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.

Thursday, October 12, 2017


Remembering Mark Hughes's difficult start in the hottest of Premier League hot seats. The original article for ESPN can be found here. This is an extended version

It is almost ten years since Manchester City’s then-owner Thaksin Shinawatra received an offer to purchase the club from a hitherto unknown buyer calling itself Abu Dhabi United. In that time the club has grown at breakneck speed and now sits proudly among the elite of the Premier League and can also credibly suggest that it now belongs to the small group of clubs that have the wherewithal to win the Champions League.

When the initial investment came flooding in, the club was given an immediate boost, breaking the British transfer record on the very same day to capture Real Madrid star Robinho from under the noses of Chelsea. David Conn, writing in World Soccer called it an "epoch-changing takeover", while the normally taciturn magazine’s cover screamed “the deal that will change football forever!”.
While that may have been over-egging the cake a little, it has certainly transformed City and drastically altered the fault lines of the league they compete in. What had become a cosy cartel at the top of the league, featuring the serial Champions League participants Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, was mortally damaged, allowing not only City to see a chink of light, but also paving the way for the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City to sneak in ahead of the usual suspects too.

It was, in many ways, the moment that has brought us the slightly more open playing field we see at the top of the Premier League these days, with the old behemoths of Liverpool and Manchester United struggling to keep pace with new, upwardly mobile clubs. Although it has also created a new cartel of six, the fact that only four can have access to the troughs of gold in the Champions League has brought competition of a kind. That Leicester found it possible to leap frog them all to gain the title two years ago gives almost everyone some hope.
The arrival of Stoke City to the Etihad this weekend will bring those heady days back to the forefront of many City supporters’ minds. Visiting manager Mark Hughes was the man wearing the bemused expression when the football world turned upside down in Manchester in 2008. it was also an opponent that Robinho bagged a hat trick against in Hughes's eventful first season in charge.

Hughes had come to City on June 4th, just three months before City’s new circumstances threw a global spotlight onto the Welshman. Writing in the match programme for Robinho’s debut game against Chelsea, Hughes’s bewilderment was palpable: “It has been quite a fortnight for Manchester City, hasn’t it?” he wrote breathlessly. “The news of an imminent club takeover followed by the breaking of the British transfer record all in one day ensured that the football spotlight was well and truly on the blue half of Manchester on 1st September 2008.”
That spotlight, as bright as it was harsh in those opening months, was on Hughes too, as he struggled with a side that had suddenly been spoon-fed one of the world’s most gifted players. For Hughes, making a player of Robinho’s pedigree gel with the likes of Michael Ball and Valeri Bojinov was one thing; managing the supporters’ burgeoning expectations quite another.

Hughes brought the likes of Nigel de Jong, Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany to City, stalwarts all, and at bargain fees, but was also responsible for a hefty £19m being spent on the dubious talents of Jô and Tal Ben Haim, who at €6m was around £6m overpriced. The money clicking incessantly through the tills must to an extent have frazzled Hughes's football brain a little. 
“I came to the football club with the intention of winning things,” the new manager continued in the Chelsea programme, but it would not to be until his successor Roberto Mancini arrived a year and a half later that City would make the breakthrough, winning the FA Cup, against Stoke City of all teams, after a smooth and trouble free trophy-less period of just 33 years.
There were many, who reckoned Hughes to be incapable of managing a club endowed so suddenly with such an enormous transfer budget. Dealing with world superstars is not easy at the best of times and if, as the manager, your name does not carry the weight of men, who have seen trophy-laden action at football cathedrals such as Lazio, Internazionale, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, as the subsequent occupiers of City’s hot seat have, things can get a little tricky. Hughes battled on, signing Wayne Bridge in another critical moment of weakness.

Jô: Not the best.
Hughes was a man overtaken by circumstances, perhaps the most unexpected circumstances that one could possibly have imagined for Manchester City at the time. That he struggled to get maximum reward from the bursting purse strings can be put down partly to the suddenness of the changes and partly to the newness of the environment for a man, who had previously only been in charge of a down-at-heel Wales and a fading Blackburn Rovers. At Ewood Park, there had also been a generous budget, but the glory years under Jack Walker were beginning to fade and the media spotlight was far more forgiving. It was there that his strange attraction to Roque Santa Cruz took shape and the ailing Paraguayan would also follow him to Manchester to very little effect.
Pep Guardiola, who will stand face to face with Hughes this weekend, has inherited the City job at a completely different phase of the regeneration of the club. It is now maturing into one of the continent’s big-hitters. Guardiola, no stranger to steering the world’s biggest clubs to titles on a global stage, is showing serious signs of getting to grips with a notoriously difficult club to keep on the straight and narrow. After all, even with its relatively new-found wealth, City have successfully maintained a reputation for quirkiness, which still keeps us all on our toes.

