Robin Sainty: A dip in form for City, yes, but consider the circumstances
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This time last week City were five points clear at the top of the Championship and everything was looking rosy.
Two sub-par performances later the picture has changed slightly, although the bottom line is that they are still top, albeit by three points, and averaging two points a game having played all of their closest challengers, the majority away from home.
There are certainly no grounds for panic, but there are some causes for concern, the first and biggest of which is balance. It’s ironic that having absorbed a huge number of injuries while still grinding out results it’s actually two of the most recent that have had the biggest impact.
The loss of Ben Gibson has resulted in City’s build-up from the back becoming painfully slow, with Christoph Zimmermann, who (and I say this as a great admirer of the man) is increasingly looking like a pale shadow of the player of two years ago, lacking the confidence on the ball to move it quickly and incisively and looking fallible under pressure.
Zimmermann’s inclusion has also meant that Grant Hanley has had to play on the left of the central pairing where he is clearly less comfortable, and that in turn has further exposed Jacob Sorensen.
Jacob Sorensen has done a tremendous job as a makeshift left back but he has also been adversely impacted by the absence of Przemyslaw Placheta, who, despite being far from the finished article, offered pace to the side as well as an ability to get the ball into the box from the left.
As it is, opponents are happy to let Sorensen have the ball in advanced positions confident in the knowledge that he will check back and invariably play the ball inside or backwards, allowing them to concentrate on ensuring that Max Aarons is rarely given an opportunity to get into one-on-one situations on the other flank.
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As a result, City’s main attacking threat is largely coming from the right side and they have consequently struggled to stretch opponents who have been able to focus on defending a more limited area in numbers.
This is a problem in itself but it’s also being exacerbated by how long it’s currently taking City to move the ball from back to front.
The key to success two years ago was the ability to move opponents out of position and then exploit the space created, but over the last couple of games in particular City’s build-up has looked laboured and over-elaborate. Teemu Pukki has always thrived on early, whipped-in low crosses, but they have become rare.
However, it would be unrealistic to expect key players to perform at the top of their form, game after game, in a normal season, but in this condensed endurance test even more so, and it won’t just be City suffering that problem as time goes on. The Championship doesn’t have its reputation as one of the toughest leagues in the world without reason, so perhaps the biggest surprise is that it’s taken so long for City to experience a blip.
It should also be said that there is no doubt that the Canaries have been on the wrong end of some awful officiating in the last couple of games, but they’ve also had their fair share of favourable decisions this season and I tend to think that these things even themselves out over time.
What is encouraging is that even at Watford with several key players performing well below their best, City were always in the game and could have snatched a point.
It would be easy to be overly critical because of the last couple of performances, but perhaps a more realistic assessment would be to consider how remarkable it is that with up to 14 players out on occasions, City have managed to glean 16 points from eight games in a gruelling December programme.