To conclude our series for articles from our match reporting team, Colin Hall gives his views on last season and looks ahead
Before the season started what were your hopes on what we could achieve?
With a number of elite clubs going through transition periods, there was a possibility of one or more of the clubs from the next level breaking through. As long as we could produce a little more consistency, and bring the best out of new recruits, there was definitely a chance for us. I also hoped we could finally put together a decent run in one of the cups.
Given how the season panned out, in terms of success how do you rate it out of 10 and why?
Ultimately it was a season of two halves – 9 for the first and 5 for the second, so 7 overall.
The last three months of 2019 saw us produce our best form since the title season. While a repeat of that miracle was never on – Liverpool were always too far ahead for us to mount a realistic challenge – a Champions League spot was well within our grasp.
To see it slip away from us in the weeks following the restart was especially gut-wrenching. While some might moan about the injuries, the vagaries of VAR and the machinations of the Manchester clubs on and off the field, the reality is we can only blame ourselves for falling short in the end. A return of 9 points from the last 9 games was inexcusable, especially as we had already beaten 8 of the sides we faced during that run in previous encounters.
With the pandemic hitting the economy both here and in Thailand, the money from the Champions League would have been particularly appreciated. But as things stand now, we look likely to lose a number of key players and any prospect of stadium expansion looks increasingly remote.
Overall how do you rate Brendan Rodgers’ performance?
Let’s start with the positives first. Very few City managers have overseen successive top-10 finishes in the top flight, and only his compatriot Martin O’Neill had previously done so in the Premier League era. He also deserves credit for helping to develop several of the younger members of the squad, and for his audacity in taking a virtual shadow team to West Ham and winning there just two days after the hiding by Liverpool. I don’t recall any concerns being voiced then about the lack of depth in the squad.
But the wheels started to come off for him when we lost in the League Cup to Villa. The over-cautious approach he adopted in the first leg – fielding THREE central defenders against a visiting side with no strikers – left us vulnerable in the return, and avoidable defensive errors saw us miss out on a trip to Wembley.
The team’s nerve, which had been an issue on several occasions in previous seasons, started to become so again after that, especially on our travels where we had been so impressive beforehand.
Would an O’Neill in his prime have let the situation slide away from us in the way it did during the closing weeks? I seriously doubt it.
If this manager had plans to move on from City to an elite club in due course, those plans have now been dealt a serious blow. He has a credibility issue, both within a section of our fanbase and in the wider game, which he needs to deal with and resolve very quickly.
Jamie Vardy won the Player of the Year Awards, would he have been your choice and who else do you think deserves praise for their performances?
It was an incredible achievement for him to win the Golden Boot – the first time any City player has ever topped the scoring charts outright in the top flight – and so it’s no great surprise that many fans backed him.
However that doesn’t quite tell the full story of his season. When he was in the mood and on his game, he was unstoppable, But there were also times, particularly after the turn of the year, where he looked distinctly off the pace and left our attack somewhat limited and one-dimensional.
So my preference was Çaglar Söyüncü, who had a tough challenge in filling the gap left by the departed Maguire, but rose to it magnificently. Apart from a series of impressive displays for City, he also made a breakthrough into a Turkey side which could well cause a few shocks at the Euros when they are eventually happen.
Others in the squad who deserve commendation include Ricardo, who had another solid season until his knee went against Villa, James Maddison, who earned international recognition and showed glimpses of real class, and Wilfred Ndidi, who continued to excel as one of the league’s leading defensive midfielders. Young defender James Justin also did himself proud while earning more game time than either he or the City management might have expected.
What were your views on the signings made during last season?
The tag of City record signing has regularly seemed a curse over the years, and there were times during this season when Youri Tielemans seemed to be another struggling with the burden. But he did show signs of a return to form during the closing weeks.
Ayoze Perez, the other flagship signing, also had a mixed campaign, though he wasn’t helped by often being used as a square peg in a round hole. It may be significant that many of his better games came when Vardy was absent.
As previously noted, James Justin quickly established himself as a dependable member of the squad, while Dennis Praet also adapted quickly to the intensity of Premier League football. However Ryan Bennett looked a little rusty during his few appearances in a City shirt and it was little surprise that his move from Wolves was not made permanent.
Which player do you think made the most progress last season and why?
Söyüncü’s astonishing rise from fringe squad player to become one of the league’s more accomplished defenders makes him the obvious choice here. The influence of Kolo Toure, a distinguished international defender in his day and now part of the City coaching team, is obvious.
He is one of a number of City players who would have done themselves and us proud at Champions League level, and we should cherish every appearance he continues to make in a City shirt.
