Sunday, December 17, 2017

A JOURNEY WITHOUT MAPS


An abridged version of this article can be found on the pages of The Irish Examiner

There was a sure feeling in the thickening Manchester air that Pochettino’s Tottenham might just give City a difficult time, that here was a team of talent and character that might just stand toe to toe and offer us all some more ideas about just how good City are. Pochettino himself, full of the bravado that a career spent in Guardiola’s shadow in two different countries apparently brings, had been widely quoted in the morning press: “We’ll also turn the volume up if we win”. Wild words, confident people.

The rump of City’s support, giddy and disbelieving, still assure themselves that “this will be the one where we fall flat on our faces”. It happens for some of us on a weekly basis, whether the trip is to Old Trafford or The Hawthorns. That old belief that what we are seeing is still somehow so fragile that it might pop or blister if we look at it too long.

As the mists swirled around the ground and the news filtered through that David Silva would be sitting this one out, the Typical City frowns deepened on the brows of the faithful. Like a sign from above, this was surely the final confirmation that City’s time was up.

What transpired in the next 90 minutes can only be described as a complete slap in the face to anyone, who had the nerve to harbour even the tiniest doubts. City are heading into uncharted territory. 

Magnificent from start to finish. Spurs, usually a classy, ball playing side, were reduced to leg breaking lunges from the likes of Harry Kane and Dele Alli that should have been rewarded with red cards from the vague refereeing of Craig Pawson..

Alli’s challenge in particular, which in the slow motion replays showed impact curving Kevin de Bruyne’s leg like a plastic straw, was the ugliest moment of a match liberally decorated with balletic poise from the home side. The Belgian himself had the perfect riposte to the assault, smacking an outstanding second goal a minute after the horror tackle that had threatened to end his participation in this game. Harry Kane too, had wiped his studs down Raheem Sterlings lower leg, threatening serious injury.

Still, dwelling on Tottenham’s sudden embracing of thuggish tactical fouling (where have we heard that one before?) would be akin to watching the Royal Ballet and complaining that one of the chorus had a rip in his tights.

As City march on, we can only stand and admire the audacity of pass and move through even the tightest of midfields and the most clogged of defences. Where simple mortals see a forest of legs, these boys see a pass, possibly on the volley, delivered at speed, with a bit of backspin for good measure.

Only Everton, Ronald Koeman’s execrable early season Everton, have managed to get anywhere near stopping this City side in 2017-18 and even that point was aided and abetted by Michael Oliver’s ghost red card for Kyle Walker for an offence that made Dele Alli’s lunge here look like attempted murder in comparison.

In Silva’s sudden absence, Ilkay Gundogan filled in. The German offers less of the mesmeric short passing and tricky little swivels, but he can head a corner in without leaving the ground when totally unmarked by an entire opposition defence chasing after the moving hulk of Mangala.

With City off and running, we were treated to the Leroy Sane Show down the left. Kieran Trippier, Tottenham fans are often keen to point out, is a clear upgrade on Kyle Walker, but here he was in danger of being ,made to look like a clear downgrade on Bacary Sagna, completely trampled underfoot as Sane danced the fandango right through his territory. The space so tight, the down-the-lines passes so sharp, even then he could get nowhere near the German’s twinkling feet.

Sane’s bloodstock comes from the conjugation of a gymnast and a pro-footballer. The result is an athlete, who glides in places of running, effortless and as hard to pin down as the mists swirling around the stadium’s roof. He finds speed in seconds, drifts in and out with the ball glued to his feet. A real sight for sore eyes when in full flow, as he was here.

De Bruyne too was on fire. Placing a pass badly, time seemed to stand still as everyone took the spectacle in. A pass that had failed to find its target! What wonderful novelty was this. Would the ground open up and swallow all who saw it? Normal service resumed, the Belgian metronome dictated everything good that City manufactured and there was plenty of that. He appeared left and right and danced through the centre, with passes short and long.

One first touch recovery left foot pass, sent raking in arc to Sane on the left wing was a thing of such beauty, Aguero  – on the end of Sane’s first time ball in – could be forgiven for smacking his half volley into the defender’s foot, on the grounds that he was till admiring the pass. Difficult as it is to pick out single instances of excellence in such a parade of the stuff, that was yet another of those hold your breath and shake your head moments.

Plaudits too for Eliaquim Mangala (HEAR THIS!), suddenly imbued with the confidence of a man, who has discovered he has a right foot. Strolling about like he had been in the first team for years, he did not put a foot, be it left or right, wrong. Three games in a week he has lorded it over dangerous attackers. Outside him Fabian Delph did a passable impersonation of Paolo Maldini to Mangala’s Baresi. The whole world, you felt, was turning on its axis.

Behind them Ederson was busy pinging the ball pitch length with the accuracy of Gary Player wielding a three iron. One outrageous left footer to the right touchline carried most of the length of the pitch and landed on Raheem Sterling’s instep. Bored of watching his team-mates dance the foxtrot, the Brazilian keeper was evidently keen to join in the party and showcase his ever-more evident skills. Another slice down the middle, flicked on rapidly, ended with a shot on goal. It was so quick even Dembele had not had time to kick anyone.   

Can City keep this up? It is unlikely. There will be - indeed have been – off days, when the ball refuses to roll or the opposition lines are just too thick to penetrate. Workaday Huddersfield, West Ham, Southampton and Manchester United have already shut up shop and kept City to one-goal victories. There will be others along the way.

