Wednesday, November 8, 2017


Manchester City in 1996 were a slightly different beast to the one we see today. 

It had taken City chairman Francis Lee weeks to find a new manager but only 32 days to lose him again. Steve Coppell, appointed to the job that apparently nobody wanted 21 years ago exactly, went the way of so many others. Only a sight more quickly. 

Coppell, an intelligent and sensitive man, looked like a ghost when uttering his barely audible reasons for the swift exit in a hastily arranged press conference at Maine Road.

He left with these words. "I am not ashamed to admit I have suffered for some time from the huge pressure I have imposed on myself," he said. "Since my appointment, this has completely overwhelmed me to such an extent that I can't function in the job in the way I would like to. As the situation is affecting my well-being, I have asked Francis Lee [the club's chairman] to relieve me of my obligation to manage the club on medical advice. I am therefore resigning solely for personal reasons."

Oddly, Coppell had arrived amongst a flurry of well appointed quotes, included amongst were these, in hindsight, almost solid gold utterances:

When asked about his immediate past, eight years plying the right wing for Manchester United and a further nine in charge of Crystal Palace, he stated: “I am an animal that tends to roost...”

An animal that tends to roost....

Asked about how he felt joining a club that had chewed its way through 15 managers in 25 years, Coppell’s reply was succinct. “They tell me there have been eight managers in ten years, but I don’t look at myself as a three week wonder...”

Four weeks perhaps.

City had indeed been somewhat careless in its use of the carrott, stick and meat cleaver. The previous incumbents, flying in and out of Maine Road’s famous entrance as if there had been revolving doors fitted were as follows:

·         72-73              Malcolm Allison
·         73                   Johnny Hart
·         73-74              Ron Saunders
·         74-79              Tony Book
·         79-80              Malcolm Allison
·         80-83              John Bond
·         83                   John Benson
·         83-86              Billy McNeill
·         86-87              Jimmy Frizzell
·         87-89              Mel Machin~
·         90                   Howard Kendall
·         90-93              Peter Reid
·         93-95              Brian Horton
·         95-96              Alan Ball
·         96                   Steve Coppell

Coppell’s first act was to talk the side round from a pasting at QPR and salvage a 2-2 draw, coming back from two-down whilst hitting the woodwork three times. Thereafter, the side lost at Reading, beat high flying Norwich (gladly some things you can set your clock by even in the darkest tempest) lost at home to Wolves, won at Southend and lost at Swindon. This last defeat at the County Ground, “outfought and out-thought” according to Tony Banks reporting for The Sun, may have told Coppell enough about the impossible job he had taken on. The poisoned chalice, the fifth column, this was a time at City when there were so many spooks flying down Maine Road’s narrow old corridors, you could have filmed an entire series of Rent-a-Ghost 

The defeat at Swindon, with City old boy Steve MacMahon in charge and featuring midfielder Kevin Horlock, who had a penalty saved by Andy Dibble, was to be Coppell’s sixth and last in charge of the Blues.  

Looking drawn and his voice cracking with emotion, he whispered that it had been the hardest decision he had ever made. "I am extremely embarrassed by the situation and I would like to apologise first and foremost to Francis Lee and his board, who did everything in their power to help me. Francis has been particularly understanding and I would like to thank him for that."

Coppell had been City's third choice, after George Graham and Dave Bassett, but even his appointment had had an element of risk attached to it as he had been away from management for more than three years. He departed Maine Road with a record of  two wins, a draw and three defeats, leaving the club in a perilous 17th place in the second tier of English football.

Worse, much worse was to come under the stewardship of Phil Neal, and Frank Clark, but at the time, this period felt like a hammer blow to Blues fans suffering on the cold terraces. For a proud, intelligent man like Coppell, who had said on arrival that the chance to manage City had rendered him "excited and delighted", it was a terrible day too. As Lee himself stated shortly afterwards: "There have been too many sad days" at Maine Road”.

It already seems a lifetime away now, but City were to delve the depths of despair before re-emerging from the nightmare 15 years later. That the people following this grand circus of destruction from the side-lines actually survived to tell the tale is perhaps the biggest surprise of all. 

The relatively happy early days of the 32-day reign

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


"All that I know of morality and obligations, I have learnt from Arsene Wenger"
A slightly abridged version of this article first appeared on ESPN's pages

Watching Manchester City these days, one thing becomes blindingly obvious: Pep Guardiola’s men like nothing more than to have possession of the ball. It may be stating the obvious – and the great wall of statistics certainly points to this week after week – but it draws interesting historical parallels nonetheless.

After a tough week beating Italy’s finest in Naples, City came back to earth with the bread and butter of the Premier League. And not just any run-of-the-mill match against mid-table cannon fodder, either. Here were Arsenal, City’s arch nemesis of the last 40 years, the club that could not be beaten in London for over 35 years, the club that City could not get the better of home or away for 16 years at the end of the century. The club that regularly wiped the floor with the best Kevin Keegan, Joe Royle and others could muster, wafer thin that that often ended up being. 
Under a smooth-faced Arsene Wenger, less bitter, more carefree and yet to wrap himself in ankle length club sponsored duvet coats, Arsenal built a side that was the envy of the league. Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Sylvain Wiltord, Dennis Bergkamp and Oleg Luzhny were for several seasons in a league of their own. Their love of the ball knew no boundaries.  

Last weekend, under the self-same French boss -- now long in the tooth as well as coat and unloved by much of the rumbling bulk of the club's disaffected support – Arsenal played second fiddle to a side in sky blue, who passed the ball around as if it were on a Silva thread.
It was far from City’s most accomplished performance of the season, but – in swatting aside the old pass masters so effortlessly after such an arduous week of continental skirmishing – it perhaps spoke even more eloquently of how this City side has progressed.

From the kick-off City immediately and without hesitation conjured a 16-pass move which switched from right to left and back again, taking in the goalkeeper Ederson and forward Sergio Aguero, dropping deep to join in the fun. It only came to an end, giving Arsenal their first sniff of the ball, when Fernandinho’s strongly struck pass whizzed straight past Kyle Walker for a throw in. The best part of the first minute of the game had flashed by Arsenal’s noses without a sniff of the ball.
And so it continued for much of the afternoon.

