By Gareth Walker
I expect to get panned for this, but that was dreadful, as bad as anything that I’ve seen under Phil Parkinson and it’s not just me, some supporters who normally vociferously back the manager are starting to question him.
Tuesday’s second league defeat from just three league games leaves us with only one point to our name so far this season. Considering that two of those games have been at home, this isn’t the start to the campaign that we were expecting. But it’s not just the results, it’s the performances which have been really poor. So what’s happening at City at the moment? Why are we playing so badly?
I was really worried leaving the stadium and driving back to Accrington on Tuesday night. Listening to Phil Parkinson’s post match interview was equally depressing. City fans were eager to head towards online message boards and social media to voice their opinion on what was wrong. Personally, however, there was far too much concerning me to be able to list it in an online post. I decided to sleep on it and then write something down.
The start to the season has been shocking and of all the explanations being thrown up, I think that they can be split into three sections.
Firstly our transfer business has been far from convincing. It’s quite common that we take our time to sign players but I don’t buy the line from the club that most deals only start happening when contracts run out at the end of June. This situation doesn’t seem to affect other clubs from signing players early. This pre-season, we seemed to be particularly slow in the market. I’m all for waiting for your main targets, but what if you wait and wait and then they say no and go elsewhere?
Out of the names linked with City this summer, there seems to have been quite a few players who we have lost to rivals. Does this mean that we have ended up with our second or even third choices? Signing players later also means that they take longer to get up to speed and to become integrated in the group.
It’s not just the signing of new players that has caused concern but also the retention of our out of contract ones. The loss of Andrew Davies and Jon Stead have hit us hard, in my opinion. The pair were undoubtedly two of our better players, but also two of our more senior pros too. It is no surprise to me that without them we look short of leaders and our play becomes frantic (as Parkinson describes it) when we go behind.
When you combine the loss of Davies and Stead with the fact that last season’s back up goalkeeper Ben Williams has been our first choice so far, the first XI looks weaker, particularly defensively where Stephen Darby is still trying to play himself back to full fitness after his pre-season injury.
I have no doubt that both Davies and Stead were released in good faith considering the money that they were requesting and the targets that Parkinson had in mind to replace them, but replacing Davies in particular is something that we have failed to do adequately. It’s worth noting that despite his injury problems, Dava played more games last season than he did in any other previous campaign for City.
Ultimately, our recruitment policy has looked to be somewhat haphazard and that was compounded this week when the news broke that despite agreeing a fee with a club, City have missed out on their main defensive target and have instead switched priorities towards targeting a forward to replace the injured Billy Clarke. Does this mean that the coaching staff have lost faith with the other three strikers in the squad?
Two loanees have since arrived and Parkinson has tried to put a positive “he was my first choice” spin on the Brad Jones signing (despite the well known fact that we almost signed Chris Kirkland before the player’s change of heart), but something doesn’t sit well regarding our transfer business.
The second issue causing consternation at the moment is Parkinson’s team selection and tactics, which have been confusing and infuriating in equal measure. It appears at the moment that the manager doesn’t know his best team. This may be the case, but some of the selections have been bizarre.
It started when Gary Liddle was omitted from the starting line up at Swindon. This is a player who was in the running for the player of the year award last season yet he was seemingly left out in place of Tony McMahon because the latter “is a good talker”.
Swapping and changing has been the name of the game so far, with our problematic central defence suffering the most. Poor Rory McArdle has had three different partners already and this can only be contributing towards, in the words of the manager, us being “too easy to score against”. The decision to shift Alan Sheehan out to left back in place of James Meredith on Tuesday, despite his strong central defensive showing against Shrewsbury, was particularly bizarre – especially seeing as it also involved moving Liddle out of midfield back to centre back.
Last season our Achilles heel was often our failure to take our chances in front of goal and, whilst we now have issues defensively, our lack of a threat going forward continues.
Our lack of pace is evident for all to see and I was surprised recently when I heard the manager say that he had rectified this over the summer. We’ve not seen much of Paul Anderson or Mark Marshall yet, but at first glance neither of them appears to be wingers who are blessed with lightening pace.
Indeed, the lack of action seen by our new widemen so far has caused despair amongst certain supporters. Others have put it down to the pair being short of fitness. It was infuriating however to see both of them on the pitch towards the end of the Gillingham game yet us continuing to persist with the diamond formation.
One can only assume that the perseverance with this tactic is a result of the manger’s concerns about protecting our a leaky defence. It doesn’t make good viewing though and when it isn’t getting results the tactic of McArdle lumping the ball forward and hoping that James Hanson can make something of it begins to wear thin.
The positive souls amongst our supporter base are pointing to the poor start that we made in the 98/99 season as to evidence that things can easily change. Unfortunately when we look further, things were different then. We were building, we weren’t losing and failing to replace our best players. We also had a relatively settled team and partnerships were slowly building all over the pitch.
The third and perhaps most worrying issue surrounding the club stems from a concern that everything might not be altogether rosy behind the scenes.
This summer was one dominated by takeover talks which are bound to have created some uncertainty surrounding the signing of players. They no doubt also played a part in Parkinson’s reluctance to verbally commit to the club during the will-he-won’t-he Sheffield United saga.
To me there is something not quite right and this was evident when only a handful of players stayed to applaud the crowd after Tuesday’s defeat. Somehow, there appears to be a lack of commitment on show during games. Players allowing the ball to run out of play for throw ins instead of making an effort to keep it in may be a tactic which comes from the manager, but it is infuriating to watch when our play clearly lacks commitment and urgency.
These missing elements could be to do with the lack of leaders on the pitch but it could also be a result of the manager’s non-committal to the club over the summer months. Whatever the reason, the longer it goes on, the worse it gets and the more fuel is added to rumours of unrest.
It is of course early days this season and I still believe that things will get better. Parkinson has sorted things out before, and he sounds focused and confident that he can put it right this time too. However, with so many things looking amiss it is likely to take a while for performances and results to improve. A trip to in-form Barnsley on Saturday awaits.