Ian Herbert: Tantrums show trouble ahead as Hughes fights for survival
Friday 18 December 2009
You know it's been a bad night when Gareth Barry, hardly the most demonstrative of Manchester City's midfielders, talks about the players being "at each other's throats" in the dressing room. But that's how it was, deep inside White Hart Lane late on Wednesday night, after the feeble and anaemic display which asked more questions about the value of Mark Hughes' investments than any other game in his 18 months at Manchester City.
The players were not the only ones pointing a finger. Hughes kept the door shut for a very long time after a 3-0 defeat which was characterised by the parlous non-performances of Emmanuel Adebayor and Robinho, who headed straight down the tunnel after his substitution, and the length of the post-mortem meant that he did not join Harry Redknapp for the customary post-match drink. Redknapp did not take that as a slight. Everyone in the Tottenham camp could see what the defeat meant to City, a club aspiring to go toe-to-toe with Spurs for a top-four spot, and falling so far short.
Though rumours that Robinho did not join the City players on the coach home and instead headed straight out into London are wide of the mark, Hughes is left to ponder where the fighters in his ranks really are. The thought of Barry taking anyone by the throat seems far-fetched, based on the role he is assuming in the City midfield. The elegance and tackling which have made him an England regular have been on less consistent display than at Aston Villa and he has not looked the leader that made him a pre-season candidate for the captaincy. The honesty Barry displayed when emerging from the dressing room would have served City well on the pitch. "It's not just the defeat it's the way we've lost – we've lost a lot of pride," he admitted.
Meanwhile, Kolo Touré just does not exude a captain's qualities. The absence of leaders is puzzling given that the manager made such a priority of ending the listlessness of the Sven Goran Eriksson era at City. Craig Bellamy, still the only individual with the drive Hughes' teams usually embody, should be captain in Touré's absence for the African Cup of Nations next month.
The defeat suddenly puts a different complexion on the wins over Chelsea and Arsenal, making them exceptions. Yesterday it put Hughes back under the pressure that only ever seems a few games away from him. No one has denied since the home draw against Hull City three weeks ago that the manager needed a good December, with the availability of Guus Hiddink a destabilising factor. Another anxiety for Hughes is that as results continue to go the way they are, the balance of power will shift towards Brian Marwood, City's football administrator.
For all his side's problems, only the most calamitous Christmas period should see Hughes dispensed with. Some of his signings have not prospered but building a side takes time and his achievements cannot be measured in results alone. For now, there is an awareness at City of the need to enter the Carling Cup semi-final first leg against Manchester United next month with self-belief. Though Hughes said after the quarter-final win over Arsenal that league progress was the priority, beating United over two legs and winning the trophy would strengthen Hughes' position substantially. Perhaps enough to make the pre-season target of sixth place, agreed between Hughes and chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak, more negotiable.
Sir Alex Ferguson's declaration this week that he will field a young side puts the pressure on City. By one of those typical footballing twists, Hughes finds his destiny bound up once again with his mentor-turned-adversary from across the city – a man who knows even more than the City manager about closing the dressing-room door for a hard conversation.
Problems in the dressing room
How to deploy Stephen Ireland
Operates better in the hole with two midfielders behind him but changing the 4-4-2 shape of City's side has made this a more difficult season.
Trouble looms in every defensive position
Joleon Lescott and Kolo Touré have not established confidence in each other. Wayne Bridge, sloppy so far this season, is injured and has been replaced by the ageing Sylvinho, who was torn apart by Aaron Lennon on Wednesday night. Hughes hopes Vincent Kompany and Nedum Onuoha will come to the fore in the absence of his first-choice central defenders.
Craig Bellamy is the de facto leader but not fit enough to pay every game and Nigel de Jong, another leader, is not a regular starter.
Emmanuel Adebayor's form
The Togo striker only achieves in big games and has scored just twice since his spat with Arsenal in September. He is no real loss as he heads for the African Cup of Nations but would have been valuable in Carling Cup.
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