Those days are for the future, however. For now, Manchester City sit 14 points clear of Manchester United and 21 ahead of Spurs. For those in need of a reminder, it is only mid-December. They have wiped the floor with all five supposed title rivals. Maintain this coruscating spectacle and the sky is clearly the limit. Fixtures are beginning to pile up ahead, with League Cup, FA Cup and Champions League engagements all looming. Anyone in the business will tell you, however, when the confidence is high and things are going this smoothly, players cannot wait for the next match to come along.

That is most surely a feeling shared by every City fan in the land right now.

Friday, December 15, 2017

SOMETHING IN THE AIR


This article first appeared in an abridged version on the pages of ESPNFC
Manchester City are not just proving to be an insurmountable problem for the rest of the Premier League this season: they are beginning to provide a headache for the journalistic profession too, namely how to continue to find superlatives to best describe this team’s excellence.

The 4-0 win at a canter in Swansea in midweek, a score-line that could easily have been doubled given the clear-cut chances that went begging, saw Pep Guardiola’s side stroll comfortably in second gear for most of the 90 minutes.

A sprightly start from the hosts soon petered out as they became utterly engulfed by City’s landslide of passes. So many sides have experienced the same thing this season: how to avoid the ignominy of chasing shadows when the opposition are clearly operating on a totally different plain to the one you occupy. How do you close down David Silva adequately, while making sure Kevin de Bruyne doesn’t get too much space? And if you get tight on the Belgian, who’s left to stop Bernardo Silva weaving his magic? How do you double up on the persistent danger of Raheem Sterling and still have enough manpower to watch Leroy Sane? How do you stop Sergio Aguero scoring when you cannot predict from which of five or six rich sources he may be fed? How do you block a Brazilian kid, whose dazzling skills and speed of movement is tying your legs in knots?

And, perhaps most importantly of all, how do you launch any kind of an offensive against a side that just won’t stop attacking?

The look of desolation on the face of Swansea boss Paul Clement in the second half at the Liberty Stadium told its own eloquent story. You don’t. You can’t. It’s impossible, or at least, it has proved  thus so far. Perhaps Mauricio Pochettino and his merry men of Tottenham may have a different idea when they visit Manchester this weekend.

But then we said that about a tricky visit to Old Trafford, where City went largely untroubled by a crab-like Manchester United. We said it about Arsenal’s trip north and they were swept cleanly away. Earlier in the season, we had said it too about Liverpool, with all their forward movement and bouncy Klopptimism and they were buried under a five-goal landslide. We had said it too about the visit to reigning champions Chelsea and City dominated the Londoners on their own pitch with De Bruyne's clinical strike the crowning glory to a watertight display.

Every week it seems a new test appears and is passed with flying colours.

We would appear to be in the presence of footballing royalty. Some will argue otherwise, but Premier League fans all over the world are being served up a rare treat by this Manchester City side. Grounds around the country are gaping open-mouthed as their heroes are passed, pressed and pressurised to exhaustion by Guardiola’s incessant side.

To what heights City can take this masterclass is uncertain. Every time you think that what you are seeing is the best thing since sliced bread, the following week it appears toasted with lashings of butter. This Manchester City side just keep pushing back the boundaries to what was thought reasonably possible: play expansive, pass and go football on England’s mean turf? Sure. Keep possession for fifty passes at a time without the burly English stoppers and enforcers smashing you to pieces? Yep. Construct a side with so many attacking outlets that you sometimes wonder if they need a defence at all? Certainly. Employ a goalkeeper that plays a little like a creative midfielder and pings the ball long and short as if he has a remote control in his back pocket? Of course.
And so on and so forth.

How this City side will be viewed by history will have to wait a while. This will not be decided this season, unless the unthinkable happens and City remain unbeaten and win every pot on offer. History will judge when it is ready. The frightening thing for City’s opponents is that the story is only just beginning. This is a young side, with many of the players brought in to replace those, who took part reluctantly in the great summer exodus. It is sobering to see – each time City prepare for a Premier League match – who took part in the respective fixtures a year ago. Nolito, Fernando, Gael Clichy, Aleksander Kolarov, Kelechi Iheanacho, Jesus Navas, even dear old Pablo Zabaleta, seem a very long way from this all-seeing, all-doing action-packed side, but they were all used regularly just last season.

This illustrates how quickly things can change in football. The old guard has been replaced by a generation bristling with talent, self-confidence and energy, which could carry the club to unprecedented highs by the end of the season.
City’s march on the top has been relentless this season and had already gained serious momentum in the ten seasons since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover. It is no flash in the pan and no surprise. Every eventuality has been meticulously planned for, from logistics, foundations, back up, youth, marketing and long-term strategy. The excellence on the field has long been matched by the excellence off it.

For the rest of us mere mortals the chase for new superlatives to describe City’s progress goes on. 




Wednesday, November 8, 2017

THE REIGN OF TERROR

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

LA CHUTE

"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
 

MATCH NOTES / ARSENAL h

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?

Positives
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. 

Negatives
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.     

Manager:
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.    

Substitutes:
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

MATCH NOTES / NAPOLI a


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.
Positives
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. 
Negatives
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.    
Substitutes:
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

MATCH NOTES / WEST BROM a


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.

Substitutes:
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:
https://twitter.com/twitter/statuses/924419301544792064





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