By Katie Whyatt
“I think we tried to build and do our football for sure. Burnley tried to disrupt our play. They played long balls and the second ball is not easy. It is not easy to play against this team. It is very particular. At home, they are very tough.”
February 2017, and Antonio Conte reflects on an afternoon in which an uncompromising Burnley side brimming with belief had staunchly held his well-drilled Chelsea charges to a point. The mildly striking thing was that Conte’s comments, tonally, felt like a sharp departure from the traditional responses to pragmatic football. As Oliver Kay pointed out on Twitter, most managers can’t help but sneer and shudder when discussing opponents “disrupting” play (see: Pressley, Steven). Conte’s comments instead betrayed a muted acclaim, above anything else, for a style that had thwarted the runaway league leaders.
City had to happen upon something a bit grizzlier, a little gnarlier, plumping to slightly different depths, to emerge the victor against a bullish Peterborough. They didn’t showcase McCall’s style in its most ideal form; it wasn’t as breathless and compelling as some of the stuff his side crafted with almost restless pace in August; by all accounts, the first half at Coventry was fought along similar lines until City emerged reinvigorated after the break. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, naturally, and it is striking that a Peterborough victory widely labelled as “ugly but effective” was still punctuated by comparatively decent spells of play, City’s exhausting tempo so pervasive and overarching that it remains despite a robustness that, in lower hands, might have diminished it.
McCall is never too stubborn to dismiss compromise – he has uttered the term “horses for courses” with regularity – but his philosophy’s central tenets remain largely unmoved and unchanged. They will be better executed in some instances than others and the exacting Valley Parade pitch will continue to demand a greater guile (you can say a lot about that pitch but at least it sticks to its guns: “Bring all the Josh Cullens you like – I’m changing for no man!”), but, largely, McCall’s methods are working.
To talk about Phil Parkinson at this point feels – outwardly – awkward, because, in the nicest possible way, we shouldn’t don’t really care about Bolton any more than we care about Scunthorpe, or Fleetwood, or Millwall. For the first time since last July, everything filed under ‘Unjustified or Otherwise Beef With PP’ feels, genuinely, like water under the bridge, though the WOAP Hyperbole and Symbolism Department is suitably primed for a Wembley reunion. But any comments about style and pragmatism inescapably form a juncture between the two realms, and at times it’s impossible to disentangle ‘McCall vs Parkinson’ from in a debate about structure.
The discourse has sprung back to Parkinson time and again like taut elastic. When City racked up five games without a win going into the final week of February, Parkinson became an easy counterpoint: for all the squad’s shortcomings in that period, at least they weren’t a Parkinson team. The preoccupation in football with aesthetic appreciation, with ‘doing things the right way’, delivers a particularly harsh verdict on Parkinson: not that Parkinson’s sides couldn’t ‘play football’ (in that very ideal, imagined, assumed style so engrained into the public imagination); they absolutely could, and did it here and here, to name but two instances. They were effective. He has my respect, completely.
McCall’s technical, expansive football is, in all likelihood, harder to coach, and at least looks better. It is not revisionist nor invidious to say there were absolutely grumbles and misgivings about the style last season, but it must be irksome to Parkinson when his public repeatedly read shrewdness as a lack of adventure. Perhaps last season’s defensive tilt was as much by necessity as it was by design, a mean defence vital in view of a meagre forecasted goal tally.
Pragmatic football will always have its place, for all our prestige-conscious football mindset conditions us into thinking otherwise, and for all McCall’s ability to add panache to that concerted purpose feels more becoming. If anything, the discourse of the last few weeks has almost demanded something a little more rugged, a little plainer. There is an argument, correct or otherwise, that, for all their territorial dominance, City have lapsed at times into the ponderous, and lost some of the intuitiveness that allowed them to play constantly with such bruising, relentless pace. Which feels weird, given the intensity of the criticism Parkinson endured at times last season.
The single-mindedness in craft and skill has subsided at times, but it’s worth noting that’s not really McCall’s style in its best-executed form. When this side don’t hit their marks in the way we’re used to, it can feel like an imitation that falls just short of the brief. But McCall’s side slide along different degrees of adaptability, bending and tilting but standing firm within their core values. Style breathes in parameters more complex than simply seeing the pragmatic and cultured as poles apart: McCall has every card in the deck, and he can play them in whatever order he chooses.
Are those grumbles easy to understand? Maybe. City have managed to rack up 18 draws this season. To break that down, they’ve (deep breath) turned leads into draws seven times (against Millwall, Bristol Rovers, Southend, Sheffield United, Gillingham, Bolton), rescued draws from losing positions nine times (against Oldham, Gillingham, Sheffield United [behind and in front in one game], Walsall, Bury, Millwall, Bristol Rovers, Charlton, MK Dons [behind twice in one game]) and hauled themselves to four wins from behind. That central antithesis, that feeling of solidity and vulnerability repeatedly intertwining, fuels that frustration of feeling tantalisingly close to a finish line that has, seven times, hovered inches out of reach.
Such consistency might, to outsiders, suggest some inherent structural fragility, but it’s difficult – tenuous, at best – to pin the blame on risk, on lingering frailties resulting from their sense of gung-ho endeavour. Think of what you’ve seen with your eyes. City dominated Bolton in February, and created enough in the second half to extend a two-goal cushion that would have sufficed were it not for a deflection from a poorly-defended free kick and an arching cross that could have been snuffed out long before it looped onto the head of Gary Madine. The same story is scattered across so many of those results: Vincelot’s slip against Bristol Rovers, George Williams’ cross-cum-shot arrowing beyond Colin Doyle against MK Dons, Brian Wilson’s drive bobbling across Doyle away at Oldham. You can point fingers, highlight poor closing down, players committing too early or not at all, but to do so would be to highlight failings of execution. McCall is not dealing with a wholesale system failure – just isolated incidents that, regrettably, are dictating the outcome of games that City have invariably dominated.
Tuesday night might have extended City’s draw tally to 18, but it was the first time since probably the reverse fixture that City had come off second best and were lucky to emerge with a point. Largely, the system is working. City have never left the top six since entering it on August 16th 2016. They have been in there for 215 days – that’s 113 days more than this spent at number one in the UK. They have waned, at times, but never fallen as drastically as Scunthorpe. Even when they have withered, they have still looked bright for the most part.
There is nothing to justify wholesale revisions to McCall’s approach, and recent history suggests that managers largely succeed when reverting to their tried and tested. Parkinson’s early dalliances with the diamond last term came to very little: what he knew best prevailed and took the team to the top six. Garry Monk’s reversion to a 4-2-3-1 at Leeds United tells a similar story this season. Antonio Conte and the 3-4-3 at Chelsea. We could go on, and on.
Which is not to say those principles should be unmovable, unshakeable – an avocation of McCall’s “horses for courses” mantra echoes through this piece – but there is no reason for McCall to leap for the tactical straightjacket. There is no shame in occasional compromise, but no need for a drastic overhaul. Even without the gloss and the finish, City look effortlessly stunning. What they need now, with just eight games to go, is to team that beauty with stubbornness and clinicism: but in doing so, they cannot forget what has got them in the top six in the first place.