Bad Weekend For: New formations, second-seasoners and form guys

Simon Carter commiserates the weekend's suffererers. It was a bad weekend for…

Three at back and other formationsLike a mid-level executive aiming to impress his boss, Roberto Mancini has spent the best part of this season fixing things that weren’t broke and stubbornly trying every new idea that occurred to him. You can almost imagine the ‘mind map’ diagrams and ‘blue sky thinking’ sessions.

Experiments with three at the back and undisciplined formations and performances have seen the formerly pragmatic Manchester City become remarkably easy to score against, and only moments of individual brilliance had kept them in touch with the early-season pacesetters.

Perhaps Mancini is looking to make his mark by creating his own style of play; perhaps he feels that his side needs to change if they are to succeed in Europe. But after being outplayed against Real Madrid, Arsenal and, most notably, Borussia Dortmund, on Saturday the Italian decided to go back to basics for the visit of Sunderland – the only team to take four points from the champions last season.

And it’s no coincidence that City found themselves totally in control against the Black Cats as they strolled to their first clean sheet of the season and a 3-0 victory. So, is the experimentation over? Mancini now has the international break to mull it over but with a tough trip to high-flying West Brom and a must-win Champions League tie at Ajax to come, he may be well-advised to stick with what he knows.

Second Season StrugglersIt may have been Shakespeare who first coined the phrase ‘second season syndrome’ (it probably wasn’t) but as the likes of Hull, Reading and Ipswich have discovered in recent years, staying up isn’t necessarily that difficult following promotion, it’s staying up again that’s the killer. And for last season’s new boys – Norwich, Swansea and Queens Park Rangers – the new term isn’t exactly going to plan.

Norwich have undoubtedly had a difficult week. After being soundly thrashed at home by Liverpool, there was the revelation that former manager Paul Lambert was suing them, swiftly followed by a countersuit from the Canaries. Worse was to come for Norwich fans as they then faced a trip to Stamford Bridge to play Premier League pacemakers and European champions Chelsea.

That they lost 4-1 isn’t reason enough to worry – a number of teams may suffer a similar fate at Stamford Bridge before the season is out – but it is the manner in which they lost which will cause concern. Defensively, Norwich were a shambles, which is somewhat surprising given that Chris Hughton’s Birmingham side only conceded a goal a game last season.

Though Norwich defended in numbers and, in shape at least, looked a solid unit, every time Chelsea showed a flash of quality, the back four melted, just as they had against Liverpool. Periods of Saturday’s match bore resemblance to a training session with the City defence ably playing the role of cones.

On the opening day of this season, Swansea came away from QPR with a 5-0 win. As a defeat, that result was an accurate foretelling of big-spending QPR’s season so far; but as a promising victory, it was less indicative of how the Swans would fare in the post-Brendan Rodgers era.

True, Michael Laudrup's side gained seven points from the opening nine, but they followed that with three straight defeats in which they failed to score and it looked like the same again on Saturday at home to Reading before a late fightback earned them a point. Swansea host Wigan next, in a contest they need to win before facing Manchester City and Chelsea.

Mark Hughes seems to have enjoyed a managerial career in reverse. Having drifted in via an international role, earning a number of plaudits as Wales manager, he took Blackburn to sixth place and Europe, struggled to match Manchester City's expectations and left Fulham amid a disagreement over ambition. Now, at QPR, he is at arguably the lowest point of his career.

His side is absolutely stuffed with talented players (Esteban Granero was wonderful in the 3-2 defeat at West Brom) and should be considerably higher in the league and better off than the return of two points from seven games.

If Hughes cannot find a way of getting his side to reach their potential, he might earn the dubious honour of winning the annual Premier League Managerial Sack Race, in spite of tweeted assurances from his boss Tony Fernandes that his job is safe.

Kevin NolanTough in the tackle, busy in midfield and with a knack of turning up in the box at just the right time, Kevin Nolan has often been seen as something of a poor man’s Paul Scholes (though, admittedly, Nolan’s chicken impression is pointedly better than Scholes’s). But West Ham’s best player had an afternoon to forget against Arsenal on Saturday.

With the Hammers favouring the direct approach and Arsenal experts at keeping the ball, it’s not really surprising that large parts of the game passed Nolan by. Santi Carzorla, Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey comfortably controlled the midfield leaving Nolan, ostensibly playing at the tip of a midfield three, with a lot of work to do.

Still, the former Bolton and Newcastle man had two golden chances. First, with the score at 1-1, Nolan reacted quickly as the ball dropped to him just inside the six-yard box, swinging his right leg but slicing his effort yards wide. Late in the second half, moments after Arsenal had taken a 2-1 lead, Nolan was once again in the right place to take a shot at goal, but this one flew well over the bar.

West Ham have certainly had a decent start to their first season back in the Premier League, but if they want that to continue, they will hope that their captain has better days.

Inconsistent PrestonWhen Preston North End are winning and playing well, the fans serenade their manager with a refrain of “He texts when he wants,” given Graham Westley’s odd habit of sending late-night SMS communiques to his charges. When Preston are losing and playing poorly, their fans are just as likely to use the same chant to beat their manager with.

And with Preston being the very models of inconsistency this season, it’s handy that the fans have a song to match all occasions. Brilliant one game and shocking the next, Preston followed Tuesday’s impressive 3-1 win at Doncaster with a poor 3-1 defeat at Oldham on Saturday. That it was Oldham’s first home win of the season tells you all need to know about PNE. Wins against Crystal Palace, Swindon and Hartlepool brought 13 goals for the Lilywhites, but only once this season have they managed back-to-back victories.

There’s no doubt that Preston are in a better position than they were under Phil Brown this time last year but after a decade spent in the second tier before relegation 18 months ago, the pressure is on Westley to find the stability that will put North End back where they feel they belong.

The Form GuysIt could be a sign of the competitive nature of the lower leagues, but teams in League One and League Two are certainly struggling to string a run of wins together.

Whereas Leicester’s 2-0 Championship win over Bristol City was their fifth in a row and Crystal Palace’s thrilling 4-3 defeat of Burnley was their fourth, nobody in League One has more than two victories on the trot and no team in League Two is on a run of more than one win.

While there are teams on impressive runs – MK Dons and Brentford in League One and Rochdale, Cheltenham and Burton in League Two have all gone at least five games without defeat – there’s no doubt that this is a frustrating time to be a fan in the third and fourth tiers of English football.

However, Yeovil supporters will be celebrating the end of a run of form this weekend – their 3-1 win over Colchester ended a nightmare sequence of six consecutive league defeats.

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