This week, we speak to ardent Manchester City fan, and Bitter and Blue blogger, Nayir Chowdhury ahead of his team's trip down the South Coast as they take on a Southampton side who sit above them in the Premier League table.
St. Mary's Musings: What were your season expectations before back in July?
Nayir Chowdhury: Before the season I'd say most City fans expected 1st or 2nd in the league, and at least the quarterfinals in the Champions League. Those expectations have definitely changed since. Now, a large contingent of fans and media don't see any way City can mount a comeback for first given the way Chelsea are currently playing, and advancement simply to the first knockout round of the Champions League seems like a great achievement at the moment. Personally I think it's not at all out of the question to catch Chelsea because their form will dip at some point, the only question is whether or not City can get things clicking all together again to make up the ground. Advancing out of the group in the Champions League is a taller task since playing at Roma is no joke, but it's certainly still doable.
SMM: City's league form has hit somewhat of a dip lately. How come?
NC: There really are a number of reasons that people have attributed towards City's slide. It seems as if the fan base (certainly on Bitter & Blue anyway) is split between placing the blame on the manager for his tactics, and placing the blame on the players for not putting in proper shifts and playing cohesively. On top of this there have been some untimely injuries like the one to David Silva, but that is football and everyone has to deal with things like that. As for where the blame should be placed, realistically the proper argument is that it's a bit of fault from both the manager and the players, though I lean more towards the players. There seems to be lack of hunger amongst the majority of the players- perhaps for having just won the title last season with an aging squad- and this is leading to lackluster performances with subpar desire from the players. They are a world-class bunch who should be playing much better, so I think the problem begins there. For me, tactics don't mean anything if the players aren't putting in 100%.
SMM: There is some talk of Pelligrini being under pressure already. What do you think of the job he's done at City?
NC: I think he's done a great job for the most part in his 1+ seasons, and talk about him being under pressure is just what naturally happens these days when a big club in England experiences a dip in form. Under Pellegrini's tutelage the players seem like a generally happier bunch and we no longer see controversies in the papers regarding player/manager bust-ups and quotes coming out of the dressing room rafters that heap more pressure on the team. He did well to guide us to the title in his first season in England and I'm not sure he's ever truly gotten the credit he deserves for that. The area that needs improving is European play, for sure. There hasn't been progress on that front this year, but I think it would be foolish to sack a manager for that in just two seasons. Of course, if we are a complete disappointment in the league as well then that's a different story, but the finish line is far away and any talk of his job at this point is still silly to me.
SMM: Despite City's great win over Bayern Munich in the week, they're often known as perennial Champions League flops. Why do City generally struggle in Europe?
NC: I honestly don't have a great answer for why the club have been struggling. It's been that much of a head-scratching enigma. In my opinion, the biggest problem is the lack of proper culture at the club to foster the same hunger for European success as Premier League success. Players and fans alike always seem up for the big Premier League clashes against traditional English rivals, but the same can't be said when a club like Roma comes to town. That fire seems to be lacking. I think the process to change that might take longer than most would have expected, but it seems to be a big issue. This year, there is also a lot of chatter around Pellegrini's tactical choices in European play, ie. almost always using a 4-4-2, but as many have noted, City's struggles in Europe have lasted much longer than Pellegrini's tenure.
SMM: I often hear about the good job Patrick Vieira is doing at the City academy. What City youngsters are worth keeping an eye out for?
