Football fans being football fans, I know I wasn’t the only City supporter who would have looked at us in sixth place and allowed themselves to wonder what the chances were of us being able to maintain it over the months to come.
This would have been against their better judgment – while I think we have shown enough so far to strongly suggest that the sort of struggle we saw during last season in particular is not going to be repeated, was anyone really convinced we were a top six finisher in the making? You can dream though can’t you!
After four straight wins, you start to wonder, but tonight’s 2-0 loss at Middlesbrough showed why a top six finish will almost certainly remain a dream. In the end, the two goal margin could easily have been doubled because to quote the Middlesbrough commentators on the stream I was watching, City we’re a “shambles” by the end.
However, we started very confidently and defended well for fifty five minutes even if the latter stages of that period were a little too like the game at Sunderland in that we were finding ourselves under continuous pressure.
The first half was a little chess like as both teams placed more emphasis on being disciplined in defence and, certainly in City’s case, they made it very hard for Boro as the game was almost being played at a walking pace at times as the home team got their fans annoyed with plenty of sideways and backwards passing.
Unfortunately though, a team that had not failed to score this season could not open up a team that had not kept a clean sheet before now – in fact, I can only think of two, perhaps three, times when we looked possible scorers.
Very early in the game, Ollie Tanner, one of two changes which saw Yakou Meite drop out with injury and Ebou Adams come in for Jamilu Collins who had not recovered from the injury that didn’t force him off against Rotherham, but definitely seemed to affect his performance, clipped in a dangerous low cross which saw home goalkeeper Suny Dieng parry the ball out some six yards from goal, but no City forward was there to take advantage.
The first period may have been short of goalmouth action, but City had the best chance in the opening forty five minutes as good combination play by Ryan Wintle and Kion Etete enabled the first named to send Karlan Grant through for a one on one with Dieng. Actually, that’s not quite true, there was a covering Boro defender, but he was also concerned by Tanner who was square of Grant and looking at a tap in. You’re not going to get many forwards who would pass if they found themselves in the position Grant did though and, sure enough, he opted to shoot with Dieng able to make a fairly easy save with his legs.
The closest City came to a goal though was early in the second half when Tanner received a cross from Perry Ng beyond the far post, beat his marker and then shot against the far upright from ten yards. If that had gone in, who knows how things may have turned out, but City would have had to have not given the ball away as cheaply as they did for the rest of the game for there to have been a different outcome.
Callum Robinson, brought on for Wintle midway through the second half, had a shot saved by Dieng late on, but the game was gone by then and post match discussion is centring on some of Erol Bulut’s decisions – in particular two of them.
Firstly, I mentioned that Adams replaced Collins, but the pre match consensus was that Joe Ralls would move to left back and Ebou would slot into midfield. This did not happen, instead Ng moved over to left back, and Adams was on the right. Now, Adams’ performances as part of a back three in a couple of League Cup ties have suggested he could have future as a defender, but it was an awful big ask for him to play in a position he has very little, if any, previous experience in when there are league points at stake.
The move was not a success and Adams was eventually substituted by Mahlon Romeo, an established and experienced right back who seemed the much more natural choice to make once the decision for Ng to switch flanks had been made.
Most of Boro’s attacks came down our right and I thought Adams struggled with his positioning and anticipation. Of course, it was very much a case of learning on the job for Adams and perhaps our manager’s second controversial decision had something to do with him thinking that Adams was not getting the support he needed?
When Erol Bulut took Ollie Tanner off at half time at Ipswich, I had a go at him on here, I won’t be doing that this time, but on an evening when Tanner struck me as our best chance of providing a goal, the decision to take him off and deploy Ike Ugbo on the right looked an odd one to me.
Maybe Bulut thought Tanner could have done more to prevent the first goal or maybe he thought he was tired (he did mention after the game that he thought a number of City players tired in the second half).
The problem was that without Tanner, City were punchless up front. Etete had done well in his last two starts, but here he struggled to make an impact until he went off with what may have been a hamstring injury to join a too rapidly growing injury list at the club. Ugbo was anonymous both out on the right and through the middle when he was tried there late on. That shot I mentioned apart, Robinson did little and the same could be said for Rubin Colwill, who replaced Etete, when he came on for the last fifteen minutes or so.
As I mentioned earlier, Tanner had lost out to home left back Lukas Engel in the build up to the first goal as, once again, Boro threatened down our right. Engel’s first cross was half cleared, but he got away from Tanner and Manolis Siopis to deliver a low cross which was touched in from point blank range by Isiah Jones.
I was interested to hear Erol Bulut claim that Jones was offside when the cross came in because that was my first impression when watching the goal live. Replays shown on the stream I was watching proved inconclusive, but I’ve tried freezing the picture as the ball is crossed on the highlights being shown on the club website now and it definitely looks offside to me.
Without that first goal, I don’t think the second one gets scored five minutes from time. Colwill’s best piece of play during his brief time on the pitch won City a corner that was cleared enabling Middlesbrough to counter attack and Emmanuel Latte Lath showed impressive speed to burst past Siopis (would we be better off leaving a full back to cover as last man for dead ball situations when we are behind?) and then there was composure to leave Romeo on his backside (no criticism from me of the sub there, he was in a desperate situation) and shoot past Jak Alnwick. It’s tempting to think that the offside gets spotted and Tanner’s shot goes in and it could have ended up with a completely different outcome. Maybe it would have, but I tend to think that Middlesbrough were getting increasingly on top as the second half went on and they probably would have found a way to score somewhere along the line.
City’s lack of a forward threat and the way their midfield came second best in terms of technique and mobility meant that this was our worst away league performance so far in my opinion, but, the QPR match apart, it wasn’t typical of what we’ve offered up so far this season. I’d like to think there’s enough evidence already to show that we aren’t as poor a team as we looked for the last hour tonight.
Below first team level, it’s been a pretty disappointing start to the season and, after a decent showing by a very young team in a close defeat by an unbeaten Millwall side last week, a more experienced team were well beaten by 5-2 at Ipswich at lunchtime – Joel Colwill (who captained the team) and Fin Johnson were the goalscorers. Better news as for as City’s women’s team is concerned however, they best TNS 3-1 at Leckwith on Sunday.