Sunday, August 13, 2017

BRIGHTON PEER

Faced with a blanket defence from a team making their debut in a noisy Amex, City produced a remarkably composed display, strangling any vigour the home side could muster almost at birth. Brighton, full of the vim and vigour that comes from a sunny opening day 34 years after the last top flight outing, were predictably well supported, but just could not break clear of City's tight grip.

To illustrate this, it was the 44th minute before Brighton got their first touch inside City's penalty area, a weak header from an erroneously awarded free kick out on City's left flank. Up to this point Ederson's only view of the ball had been watching it travel between his defenders and his midfielders like a shuttlecock in an evenly contested game of badminton.

It had taken the home side an entire half to have a single touch in the opposition area.

Despite Brighton's extremely blunt attack, there was plenty of enthusiasm from the South coast side. However, 22% possession by the end again underlined how dominant City were. To emphasise Brighton's supine state, by the end goalkeeper Mat Ryan had made more passes (27) than anybody else in his team.

City set up as expected with Danilo and Kyle Walker as flank players to a midfield anchored by Fernandinho and further populated by David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne. Each of these players had an important role to play as the game developed, with Walker and Danilo often as far advanced as Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus in attack. Walker in particular had a lively game, successfully marrying a marauding attacking profile with the ability to motor back and snuff out any Brighton threats on his flank.

Danilo's contribution was more in attack and he played well for the first forty minutes or so, giving Solly March much to think about. Despite this, his penchant for the right foot was much in evidence and the urge to cut in and use it stopped him from passing his marker down the outside, which Leroy Sane would immediately try to do (without success it must be said) when he came on later in the second half.

Silva meanwhile did his usual thing, prodding and passing all day long, the conduit for the quick movement of the ball from left to right and back again, as City searched for an opening. De Bruyne too, after one or two fluffed early passes, was prominent in trying to lever an opening in front of a wall of midfielders backed by a second line of defenders.

In all of this, Fernandinho's first half saw him almost redundant, sitting in the hole in front of the back three of, from left to right, Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones and Vincent Kompany. If Brighton had not upped their game at the start of the second half (minutes 50 - 55 saw the only proper "sustained" threat of the game from them) it might have been Fernandinho giving way. More active defensively, the Brazilian also began to get forward more in the second half and eventually had an important role to play in City's victory, playing the teasing cross in from the right that Lewis Dunk headed into his own net under pressure from Gabriel Jesus.

The back three looked solid enough but judgement will have to wait until they are put under proper pressure. Otamendi's penchant for sleepy moments and Stones's propensity for casual balls out (he was caught once here, producing a sloppy short pass that was intercepted) mean there will be hairy moments but here there were none.

Behind them Ederson might as well have been sunning himself on the Copacabana, caipirinha in hand, so little was he called upon. His first kick out went to a Brighton player, however, and his first punch was missed, so maybe the drinks trolley should stay in its place for the time being. He was fast out to deliver attack-building passes and dealt competently with anything that came into his area, mostly back passes from Kompany, Stones and Otamendi, it must be said.

Up front Jesus showed some moments of great skill - one flick over the bewildered Lewis Dunk left the unhappy defender looking like a bollard on the famous pier - but also displayed an inability to get the ball in the net when provided with good chances. His four opportunities included a free header in front of goal which Mat Ryan wafted away, but really should have been the opener. Both he and Aguero were active in harrying Brighton's brief possession, which played a major part in unsettling the Brighton defence and led to numerous misplaced passes out towards midfield from the home side.

The Brazilian was brave enough to go in for a ball that was bouncing high and get his head (then, by mistake, a hand) to a wonderfully flighted through ball from De Bruyne, which was correctly ruled out by Michael Oliver, but harshly deemed a yellow card offence by the otherwise competent official.

His partner in attack was also active. Aguero's persistence in both tracking back and in holding possession in the face of a wall of opposition players was laudable and led directly to the second goal. Aguero's mazy run seemed to finally come to an end in a thick forest of legs, but a rebound brought the ball back to him and on he ploughed until the ball could be released wide for Fernandinho's cross for the well aimed own goal header.

The chasing down of all early Brighton possession by City's front two was essential in harrying the home side out of its rhythm. The resultant loose balls in advanced midfield were meat and drink to Silva and De Bruyne, constantly mopping up and putting City back onto the attack.

In all, a suffocating performance by City, showing great patience in the face of a side that showed the expected exuberance, but had little more to offer than that. It will be a long season for Brighton if they cannot find more in attack than the theatrical Knockeart, who came on and dived twice, and the injury-prone Murray.

City's seventh consecutive opening day win sets them up nicely for the visit of an Everton side that will test their defence more, but will allow the free runners down the flanks more opportunity to fly. Much more will be gleaned on the new structure's stability to survive pressure and exert serious damage on the opposition in this fixture.

In the meantime, the used subs her, Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, will be busy wondering exactly where they fit in, in Guardiola's new scheme of things. With Benjamin Mendy sure to take Danilo's place on the left, there is currently little space for this most talented of trios beyond second half impact as substitutes. Injuries and tactical preening will no doubt affect this in due course.

You can read my player ratings for ESPN here.

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