In Guardiola’s first season the penchant for the pass was already evident, but the smoothness of delivery was missing, the accuracy and ferocity of the one-touch interchanging that bypasses opponents like they are a set of bollards alongside the ship canal was not yet honed and the personnel was neither up to speed on detail nor in proper working order for such a grand plan.
Now there is not an ill-fitting piece anywhere on the pitch. Where Arsenal famously relied on the agricultural clouts of Tony Adams and Steve Bould, the tigerish snapping of Nigel Winterburn and the sweaty pummelling of run-through-brick-walls Ray Parlour, City have artists all over the park.

John Stones, the very epitome of the elegant continental sweeper, hardly ever has recourse to haymakers anymore. His tall frame could be seen swaggering through Arsenal’s midfield on more than one occasion at the weekend, while centre back partner Nicolas Otamendi, that same Otamendi, who had spent the previous two seasons flying horizontally across the turf into one ludicrously ill-judged tackle after another, was busy dissecting Arsenal’s middle orders with arrogant wafts of his left foot.
Then there was Fernandinho, ostensibly City’s midfield enforcer, delicately killing Kevin de Bruyne’s wall pass to set up the first goal for the Belgian. 

With De Bruyne’s brand of stroking the ball, a kind of light caress with the point of his boot, producing passes that slither round the toe ends of his opponents and David Silva’s pirouettes in the middle, producing space where none seemed to exist, City produced a dance of the five veils around Arsenal’s toilers. There in the middle stood the unlikely form of Francis Coquelin, diminished, curtailed, somewhat absurd, a man who had, two years previously left this same pitch as Arsenal's brick wall hatchet man in a 2-0 win, which featured 10 Arsenal players still on their books today, while City laboured under the pretensions of a side containing Navas, Fernando, Demichelis and Clichy. In fact only Aguero, Silva and Fernandinho remain after Guardiola's cull. 
This relationship with the ball, the stroked passes, cushioned and repeated one-twos, as if the purveyor of the pass will only play the ball if you promise to pass it straight back, sometimes seems to border on a reluctance to shoot, for fear of not seeing it again for a minute or two. But this too is dwindling: City’s 52 goals in all competitions lay bare another myth that they overpass the ball.

If the object be possession married to rapid exchange – of both ball and player position – here we have it in all its flourishing glory. Watch the likes of Stones, Otamendi and Fernandinho, the defensive axis, in the seconds after they have delivered their pass. They do not dwell on the beauty of the work accomplished. They do not stand and watch the next act’s party piece. They move on immediately, darting into the nearest tiny space to offer the next out-ball when it is needed. This pass-move-pass-move quick-step happens all over the pitch and leaves a shattered opposition chasing shadows until their legs give up beneath them.
It is how Arsenal used to operate before their fall. Now it bears the hallmark of a City side with Guardiola's rich philosophy writ large wherever you look. 

It is this master-class of simplicity that is surely ushering Manchester City into an era that will be long remembered for its style and panache, its careful fusion of  beauty and efficacy. Among the swirling arguments over the need to entertain and the will to win, Guardiola’s team has blended the two together to stunning effect.

"Une seconde fois, hein, quelle imprudence ! Supposez, cher maître, qu'on nous prenne au mot ? Il faudrait s'exécuter. Brr... ! l'eau est si froide ! Mais rassurons nous ! Il est trop tard, maintenant, il sera toujours trop tard. (Mal)Heureusement !"
- La Chute, Albert Camus


After an exacting week in southern Italy chasing Napoli out of their cultured stride, City were asked to play an Arsenal side keen to express their own ball-playing talents at the Etihad. In City’s history there have not been too many moments when a 3-1 defeat of Arsenal could be described as standard, low sweat, even a little below-par, but – on this season’s standards – this was at times a touch scrappy and inaccurate. It was also nonchalant in its dismissal of Arsenal's strengths and imperious in its delivery of three more points despite tired legs. It was more than enough to deal with this diminished Arsenal vintage, but nevertheless, it lacked some of the sparkle that City have sprinkled over this season's Premier League up to now. Perhaps that in itself is more reason for the likes of Long-ball José and the all-seeing Pochettino to worry. A weary, soft-focus City gobbling up fresh-legged Arsenal...  

When you are eight points clear at the start of November and have scored 52 goals in all competitions, the barrier is raised pretty high, after all.

What will have swiftly dawned on Arsenal was the need to be absolutely on top of their game. An inch wide with a pass, a second late with a run, a little dull on the peripheral vision and this City side will show you up immediately. Arsenal, for a while, were doing well enough, but - even with a side fresh and ready for action, they were often that inch, second and fragment of light behind their supposedly tired opponents. It was not to be nearly sufficient , however, and the question begs to be asked: on this form, can anybody contain this free-flowing City side?

After the afore-mentioned midweek exertions in sunny Campania, to be able to keep the ball off an Arsenal side that made 9 changes from their own midweek match (City made just two) spoke volumes for Gaurdiola’s side. Guts, spirit and togetherness saw them through, when occasionally the passes failed to find their target. With De Bruyne and Silva directing affairs through the middle, Arsenal were a step behind all the way through, desperately filling spaces with bodies, only to find City had moved and carved them open somewhere else seconds later. It was a little like watching an old man with a bucket of water trying to put out three different fires in different rooms of  his house. Listening to Arsene Wenger afterwards, clearly the old man's house had burned down and his testicles had been scorched in the process. 

Slow out of the blocks for a change, as City were pinned back by a lively Arsenal start, withstanding three (wasted) corners in the first six minutes. Ederson did not have a save to make during this frisky opening salvo, but was brought into action later by the more lively Lacazette, who Wenger had inexplicably decided to leave on the bench. Time now to regroup and recuperate during the extended international break.     

