Friday, September 9, 2016

Three Concerns Three Games In

Last week I looked at what I've liked about City's first three matches, and I'm generally encouraged by the team's play so far. However, the lack of City football over the international break has put me in a bad enough mood to write about the things that have concerned me early in this new season. Given the positive results, these are not so much complaints about the play so far, as they are potential warning signs for the rest of the season and beyond.

Weak Schedule

This one isn't a concern exactly, as it will get fixed right quick with our visit to Old Trafford. However, it does mean that we should be taking City's results so far with a healthy grain of salt. Sunderland were almost relegated last year and Moyes has had basically zero time with the players since Allardyce moved to England. Stoke have been terrible to start the season, only Burnley has a worse shots on goal difference (side note: all commentators who refer to Stoke as an attacking side should be fired, 4th worst in SOG/TOP last season and dead last this season). Who knows how good Steaua really are. West Ham have a serious injury crisis on their hands amid heavy squad turnover. Of their top 10 players in usage rate last year, only Michail Antonio and Enner Valencia played against City, so the match wasn't exactly a true test of their strength. At this very early stage, City's Premier League opposition have averaged just .56 points per match, lowest in the league. Obviously, part of that reflects the fact City's opponents have had to play City (this is also why Chelsea and Man United are the next two on the list), but even if you remove results against City, City's opponents are still averaging under a point per match. It's certainly better to beat bad teams than to lose to them, but we need to be careful in evaluating City going forward on the basis of games against some very weak opposition thus far.

Kelechi and Rotations

As happy as I am with Guardiola's base system, there's no doubt that it is designed for one striker only. That becomes a problem when you have a supremely talented young striker in Kelechi Iheanacho who needs playing opportunities. Though he featured in the first two Premier League games off the bench, he's only played 25 minutes in the PL and started just once this season in the pretty meaningless return leg against Steaua. This is even more unfortunate given how good he's been in his limited PL minutes this season. The game against Stoke he created a practically unmissable chance for Nolito after displaying pace, movement, and power for the third goal and his beautiful dummy to allow Sterling in behind led to the fourth. I'm hoping that with Aguero's forthcoming ban that he can be the man to replace him, but City's attempted appeal (when Aguero was both injured and obviously guilty) makes me think they might not see Kelechi the way I do: as someone who can be a key contributor this season.

Kelechi's situation is indicative of a broader concern I have so far with Pep's rotations. Aside from the meaningless Steaua game, he has not made any significant changes to the team from game to game. He made two changes in the Steaua away match from the Sunderland game, one change in the subsequent match against Stoke, and 2 changes from that lineup to the one against West Ham. City's rotations were particularly bad last season, and though this is a slight improvement, I'm concerned about injury risks as our squad is still reliant on several older players. Fernandinho has played every minute so far, Silva and Aguero are right there too. I understand Pep wants to make sure he gets his ideas across and it's easier to do that with a settled squad, but ultimately he needs to do that with all the players.

The Price of Pep

What makes a good manager? This is a question that fans, owners, and managers themselves constantly ask, or in the case of managers should ask, and there is certainly more than one answer. Is it one who delivers the best possible results? Is it one who motivates his players to play their best? Is it one whose tactical innovations provide a platform to success? Is it one whose style of football is attractive to fans and management? Is it one who can introduce youth players into the side? As always, the answer depends on the context of the situation. From the City hierarchy's point of view (perhaps best highlighted in this interview with Khaldoon), the key things they want from their manager are youth development, domestic and European success, increased tactical awareness, and attacking football. And to fulfill those goals, Pep is almost certainly the best fit for the club, as his past at Bayern and Barcelona suggests he is able to capably meet all of these.

This is not to say that Pep should be expected to right everything wrong at the club. Football (and sports generally) is still in love with the Great Man Theory, the idea that divinely-inspired individuals can transform a club's destiny. You saw this with the hiring of Steve Walsh at Everton. You see it with the mystical devotion to Ferguson at United, or Dalglish at Liverpool. You saw it in the resistance to Directors of Football helping with transfers and in managers' continued fight for more transfer authority. Or consider the marketing of marquee matches in the Premier League, where more often the respective coaches are highlighted more than the actual teams. Ultimately though, the idea is nonsense, as it assumes that the cumulative actions of scouts, players, administrators and even outside actors like referees are irrelevant. While it is probably too early to judge Walsh on what looks like one poor transfer window, it seems pretty clear he was helped by a support system at Leicester he won't have at Everton. Ferguson and Dalglish had to overcome ignominious beginnings and endings respectively. Directors of Football are now in place at virtually every English club. The clubs that have sustained success have a system in place that will outlive their managers, clubs such as Southampton, Dortmund, and others. I am confident Pep will improve City in the short-term, and unlike Mourinho he's not going to leave a flaming mess for others to clean up when he leaves, but without top to bottom institutional improvement those gains won't be lasting.

I fear that, if Pep succeeds as I expect he will, attention will be diverted from longer-term questions at the club. This summer's transfer window is a case in point. How is buying young superstars like Gabriel Jesus going to enable more youth team players to make it to the first team? How is jettisoning an England star like Joe Hart going to keep the club grounded locally, particularly amid the ticket price furor of last season? How does failing to use perfectly good players (Nasri or Mangala, say) and loaning them out while subsidizing their wages make sense financially? How is a playing system so rigid only a tiny minority of players are suited to it going to be translated to lower levels? Though the particulars may have changed somewhat, many of these are concerns that have been voiced since the takeover of the club by Sheik Mansour. That they are still left unanswered speaks to scale of the challenge, and it's one that Pep can not and will not handle on his own.

Pep will not be at City forever. If his impact is going to be a lasting one, changes to the club structure are definitely in order. I'm concerned that immediate success will reduce the compulsion to build for the long-term, and that would mean Pep's time at City would not move the team forward as much as we fans might hope.

To sum up, there is certainly a lot to be positive about in this young season, but there are a few longer-term concerns that still require attention. More importantly though, it's time for City football to be played again and not a minute too soon. As always, a win at Old Trafford can't help but alleviate these concerns a bit.

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