Friday, November 09, 2007

A Month Of Saturdays: October 2007

Claudio Ranieri tried it at Chelsea, made a fatal mistake during a Champions League semi-final against Monaco and wound up getting the boot. Rafa Benitez is alternately praised and pilloried for doing it at Liverpool. And now Sam Allardyce seems to have embraced it wholeheartedly.

Tinkering, that is.

Tinkerman Sam: well, it's got a ring to it.

In some respects, it makes sense - after all, with the treatment room emptier than at almost any other time in the past three years, and therefore with more players at his disposal, Allardyce's apparent decision to adopt a squad rotation policy seems reasonable. Until, that is, you appreciate that the squads Ranieri and Benitez have had to rotate have been far superior to ours, and haven't included Alan Smith, whose precise function still remains a mystery even after over three months at the club.

Of course, all the tinkering could just be indicative of a manager who genuinely doesn't know his best side. The issue seems particularly pronounced when it comes to the midfield. According to the usual rationale of picking a team, you don't drop your best performers. So Allardyce's decision to omit Charles N'Zogbia and James Milner - both of whom have more often than not given us thrust, pace and trickery down the flanks this season - from the side that took to the pitch at the Madjeski was bewildering to say the very least. Of course, it was entirely predictable that we'd have no width or guile at all across the middle, and we slumped to a demoralising 2-1 loss. And all the time Nicky Butt continues to be a fixture in the side. Perhaps he's got compromising photos of Allardyce's wife he's threatening to upload to the internet?

In truth, though, the back line was equally culpable for the Reading defeat, gifting Shane Long his winner through an inability to deal with a simple hoof forwards. The guilty parties Cacapa and Abdoulaye Faye had again been preferred to David Rozehnal, who continues to pay the price for a below-par display at the City of Manchester Stadium. Surely I can't be the only one to feel the Czech has been harshly treated? Up until that point, he'd shown real signs of being the commanding presence we'd lacked since Jonathan Woodgate was stretchered off to Real Madrid, and he was unfortunate to come up against a City side in a rampant mood. Everyone should be excused one off-day. But no, he's been picking splinters out of his arse ever since. It seems it's a selective rotation policy.

October saw a fully-fit Joey Barton finally make his competitive bow for the club, coming on as a substitute at home to Spurs and then starting at Reading - his inclusion being a prime reason N'Zogbia and Milner were squeezed out. But, for all the impact he had, he might as well not have been on the pitch. Indeed, if his claims are to be believed, he's been rather more influential for his old club this season; apparently he - and not Sven-Goran Eriksson, Thaksin Shinawatra or Elano, as you thought - is the real driving force by Man City's revival... So, let me get this right, Joey: you attack your team-mate on the training pitch, get suspended and fined, and embroil your club in a court case, and they're supposed to be grateful?

But, lest I get accused of dwelling on the negatives, it should be noted that October did also see us notch up wins in our other two games, at home to Everton and, a fortnight later, at home to Spurs. Towards the end of a tight game, the Toffees were sunk by goals from Emre and Michael Owen, both substitutes. Few could begrudge Allardyce taking credit afterwards for making the changes - certainly his claims were less laughable than Barton's.

The other game, by contrast, was a walkover, a staggeringly inept Spurs display proving that the table never lies. The Londoners' cause wasn't helped by the "efforts" of Jermaine Jenas, returning to the goldfish bowl and performing like, well, a fish out of water. Now THERE was a player lending a helping hand to his former club, Joey...


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