As with Hughes’s October 2008 introduction of Robinho, the Premier League reconvenes after an international break. It is up to the present incumbent of the City hot seat to maintain the upwardly mobile form of the early rounds into the critical autumn period. If he can do this, City’s so-called "epoch-changing" developments of late summer 2008 will have reached another stage in the club’s remarkable renaissance. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017


Player ratings for ESPN can be found here, but here are the extended notes from the Chelsea game, with more detailed analysis of individual performances in what was an almost faultless display by City.

One goal and a gulf in class separated the two sides after 93 minutes of breathless football at Stamford Bridge. With the champions being forced to play a 4 5 1 formation to try to stem the City flow, the movement and interchanging of positions from the away side was just too much for them to cope with, even on their own Stamford Bridge patch. Let it not be forgotten that this was the champions at home just after a win of historic proportions at Atletico Madrid, changing their shape to a wholly defensive unit to try to hold City at bay. Mind games may be old hat these days, but the psychological effect of prematch moaning about tiredness on the back of Champions League games and altering your own line up to counter the visiting team must have got through to Chelseas players.

The arm waving Chelsea boss had already withdrawn Cesc Fabregas to deep midfield in order to try to help stem the seemingly unstoppable flow towards the home goal, when injury to striker Alvaro Morata brought another admission that his side was being outclassed on its own turf. The replacement was to be Willian, another able bodied midfielder to clog the passing lines that City were using to such great effect and not Batshuayi.  

City were closing down their opponents to such great effect that there was frequently no out ball for the home side at all and they lost possession dangerously close to their own goal time and time again, as the away attackers began the press at the edge and sometimes inside the Chelsea penalty area. Bakayoko and Fabregas, needing to drop deeper and deeper to counteract this, left Chelsea with little or nothing to move forward with - at the same time completely isolating Morata and Hazard further forward - and on it went, with wave after wave of City pressure winning back possession and threatening the home goal.

City arrived at the home of the reigning champions without their captain, without flying left back Benjamin Mendy and without talismanic forward Sergio Aguero, but still took the game to Chelsea and thoroughly deserved the victory. The confidence, spirit and ability of the side that Guardiola has reconstructed is at the moment quite intoxicating. There will come a time of the season when this fluency is not so great, but you can only sit back and admire its efficiency at this early stage.  

Difficult to find anything remotely wrong with a performance like that, but once again, the weight of possession and chances created suggests a one goal win could have been bettered. A number of presentable chances came and went in front of Thibaut Courtois goal, whilst Edersons area at the other end remained almost virgin territory to the one man Chelsea attack.  

Manager Rating out of 10
9 – Finally winning a game against Chelsea after 7 attempts, Guardiola was as bold and confident in his team selection as the players were in carrying out his instructions. Their ability to keep up his optimistic tactics all the way to the climax of the game were never in doubt. The wonderful fluidity of the Dutch in 74, of Barcelona under Cruyffs tutelage came flooding back here, with Silva and Sane popping up wide right, De Bruyne driving from deep midfield, Otamendi pounding through the centre circle and right back Walker also to be found in central areas. All frequently far from home but interchanging almost at will with team mates. Guardiola could be seen wandering the touchline with his hands nonchalantly in his pockets, with Antonio Conte, just behind him, gesticulating and screaming like gesticulating and screaming were soon going out of fashion. Indicative of the two managers respective afternoons.

Player ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Ederson Morais, 8 – The confidence seeping from the goalkeeper through the defence and beyond is intoxicating. One shot from Cesar Azpilicueta came at him unsighted and he was rapidly down to his left to palm it away. Straight after this a brilliant high catch and throw out to release a scintillating counter attack from Raheem Sterling should have led to a goal. The Chelsea shot total of 4 was their lowest at home since January 2015 (also against City) but, even so, he was alert to the possibility of quick breaks throughout. To illustrate this, three of his infrequent touches came from punts down the pitch from his opposite number, who, unlike the Brazilian, had nobody to aim at at all for long periods. Finished the match with an outrageous 50 yard punt of his own, which sailed straight to the feet of Jesus in the 93rd minute. If ever a metaphor was needed for the confidence running through this side, here it was.   