8 -- Chose to go with his strongest available side and risk burn-out later in what was sure to be a game featuring plenty of space to run into. It worked, but he will have to start thinking of conserving limbs for the long winter slog on four fronts.

Player ratings 
Ederson Morais, 7 – Committed his first error of the season, letting a shot slip through his hands and bounce behind him onto the line. Out quick to smother at Ozil's feet after 24 minutes and - right on the break - had a real save to make, diving low to his right to parry from Aaron Ramsey. Lacazette’s shot went straight under him for the Arsenal goal. Wonderful lofted ball out onto the head of De Bruyne, to set up Walker's late run down the wing. 

Kyle Walker, 7 -- Mostly stayed deep to track Alexis Sanchez for much of the first half, but first proper foray upfield brought slide rule pass in to the middle that Aguero almost touched in. Lovely sweep into the middle to chest down Bellerin's long ball and clear the danger. Still motoring up the wing at the end, as legs had not been through the 90 minutes of Naples.  

John Stones, 7 – Calm, authoritative and keen to advance through the middle as much as possible. The hub of City’s slick passing out. Paid very close attention to the thrusts of Sanchez down his channel, tracking him well and produced a flying block on Bellerin towards the end. Twice caught centrally in possession as he advanced with the ball, however, necessitating a scramble back to cover. Lot of space near him as Lacazette went through for the Arsenal goal.    
Nicolas Otamendi, 7-- Provides the crunching tackles to marry with Stones’ clever jockeying. Quick to get foot in at the first sign of danger and fond of the central pass out through the advancing forwards. Almost arrogant in his confident distribution out to Delph and forward to De Bruyne and Sane. Booked for a clumsy swipe at Lacazette, which will keep him out of Leicester away, but in his element at the moment.   

Fabian Delph, 8 -- Pressed back by Hector Bellerin’s lively presence down City’s left. Storming run forward after 21 minutes and a shot blocked six minutes later, as he revelled in the extra space. Taken to Guardiola's passing out style remarkably well, but still happy to produce a haymaker (44 m) when necessary. Finished first half holding groin after an uncomfortable fall but kept going and covered a huge amount of ground in the second half, on one occasion losing possession, winning it back immediately, cutting inside his opponent and advancing to make successful pass. 
Fernandinho, 8 -- Poor start with several over-weighted passes and a rash of fouls on Sanchez, but settled to play the critical one-two with Kevin De Bruyne to free the Belgian to shoot in for 1-0 and produced a beautiful lofted pass to Sterling, which led to the penalty. Lost possession in the unsteady early phase allowing Ozil to shoot and hit two or three passes straight past their intended recipients. Despite the lack of customary accuracy, was a step ahead of anything Arsenal's midfield could challenge him with.      

Leroy Sane, 7 -- First ball across the box needed just a touch from Raheem Sterling, but went millimetres past his toe end. Although well marshalled by Laurent Koscielny, started to stretch Arsenal down left towards half time. Scorching run up the right when he switched wings before half time but held onto the ball too long and was dispossessed. Volleyed a high ball from Sterling straight up Bellerin's shorts and was replaced by Bernardo after 86 minutes.
Raheem Sterling, 7-- Fantastic speed in very first minute to let Arsenal know what they could expect from him. Just too slow onto Sane’s cross, as he seemed to put his wrong foot forward and made an inexcusable mess of returning the favour, neither crossing to Sane for what would have been a certain second nor shooting for goal himself with a kind angle to goal. Brought down for the penalty after cutting across Nacho Monreal, a collision which brought out some of Wenger's most infamous character defaults. Clever to cut across defender, but impact caused was a penalty. Wenger's claims afterwards that Sterling is a diver anyway rank alongside his financial doping diatribe for childish petulance. The Arsenal manager is 71. 

David Silva, 9 -- Usual array of short and long balls, pirouettes out of trouble and forays out to the left. Owner of the central midfield space as bodies tired around him, dancing through one tackle after another. Often the intricate cog in the move that - three passes further down the line -- end up with City in front of goal. Also supplier  of his own defence-splitting through balls, one for Sterling after 27 minutes and danced down the line to set up Jesus for the (offside) third goal. Drew a yellow for a highly frustrated Ozil at the end, as he paraded through the middle like a man in the park with his dog, then did the same thing on the right wing with four Arsenal men in his wake. 
Kevin de Bruyne, 8 -- Nonchalant brilliance, author of first goal, cracked in with his left foot, seconds after a volleyed attempt with his right had been parried away. Specialist of the short, round-the-corner pass, curled with end of foot around any obstruction, but not able to get the longer balls of same style working properly on this occasion. Work rate, like many of City's so-called stars - is incredible, chasing Coquelin all the way back towards the Arsenal box, to harry him into an error, which duly came with a wild hack into touch. No-look pass to Silva resulted in a cross into the six yard box and released Sterling after 33 minutes with another sublime touch. One touch with the outside of the boot steered him clear of a flying boot to open up a run down the right for Sane. Simple, easy, effective and still the Premier League's second highest assist-producer after Silva.

Sergio Aguero, 7 -- Honoured by guard of honour but given less space to express himself by Arsenal’s defence. Working back really deep to be part of the action and drag Koscielny and Monreal out of position. Was inches away from the opening goal with City's initial attack after one minute, but hit it just too high. Lovely flick to put in Sane, ending with Sterling's early chance. Penalty in off the post takes him clear at 179 career goals for City and to top of Premier League goals chart with 8 for the season so far.    

Gabriel Jesus, 7 -- On for Aguero after 61 minutes. Rasping shot somehow saved on the line by Peter Cech, then a simple tap in from Silva’s industry down the by-line. To be seen chasing Ozil back down the pitch as late as the 94th minute.
Bernardo Silva, NR -- Arrived as a 86th minute replacement for Sane and immediately found himself needed to hack the balla way from his own area..
Ilkay Gundogan, NR -- Replaced Sterling after 76 minutes to add energy to a tiring midfield.

