There have been plenty of supporters saying in recent days that, having been given the opportunity to put together his “best ever” City squad, no one else but Dave Jones will be to blame if we don’t get promoted. I don’t agree with that argument because I believe the players would have to take their share of responsibility if it happened, but, after watching last night’s entertaining but flawed 2-2 draw with Reading, I can concede that those who think differently to me might have a point!
Much of the pre match debate had been taken up by discussions about who who would miss out in our midfield if loanees Aaron Ramsey and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas were to be included, with some arguing that Dave Jones may decide on a 4-5-1 formation which saw Michael Chopra left out. It certainly appeared that they had been correct in their opinion when the team was announced and Chopra was, indeed, on the bench, but, in the event, they weren’t because Dave Jones had come up with a scheme that, as far as I am aware, no one saw coming.
Within a minute or two, it became obvious that City were playing 4-4-2 with a front pairing of the two Jay’s Bothroyd and Emmanuel-Thomas and it didn’t take too much longer for the penny to drop with many of those watching that this was a combination that was not going to work because the players were so similar – they both like to come short for the ball and get involved in the build up play. Predictably, Reading coped comfortably with this one dimensional approach as City started the game in a manner which was not so much low tempo as comatose.
Although my eyes were telling me that we were playing 4-4-2, the lack of urgency had me thinking that we were actually using the sort of patient 4-5-1 which is played at a slow tempo as a team retains the ball and probes for an opening. However, despite the efforts of Aaron Ramsey to bring some order and structure to our game, we were in fact doing our normal thing of giving the ball away after about two or three passes or playing speculative balls forward to strikers who, on this occasion, were unable to run the channels because they were dropping deep.
If City’s approach was meant to surprise Reading then I suppose it did (it certainly did me – although, maybe, bemused is a more accurate way of describing how I felt watching it!), but it certainly didn’t hurt them as they started get on top by playing to their strengths. Anyone who has seen Reading play a few times knows that they play a quick counter attacking game which relies greatly on the pace and trickery of their wide players McAnuff and Kebe and yet we seemed to be taken by surprise by this approach. Our two full backs Quinn and Naylor were each given a torrid time, particularly the latter who, once again, seemed to be targetted by the opposition (the bloke behind me said “their right winger’s good isn’t he” in the second half and I replied that it’s funny isn’t it how every side we play seems to have a good right winger) and Reading’s first goal came when Naylor was beaten too easily and Quinn diverted a shot which Heaton might have saved – the Reading player stood in an offside position could have come into play as well without the deflection.
Apart from a five minute spell prompted by the decision to, finally, change our strike pairing, Reading coped pretty comfortably for the rest of the first half and were never more dangerous than when keeper Federici distributed quickly after catching a corner or free kick to often create two on two situations in which City were grateful for the speed and covering of Kevin McNaughton (we really do need him playing centre back and full back at the moment!).
You may by now have cottoned on to the fact that I am not too happy with our manager at the moment, but, credit where it is due – he brought Michael Chopra on and something was obviously said at half time which had an impact on the team because they were transformed after the break as they got a quick equaliser and put Reading under concerted pressure. If City could have got a second goal during this period of dominance you got the feeling that there wouldn’t be a way back for the visitors, but the storm eventually blew itself out and the final quarter saw both sides coming close to scoring as they chased the win. It was certainly City’s desire for the three points rather than just one which cost them in added time when they got caught with too many men forward and Reading got what looked to be the decisive goal, but Craig Bellamy (who I thought became more influential as the game went on) equalised an incredible seven minutes into added time with a beautiful free kick which ensured that, disappointing performance or not, the game finished with the outcome it probably deserved on the balance of play.
Despite the overall negative tone of this piece, there were positives from last night. For example, I don’t think that it should go unnoticed that we have just finished a run of four games against opposition who had collectively only suffered two defeats in forty two matches at the time we played them – to come out of those games unbeaten and with eight points is no mean achievement. We may be in a lower position now than we have been for months, but it would have been so much worse without the improvement in results and performances that we have seen in a very demanding stretch of matches since the defeat at Ashton Gate on New Year’s Day.
However, games like this one (and the one with Swansea in November) surely have to lead to questions as to whether Dave Jones is capable of achieving the target he has set himself this season. Our manager has made it pretty clear on various occasions during his period in charge that he has little time for the opinions of those who have not played the game professionally. The vast majority of us fall into that category and are always at a disadvantage because most of us never get the chance to watch training sessions so we can only form our judgement on what we see during the ninety minutes of play as opposed to the hours that are put in during the working week by the staff and players.
In the case of last night’s game, Dave Jones and his staff had the advantage of a free weekend to prepare for it. That’s ten full days to bed in new arrivals and come up with a system and approach which would beat Reading – with that in mind, I’d like to ask a few questions;
1. Didn’t all of that time in preparation show what was clear to most within minutes of the game starting – that is that the two Jays were not compatible as a striking partnership?
2. What did Michael Chopra (who has been showing a much improved attitude, playing well and, most importantly, scoring goals) do during those ten days to deserve being dropped? Playing like he has been, surely Chopra has to start every time we play 4-4-2.
3. Why did the team start the game in such a low key manner and seem unsure as to how they were meant to play?
4. Our full backs were poor last night, but why weren’t they given more help by their team mates when Reading attacked in the way in which they always do?
Dave Jones was bemoaning our defending once again last night. Plenty of us who have not played the game professionally before have been saying for ages that our defence is not good enough for a club whose stated aim is to finish in the top two this season and our manager’s frequent comments at least give the impression that he agrees with this opinion. Yet, given the chance to do something about it during January, all that Dave Jones did was replace one centre half for another who was confined to the substitute’s bench last night. The defensive inadequacies perhaps wouldn’t be so apparent if the back four had players in front of them who were better at the sort of unspectacular stuff that all teams need to do when they don’t have the ball, but, virtually all of our front six do not have the stamina, movement and pace to do this while also doing their bit going forward.
City weren’t awful by any means last night and I would imagine that many who weren’t there to watch it might think that the criticism that they have got on messageboards and in the media following the game is overly harsh. Speaking for myself though, what got me down more than anything else was the further confirmation that, nearly two thirds of the way through the season, we are still not a team in the sense that so many of those around us in the table are. New players come in and yet the same old faults remain and when those faults are also accompanied by muddled thinking that seems to indicate a tactical approach akin to “don’t worry about fancy tictacs and systems, Jay, Whitts, Chops or Bellers will get us out of the shit”, you have to conclude that our current position of fifth is about right.