It’s fair to say that Stoke City were a way off the pace of a strong Leicester team as they bowed out of the FA Cup at the first stage for the fifth season in a row, although at least we can take solace that it was a top flight team we lost to, not a Shrewsbury or Coventry…
Our cup adventures of the Carabao variety were not replicated in the senior FA Cup competition this time around.
And, in fact, comparing the two just shows how far off a top level Premier League team we are at the moment.
On the one hand Leicester fielded a very strong team with just Jamie Vardy and James Maddison left out, while at both Villa and Wolves, when Stoke triumphed gloriously on top flight turf earlier in the Carabao Cup, each had made fairly wholesale changes.
So, we can nick a 1-0 at a Premier League second string side, but get walloped at home by strong top-four teams like Leicester and Spurs.
Plenty for Michael O’Neill to work on then.
To be fair to the manager he did use the opportunity on Saturday to make significant changes to our own side, but arguably, in doing so, brought in a wealth of experience.
Shawcross, Batth, Clucas, Allen and Mikel all started.
But Leicester were so far ahead in terms of ball retention, positioning, passing and movement in midfield that even those experienced players couldn’t deal with it, especially on the break.
No shame there, but a salutary lesson in how far we have to go.
It was also great experience for the youngsters who did retain their places – Bursik and Souttar, both of whom vied for the Potters’ Man of the Match mantle – and those who came on – Collins and new signing Rabbi Matondo.
Not that we got to see much of the young loanee from Schalke. He barely touched the ball as Leicester cut loose in the final stages. But there will plenty more to come against Championship opponents in the second half of the league season.
So, thoughts have to turn to the future; the rest of this campaign indeed, now our cup odysseys are over for another year.
And so much of that appears to be predicated on the ability of the manager to field a sold back four or have to revert to a back three with wing backs.
The irony is that O’Neill is currently damned if he does or damned if he does not in each case.
It’s not that one is better than the other with his current personnel. Without Morgan Fox neither set up works particularly well, for we neither have a left-back in order to play the four, nor any form of wing back in order to change to the back three.
At the moment O’Neill is plugging gaps and merely getting through games, making us hard to beat and it’s a difficult watch.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch that is exacerbated by the fact that City are barely scoring any goals without the injured Tyrese Campbell.
So, while Matondo may well give us much-needed pace up front to make us less blunt, there have to be more signings to come in if City are to keep up with the leaders at the top of the Championship. We are still looking for a goalscorer, plus any two amongst a left-winger, wing-back or left-back and arguably a right-back to boot. We need specialists in those positions, not make-do-and-mends.
Because, remarkably, O’Neill has turned us from rock bottom of this division into potential play-off contenders in just over a year. But these players are now delivering no their capabilities and we need to improve in order to sustain our current challenge.
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While Saturday’s cup exit showed just have far we have left to go, we shouldn’t be worried about not being able to compete with the likes of Leicester yet. Those battles are for the future, which can only come if we get out of this extremely tough, competitive division.
The immediate aim has to be to continue the momentum of the last 14 months. But, in this unforgiving league, failing to improve the squad in the necessary areas will undoubtedly see City sink back into mid-table.
I don’t believe O’Neill is the kind of manager who will be satisfied with the current make-do scenario, so we’ll see how he puts together the answers to the obvious faults the current players offer him over the remaining three weeks of the transfer window.
Expect arrivals, and exciting ones, ahead.