Thursday, November 2, 2017


Neapolitan Metaphor. pic via @mcfcabroad
Would City be feted as some kind of immovable object or would they be found out by Maurizio Sarri's rampaging Napoli in their own bear pit San Paolo stadium?
In the end, after a really sticky start, this became a historic performance from City and not just because of Sergio Aguero's record breaking 178th strike.
This may well go down in the future as the night City confirmed their status as proper contenders for football’s greatest title. Scruffy little Manchester City imperious away from home at the Italian league leaders. Well, well, well.
Pushed and tested to the limit by a Napoli side that had plenty of guile, speed and accuracy, particularly from Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens down the left side, City came through the test with flying colours in an exemplary illustration of how to grow into a game. 
"City are the best team in Europe" - Lorenzo Insigne, Napoli

Sergio Aguero - 178 City goals
14 successive wins in all competitions
22 games unbeaten since the FA Cup semi-final with Arsenal last season.
"City are the best team in Europe, led by the best manager in Europe" - Maurizio Sarri, Napoli manager

“I think it was the best Napoli I remember in the first 30 minutes" - Marek Hamsik, Napoli

"Defeating Napoli twice in two weeks is an incredible achievement. They're possibly the best side I’ve faced in my career." - Pep Guardiola
This is the first time City have won all four of their first Champions League group games.
This was City's second-ever win on Italian soil and Napoli's first-ever defeat on home territory to an English side.
Europe’s best passing team so far this season gained back control of a game that was beginning to look tricky to win through the aerial power of their centre halves. Relying on a more agricultural style to start with, once the wind had been knocked out of Napoli’s sails, City got the ball back on the ground and began to dominate possession. By the end, the readily recognisable short passing game was back in full flow and a home side which had been extremely threatening were reduced to chasing spaces. Make no bones about it, this was an extremely efficient Napoli side that has now been dismantled twice by Guardiola's men: some achievement. 
From the start it was evident from Ederson, Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones that City intended to play it long out of defence more often than is customary Goalkeepers and defenders were not shy to whack it long to clear lines, although, predictably, it did not clear the danger for long. This led to a rattled looking defence at times during the opening half hour and a goal attempts ratio of 7-2 in favour of the home side. This suited the gung-ho instinct of Nicolas Otamendi down to the ground as he launched into a series of critical blocks to staunch Napoli pressure.
Manager Rating out of 10
9 – Chose to make three critical changes to the line-up. Danilo in for Walker meant the defence had a more solid presence on the righjt side and a more permanent presence, as there was less bombing forward from the Brazilian. Gundogan for Silva worked less well, as De Bruyne looked lost without the playmaker alongside him, but being able to bring  Silva off the bench precisely when Napoli were flagging was a real boon for City and must have brought the curtain down on any chances Napoli thought they still had of getting back into the match. 
Ederson Morais, 9 – Early saves may have looked regular (a central high catch from Hamsik and a low dive to Mertens effort from wide left) but he was being asked to participate much more than usual. One kick out went awry on 52 minutes but the keeper was saved by an alert block (yet another one) from Otamendi to avert danger. Went the wrong way diving left for Jorginho’s softly-struck penalty to his right, but made an absolutely essential one handed save from Jose Callejon seconds before City’s break-away third goal. Happy to try the close passing out between attacking players as City gained confidence and was successful with several longer passes out to the flanks.
Danilo, 7 -- Brought calmness to the right side but had his hands full early on with Faouzi Gouhlam
Guardiola and Sarri: produced a feast of football
well advanced and Lorenzo Insigne creating havoc with his speed and close control. Blocked an Insigne effort after only 8 minutes, but lost possession dangerously with a poor ball out on 22 minutes. Lost his bearings quite badly for Napoli's opener and was turned inside out by Isigne when the little striker walloped the bar from 25 yards out.   
John Stones, 9 – Absolutely outstanding. Long ball to start with, signalling City's intent to clear lines more quickly. Nervous period under early pressure ended by terrific cut-out as near post corner threatened. Lost out to Mertens’ clever back heel for the Napoli opener, but stamped his authority on defensive possession from then on. Up high for the second City goal with an imperious header (having smacked the bar with another header in the 39th minute), he marshalled the backline like a latter-day Bobby Moore. Now has three goals in his last four Champions League games. Finished with impeccable dispossession of Mertens and a fly hack away when Ederson failed to advance quickly enough to a through ball. 
Nicolas Otamendi, 9 -- Hectic evening blocking everything that was thrown at him. Started with a confidence-inspiring block but then upended Mertens, whose quick feet had mesmerised him.   Headed in Gundogan’s far post cross for the first goal and thereafter stuck to his guns as Napoli attempted to swarm the City goal. Big header out to save Ederson's one failed clearance of the night. Getting his foot in time and time again as Napoli's attack became ragged. Finally booked for his troubles for a wild slice through substitute Ounas.   
Fabian Delph, 8 – If there was one player that had every right to feel slightly overawed by the company he was keeping, it was Delph, but the left back was the only one in the defence sticking to the short-passing game in the early stages and grew into a forceful and reliable presence down the left flank. Strong in the challenge, clever at making himself available in space to receive a pass to relieve pressure. Who would have thought it would come to this?  
Fernandinho, 8 -- Not able to impose himself during the early stages as Napoli flooded forward, but his clever use of ball and space began to shine through as City got a grip on proceedings. Liking for a tactical foul to slow things down when necessary also evident towards the end as Napoli's game got untidy and petulant.   
Leroy Sane, 7 – From the second minute, when he delayed a chance to shoot at goal, he was dogged by poor decision-making. He played his part in stretching the home side to bursting point down the left in the second half, however, with quick feet and blistering pace. Long run through the inside left channel for Aguero's goal, swirling free kick just over Reina's bar and a peach of a lay-off for Bernardo's left footed chace. Swapped for Gabriel Jesus on 89 minutes.
Raheem Sterling, 8 -- Fabulous night of direct running that scared the life out of the left side of Napoli’s defence. Three great runs saw him weave into the box only to be blocked in extremis as he was about to shoot. As early as the 4th minute he was to be seen slaloming through the tackles. Another superb run brought only a corner after 38 minutes, but he finally got his reward with a fine bit of instant control and wonderfully clinical finish for 4-2. Two possible penalty claims, one a right hand push, the other a handball, but this was a night to win it through skill and power, not via debatable pens. 
Ilkay Gundogan, 7 -- High up to start with to help press the defence, his forays were leaving Fernandinho a little exposed further back. Great shot deflected wide by desperate Koulibaly lunge and played the beautifully weighted left footed cross in for Otamendi’s headed equaliser. Replaced by David Silva on 70 minutes.  
Kevin de Bruyne, 7 -- Always going to be interesting to see how he fared without Silva and the answer was not long coming. Quiet to start with as he was left as the main midfield playmaker in a bit of a maelstrom start from the home side, but gradually came into it after the break. By the end was striding across the park and threaded a perfect pass to Sterling for the clincher at 4-2. Even managed a reducer on Insigne as he warmed to the challenge. 
Sergio Aguero, 7 -- So little space afforded by Koulibali for much of the game, but was there to pounce on Sane’s misfortune to put City in front at 3-2. Patience had paid off for City’s all-time record goal scorer. Earlier had missed a chance to equalise when his shot deflected wide and placed a flying header well wide too. Replaced by Bernardo on 74 minutes.    
David Silva 8 -- On for Gundogan after 70 minutes and what a difference he made, finding space to slow things down and play in team mates with killer passes. Took no time at all to find his rhythm, the sign of the ultimate professional. Succulent reverse ball set Sane clear and did the same again for Sane’s run to set up Aguero’s goal.  Seemed to be immediately in his element, but a sign for the future that City did not manage the early stages of the game well without him.
Bernardo Silva, NR -- Arrived as a 74th minute replacement for Aguero and immediately went on the offensive, with a well struck left footer from Sane's lay-off saved at full stretch by Pepe Reina and a right footer over the bar, again from Sane’s clever feed .
Gabriel Jesus, NR – Replaced Sane as Guardiola wound down the clock on a wonderful City performance.

