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Friday, January 4, 2013
While footballers across Europe were enjoying a Christmas break, their English counterparts were being subjected to a brutal programme of four games in just 11 days.
While that may be entertaining for us as fans, the physical cost is plain to see as the injuries and suspensions start to mount.
So it was that City’s New Year’s Day fixture at Upton Park was played between two sides who each had several key players on the sidelines.
Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a pretty ordinary game which was always weighted in favour of the home side from the time that the fixture list pitted City against two of the Premier League elite within a three-day period and the Tube strike gave West Ham a Boxing Day holiday.
In such circumstances a strong start was essential, so when City went behind almost immediately the writing was on the wall, and, to be honest, the 2-0 scoreline at half-time probably flattered the visitors.
While much has already been written about the glaring inconsistencies of Mark Clattenburg’s decision making (and there is no doubt that the early penalty visibly deflated the City players), the reality is that West Ham had done their homework.
Once again the combination of a high defensive line and aggressive closing down in midfield resulted in any creative spark being snuffed out at source and the resulting isolation of Harry Kane gave the Hammers full-backs the licence to overlap at will. While the 4-2-3-1 formation has served City well this season, Premier League managers learn fast and there is a growing need for an effective Plan B in the second half of the season. Of course, that comes down to personnel and I’m sure that it’s something that Chris Hughton and his team will be looking to address in the transfer window.
Hughton will also be concerned by a lengthening injury list, particularly with both genuine target men currently sidelined. For the first time this season there was an element of square pegs in round holes about the line up at West Ham, with Kane playing an unfamiliar lone striker role and a centre-back, Ryan Bennett, playing at right-back, with Russell Martin switched to the left. I for one don’t intend to judge the players too harshly for their performance at Upton Park.
The culmination of four very tough fixtures, particularly given the Herculean effort against Manchester City, was always going to be difficult and I saw no shortage of effort, but plenty of evidence of both tired bodies and minds.
Indeed, the injection of energy generated by the late introduction of the fresh legs of Elliott Bennett and Simeon Jackson was palpable.
I suspect that the FA Cup weekend is coming at the perfect time, offering a chance for Hughton to rest key players before Newcastle’s visit on January 12.
That won’t go down well with those who still feel that the magic of the Cup is reality rather than myth, but it would be a pragmatic approach at a point in the season where the loss of more key players to injury could be disastrous. And so we bid farewell to 2012, a year that has seen many more highs than lows for City.
Without doubt the club now boasts a much stronger squad than a year ago, and the difficult managerial transition appears to have been completed successfully.
I know that some fans still mourn the more open style of football favoured by Paul Lambert, but personally I like the thought that City will be competitive in every game rather than blowing hot and cold. The next step, of course, is to increase the squad’s attacking options in order to take the club to the next level and hopefully that will happen this month.