.

The hope was that Town would progress in their second season but, perhaps unsurprisingly with a team which, so far, has lined up with pretty much the same players as last season, the same failings remain at the fore.
Faced with Cardiff’s physicality, David Wagner left Pritchard on the bench in favour of a strategy apparently designed to test Cardiff’s stamina before introducing him later on. This is an assumption incapable of testing and proof as circumstances interrupted the presumed game plan when Hamer – a bold reselection having conceded 9 goals in two games – was injured early on, reducing substitution options and fatally compounded by Hogg’s dismissal.
For all his achievements with Town – and they are amazing, legendary achievements – Wagner’s meticulous game plans often fail to survive the setbacks which regularly intercede in a chaotic sport. There is a distinct lack of spontaneity – a quality Pritchard can bring – in and amongst the efficiency which can feel and look robotic, particularly when ball possession is held in higher regard than anything resembling risk.
The midfield 3 – Hogg, Mooy and Billing – were largely a cloying mess and simply not creative enough to unlock a solid Cardiff defence. Individually, for an hour, they did little wrong and Billing was at least influential at times and was one of the few to stand out, but the home team cried out for Pritchard’s unpredictability in front of Cardiff’s centre halves.
Far too often forward runs were ignored, particularly by Mooy, in favour of recycling and virtually nothing was of any surprise to the Welsh visitors. The exception was Kongolo who shone like a beacon amongst the dross. A rasping effort in to the side netting – the least said about his other shot which ended with a throw in the better – athletic raiding down the left which rattled Cardiff’s back line and a superb cross for Mounié in the second half were the highlights of an excellent individual performance which was depressingly out of place with the rest of the mess.
The right hand side, with Hadergjonaj having a particularly ineffective game offensively, was frustratingly poor. On the assumption that Diakhaby was bought for his pace, he was rarely set free to use it – the one exception saw him finish his run with a bemusing half pass/half shot which dribbled to the keeper. Billing broke forward down the right in a decent move, skipped past a defender and put in a poor cross which lead to Kongolo’s drive after a scuffed clearance but, generally, the home side avoided the byline in favour of hitting the first defender with crosses which would have been easy to defend had they travelled further.
Cardiff were similarly unthreatening in a hugely disappointing first half – after Mendez-Laing’s strong run and collision with Hamer after 5 minutes (both players brave in the challenge), the visitors’ limitations were exposed. In archetypal Warnock style, power over precision ruled with the ball spending a lot of time in the air to little effect. Sean Morrison’s long throws had the appearance of threat without actually delivering any.
A first half involving a team moving the ball far too slowly, against one with few pretensions of sophistication made for pretty desperate fare. Forgettable for all but Kongolo’s exploits, long on endeavour but short on quality the game felt ominous for the two relegation favourites, and it was about to get worse.
It could have been very different. Early in the second period, Lössl tried to emulate Ederson with a dead ball delivery directly to Van La Parra who, unfortunately, isn’t quite at the level of Agüero. The Dutchman brought the ball down a little too clumsily, allowing defenders to recover but, more crucially, allowing the offside Mounié to take the ball from him. Dumb.
Town’s best moment of the game came shortly afterwards. Billing burst forward to release Kongolo who delivered a sublime cross for the usually starved Mounié only for the striker to power his header too close to the keeper who made a competent if spectacular looking save. A goal at this point would have sunk Cardiff, who have even more problems – as would be proven – in front of goal than their hosts.
Just after the hour, a rare Cardiff corner was cleared towards Diakhaby who looked to be cynically fouled as he unleashed his pace at long last, but everyone’s attention was drawn to a fracas in the area and a prone Arter being harangued by home players. The linesman’s report to the referee resulted in Arter’s aggression being punished by a free kick against him and a yellow card while Hogg, who had pushed him over with head and hands was sent from the field.
The unprofessional actions of the on field captain should have proved disastrous. For the remaining half hour, the visitors played with considerably more freedom than they looked capable of against 11 men, it allowed them to introduce the more subtle skills of Bobby Reid and the commodity of possession, one which they had previously been severely restricted.
Before the sending off, we had been treated to the slightly bizarre sight of Danny Ward playing in the Premier League – to be fair to him, he looked far more effective than Zohore, even if the contest itself was a pastiche of a top level game.
Lössl had to make a decent save from the ex-Town man, whose diet appears to have improved, before seeing Morrison miss with a header when it was far easier to score and he was grateful for decent blocking of shots by Schindler and a lucky deflection off Zanka.
Cardiff really should have won the game with Town down to ten and conceding possession and territory but their inability to put the ball in the net, like ours, is going to be fatal for them. They will have few better chances to win 3 points than that last half hour, having largely suppressed their lacking in confidence hosts.
Towards the end, with Cardiff out of ideas, substitute Depoitre may have made more of a good opportunity but was thwarted by Samba.
At least the 11 v 10 circumstances provided a level of entertainment rather lacking in the first hour, but a scoreless draw delivered the damnation the game as a whole deserved, exposing just how much improvement both sides will need if they are to defy the opinions of the experts.
For Town, something of a sea change is required. Shoehorning your strongest players in to a team only serves to create duplication – Mooy spent far too much time too far back to be a true number 10 and was outshone by Billing’s willingness to burst forward to some effect at times, and his safety first orchestration of play slowed the team down to the point of hum drum.
Goals remain rare and elusive. The common consensus is that better supply to Mounié and Depoitre could solve the problem, but there is precious little evidence that a solution is near at hand. Kongolo’s adventures forward are promising, but the pace of Diakhaby was barely in play and Mbenza’s introduction when down to ten offered no clues to his ability either.
The much maligned Van La Parra – bar a near catastrophic short back pass to Lössl – tried to add threat and paired reasonably well with Kongolo, but, frankly, unless one of the three purchased wide men does not prove to be better, we are in a lot of trouble.
A dismal day which thankfully didn’t turn disastrous, did little to lift a now pervading gloom.