Pre-match: Sarri - "City are not invincible...."

Monday, October 30, 2017


Image courtesy of Andy Tricker
Original article published here on ESPN's site: this one is longer, contains more detailed analysis from the match notes of City's win at the Hawthorns plus all the over-excited offcuts that didn't make it past the censor.
Another scintillating start from City gradually lapsed into a bit of a stroll for a side, whose one-goal final advantage did not nearly reflect the huge gulf between the sides. Pep Guardiola’s team produced yet another display of suffocating close passing that brought a clutch of new records:

·         the highest points haul after ten games in Premier League history

·         6th consecutive away league win, equalling a 1903 club record;

·         21 games without defeat since the FA Cup semi-final last April.

·         More completed passes than in any other Premier League game since records started in 2003.

** as well as more empty seats in the home end than United would have had.

Positives: ball recovery from unexpected sources.
Two recoveries - one collective, the other individual – illustrated perfectly what strong health Guardiola’s side is in just now: Firstly, the collective recovery from the early aberration of Albion’s equaliser out of the blue. Within two minutes, City were back in front, as if affronted by the home side’s sudden burst into their own territory. Secondly, the individual recovery of Gabriel Jesus, who, having lost the ball in front of Ben Foster’s goal, was to be seen seconds later, with a supporting pack of Kyle Walker and Fernandinho in close, harrying attendance, winning back possession on the halfway line. This was not the first time that the front man had sacrificed the possible glory awaiting within three metres of Ben Foster’s revolving eyes to forage selflessly in the middle areas instead.

Switching of positions: in the first eight minutes alone, Bernardo appeared on the right, then the left, then deep centre, with left-sided Sane also popping up on the right wing for one attack. With Walker pressed back a little to accommodate the Portuguese, Bernardo's sudden switch allowed the right wing back to surge forward, get to the byline and set up a chance that Sane eventually had blocked. This constant shifting of positions had Albion all over the place during the opening phase. 
Negatives: when you have too much of a good thing.
There is a slight whiff of complacency beginning to set in at times and here two goals were utterly gifted to the opposition when the gulf in class should really have been reflected by a three or four goal margin to do City’s complete stranglehold on affairs proper justice. This was no “scruffy win” as The Guardian called it, but another beautiful passing display. More passes, in fact, than ever seen in an Opta-covered Premier League game (since 2003 thus).

844 of them altogether. Eight hundred and forty-four.

More passes, you might say, than we or anyone else could cope with. More passes than Johnny Evans could cope with. Certainly, on occasions, more passes than we needed to see. With United scoring with two touches from De Gea’s kick-out v Tottenham the same afternoon, there is clearly more than one way to skin a monkey. While this was termed "scruffy" by paul Doyle at the Guardian, the same paper employed somebody to call United's biff-ball slugging of Tottenham as, respectively  "defensively voracious", providers of "rugged beauty" and their coach's ugly gesturing as wielding an "amusingly petulant shushing finger", the amusingly petulant shushing finger of the  "true idealist", apparently. If it was meant ironically, I had the irony tuners turned resolutely off.  

Might all of this come back and bite City on the backside at some point against a side with more about them than West Brom? The test coming up in midweek against Napoli will require much greater levels of concentration, as any lapses are likely to be brutally exposed.

Manager: Giant frothy cakes made of 844 eggs 
8 -- Is it possible to over-egg such a succulent cake? With Bernardo Silva starting alongside his namesake David, plus Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus and Kevin de Bruyne, there was a tendency to over-elaborate. 844 passes is something from a different level of football and, at times, City look like they are playing a different sport to the rest of the Premier League. Guardiola’s mantra is now clearly in full motion but there were one or two occasions where a pass was made instead of a shot. Raheem Sterling’s introduction gave the side more balance and directness and the immediate boost of a third goal, which would later turn out to be crucial.

Player Ratings: Fernandinho the all-action pivot, Silva the passing fulcrum.