NC: Vieira is doing very well with the youth and many are actually predicting that he's being groomed to take over the first team one day; sort of a Guardiola-esque rise through the club. No timetable on that though. As for the youngsters, there is a bunch of promising youth but the disclaimer must be made that is very hard to tell whether any of them will actually break into the City first team, and we may very well see them turning out for other clubs in the future instead. Our brightest talent is Marcos Lopes (CAM), currently on loan at Lille. Then there's Karim Rekik (CB) on loan at PSV, a youngster who at the age of 19 this past summer was on the 30 man provisional Dutch World Cup squad. Those two may very well be in the squad next season as the club continues to work with FFP. Bruno Zuculini (CM) was brought in from Argentina this past summer and will probably be in the first team soon, though he's already 21 so not exactly an academy graduate. Other youngsters who have less of a shot or are simply much younger at this moment, but are still promising include: Jason Denayer (CB), Seko Fofana (CM) (looks like a young Yaya Toure), Olivier Ntcham (CM), Albert Rusnak (CAM), Jose Pozo (CAM), Kelechi Iheanacho (ST), and Thierry Ambrose (ST).
SMM: What do you make of the Man. City/New York City FC/Melbourne City relationship?
NC: I like the idea of it, especially given the fact that I grew up very close to New York City and support almost all NYC sports teams. It also adds interest to the MLS which is good for the sport's growth in America. The global web massively improves the club's profile in other corners of the world which is very important for the ambitions City has. One thing FIFA or UEFA will definitely have to look at, however, is the ethics of loaning players between the clubs. I know the MLS handles all of its clubs' transfers and not the clubs themselves, so that might defeat a conflict of interest issue, but the inquisition won't and probably shouldn't end there.
SMM: As an outsider, what do you think of Southampton?
NC: I always like an underdog story. That's part of why I am a City fan in the first place dating back to 2003, because I very much disliked United and found more enjoyment in supporting a club that wasn't a traditional powerhouse. As such, Southampton are a wonderful club to me and I'm glad to see them making noise in the Premier League. Their steady progress in the last 2+ seasons should be taken note by every club in the league. And the fact that some predicted Southampton to be relegated this season following the summer's transfers was always laughable. Southampton had a fair amount of depth before the departures and the additions of Tadic, Pelle, and Mane are particularly exciting. It would be great if they could upset the apple cart and make the Champions League.
SMM: What did you make of Southampton's summer?
NC: As I mentioned above, I think Southampton had a pretty great summer. A hefty sum of money in from departures, and spent well on players who have made an immediate impact. And all this even without Jay Rodriguez, too. I think it can last and I really want to believe it will last. I don't see why not, with the players and depth in the squad. The biggest challenge will probably be holding on to some of these guys as January rolls around, and then a fresh wave of rumors in the summer. I could also really see Ward-Prowse going for a big price in a year or two as Southampton keep churning out these great, domestically-trained young players. As an aside, a good friend of mine was actually recently hired by the club as a Player Liaison Officer with the first team, so it looks like they are definitely doing everything they can to make sure the players stay happy, too.
SMM: If you could sell any player from your regular starting XI, who would it be and why?
NC: The toughest part of this question is defining who exactly is in our starting XI! In Pellegrini's 4-4-2 Dzeko is probably a starter, and he would be my choice. His inconsistent form and lack of a good first touch is infuriating to me and while he offers a different dimension to our attack, I think he could be replaced without much fuss. A German or Italian team would pay a decent price for him, too. He has made many great memories at City, but I wouldn't have a problem letting him go.
SMM: If you could buy any player from Southampton, who would it be and why?
NC: This is a great question with a lot of great choices. I'm not even sure I could pick just one, so I'll name my top three candidates: Clyne, Tadic, and Schneiderlin. I really rate Clyne and as we know, Sagna is old. Zabaleta is a stalwart but is getting up there in age as well. Add to this the fact that Clyne is a domestic-homegrown player, and I think that's an ideal option. Whenever David Silva gets hurt (which is too often) our side sorely misses his creativity in midfield so that makes Tadic an obvious choice. And finally, we seem to be having more issues in the center of the park than we expected so Schneiderlin would be a good rotational midfielder as well.
SMM: Finally, what is your prediction for the game?
NC: City are getting things back together but still showing defensive problems, while Southampton are on a roll. Since this one is away for us, I'll go with a 1-1 draw.