No Silva linings




Manchester City systematically dismantled a makeshift Huddersfield Town side shorn of its midfield energy and nous through injury and paternity leave, while barely shifting out of cruise control.

Not a single visiting player emerged from the wreckage with credit, though some had the excuse of being demonstrably unfit to be sharing a Premier League stage with opponents oozing quality, control and class.
David Wagner’s strange but not wholly unexpected approach to two exceptionally tough opening games, which has seen his summer signings almost entirely mothballed, could come back to haunt him if the ultimate objective – taking points from teams providing more realistic competition – stumbles.
Adopting an entirely new defensive plan – weird Jon Stanković playing as a roving additional centre half in front of the back four as protection – along with an inexperienced and fundamentally lightweight midfield against the oil state funded superstars who will surely walk away with the title again was, to say the least, bold.
The line up resembled what you would expect in the second half of a pre season friendly in Austria; two full backs who just about cope with moderate opposition in the top league, a Wagner favourite (Stanković) making his full Premier League debut after a long injury break, two kids with talent and potential but hopelessly out of their depth in this company (Sabiri and Billing) and a second string keeper inexplicably retained after a less than commanding opening day performance.
Both the performance and result were eminently predictable – the eleven sent out to try to thwart an opposition brimming with talent lacked pace, cohesion and strength in vital areas. Unfamiliar with each other in a competitive game and trying to adapt to a new defensive strategy, the hastily assembled team looked perpetually on the edge of collapse and a snarling underdog display which would have at least salvaged a little pride, was entirely absent.
City could have been out of sight in the first few minutes with Aguero, Jesus and Mounié going close – Town’s striker shanked an attempted clearance on to his own bar – as the Silvas, David and Bernardo, tormented Löwe down Town’s left. To his credit, Hamer made an excellent save from Jesus, taking the full impact of the Brazilian’s strike in the unmentionables, and Stanković made a brave block on Aguero’s effort.
On the right, Town appeared to have decided to let Mendy roam at will. Tommy Smith occasionally ran alongside him but the mismatch was tragically comic. Throughout the game, the World Cup winner delivered crosses of variable quality – ranging from hitting the side netting to setting up goals – but the license to do so was handed to him far too easily.
David Silva, on the other side, was virtually unplayable. Poor Chris Löwe was turned inside out and anyone who came to help suffered a similar fate but the Spaniard’s creativity wasn’t capitalised upon as, to their credit, Town players restricted space in the area and blocked effectively.
For the first twenty minutes, the visitors saw little of the ball and invariably gave it back to the home side to maintain their dominant superiority. Aside from one crunching challenge on Silva by Kongolo, tackling was at an extreme premium as both Sabiri and Billing were bypassed with consummate ease.
The Terriers finally had a shot after 25 minutes with their first genuine foray forward – decent work by Mounié set up Stanković to fire high and wide, but it was, at least, something to become marginally excited about in the away end.
They followed it up with another attack, though this carried no threat and had sucked a few too many players forward. Ederson spotted Agüero moving near the halfway line and pinged a quick dead ball in his direction which the Argentine had under control in a flash. Inexplicably, Hamer, who had moved way too far forward in the first place to attempt to cover the threat, refused to retreat back towards his goal and let Schindler deal with the situation. This provided the perfect scenario for one of the world’s most lethal strikers; Schindler’s jockeying became redundant as Agüero had the simple task of lobbing the ball over the ridiculously advanced keeper and the by now covering Billing.
Town’s tentative flirtation with an attack cost them dearly, but Hamer’s mad wandering assured City of their deserved and bafflingly late opener.
5 minutes later, and slightly fortuitously, City doubled their lead when the Mendy menace was, yet again, ignored. Smith half tackled the marauding Frenchman only to see the ball rebound to Jesus. A poorly positioned Hamer couldn’t make up ground to his right and Town were sunk within half an hour.