Ederson Morais, 7 -- How do you score a goalkeeper, who does not have a single save to make but ends up conceding two goals? Perhaps a little slow to see the danger as the ball floated in for Albion’s first, but no doubt expected Stones to deal with it. Otherwise a standard afternoon using feet well, passing securely and with a variety of height and length. Only real ball fielded from an home attack was an easy catch mid-height from Rondon’s ballooned soft- shot.    

Kyle Walker, 7 -- A little restricted going forward by Bernardo largely sticking to the right wing, meaning he started slightly withdrawn. Lost Grzegorz Krychowiak at the far post on 47 minutes (as did Bernardo), but made amends with a glorious assist for Sterling’s goal. More evidence that he can indeed cross a ball impeccably. Ghosted into more advanced positions later on, drifting inside and wafting a right foot shot just wide of Foster’s near post. Booked right at the end for an unnecessary but understandable bit of frustration after James McClean’s dangerous tackle went unpunished. McClean meanwhile, who had evidently been introduced with the sole intention of fouling everyone, slid straight through and out into touch.

John Stones, 7 -- First surge by Rondon beautifully cut out with minimum of fuss. Slow to follow the flight of Gareth Barry’s lofted pass through the centre, which Jay Rodriguez profited from. At that point his error had negated City’s early dominance in the first 12 minutes of the game, leaving bewildering stats of 84% possession to the away side but a score of 1-1. Lost the ball under his foot on another occasion and was a little too casual at times. One great chase back on Robson-Kanu after 75mins, tracking him to the byline then whipping the ball away cleanly.

Nicolas Otamendi, 8 -- Commanding in the air. His control of Salomon Rondon had been exemplary, until a soft chest back to Ederson fell perfectly for Matt Phillips to give the score-line an unbalanced look right at the end. Also booked for slicing through Jake Livermore, but was the better of the centre backs today.

Fabian Delph, 7 -- Beginning to use his right foot, so high has his confidence soared, although he didn't use it to great effect when wafting a clearance straight up in the air, giving Rondon a headed chance. Two of City's first three shots of the match were his and he was a constant irritant down the left, linking fluidly with Sane and David Silva. For the second time in recent games, however, overhit a short pass out of defence (as against Napoli), which bounced away from Fernandinho (as against Napoli) and resulted in a near miss at the near post for the airborne Rondon.

Man of the Match Fernandinho: enabler and pivot
Fernandinho, 9 -- An assist and a goal for the Brazilian in an all action performance. Beautiful diagonal ball for Sane to open the scoring, a pass he repeated later to Silva. Right foot shot that nicked off Barry’s instep for City’s second. Majestic nutmeg on Allan Nyom and a charging presence in midfield right to the end.

Leroy Sane, 7 -- Appeared to be little danger when he attempted an early shot, having been found expertly on the left edge of the box by Fernandinho. With no backlift the ball pinged past a rooted Foster like a piece of wet soap from under a weight-lifter’s foot. Remained a good outlet for City's controlled possession on the left, exquisite exchange with De Bruyne in the build-up to goal number three, but final ball was a disappointment on too many occasions. As Guardiola later said, there's "room for improvement". 

Bernardo Silva, 6 -- Started wide right, but was soon wide left and deep centre. Tended to block Kyle Walker’s passage up the right a little with his drifting. Increasing amount of loss of possession through over-elaboration ensued and he was replaced by the more effective Sterling after 60 minutes.

David Silva, 8 -- Key to everything positive, Silva is the fulcrum for the bewildering non-stop City circulation of the ball. Headed over from De Bruyne's pinpoint cross after 26 minutes and was denied by the outstretched boot of Foster right at the end. Illustrated perfectly by integral part played in the mesmerising third goal. Eight yard pass straight into touch proved he is human after all, as did the fact that Barry dispossessed him to deliver the ball for the equaliser after 12 minutes. Full of invention though and some delightful touches in City's maelstrom of passing.

Kevin de Bruyne, 8 -- Deceptive, strolling performance from the Belgian. Some neat early passes (his first proper pass was actually a nutmeg) and two other wonderfully weighted passes, one down the flank that sent Walker away, another that traversed the pitch from right back to left wing to find Sane. Glorious cross for Silva to head over. Generally restricted himself to simple ball circulation for most of the game, as Tony Pulis’s plan appeared to be to pay him extremely close attention. Evans upended him to earn a yellow card, as he constantly dropped deep to offer an out-ball for Stones and Otamendi. Five separate touches of the ball in the sumptuous move that led to goal number three. 

Gabriel Jesus, 6 -- First touch of the ball was to stand on it by mistake and spent most of the afternoon chasing around looking for good positions. This was yet another selfless showing from the Brazilian, illustrated by him on the halfway line fighting for possession after being robbed higher up the pitch. Nutmegged Johnny Evans but called back for a foul that did not exist and was booked for protesting it. That’s a whole year unbeaten for Jesus.

Raheem Sterling, 8 -- Arrived as a 60th minute replacement for Bernardo Silva and immediately found himself on the end of the move of the game, tapping in Walker’s precise cross. Provided a more direct threat than Bernardo had done.

Ilkay Gundogan NR – On for Jesus after 82 minutes and found himself in plenty of space to charge forward as Albion tired.

Postscript: Alan Shearer gives his opinion on Match of the Day:

Friday, October 27, 2017


Mike Doyle holds the trophy with manager Tony Book in 1976

The original version of this article was published on the pages of ESPN. This is a lengthened version. 

The League Cup, a much maligned tournament, which was the brainchild of Sir Stanley Rous, was not implemented until Alan Hardaker became Football League Secretary in the early 60s. 

It has endured a sticky history, unpopular with the big clubs to start with and increasingly criticised by top managers in recent years, as a waste of time and energy. 

It was inaugurated at a time when attendances were dwindling, the hope being that a new cup competition would boost flagging interest. Ironic now, then, that it is the competition that fails to fire many people's imagination. 50,000+ at the Etihad to see City v Wolves had a different idea, however. 

