I think it is now generally accepted that the atmosphere at home games recently has not been as good as it was last season and now there have been some saying that the large contingent of City fans at Nottingham Forest on Saturday were quieter than normal. Maybe I’m wrong, but my explanation for that is that, collectively, there is a “now or never” feel about this season because the players brought in since August have, on paper at least, given us our best chance of playing top flight football in nearly fifty years. The stakes have been raised that bit higher and supporters have become nervous on the back of that because they don’t want to contemplate what failure might mean.
The trouble is though that for most adult supporters, failure has been a constant companion throughout the time they have followed the club. Although long term fans will recognise that these are, relatively speaking, great times to be a City fan, the truth is that even the youngster who has come on board on the back of our FA Cup run in 2008 has, when it really comes down to it, only known failure so far in their time following the club. It is hardly surprising then that, collectively, we tend to be a bit of a pessimistic bunch and I reckon that feeling of “something is bound to go wrong in a minute” has adversely effected the atmosphere this season.
This attitude also shows in people’s feelings towards the team – there is a perception that the players will fold on the really big occasion (I’m as guilty as anyone of this – I said as much in my piece on here after the Forest match). In saying that mind, I do genuinely believe that there are questions about the balance and effectiveness of the squad and of the manager’s ability to get things right tactically on those really big occasions. If it is right to question things rather than go down the blind loyalty route though, then it is equally correct that when the team, management and coaching staff get things right, as they did last night, then their efforts should be applauded – a few of us should, maybe, concede that we haven’t got as bad a team or manager as we sometimes think we have and that they are deserving of better support than they have been getting lately.
I thought the atmosphere last night got better as supporters gradually recognised that their team was getting the better of yet another set of opponents who came into a game with us on the back of their best run of form of the season. Perhaps it was out of a desire to quieten the crowd early on that Leicester switched to a 4-5-1 formation last night, but, if it was, their scouts should really have told them that there was no need to do that currently – being quiet comes naturally to us lately!
Whatever the reasoning behind their thinking was though, after a fairly even start, Leicester began to take command in the middle of the park in a manner which City fans have become too familiar with over the past couple of seasons. During these periods when City are being pushed back constantly, it is easy to forget that so much of the visiting side’s dominance is down to the fact that, for right or wrong, Dave Jones is nearly always happy to start off with a central midfield which has one man less than our opponents do in that area. Quite often, Dave Jones’ approach pays off and 4-4-2 beats 4-5-1, but, when the opposition have players in the middle of the park who are not careless with their passing, it becomes very hard to get a foothold in that, very important, area of the pitch. When that happens, it doesn’t automatically mean that our midfield is “crap”, it just means that our four good players are being bettered by their five good players as we look to take advantage of our numerical superiority in other areas of the pitch.
That was what happened for the first goal when Jay Bothroyd, the man who would have been our lone striker in a 4-5-1, got involved out on the right hand touchline before Paul Quinn created a bit of room for Seyi Olofinjana with a neat pass. Olofinjana (who, again, showed his improved form of recent home games) was allowed to burst into the penalty area where he was able to find our second striker unmarked twelve yards out and Michael Chopra (whose little backwards run, when so many others would have gone forward, created the space for himself) did the rest. I don’t think that goal would have been scored by a team playing 4-5-1 if their striker had drifted out wide like Bothroyd did, but, having managed to get beyond the opposition’s midfield five, we had the extra striker in there to finish things off.
There is no point denying that the goal came against the run of play and for much of the time after that, the game resumed it’s previous path with us being pushed back under Leicester pressure, but, whereas we looked happy for this to happen against Burnley when we were 1-0 up last week, this time around we seemed less passive and more willing to push forward in midfield when we had the chance. That said, I’m sure that I would have been feeling that the half time scoreline was an unjust one if I were a Leicester fan and, for a short while, it looked like it would be a very long second forty five minutes indeed as Tom Heaton saved well from Richie Wellens and Paul Gallagher fizzed a free kick just wide. However, the game was then turned on it’s head by a class goal from a class player.
Being sat so far away from the dug out, I couldn’t tell whether Steve McPhail was going to come on for Michael Chopra anyway or whether it was as a result of us going 2-0 up. Either way though, it turned out to be exactly the right decision. While it has to be accepted that a few Leicester heads dropped after Aaron Ramsey’s goal, what we saw after that was our five in midfield getting the better of their five. One fine Kevin McNaughton tackle apart, Leicester never really threatened in the last forty minutes and a third City goal always looked the more likely as we completed what, for me, was just about our most satisfying win of the campaign – there was even a late booking for Peter Whittingham to satisfy the “get stuck in” merchants!
It was a night where every one of the fourteen players used could look back on their contribution with some satisfaction. To name a few individuals though, in his fifth match for us Dekel Keinan again showed he has improved our defence with another effective and unfussy display and it was good to see Kevin McNaughton get involved so directly in creating a goal (the quality of his pass does make you wonder why it doesn’t happen more often mind). Finally, I thought Chris Burke, who came very close to getting that elusive first goal since August, looked more like his old self when he came on.
However, if you talking about man of the match candidates then there were two for me with the two Arsenal loan players battling it out for that honour. Given what Arsene Wenger has been reported as saying, it looks like Aaron Ramsey has played his last home game for us and, if that is the case, what an appropriate send off it was. His goal, courtesy of a typically calm finish, was the icing on the cake of a performance which served as a reminder to the fact that he really is the complete central midfield player – he was the disciplined team man in the first half, a goalscorer early in the second and then he showed how effective he can be playing in the hole behind the striker. Dave Jones thinks Rambo isn’t quite ready for the Premiership yet and maybe he is right, but last night he was too good for the Championship’s form team.
As for Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, I mentioned after the Watford game that I didn’t think he had “punched his weight”, but that wasn’t true last night as he used his height and power to good effect while also providing plenty of evidence of his ball skills. His passing was better too, with the ball he played to McNaughton in the build up to the second goal being an example of this and, for the first time, it was possible to see a few clues as to why Arsene Wenger has talked about him in such glowing terms in the past. I noticed that the Man Of the Match award announced after the game went to Ramsey and I have no real quibble with that, but I think I would have given it to JET because that display offered hope that he can play a big part in our run in, something which, unfortunately, I don’t believe Rambo will be doing.