Hamer’s third and worst aberration came soon after. A relatively soft cross by, you guessed it, Mendy was spilled in the vicinity of Agüero who beat two Town defenders to the ball and slammed home. He was second, possibly third, favourite to reach it first but his sharp instinct and desire brought him reward.
A mauling, which had been on the cards since the team selection, now became a distinct probability and thoughts of both sets of supporters drifted back to November 1987.
Out of the blue, however, and just before half time, Town found themselves up the pitch somehow. A Billing long throw was nodded on by Mounié and swept in by Stanković for the most unlikely of consolation goals masquerading as a springboard for recovery.
A first goal of the season was welcome, but nobody was fooled. To go in with just a two goal deficit defied the reality of a rampant City who could have scored 6 or more and had steamrollered their weakened and confused visitors to the point of submission.
The chasm in quality was frightening. As was the prospect of 45 more minutes with City being able to call upon a bench of seasoned, world class internationals and a wunderkind.
Sabiri, almost entirely anonymous in a bewildered midfield, was replaced by Depoitre at half time as Wagner decided to prolong the failed experiment of two big lads up front, though the Belgian did add more energy to the front line, even if it was all wasted.
The laughable notion that Town’s late first half goal would miraculously spur a revival was buried early in the second half. Billing brought down the irrepressible Agüero 25 yards out and with David Silva over the ball, there was a grim inevitability to its destination. Hamer stood motionless as City’s fourth curled in to the top corner.
The redundant Pritchard, who barely saw the ball in the hour he was on the pitch and whose only notable contribution was to occasionally and ineffectually try to stem the Mendy menace with Smith, was replaced by Diakhaby to no discernible affect.
The substitution had been preceded by more City chances, including a brilliant Agüero strike which slammed off the post and a rather more prosaic slash when he was clean through following a one two with Jesus.
City replaced the sublime Silva to give Mahrez his debut. And in that short sentence, the scale of the task facing everyone, not just an enfeebled Huddersfield Town, in the top division is encapsulated.
Agüero was also to be replaced – by Sané! – but not before he completed a deserved hat trick. By now, the provider should be obvious with the Argentinian meeting a perfect Mendy cross in front of Kongolo and flicking home past the beleaguered Hamer. Agüero’s striking masterclass rivalled Silva’s genius as the stand out performance in a home team studded with contributions to their easy win.
A reasonable Billing effort, blocked by Kompany, was the only interruption of note to City’s procession. One decent save by Hamer from an Agüero snapshot just before his departure, a woeful finish from Jesus when he should have scored and a slight drop in ruthlessness by the hosts saved Town from an even more humiliating score line, before Sané’s burst in to the box resulted in Kongolo inadvertently scoring an own goal off Hamer’s save.
By then, many of the visiting supporters had left (including this one).
The defeat can be rationalised, of course. Even a full strength Town side, without its spine being jellied through absence and injury, would have struggled to contain an imperious City – Mendy, Silva (D) and Agüero in particular – but there was an unpleasant stench to the capitulation which can’t simply be talked away.
Wagner teams have been thrashed by opposition far inferior to the reigning Premier League champions before, however, and he has shown that such results can be consigned to history. Nevertheless, it is not particularly comforting to look at the fixtures over the next few weeks – Cardiff aside, perhaps, unless we succumb to Warnock’s wiles – where points will remain very difficult to collect.
The first half hour of the season excepted, a difficult campaign has begun badly. The Etihad display was devoid of spirit, intelligence and even a sliver of competitiveness, qualities which can and should be displayed even in the face of overwhelming superiority.
History suggests that Wagner can and will meet the challenges ahead and he has earned the right to manage his resources as he sees fit, but this abject defeat must be redressed and quickly.

Navigating hazards




Opening day shellackings can be portentous.