The immense struggle that Wolves put up at the Etihad in City’s midweek League Cup tie will have taught Pep Guardiola some additional lessons of worth as he prepares to take his so-far all-conquering City side to the Hawthorns this weekend.
The championship side, ably guided by the talented Portuguese coach Nuno Espirito Santo, took City right to the wire, forcing extra time and penalties before succumbing.

Despite Guardiola’s apparent dislike for the tournament, he will have been forced to take note of several aspects that may well serve him well for the rest of the season. In that respect, if the messages are taken heed of, the League Cup will have done the widely travelled Catalan a favour or two after all.

Despite City’s coruscating start to the season, where the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Napoli have had the life strangled out of them, there will come a time when the ball does not roll so smoothly towards the opposition goal. For these occasions, patience will be key and a cool collective head will be required to finish the job properly when it appears that the desired result is avoiding them.

Against Wolves, even as the tie moved deep into extra time, City were still plugging away at a well organised visiting defence. When the pressure did not pay off, the penalty shoot-out was handled with aplomb, a series of crisp, well-placed shots by Kevin de Bruyne, Yaya Toure, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero finishing off plucky adversaries.
Guardiola will have been reminded that his defence -- while never his number one priority -- needs careful management. While his first choice pairing of Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones have grown into a solid and surprisingly reliable defensive duo, those waiting in the wings are made of less stern stuff. Tosin Adarabioyo can be relatively happy with his performance against Wolves, but Eliaquim Mangala somehow managed to look even worse than City fans remembered him. With Vincent Kompany’s absence lengthening by the week, it is clear an injury crisis at the back would have serious repercussions for City’s hitherto steamrolling progress to the top of the Premier League.

The presence on the left side of defence of 20-year old Ukrainian prodigy Oleksandr Zinchenko did give hope for the future, however, as the youngster revealed a classy touch and useful awareness of where his team mates were, even though he appeared to be running on empty well before the end of the 90 minutes.
The Catalan will also have been delighted to discover that his second string goalkeeper has transformed back into the player that he made it a priority to fetch from Barcelona just over a year ago.

Claudio Bravo’s resurrection has been nothing short of miraculous. His confidence restored, the Chilean was able to smother several dangerous Wolves counter-attacks that threatened to derail City’s progress altogether. His handling and positioning were exemplary and he exuded the kind of self-confidence that was completely lacking last season. This was followed up by a double penalty save in the shoot-out, which was responsible for putting City through to a quarterfinal tie with Leicester City.
Guardiola will do well to note that City fans have a close affection for and relationship with the League Cup. Not everything that shines in this modern football world, so utterly dominated by the twin Gods of money and prestige, is necessarily worth our undivided attention.

This is – when all is said and done -- a club that triumphed in this very same tournament as long ago as 1970 against West Brom and then again in 1976 against Newcastle, having in between time lost the final in 1974, ironically against this week’s opponent Wolves, for who their own goalkeeper, Gary Pierce, played the game of his life.
Those three Wembley finals in six years planted a deep love of the League Cup among City fans, which recent triumphs over Sunderland and Liverpool at the rebuilt Wembley have only fortified. Those exciting triumphs in 2014 and 2016 were received with as much glee as any other of the club’s modern triumphs.

Navas, Toure and Nasri after the 2014 win
The muddy marvels of 1970, Dennis Tueart's unlikely acrobatics in 1976 and the sight of a top heavy side put out for the Wolves final of 1974 that Guardiola himself would have been proud of (Bell, Marsh, Lee, Law and Summerbee all played, leaving threadbare midfield cover) are all moments in the club's history to be cherished as much as any other. 

A 50,000 crowd for a home game with lower league opposition tells us that many have not forgotten this. Whether the drain on energy and resources pleases the Catalan or not, whether the Mitre ball flies exactly how he wishes it to fly, City’s supporters are fully committed to progress in the League Cup. For many, the barren years that spanned the period 1976-2010 have done nothing but whet the appetite. It will be a while yet before occasions like these are taken for granted.
As Guardiola prepares his squad for challenges of a nine-game December slog, six of which will be away from the Etihad, he will do well to remember the backlash from last season’s exit at Old Trafford. With a second string side up against United’s first choice eleven, City came up short, much to the dismay of the faithful. The climax of the Wolves game saw City almost back at full strength after a slew of substitutions failed to have the desired effect.

Let us hope that Wolves’ intrepid performance will ensure Guardiola doesn’t undervalue the League Cup in its later stages this season, as City aim to win the trophy for the 5th time.  

Colin Bell takes a breather in heavy conditions in 1970's final v West Brom. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Here you will find the match notes for City-Napoli that were just too full of over-excited gibberish to include in the player ratings for ESPN, a nice, neat, concise and readable version of which you can find here:

No team has opened a season scoring this freely since 1894. A very long time ago.
"The best 30 minutes of football I have ever seen" - Mike Hammond, City fan

"That first half hour from Man City is amongst the best football I've ever seen from an English side. Utter control and constant chances." - Michael Cox- Zonal Marking
On the basis of how long we have been going to the football and how many hours of dross we have all witnessed, there had to, by the feted law of averages, come a moment when something really outstanding happened. Those that thought it had already done so in the sun against QPR, may have to revise their estimates in the coming weeks and months. That moment, it would seem, is now.....
A scintillating first half hour laid the foundation for City’s win, as a clever and resilient Napoli side forced their way back into the game thereafter, pushing City more than any other opponent so far this season. Guardiola's liking for punishing first half hour periods was in full view here, as City smashed their way forward time and again, against the apparently shell-shocked Italian league leaders. Napoli were having difficulty getting out of their own half, getting any passes to thread further forward than the half way line and get their playmaker Marek Hamsik into the game. That they did eventually get into the match was credit to them, as City were forced to cede more possession in the last ten minutes of the first half and for periods of the second.

City started where they had left off against Stoke City at the weekend, with a whirlwind attacking spell that had Napoli in absolute knots. Mesmerising football, concentrated on the left flank to start with, brought immediate rewards and perhaps should have delivered more before the game turned. Two major chances went begging before Napoli gained a foothold after half an hour. 

