30 December 2007

City fall under Sven's spell

Manchester City captain Richard Dunne goes into today’s Liverpool match with a salute to City’s new boss
by Joe Lovejoy (The Times)

Steve McClaren’s benighted England reign first gave rise to the thought, now Manchester City are confirming it; Sven-Göran Eriksson wasn’t such a mug after all. The cosmopolitan team the City manager threw together last summer are surprise contenders for Champions League qualification, and resume their joust with Liverpool for fourth place in the Premier League when they meet this afternoon.
City are unbeaten in the league at home, and would have maximum points from their 10 games, but for the contentious late equaliser that gave Blackburn a 2-2 draw on Thursday. Disappointed that Roque Santa Cruz’s second goal was given, despite initially being disallowed because David Dunn was off-side, Eriksson and his players are eager to get back to winning ways at “Fortress Eastlands”, where the old enemy, Manches-ter United, are the most prized among their nine victims to date.
Nobody is more determined to add Liverpool to that list than Richard Dunne, City’s captain and ex-Evertonian, who was caught in no man’s land by Santa Cruz’s headed equaliser. It was an uncharacteristic error by the centre-half, for whom the phrase “no nonsense” might have been coined. Previously, Dunne had been consistency personified, and Eriksson says of the 28-year-old Dubliner: “He has played well all season. It is important the players look up to the captain and listen when he speaks, and Richard Dunne is one of those men. When he has something to say, nobody argues with it. That’s leadership.”
Dunne had plenty to say last season, when City were underachieving at the wrong end of the table and he spoke out about some of Stuart Pearce’s workshy signings. He was at it again after the 6-0 drubbing at Chelsea two months ago, but generally City’s longest serving player is not so much happy with his lot as pinching himself, in need of reassurance that the heady progress made really is genuine.
Dunne was recruited from Everton for £3m in October 2000. He has played under four managers in the intervening years, the first three of them – Joe Royle, Kevin Keegan and Pearce – stereotypically English in their John Bull approach. The fourth is undoubtedly his favour-ite. Of the Eriksson regime, he says: “This club has changed more in six months than in the previous six years I’d been here. It’s the most exciting phase of my career. Until now, it has always been a case of trying to survive. Now we’ve got a new owner [Thaksin Shinawatra] who wants to take the club to a new level, and one of the most successful managers in Europe to attract top players.”
Shinawatra’s Thai millions have bankrolled wholesale changes to a team that limped in 14th last time, with two points from their last six games. Exit Pearce, enter the man who has always known how to spend money. Out of the game for just over a year after having his contract paid up by England, Eriksson welcomed the chance – and the £5m a year – City offered him.
At the end of July, in his first preseason friendly, at Doncaster, the Swede took one look at his new charges, who included Danny Mills, Paul Dickov, Ber-nardo Corradi and Georgios Samaras, and reached for the owner’s chequebook. A hectic flurry of transfer activity brought in Rolando Bianchi from Italy, Elano from Ukraine, Geovanni from Brazil, Martin Petrov from Spain, Vedran Corluka from Croatia and Gelson Fernandes from Switzerland, among others. Eight new faces, all of them foreign, for an outlay of £40m.
How could so many disparate newcomers blend quickly into an effective unit? Dunne takes up the story: “The players already here were like everybody else really; none of us knew anything about the people we were signing. I’d heard of Petrov, but apart from him they weren’t names I knew. I was a bit worried when so many different languages came into the dressing room, but there was no need. The talent coming in spoke for itself, the new players were outstanding. You could tell we were going to gel.
“Good footballers don’t need to talk much to play well together, and it all knitted together almost at once. I would say it started to develop when we played Valencia in our last preseason friendly. We lost, but there were encouraging signs. We were starting to put nice little passages of play together. We had something to work with, we kept working at it on the training ground and come opening day, at West Ham, we had a dream start [a 2-0 win], and we’ve never really looked back.”
