Manchester City; In Defence O

Those of you familiar with my ramblings will know that I am not the founding member of the Sven Goran Eriksson fan club.

Nor a member of any description, in fact. When England dismally crashed out of each of the last three major international tournaments I was among the first to lay into the Swede. To my mind he enforced a tactical paralysis on a squad supposedly blessed with unprecedented talent. England’s fear of expression undoubtedly cost them a tilt at all of these tournaments thanks to the former Lazio and Sampdoria boss, and he had to go.

But…… And like J-Lo’s, it’s a big but. The noises coming out of the corridors of power at Eriksson’s current employers Manchester City beggar belief. Controversial barm-pot owner Thaksin Shinawatra has reportedly suggested that a managerial change could be in the offing at Eastlands this summer. Quotes attributed to the former Thai Prime Minister are ominous for Eriksson if we are to take them as any indication of the owner’s plans for the future;

“We will look at it at the end of the season and assess the club and the people involved.” he is alleged to have mused in highly non-committal fashion.

“We'll probably have to sell some players and buy some new ones. We need some defenders, midfielders - midfielders are the key.” he went on, offering us the benefit of his somewhat limited knowledge of the beautiful game.

All of which comes despite the club enjoying their most successful season in terms of league position in years, and doing so by applying a brand of exciting, free-flowing football that was once thought impossible under the pragmatic but paradoxically headline-hogging Eriksson. With the flying Martin Petrov causing varying amounts of chaos among Premier League right-backs, and Elano pulling the strings in midfield some of City’s football this season has been hugely entertaining. They still lack a genuinely outstanding goalscorer (despite Eriksson’s attempts to plug the gap with the capture of the previously prolific Benjani Mwaruwari from Portsmouth), but most right-thinking football followers would concede that Eriksson has his charges heading in the right direction.

City fans are well used to ups and downs, so it will have come as no surprise to them that their side could not quite sustain their early season form. Seemingly in contention for a Champions League berth before Christmas, City have fallen away since Santa did his rounds and are now unlikely to qualify for European football through their league position. Just four wins from their last 14 league outings has derailed their challenge in that respect, yet they still lie a comfortable eighth in the table following Saturday’s 2-1 success at Sunderland (April 12). Had you offered this kind of season to any City fan sitting through the drudgery served up under Stuart Pearce a season ago it is very likely that your hand would have been detached from your arm with great haste.

With this in mind just what was it that Shinawatra was expecting when he took over the club? Did he really anticipate that a team which scored a record low of only 10 home goals in the league last season would be transformed into title challengers overnight by Eriksson? He has a wealth of experience at club level and has enjoyed success almost everywhere he has been, playing for some demanding chairman and eccentric owners, but even Eriksson might find the demands placed on him by the City owner a little hard to live up to. One can understand any owner who has invested substantially in a football club wanting to see a tangible return for his money, but surely it is time those who buy their way into the game realised that success in the world’s most competitive sport cannot be bought instantly from the local convenience store?

Sustained success in the unforgiving environments of the Premier League and European football is, Chelsea aside, built slowly. Roman Abramovich had to pump hundreds of millions into Chelsea to turn them into a forced to be reckoned with, a feat that Shinawatra has not been able to match so far. Yes he has ploughed significant funds into the club to enable Eriksson to buy the Petrovs and the Elanos of this world, but aside from a laughable tabloid report of a dalliance with Ronaldinho the Thai is yet to equip his manager with the funds to compete for the world’s very best. If the time ever comes for Shinawatra to dig into his pockets on that level (assuming he is able to), surely it is Eriksson who deserves first dibs on the opportunity to build a team to challenge for the major honours that his owner so obviously craves?

I may not have agreed that he was the man for the job eighteen months ago, but Eriksson has proved to me and surely to City’s outspoken owner that he deserves the time and the transfer budget to build a truly competitive Manchester City team.

By Stephen Orford

16 April 2008