Harvey Barnes was another player whose improvement was noted during the season. Although he was another whose form fluctuated quite a lot in the run-in, he can be pleased with his overall tally of both goals and assists during his first full season in the top flight.
Which player did you think underperformed the most last season and why?
The name of Demarai Gray has come immediately to mind here at the end of the previous two seasons. Sadly, it does so again now. Although successive managers have shown infinite patience with him, once again he promised far more than he delivered. How much more satisfied would we have been had he produced the same level of output that Barnes did?
It would be wrong, though, to hold Gray solely responsible for the team’s ills.
I recently watched a Sky re-run of one of the games from the title season, in which the leadership, character and belief within the team were all on display. The contrast with many of the games we witnessed last season was only too apparent.
There were times when we were struggling in games and needed senior players to step up, only to see them fail to do so. In particular, for all the service he has given to the club, Kasper Schmeichel is unlikely to be remembered for his captaincy skills.
What was your personal highlight of the season?
How many times in our lifetime will we see City win 9-0 – and away from home too? The Southampton game was an occasion when everything we did came off. The only regret I have, in common with many others, is that I wasn’t there to see it in person.
VAR – how do you feel about its effectiveness last season and what would you change?
I hoped that it would ensure that all clubs were treated fairly and that it would enhance the integrity of the game. Sadly its operation during the first year fell woefully short on both counts. The standards of refereeing has fallen rather than risen.
I could rant at considerable length about the incidents that blighted our season, but most fans will recall them vividly anyway.
In my view, VAR should only be used to overturn clear and obvious errors. If folk in a studio are spending two or three minutes to make a decision, that suggests they have enough doubt to leave well alone.
Managers should also be given a chance to refer incidents to VAR – as happens in American football – especially since we know technology isn’t entirely failproof.
Moving onto next season
If you had to choose one position where we needed to strengthen, what would it be?
With Jonny Evans suspended for the first three games of next season, the need for another centre-back is imperative, especially given the extra games in a condensed schedule which will require regular rotation of the squad.
What other changes do you think are necessary to improve on this year’s squad?
Given Ben Chilwell* appears set for an imminent move to Chelsea, another left-back seems likely, although already seem well-covered in that area. The priorities should be another right-sided player, together with another striker to share the workload with existing personnel.
Would you be looking to add some experience to a fairly youthful squad or would you continue bringing in younger players and develop them?
The management will be only too aware of the need to keep a balance between youth and experience, but the limits on squads imposed by both UEFA and the Premier League mean that homegrown players will be given more opportunities than previously.
Hopefully this will be a time when the club’s investment in academy and training facilities starts to reap rewards.
If you had a chance for a word in the owner’s ears, which player(s) would you be advising to sign?
Bournemouth’s David Brooks and Burnley’s James Tarkowski are both players who could add quality and depth to our squad.
I also kept an eye on the progress of Southampton’s Che Adams, who I suggested we should have signed last summer. Although he took a long time to find the net, he continued to put the effort in whenever he appeared and I still reckon he could be an effective understudy to – and potential long-term replacement – for Vardy.
What are your expectations and fears for next season?
I very much doubt, given the changes other clubs have made, whether we will make the top six again, especially with European competition likely to prove a distraction for us. I would be concerned if we made a slow start, but the release of next season’s fixture list makes that slightly less likely.
This group of players has enough to keep us clear of trouble, but needs to step up both mentally and physically to do itself justice in some of the more high-profile encounters.
With the Europa League, Premier League and 2 Cup competitions, along with a condensed season, what would you give priority to and what would you be prepared to sacrifice?
Our priority, as always, is to reach 40 points as soon as possible to ensure we stay in the league for another season. Once that target is met, I’d hope we could have a real crack at the FA Cup, or the Europa League if we’re still in that. If progress in either or both of those competitions costs us a few league positions, so be it.
The manager knows that his legacy, in England at least, will be defined by his trophy count. If further opportunities arise during his time here, he has to make the most of them.
Any other observation you would like to make.
I fear the consequences of the pandemic will mean that the days of regular full houses at the King Power may not return for some time. Many people will have far less money to spend, while others may decide they can cope far better without football, and City in particular, dominating their lives.
The only consolation we can salvage from this is that other clubs will face the same problems. We can only hope that when we emerge from this dark age, we can still be a reasonably competitive force in England’s top league.
*This article was written before Ben Chilwell’s transfer to Chelsea
The views expressed in this report are the opinions of the Trust member nominated to file the report only and do not represent the views of the Foxes Trust organisation