The man I wanted as manager before the decision was made has got so much right during his time here so far and the feelgood factor that has been present for much of the campaign up to now has so much to do with him. However, albeit at the twenty seventh time of asking, I thought that legitimate questions could be asked of his decision making on Saturday as City’s unbeaten run stretching back to the Peterborough defeat in October came to an end against a decent Middlesbrough team who showed why they have such an outstanding away record this season.
Boro’s 3-2 win owed a lot to a midfield that probably just got the better of the battle in that area of the pitch, but not to the extent that City should virtually concede defeat in the middle of the park with a quarter of the game to go by, essentially, stopping playing in that area as they went route one with the introduction of Rudy Gestede and Joe Mason for Craig Conway and Don Cowie. Conway has often been taken off early in matches over the past couple of months, but Cowie always lasts the ninety minutes normally and, unless he had taken a knock, his withdrawal was a mystery to me. With Gestede looking rusty and short of match sharpness, the long ball approach certainly didn’t pay dividends and Boro were able to exploit the extra space they got in the middle of the park and on the flanks to net the decisive winning goal.
Whilst the introduction of two attacking substitutes was a bold move by a manager trying to win the game, it was hardly as if City were struggling to create chances, because in a game that panned out in a completely different manner than had been anticipated by most of pundits, there were plenty of opportunities at either end as two sides who had been defending so well recently struggled to cope with attacks which had scarcely been going goal crazy in their last few games.A first City goal for Ben Turner, but, sadly, one of his worst performances for us so far - he was at fault twice in the lead up to the winning goal.*
To be fair to our manager, I suppose Bates and Williams were not your normal strapping Championship centre backs, they were more your Darcy Blake types who showed enough speed to catch up with Kenny Miller (still no slouch despite being in the autumn of his career) on a couple of occasions, but maybe could have been exploited in the air. Therefore I wasn’t against us playing long balls forward in that last quarter, but I couldn’t see why we did it to the exclusion of all else – we stopped getting the best out of Miller (who I thought was our best player) and did not utilise Mason (who posed more problems for Boro with the few chances he got than Gestede did as we endlessly lumped it forward) enough by playing “proper” football – I just thought that if the word to continuously knock it long came from the bench, it was a wrong decision.
In saying that, it was a day when luck, which we have had a fair sprinkling of over the past couple of months, ran out for City – two incidents within a minute of each other in the first half proved that. I wasn’t going to say much about the penalty claim we had because, sat pretty low down at the corner of the Canton Stand and Ninian Stand, I probably had the worst view in the ground of the incident, but, having seen the television pictures of it now, it was a dreadful piece of officiating by referee and linesman – it was a clear penalty, although I would have given the erratic Steele a yellow rather than red card. With the crowd still up in arms at that decision, Ogbeche’s well struck shot seconds later would almost certainly have been saved by Marshall if it had not got a deflection off the covering Ben Turner.City's best two players on the day celebrate our second goal - Aron Gunnarsson's name ended up on the scoresheet, but Kenny Miller's assist of the season so far deserved as much, if not more, of the plaudits.*
On another day, both of those incidents would have worked out in our favour, but this shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the fact that, unusually, McNaughton and Cowie got themselves into a mess on the right to present Boro with their first goal and that players like Turner and Taylor, who have been performing well in recent weeks (excellently in the case of the former actually), slipped below those standards and were culpable to some extent in the conceding of the other two goals. Gunnarsson apart, the midfield five were not as good as they can be either, so, it would be wrong to claim we deserved all three points, but I don’t believe Boro were that much better than us to have deserved the win – 3-3 would have been the result an entertaining and, surprisingly, open match deserved in my book.
Barring a miss by Whittingham from the spot, that’s the result we would have got as well if the referee had done his job properly. Maybe I’m getting more of a grouch in my old age, but I thought Graham Salisbury was the latest in a series of poor refs we’ve had in home games recently – this isn’t sour grapes, because I also thought Boro could have had a penalty as well in the first half, but how there were eight bookings in that match is beyond me. I mentioned on a messageboard that there wasn’t a bad tackle in the game and was picked up by someone who said Andrew Taylor was guilty of a “horror tackle” – not for me it wasn’t, a yellow card offence yes, but no more than that. There was no flow to the game in the closing minutes as Salisbury got whistle happy and stopped play at every opportunity – in my opinion, the referee played too big a part in the outcome of the game.
So, where do we go from here? Is there any need for widespread changes to team and system because of this defeat? My feeling is that there isn’t – the side has done excellently so far and we were more effective playing 4-5-1 than we were the 4-4-2/4-3-3 that we finished with yesterday. However, although we missed his defensive covering when he went off, maybe the time has come to give Craig Conway a rest and let Joe Mason play in an attacking midfield role through the middle? I realise that this would give us even fewer natural wide players, and, although he hasn’t really been producing the goods for a while now, Conway is still one of the best crossers of a ball we have. Mason has a habit of making things happen when he is on a football pitch though and, unless and until we bring in some players with that X factor that Malky Mackay talks about next month, that’s something we could have done with a little more of from the start yesterday – maybe we wouldn’t have had to end up playing all that route one stuff late on then.