Tired legs? Over-confidence? Over-elaboration at the back? Or simply an opponent of a different calibre to Stoke? Having done the hard work and streaming forward for more, City were suddenly pushed back by an opponent that had spent the first 30 minutes unable to hold onto the ball and trapped inside their own half.    

Chose exactly the same starting line-up with good reason. Saw his side play outstandingly sharp and incisive football for half an hour, then be closed down and forced backwards by a crafty and well-balanced Napoli side. Must be time to rest one or two tired legs this weekend?

Player ratings
Ederson, 9 -- Was already playing excellently (having rushed out to head away at the edge of the box and fielded a fair number of back passes with aplomb), when he was suddenly asked to face a penalty. Scuffed shot by Dries Mertens came straight down the middle and he saved with his left boot. Outstanding in his quick darts to the edge of the box and in his safe handling. One first half clearance down the middle went to an opposition man, but, within seconds, he was dummying Dries Mertens with a drag back in his own area. Confidence has had a galvanising effect on John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi in front of him.

Kyle Walker, 7 -- So far forward after eight minutes that it was his shot blocked in the box that led to Raheem Sterling’s early breakthrough. Was being given more food for thought at the other end, however, and – despite his recurring ability to recover quickly – gave away the first penalty by pulling Raul Albiol back at a corner. Often left Lorenzo Insigne in too much space in the second half and was caught having to backtrack quickly by two quickly taken throw-ins.  

John Stones, 9 – Outstanding again at the back, as City’s tactics unravelled to an extent in the second half. Quick to recover and nick the ball from the menacing Mertens early on and delivered plenty of traffic from left to right and back again as City controlled possession with a swagger in the first half. Somehow got his belly in front of goal-bound shot as City almost paid dearly for their dallying at 1-2. 94% pass accuracy tells the story of his night. His completed passes over the last two games speak more eloquently than anything I can say: 108 of 109 attempted v Stoke and 83 of 85 attempted here.    
Nicolas Otamendi, 8 -- Hectic time for him. Less composed with the close passing across the back, but right at home with the long raking diagonals and the lunging interceptions, one of which robbed Mertens before half time, another critically came to the rescue towards the end as Napoli pressed. Continuing an impressive renaissance.  

Fabian Delph, 7 -- Calm and assured in early period, spent tucked in towards Otamendi in the centre of defence, but appeared a little rattled on occasions by the second half onslaught. Overhit a pass that put Fernandinho in trouble in front of his own goal, but showed battling qualities and a calmness on the ball that was admirable. Was still battling well for possession right at the end, where he finished by registering a 93% pass accuracy for the night.
Fernandinho, 8 – All action game from the Brazilian. Great deal of steady possession early on, first onto the loose ball when Ederson saved the first penalty and always attentive to Napoli’s attacks down the flanks as well as their short passing through the middle. Ploughed through the middle with great energy at one point and dug out a peach of a through ball to Gabriel Jesus. Blotted his copybook by giving away the second penalty, for which he was booked for trailing a leg as Faouzi Ghoulam jinked into the box..

Leroy Sane, 6 – Appeared to have put the wrong studs in, so often was he on the floor. Gave a shocked -looking Raúl Albiol plenty to think about early on, as City pinpointed the left flank as the point for the early onslaught, but also lost possession far too easily. Eye for a space worked clever opening to put Silva through to the byline. The ensuing cut-back ending eventually with the opening goal from Sterling. Drew a yellow for Christian Maggio, after his consistent harrying for possession had riled the defender.     
Raheem Sterling, 7 – Fast onto rebound when Walker’s shot came to him early on and produced a cool finish to put City ahead. Gave Kalidou Koulibaly plenty to think about in the opening stages, but a shame he cannot arc a ball into the box like Kevin de Bruyne, as his chance to feed Jesus might have killed the game early in the second half, had he been able to find his team mate with the cross. Now has 8 goals from 11 games, as well as 2 assists and this was his 5th consecutive scoring game.Swapped for Bernardo after 68 minutes.   

David Silva, 7 – Key to releasing Leroy Sane early on, he produced the deft cut-back that led to the opening goal, as Walker's effort was parried out to Sterling. Wrong foot forward with clear chance at the near post, when Fernandinho chipped one in to him. Eclipsed Marek Hamsik early on, but failed to release the ball in time when there was a chance for a third goal after a long run through the centre right to the edge of the box. Hamsik reduced to fouling him, Elseid Hysaj to butting him out of the way with his head. Finally replaced by Ilkay Gundogan after 75 minutes of gutsy battling.
Kevin de Bruyne, 8 -- Brought back for what the referee saw as a high foot on Koulibali, when it had in fact been more the other way round, De Bruyne was wound up tight right from the start. Bossed the opening period when City reigned supreme and produced another of those trademark sublime right foot passes to put the second goal on a plate for Jesus. Produced a truly amazing left footer, hit first time, that came stinging back down off the underside of the bar. So clever in his working of tight spaces and changing direction of attacks.

Gabriel Jesus, 8 -- A real lung busting effort, chasing down the defenders all night. Started how he meant to carry on, nicking the ball from a perplexed Hysaj early on but was thwarted on the byline. Touched in the second and might have had the third, had Koulibaly not stopped it on the line between his ankles. Slightly off target from another chance set up by De Bruyne later on. Replaced by Danilo after 86 minutes to help solidify City's defence.    

Bernardo Silva, 7 -- Arrived as a 68th minute replacement for Silva and immediately went on a mesmerising slalom through the middle. Bypassed by a lot of the flow in the other direction though.

Ilkay Gundogan NR – On for Sane after 75 minutes and found himself pushed well forward to aid a tiring Jesus. One run inside and out took him into a good position but he chose to shoot anstead of passing and the chance was missed.
Danilo NR – Replaced Jesus as Guardiola tried to bung some holes. Lively last few minutes down the right.

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