City won their first three games, including a 1-0 victory over United, and Eriksson was up and running. Why were his club teams more successful and more attractive to watch than England had been during his ten-ure? Dunne said: “If you look at England’s players, or Ireland’s for that matter, we don’t have the same technique as the foreigners. They are brought up on a different style of football that works better than ours at international level. They keep the ball better. Through the influence of our foreign players, we’ve had that injected into our side at City this season. We’ve learnt to keep the ball for longer, and our position in the table shows how much more effective that can make you.”
So how had Eriksson improved the retentive capacity of his domestic contingent, such as Micah Richards, Michael Ball, Michael Johnson, Stephen Ireland, Darius Vassell and Dunne himself? The captain said: “By drilling on the training ground. If our left-back is in possession, two or three other players know exactly where they have to go. The manager ingrained that into us in preseason. It helps, of course, that Petrov, for example, has been doing it all his career. When Martin gets it, Elano knows where to go, and so on.
“Obviously, the quality of the passing needs to be good, but the movement of the players off the ball is key. You see that best in Arsenal and Man United – their passing is great but it looks even better because they always have options off the ball.”
Pressed for specifics about Eriksson’s methods, Dunne sounded suspiciously like the England players when he first took charge. The “Iceman” was cool, calm and collected at all times. Dunne said: “People slaughtered Sven, but don’t forget England missed out on penalties in the quarter-finals of two competitions. It boiled down to one kick of the ball on the day. He was unlucky. There’s a hype about England that shouldn’t be there. Certainly they don’t deserve it after winning nothing for 40 years.” Eriksson was quiet and undemonstrative, but he let the City players know when he was disappointed or angry. “He doesn’t need to shout to do that,” Dunne said. “We are professionals, we don’t go out to underperform, but some days it will happen. We realise when we haven’t played well and he’ll just quietly pull individuals aside and have a chat with them.
“Sven knows we are all trying, and concentrates on keeping us going. We are going to have setbacks during the season, he’s experienced enough to know and accept that. His biggest asset is his composure. People say, ‘How can his calmness win games?’, but we had an example a couple of weeks ago when we were 2-1 down at half-time against Bolton. We weren’t looking like a team that would come out and score three goals. He just said, ‘Listen, we’ve worked on this in training all week, just keep your heads up and do what you know you can do’. Forty-five minutes later we’d won 4-2.”
Eriksson is hands-on in the preparation of the City team. “He works Monday to Friday with us, setting out a pattern of play which he believes will beat the opposition,” Dunne said. “He tells us how we’re going to play, what each of us is going to do, where our correct positions are at any given time. Preparing, we’ll do a full week’s training with the specifics of that particular game in mind. We do a lot of 11 v 11s, working on tactical play geared to whoever our next opponents are. Afterwards, we finish with short-sided games where the goalkeeper can’t throw the ball out over the halfway line. That way the build-up has to start from the back, the ball has to be passed. It’s always sharp and fast.
“The sort of play Sven favours has improved all of us. For years we’ve struggled and played a style of football that is typical of the Premier League. A lot of teams who aren’t in the top four or five play a similar way, you know, ‘Get stuck in and work harder than them’. Sven knows it’s important to work hard, but wants us to do it with the ball, rather than without it.
“As far as man-management goes, he does everything. He speaks regularly to every player, letting them know exactly what he wants from them. He takes a keen interest in his players and if they are happy off the field, as well as on it. The way he has handled Rolando Bianchi is the best example of that.”
Bianchi, the striker signed from Reggina last July for £8.8m, had a difficult start to his career in England, scoring on his debut at West Ham, but then going 10 games without another league goal. He has come good of late, with three in his past four league matches, and Dunne says: “Sven has given him plenty of time to settle in, talking to him all the time. He has kept him involved in training, even when he was out of the side, working on making him better, and now he is starting to prove a real asset.”
So is the man who made short work of the dreaded Croatia in what he refers to as “my previous job”.

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