The idealistic but flawed Mark Robins was forced to accept he was out of his depth when his baffling team selection was systematically deconstructed by Bournemouth a few short years ago, ushering in Chris Powell’s dynamic era of narrowly avoiding the drop.
Brian Horton’s days were numbered after an extremely flattering 2-0 defeat at Oxford where he was seen berating any full back who got within 10 yards of the opponents half and Neil Warnock’s first season started with a 3-0 reverse against Reading, and considerable doubt about his suitability among fans for a long while.
This defeat, against a high quality Chelsea side who belied pre season turmoil, is not one of them.
Utilising a side of last year’s team bar the goalkeeper, Wagner’s pragmatism was on full display, and his insistence that new players be introduced when he feels they are ready was only strengthened by the nature of the opposition.
With Chelsea suffering from an interrupted pre-season, uncertainty over major players and a manager introducing a new philosophy in and amongst the disruption, it was reasonable to assume that their approach would be less clinical, potentially confused and vulnerable.
Rather admirably, the new man at Stamford Bridge – who appears significantly more likeable than some of his predecessors – has risen above the underlying problems and an opener against tricky but clearly inferior opponents provided a good opportunity to inject some much needed positivity, and he took that chance.
For half an hour, Wagner’s hope that the miracles at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge could be repeated with an identical formation and, largely, the same personnel, seemed to be justified, and it was being achieved a little more expansively.
Chelsea’s comfort in possession, finding space between the lines and calm defending was all in evidence – Kanté, Willian and Pedro shone on the ball, even if Town’s five man midfield made life uncomfortable for them at times – but debutant Hamer wasn’t being troubled unduly and the home side were able to apply periods of pressure in a first half which was encouraging despite a deficit which was not fully deserved.
Pritchard – sacrificed at half time for either injury or tactics – showed his quality on several occasions and will be key against the lesser sides. How he was penalised when Luiz climbed all over him in the area can only be answered by the generally awful referee, but you suspect such a challenge in the other area would have seen a different decision.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, what was a facsimile of last season’s team were unable to create chances and decent approach play floundered in the final third – the fear of Chelsea’s ability to punish any disruption of the defensive shape inhibits the midfield three getting far enough forward to any real effect.
As always with Town, the first goal is crucial, and Chelsea delivered the blow on 34 minutes with a move which was irritatingly banal. Missed tackles in central areas allowed Willian too much room down the left and the Brazilian picked out an unmarked Kanté (Billing was asleep) who shinned a bobble past Hamer to establish a lead they were unlikely to relinquish.
Three minutes later, however, a corner flicked on by Zanka was met by Mounié for what looked a certain equaliser but his header bounced off the post and the game was up.
It was probably a bigger turning point than the opening goal – against the highest opposition, Town must take the rare opportunities available to them.
Just before half time, the bulked up Barkley flicked a ball from Jorginho in to the path of Alonso. Schindler’s challenge was fractionally late and upended the Spaniard. In real time, the tackle looked fair but not on closer inspection. Jorginho left Hamer on his backside with deception and trickled the penalty in to seal victory.
The least said about the second half, the better. Chelsea assumed complete control as they took advantage of the visibly deflated Terriers. Wagner’s introduction of Depoitre to accompany Mounié worked as well it always does and without Pritchard’s invention, Town resorted to basic, fruitless strategies easily contained by the now hyper confident visitors.
With Chelsea slipping down a gear and having life far too easy, the second period was offering very little entertainment, as foregone conclusions tend to do.
The chasm between the resources of the two clubs was brutally emphasised with 15 minutes to go as the visitors introduced one of the world’s best players in to the game; replacing one of the world’s best players.
Hazard’s future remains uncertain and perhaps unsettling, yet he could have been mistaken for an 18 year old prodigy desperate to make an impression as he tormented the tired, demoralised hosts.
Within minutes, the Belgian was skipping past three attempted tackles before laying a ball through to Pedro to stick the dagger in with a clinical finish.
A reasonably encouraging first half hour, followed by a comprehensive undressing for the rest of the game could be dispiriting, but the familiarity of the team sheet – in hindsight – points to Wagner’s pragmatism against the top six while he saves his new weapons for more likely pursuits of points.
Diakhaby was given a run out for 20 minutes, replacing Löwe, but it seems unlikely that he will be trusted to provide the necessary defensive cover at the Etihad next Sunday where the same tactics will undoubtedly be used again.
Hamer’s distribution, which ranged from going far too long to the downright dangerous will see the return of Lössl now that the Dane has had a further week back.
The positives of the performance are a little difficult to find, but Kongolo again looked a fantastic addition. His challenge on Willian in the first half was reminiscent of the one he made on Sané to secure a point at City and he exudes a defensive authority which will be a major factor in Town’s fortunes. Hopefully, a rusty Zanka will improve next Sunday to make the back three idea a little more effective against even higher quality opposition.
Overall, though, Town’s supporters are going to have to be patient – there is a very slim chance that we can defy the odds next week, so, realistically, the season starts against Cardiff. A suspicion lingers that Wagner is treating the first two games as an extension of pre-season, minus the multiple substitutions; a suspicion perhaps confirmed by his holding back of the new talent. Given his record of achieving his objectives over the medium term, who is to argue?
Patience and faith needed.