I spend a lot of time thinking through what’s gone so wrong this season. How can last years squad + Robinho = relegation fodder? It doesn’t add up. Clearly, something deeper is wrong. We’re suffering from a severe lack of confidence. I don’t mean confidence as a function of results, either. There can only be something wrong within the club which is impacting confidence, which in turn damages results. So what is it? Why has the confidence been drained from the squad?
I think the root cause lies in Hughes’ misunderstanding of our last season. He has cast himself, very publicly and consciously, as the anti-Eriksson. The complaints that the players were insufficiently fit, the taking of them all on that German fitness camp, saying that Sven had brought the wrong sort of players for the Premier League, the establishment of the ‘football factory’ – the expulsion of agents and girlfriends from Carrington – it was all part of one project: to define himself as an order-destroying manager.
Everything he said and did put out this message that the Eriksson regime stood for comfort, for laziness, whereas he and Bowen would introduce an era of discipline and rigour and physical fitness. I think that this overhaul of approach and methods at the club is the best explanation of the general decline in confidence: most noticeable in Dunne and Richards, but also to varying degrees in Elano, Hart, Gelson and Hamann. Not only is it a radical and disconcerting change in routine, it also quite insulting. For Dunne and Elano to be told that the Eriksson season, in which they played such big roles, was a failure and a bad example cannot be good for their confidence. The fact that the two players most improved under the Hughes regime, Ireland and Garrido, did not look fully at home under Eriksson further supports this point.
Based on this reading of last season, Hughes has torn down much of the Eriksson system, and tried to rebuild it in his own image. Such transitions are always painful in the immediate term. If our bad performances looked like a simple by product of these changes, with an improved team around the corner, I could accept them. But that’s not how it looks at all. Today was an improvement on the last few games, but we still lost to West Brom. And it took a big change in approach – no Brazilians, no 4-3-3, just getting the ball quickly to Vassell and Benjani. It seems quite clear that the Hughes approach is nowhere near to reforming City into a quick, physical, fit unit, but has merely drained the squad’s confidence.
The real shame of this is that the Hughes interpretation of 2007/08 is wrong. Yes, it wasn’t a great season. It ended with the sort of shapeless, spineless, goalless shit that we’ve been enjoying this November and December. But before then we played some good football, and as the media love to remind us, we were fourth at this stage in the season. 9th place and 55 points is at least respectable. To get to 55 this year we’d need 37 from the last 20 games: an average of 1.85 points/game, which would translate to a 70 point season – somewhere between fourth and fifth place last year. On current form we’re right on 1 point/game, which is enough to stay up most years but a total embarrassment for a 55 point squad + Robinho.
So where does this leave Hughes? I fear that after five months of fitness training, strict discipline and so forth we are too far down the Hughes road to simply bring back the Eriksson way. While SGE himself may be unwilling to return (although I’m not sure he’s loving it that much in Mexico), there are other similar characters we could look to: if we want a relaxed, continental, multilingual manager of superstars we could surely tempt Frank Rijkaard: a coach who got lazy Brazilians to do special things. But that being the case, would we be wisest to stick with Hughes? While Hughes surely deserves the censure and humiliation of sacking, I still believe that his age, track record and transfer nous make him the best man for the job in the long term. Unless we can find someone to carry on down the Hughes path, without being the man himself – Martin O’Neill surely has too much honour to abandon Villa for our money – we may just be safest in sticking with Hughes.