There's a new pre-match ritual in the Manchester City dressing room. Someone throws some music on, Robinho starts some keepy-ups, others join in – "the young ones and even some of the British lads," according to someone who has witnessed it – and everyone falls over laughing when the kit man Les Chapman tries his hand.
But that's where the harmony stops. Manchester City are in serious difficulties, their shocking descent to a position one place out of the relegation zone on goal difference somehow obscured this week by the sound and fury emanating from Ewood Park, and though City's managing director, Paul Aldridge, is privately confirming that Mark Hughes is safe, the manager appears to be presiding over a squad fractured by internal conflict.
Hughes, who finds himself facing a relegation scrap at The Hawthorns tomorrow with Robinho doubtful, is known to be nursing a severe sense of frustration about some of the players he inherited, some of whom he feels have got "too comfortable" at the club and are failing to set the right example. The Brazilian midfielder Elano is, in particular, considered lazy and a negative influence. Micah Richards, who has made little headway for the last season and a half, is considered a poor trainer, too interested in the time in the weights room which has contributed to his ballooning muscle bulk. Michael Johnson is at the club each day to do the rehabilitation work on his abdominal injury but is lacking the conviction to recuperate.
Hughes, whose exacting demands on players was part of the culture which brought success at Blackburn, also feels that some of the experienced players are not putting in enough effort. The City manager fell out with Dietmar Hamann early on and believes both his and Richard Dunne's laid-back approach to match preparation is setting a bad example to younger players. Hughes has pulled no punches and this is understood to have alienated some players. There are unconfirmed suggestions from some sources of factionalism – with older players like Darius Vassell and Dunne simply out of kilter with the new City revolution. The language hints at that. Hughes constantly talks of his "young team".
Some of Hughes' frustrations are more questionable than others. He believes, for example, that he was given poor advice at City about the merits of the central defender Tel Ben Haim, though precisely who is to blame remains unclear; the Israeli was his own purchase. One explanation of Ben Haim's arrival is that City, aware of his availability, hired whom they could before their former owner Thaksin Shinawatra's world and finances imploded completely. By then, Sheikh Mansour al-Nahyan had yet to ride over the horizon. The same might be said of the £18m Jo – an unmitigated disaster. City's executive chairman, Garry Cook, did not deny this week that the Brazilian was proof Hughes should never again be lumbered with a player who was not of his choosing.
When Vincent Kompany met Aldridge and Hughes, things were moving. The Belgian was told that "something big is about to happen". Shaun Wright-Phillips was signed the next day, then Pablo Zabaleta and then Robinho. All told, Hughes cannot entirely say he is a victim of circumstance.
He does not feel he must strip away the old completely. Richards has such natural ability that there is a genuine hope he will come to work the manager's way. It is not coincidence that Stephen Ireland has flourished under the new regime. The 22-year-old revealed this week how he spent six weeks in the summer undertaking individualised martial arts training at a gym in Glossop, Derbyshire, clocking in at 7.30am and heading off on long-distance runs with bags on his back. The trigger, he says, was the realisation that there would be "one game in 15 where I would do well" which was driving him "insane". Whether by design or coincidence, it enamoured him to Hughes and the gulf in class between Ireland and other relics of the Sven Goran Eriksson regime shows the difference for those who do conform.
It is often forgotten Hughes had a slow start at Blackburn while he waited for his principles to take root – but he does not have time on his side in east Manchester. Though Cook denied as emphatically as he could this week that all foreign owners like to hire their own managers – Hughes, like Cook, belongs to the Thaksin era – the Welshman knows hiring the marquee names Sheikh Mansour wants will be far harder even if City make it into the Uefa Cup next season.
City do want to buy Gianluigi Buffon, John Terry and Kaka, and though Cook won't give the faintest sense of whether box office purchases are a prospect for January – "because if they don't arrive everyone will say City have failed", as one source puts it – it is understood that they will attempt to bring in someone of that calibre next month.
The club's lowly position is not helping their bargaining position: Lassana Diarra is all but lost to Real Madrid and if Blackburn demand £20m for Roque Santa Cruz City would be well advised just to pay, with Jo and Benjani leading their line. As Hughes grapples with difficult structural change, there is a case for ignoring marquee names, hiring five players he knows with proven Premier League experience and securing some of the many winnable points up ahead, with no daunting opposition until Liverpool on 21 February. That way, he might have nights in Europe, not just dressing-room games, to put in front of the big names next summer.
Who City need for...
Top 3 finish
Fernando Torres His agent has said there have been approaches. Proven Premier League calibre.
Richard Dunne and Micah Richards gifted Everton last week's winner. Class required and Terry interests City.
City say they'll fight Real Madrid for him but it's a long shot now the Spaniards have agreed a deal.
Top 6 finish
Hughes probably needs two goalscorers, with Santa Cruz the most likely arrival, but Owen will soon be available.
A right-back with pace is vital. Javier Garrido has been a busted flush since last term's 6-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge.
The defensive midfielder – valued at £15m – is badly needed, but would need time to adjust.
Reported £6m offer for Lyons' Italian left-back, though at age of 31 a few questions about handling pace of Premier League.
England international is another established operator for the central defensive slot.
Never a hope of him signing for Hughes last summer, but all has changed now in east London.