By Jason McKeown
1. Players are very well organised
Watching each of the three wins over the last week, one aspect which has really stood out to me is how organised and well drilled the players look to be this season. You can look back over the last 12 years and find many examples of City performing very well as a team on their day: but rarely were they capable of delivering the same high standards week in week out.
This time around, you can clearly see that every player fully understands the role they are being asked to play: and mutual confidence in team mates and what they will be doing continues to grow. Against Barnet, Morecambe and Oxford there were periods where the game drifted and City seemed to lose their way, but they had the experience, composure and know-how to get going again and do the job that is asked of them.
We have a number of leaders in the team, which undoubtedly helps. There is little evidence of any panic or apprehension, and mistakes by individuals are rarely chastised by team mates. They know what needs to be done, and get on with doing it.
2. Parkinson is coaching the best out of borderline-performing players
As Will Atkinson danced through Oxford’s defence and into the penalty area, before forcing a good save from the home goalkeeper, I felt a powerful desire for the young winger’s excellent performance to be rewarded with a first goal of the season. The Will Atkinson of 2012/13 is not the same Will Atkinson of 2011/12, and he and his manager deserve immense credit for that.
It seemed a huge gamble by Parkinson to sign Atkinson permanently after an underwhelming loan spell. For sure, it would have been easier to look elsewhere and sign someone who’d not already disappointed a demanding City crowd. But Parkinson believed in the 23-year-old’s ability and has set about helping him to start realising his potential. For me, Atkinson deserves to be first choice at the moment (see below for why). Similarly, we have seen improvement in the likes of James Hanson, Kyel Reid and Nahki Wells over Parkinson’s reign.
And here’s the crux: Parkinson is not just signing and discarding footballers, but moulding them into better footballers. For me, this is the area of management where I lost faith in Peter Taylor. He inherited players like Zesh Rehman and Omar Daley, who lacked consistency but were capable on their day, and when things went wrong he quickly discarded them and brought in other clubs loanees, rather than improve what he had via the training ground. Parkinson has spent a year revamping the squad he inherited. Fine, that’s his prerogative. But what I don’t want to see now – and am glad not to have seen so far – is for him to continue believing the answers lie outside the building.
In many ways the fortunes of Atkinson and Parkinson are intrinsically linked. A measure of Parkinson’s ability as manager is to spot things in players that we mere mortal supporters do not see – and to then justify the club’s financial investment into them. So far, so very impressive.
3. The summer signings are living up to expectations
It’s unfair to use present success as a stick with which to beat up the past, but you can’t argue that the last three City managers failed – for one reason or another – to make the most of their transfer budgets to take forward the club.
Take Stuart McCall’s 2008/09 summer spending. Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee, Paul Arnison, Chris Brandon and Michael Boulding all failed to make the kind of impact we would have expected in return for the considerable collective outlay. Ditto Taylor’s relatively expensive buying of Tommy Doherty, Jake Speight, Lewis Hunt and Shane Duff. Even Peter Jackson’s marquee summer arrival, Guy Branston, struggled.
This time around – so far at least – the summer signings have enhanced performances and are proving a key component behind the drastic improvement from last season. We had a strong central midfield last year, but Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle look set to keep out the best of those who remain at the club from it. The pair have been outstanding, and these newbies are already the focal point of the side. We knew what we were getting with Andrew Davies, but he still deserves credit for his performances. James Meredith, Alan Connell, Rory McArdle, Zavon Hines, our Will…
Not every signing is going to work out, but already it’s looking as though Parkinson spent his money well this summer.
4. Parkinson’s finding the right defence/attack balance
So far I have attended four City away games: Notts County in the cup, Rotherham, Accrington and Oxford. The mixed set of scorelines over those games and the opening day defeat at Gillingham were as much a result of finding the right balance as they were about wonder goals (Rotherham) or fluke shots (Gillingham).
At County, Parkinson was able to make the most of the fact the home side would come strongly at City by playing a conservatively minded 4-4-2 counter attack system, with Garry Thompson playing wide right rather than right wing. We won. At Rotherham, playing two out and out wingers (Reid and Hines) left us too open and we were thrashed. Then at Accrington we probably went too far the other way, with a 4-3-3/4-5-1 set up leaving Hanson too isolated up front.
It was only one afternoon, and it was against a side on a bad run of form, but at Oxford Parkinson returned to the Notts County set up with Atkinson taking the Thompson role and Hines on the bench. And as much as I admire Hines, I think it’s the best approach on the road in enabling City to imprint their own style on proceedings and attack with purpose, while being solid enough in numbers when not in possession to defend effectively. Atkinson acted as the extra body in the centre of midfield alongside Gary Jones and Doyle when he was needed, while providing an attacking outlet when City came forward.
I would compare the Reid/Atkinson wide set up with City’s blistering start to the 2006/07 season, when Jermaine Johnson and Lee Holmes occupied the flanks and were in superb form. Atkinson is very similar to Holmes. Not as direct and not as pacy as Reid/Johnson, but intelligent and skilful enough to give the full back a hard time and link up with his central midfield colleagues.
For me this approach will work best away from home, and the fact Parkinson deployed it to such success at Oxford will hopefully see this set up continued. At home the balance has clearly being right to date, and hopefully this is starting to be replicated on the road.
5. We’re not just about long ball
It was a common occurrence last season for opposition managers to comment on City’s physical and direct style of play. Very fair, and very true. This season, Fleetwood manager Micky Mellon made similar noises after his side’s 1-0 defeat at Valley Parade. It is accurate to say that the long ball to Hanson is a regularly used (and effective) weapon, but we are offering so much more.
Some of the quality of the passing football by City over these three victories has been outstanding, especially in the second half at Oxford. Gary Jones and Doyle set the tone for this, regularly instigating measured build up play of one touch football and working openings. Knock it to Reid/Hines and they will attempt to terrorise defenders. Even the full backs are getting in on the act with the occasional overlapping run.
The point is that City are mixing it up when they come forward. Long ball at times, yes. But on other occasions they are passing their way into the penalty area or utilising their wide threats. There is nothing predictable about City attacks this season. As supporters we don’t know what’s coming next, and the opposition are likely to feel the same.
Stop Hanson, fine, but what about Reid? Double mark City’s number seven, and we will just keep the ball between Gary Jones and Doyle, thank you. Too many quality players for the opposition to worry about, and the variation in attacking threat is making for a great watch.