Saturday, 8 November 2014

Burnley H (TC Match Report)

There have been many, many grounds through the years on which City fans have been left angry and embarrassed. None quiet so often as Turf Moor. The scene of probably the most heart-breaking night in the club’s history continues to torment us and the latest defeat at the hands of Burnley, a ninth in our last eleven visits, was so bewilderingly inept that describing it in words that won’t offend is almost impossible.

It has to be said - Burnley are rubbish. That’s not bitterness. Just cold, hard fact. They haven’t gone ten Premier League games without a win because of some cruel quirk of fate. They are a second division team playing top flight football. Sean Dyche picks a team in a basic 4-4-2 formation. They hit “percentage” balls into areas they think Danny Ings pace might trouble the opposition and if the opposing defence meet the ball first, they work incredibly hard to be first to the second ball. Defensively they are well drilled and their wide players become secondary full-backs the second they cough up position (which is pretty often).

Fortunately for Burnley, limitations and all, Hull City are like a pension scheme for mediocre teams in wretched form. Remember Sheffield Wednesday starting the 2007/08 season with six straight defeats until salvation turned up in black and amber. Or ten years earlier when Doncaster Rovers, one of the worst sides in English football history, ended an eight match losing run at our expense. Even just a year ago we provided the stepping stone on which Crystal Palace built their path to safety.

Once again in just-about-Lancashire we demonstrated our unerring ability to be even worse than anyone could possibly predict. It’s not about ability. This team has recently earned great praise for its ability to match Arsenal and Liverpool on their own ground. This was a submissive performance from a side that demonstrated the distinct lack of a backbone. They didn’t compete with Burnley. They barely even tried. In the key midfield area in particular, Burnley drew a battle line and we didn’t fancy it at all.

The Tigers (3-5-2): Harper; Chester, McShane, Davies; Elmohamady, Huddlestone, Livermore, Diame, Brady; Aluko, Hernandez.

Steve Harper returned in goal showing that Steve Bruce would literally play a one-armed man over Jakupovic while Aluko came in for Ben Arfa. Presumably to provide the pace to threaten defenders in behind and to stop Hernandez cutting the lonely figure he did against Southampton a week ago.

Danny Ings missed the first chance of the game after forty seconds. He out-muscled McShane and latched onto the first of many hopeful balls over the top but flicked the ball over Harper and wide of the far post. Burnley were edgy in possession and presented the ball to Aluko who ran at the last-man, Shackell, but saw his shot blocked. At the other end James Chester picked up a booking for a clear obstruction on his old mate George Boyd who’d megged him. Mark Clattenburg was super quick to flash the yellow card which set the tone for his afternoon. He’d flash nine more.

On nineteen minutes, the chants of “City till I die” only encouraged Burnley who forced a corner. Stephen Ward headed it down at the back post and Ings turned and hammered a goal-bound shot only for Harper to keep it out with an incredibly strong right wrist. The rebound was also poked goalwards but Robbie Brady kicked it off the line and despite the hopeful appeals from the home side, Mark Clattenburg’s watch didn’t signal a goal.

A goal for either side didn’t look remotely likely in the remainder of the half. Burnley gathered some momentum gaining confidence from their increasing dominance in the middle of the park and the sporadic Tigers’ attacks. Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore, not for the first time this season, were useless without the ball and pointless with it. Mo Diame, so impressive recently, was equally wasteful. Diame has a languid style that looks a thing of natural beauty when he’s on top of his game but protrudes an aura of laziness when he isn’t. Our wing-backs were being neutered by the hard working Burnley wingers Arfield and Boyd dropping back to fill the spaces they love to exploit and Aluko was twisting and turning his way to nowhere in particular.

An uninspiring half came to a close and we wished we’d stayed in the cricket club next door and had a few more pints. The second half against Southampton was a major disappointment and whatever malaise the players fell into during that half time break at the KC was proving tough to get out of.

Just two minutes into the second half, Steve Bruce decided he’d had enough of waiting for the players to lift it and prepared two subs. It was odd timing so I assume he’d send them out with the threat of making changes after five/ten minutes and almost immediately regretted it. With Stephen Quinn ready on the touchline and Gaston Ramirez tying his laces – Burnley made him pay for not making the change at half time.

