Verdict: Birmingham City 0 Manchester City 0
Mark Hughes’ side returned from St. Andrews with a draw thanks to the performance of Shay Given who left Birmingham’s James McFadden beating the ground in frustration following a second half penalty save.
Remarkably, City have moved up to fourth place despite a fourth consecutive league draw. This says more for the faltering results of those around them rather than any brilliance by the Blues. Once again, City looked a long way from being the collective sum of their individual parts.
It may have been Mark Hughes’ birthday, but any cards from City fans might have featured questions about tactics rather than best wishes following this disappointing performance.
There were two surprises in the City line-up with Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor still missing through injury. Vincent Kompany kept his place in the centre of defence, while Roque Santa Cruz made his first league start in attack. With Pablo Zabaleta returning to right-back, Micah Richards had to be content with a place on the bench.
Martin Petrov was also named as a substitute following his injury last week, giving Shaun Wright-Phillips another chance on the right wing.
Following their morale boosting victory over Sunderland last week, Birmingham started brightly while City frustratingly failed to get a foothold in the first quarter of an hour. Shay Given was keeping us in it, tipping a deflected shot onto the post, then coming out quickly to smother a shot from Benitez, who had eluded Kompany.
Eventually City rallied and started to dominate possession, enjoying what proved to be our best period of the game. Tevez was lively, while Bellamy got in a couple of good positions only to have shots blocked.
The Argentine could learn a few lessons from the Welshman about how to make runs into goalscoring positions. The long-range shooting from Tevez was as woeful as ever – the goal he scored against us at Old Trafford last season is proving frustratingly hard to replicate.
Birmingham were never out of it, and Given was required to make a brilliant double save prior to half time. First parrying a wicked shot from Larsson before pouncing on the rebound ahead of two Brum players.
The main tactic from City, particularly in the second half, seemed to be ‘get the ball forward as fast as possible’. The hurried, bordering on frantic, passing made us look no better than our opponents.
There appeared a clear case for bringing on Ireland in place of Barry, but Hughes took the supposedly more attacking option of sacrificing de Jong. Given how bad Barry was faring, this was a questionable decision, even if Brum weren’t able to take advantage of our lack of a midfield enforcer for the final part of the game.
Earlier de Jong had unluckily conceded the penalty when jumping with his arm raised to fend off an opponent. The ball came down on his arm and the referee had no hesitation in making a bizarrely exaggerated gesture in pointing to the spot. Fortunately this was Given’s day as he chose to go the right way to save McFadden’s strike.
With Barry and Ireland, we had two excellent passers in central midfield, yet they were to readily bypassed, or appeared under instruction to belt the ball forward as soon as possible. Admittedly Barry was having a poor game. On a good day he looks composed and cruises around the pitch. On a bad day like this, he looks horribly one-paced and to easily bypassed.
It’s hard to recall one decent pass from the right flank of Zabaleta and Wright-Phillips in the second half. Throughout, there had been a succession of balls lobbed forward that failed to pick out Santa Cruz. It says everything about the tactics that for 10 minutes after the Paraguayan had gone off, we were still lobbing high balls forward.
The movement of Bellamy, Tevez, Petrov and Wright-Phillips should be made for ball players like Ireland and Barry, but there was never any coherence to our attacking in the second half.
Maybe the precarious nature of the game held Hughes back from bringing on the teenage Weiss, but after his performance on Wednesday, there was certainly a case substituting Wright-Phillips. The Slovakian may be raw, but he can be a genuine threat.
The sending-off of Barry Ferguson came to late to help City and the fact he now misses Brum’s trip to Anfield is actually bad news for us. If we are to finish in the top four, then it’s looking increasingly clear that we need Liverpool dropping as many points as possible. Therefore we’d like Liverpool’s opponents fielding their strongest sides.
The clean sheet will be acclaimed as the best thing to come out of this game, though it owes more to the brilliance of Given rather than a huge improvement by the defence in open play.
The biggest improvement at the back was in the defending of set-pieces. Birmingham had numerous corners and free-kicks where they launched balls into our box, but the defence was switched on every time. Having the extra height of Kompany playing alongside Lescott was clearly an advantage at defending high balls. Roque Santa Cruz should also be commended for tracking opponents when defending set pieces.
In fairness to Birmingham they have appeared emboldened since Carson Yeung’s takeover, with Alex McCleish switching to an attacking 4-4-2 rather than a 4-5-1 to grind out results. It was a very hard working performance from Brum and we just didn’t show enough ability to overcome it.
“We failed to get any momentum in our play and it was all a little bitty. The game as a whole suffered as a consequence.”
“We are pleased we are picking up points but today I wasn’t happy with the attacking threat. We are better than we produced.”
“Shay was terrific today. He has to be the most consistent goalkeeper in the Premier League.”
The football we’re currently playing under Hughes looks lightyears away from that produced by Chelsea or Arsenal, while United are past masters at winning games without playing well. The questions about Hughes’ abilities as a tactician and coach are returning. He’s been given an unprecedented opportunity to build his own team, but the undoubted quality of the signings aren’t producing the quality of football required.
It’s difficult to imagine a team of this talent coached by Wenger, Ancelotti or Hiddink looking so ordinary. Even Benitez, never mind Mourinho, would send them out with greater organisation and discipline. This may be harsh on Hughes, but with City now expected to challenge the elite, this is the kind of company the manager is to be compared with.
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