Danny Ings saw a shot blocked by Davies after Burnley too easily manoeuvred their way to the edge of our box. The block rebounded to right back Kieran Trippier whose beautiful cross was thumped home by the forehead of Ashley Barnes. A player without a Premier League goal scoring for the side without a Premier League win. Forget Children In Need – this was charity.

They didn’t particularly deserve to lead but we deserved to be behind. Annoyingly they’d scored from a lovely right-wing cross after we’d spent forty-five minutes watching Elmohamady refuse to try such a thing. The expected City response came slowly. Hernandez headed straight at Heaton after Elmohamady rescued a Diame “shot” by the corner flag. Ben Arfa replaced Chester and after several minutes of the players looking utterly mystified as to where they should be playing, we settled into a 4-4-2 with Ben Arfa and Quinn wide and Ramirez up front with Hernandez.

Quinn was the pick of the substitutes and found a little joy on the left hand side producing one particularly brilliant cross that flew across the six yard box and away without anyone in black and amber gambling sufficiently. Ben Arfa produced one brilliant touch but otherwise flattered to deceive. The same was true of Ramirez who continues to bring absolutely nothing to the table. He’s a delightful footballer who floats with or without the ball and has an exquisite touch but it just doesn’t translate into anything particularly effective. Unfortunately things that produce goals like crosses, shots or well-timed runs into the penalty area aren’t on his agenda. If you were wondering why such a cultured player has struggled so much at Southampton – this is why.

On 63 a Robbie Brady free kick caused a scramble in their penalty area and a towering Curtis Davies header leads to Hernandez turning and firing a shot into bodies. A half-hearted handball shout is waved away and as the ball flies up into the air Davies tries an overhead kick at the far post. It was an idiotic way to kill a promising attack against a jittery defence. Within a minute Davies is involved at the other end as Burnley scream for a handball decision against him. That is also waved away but Davies goes down, leaves the field and, after eight minutes of thinking about it, doesn’t return – leaving us with only ten men for the remainder. Davies wanders sheepishly past the away following holding his back, presumably hurt trying that ridiculous bicycle kick.

The ten men took the game to Burnley, who were happy just to whack everything clear and reorganise, but didn’t have enough to penetrate the defence. The only clear cut chance fell to Hernandez who met Robbie Brady’s excellent cross at the near post but could only get a flick on the ball when he looked primed to score. The rest of the game was spent kicking lumps out of each other with Marney, Ings, Brady, Livermore and Jutkiewicz picking up bookings in the last five minutes alone and joining Chester, Ward, Duff, Shackell  and Hernandez on the back of Clattenburg’s yellow card. He’ll be sharpening his pencil before next week. Assuming he’s not dropped for rushing home to watch X-Factor or something.

There was a massive amount of inevitability about this result. I tweeted weeks ago hoping that Burnley might beat Everton or Arsenal to avoid going into this game winless. I did imagine that certain home victory coming as the result of a terrible refereeing decision, a breakaway goal or some other terrible miscarriage of justice. I didn’t expect it to go down as a result of our own cowardice.

Both players and management will struggle to look themselves in the mirror today. With the possible exception of Paul McShane, Robbie Brady and Steve Harper’s good arm. There’s nothing wrong with being out-thought. But when you’ve come second in the brains department to well-organised but tactically limited side – there is a problem. Like Southampton last week, Burnley found it too easy to castrate Elmohamady (not literally) and their two midfield players outworked our three. In the absence of Nikica Jelavic, Bruce is struggling to think of a way to get the best of Hernandez and give the team a focal point.

These signs are worrying. This is clearly the most talented group of players we’ve ever had but as a team we play in fits and starts and haven’t put together a strong ninety minutes too often. That’s why we only have eleven points from eleven games and we are looking at a relegation battle. I’m not panicking just yet. I’m nervous though. A few more performances like we’ve seen in the last game and a half and we’ll be deep in the mire. And that makes the possibility of a trip to Turf Moor next season a reality. And I can’t cope with that. I bloody hate that place.

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