DF John Stones, 8 – Absolutely imperious at the back in an all but faultless display. Quick to nick possession from Morata early on, but experienced his one dodgy moment against the same player when the Spaniard skinned him down the right touchline and he was grateful to Walker for the saving interception that followed. Injured going forward to get on the end of a superb De Bruyne cross to the far post but picked himself up to complete a commanding performance of interceptions and clever passing.    
DF Nicolas Otamendi, 7 – Wrongly penalised for an early tackle, he was also booked late on for an unnecessarily hectic lunge at Willian when City could have been playing down the clock in more genteel fashion. Flying header from De Bruynes first half corner, and keen to get forward through the middle areas and play his part in the surging attacking moves of his team mates.   

DF Fabian Delph 8 – Another calm and assured display, this time on the big stage under a searching spotlight, as Chelseas early attacking pinpointed him as a possible weak spot. Wrong choice. Undressed down the line early on, but thereafter confident and increasingly in charge of the left flank, where he often joined the attack. Cannot be expected to fly to the byline like Benjamin Mendy, but does his work tidily and crisply, cutting out plenty of passes and joining the attack so enthusiastically that he spent more time advanced than the much vaunted Walker did on the opposite flank.    

MF Kyle Walker 8 – Energetic display from the right back. First touch took him marauding through central midfield, to link with Leroy Sane wide on the left flank, an early sign for the home side of how the City players would be interchanging their roles. Quick to support Stones on the one occasion Morata got goalside of his defensive partner. Two magnificent through balls one after the other as City pressed late on and energy to spare at the end to head away one last bit of danger with a minute to go.    

MF Fernandinho, 8 – Plenty of early possession as City settled in. Set the pace and drew the boundary lines. Great opportunity to score from Kevin de Bruynes corner but his bullet header was saved. Booked for accumulation of fouls, after one of his tactical trips on Willian was quickly followed by another block on Hazard, but was a lynchpin in Citys almost total midfield control.   
MF David Silva, 8 -- Always available, always turning out of trouble and finding the crucial spaces. Promising early links with De Bruyne and Sterling suggested that City were on the money and Silva robbing Chelseas boiler room boss N-Golo Kante served to confirm this. Pushed well forward - often tucked in right behind Gabriel Jesus - the Spaniard had two chances to open the scoring, but just failed with both, dragging a shot wide from Walkers run and doing extremely well to get off a shot with no space for proper backlift with Rudiger breathing down his neck. With City in the ascendency just after the goal, could and should have made it two, but appeared to mistrust his right foot to do the job. In the whirling vortex of such a fast paced game, every pass had just the right weight applied to it.

MF Kevin de Bruyne, 9 – Perhaps with a point to prove to the side that sold him, De Bruyne was the difference between a great City performance ending unrewarded and the eventual win. Ironic then that it had been his miss 12 months ago that was the turning point in the Etihad match between the two sides, which possibly brought it home to Chelsea that they could win the title. Here his strike appeared to remind Chelsea that this year will be very different. Started wide on the right, but popped up all over the pitch, guiding, prompting, prodding and, when it came to the crunch, scoring a superb left footed winner. Early freekick proved to be a sighter for an afternoon of magical passing and forceful running. Despite playing a lot of the game hugging the right touchline, his influence was immense. From time to time drifted back to a central number 8 position, dragging Bakayoko with him. Balls through to Sterling causing constant danger and the arcing right wing passes and crosses almost impossible for Chelsea to deal with. Still closing Chelsea players down on one leg right at the end. Complete performance.  
MF, Leroy Sane 8 – Quick to block early attempts by Rudiger to advance down his flank, he posed plenty of problems to Chelsea going forward too. Brilliant use of tiny spaces close to the touchline in swapping close passes with David Silva and wriggling free to the goalline. First of these could have brought a goal but the ball in was played just behind the onrushing De Bruyne. Switched to the right for much of the second period, where he also caused some danger. Defensively, failed to pick up Hazard from a quick free kick played inside him, leading to an Ederson save.   

MF, Raheem Sterling 8 Sent flying as early as the third minute, he remained happy to run at the heart of the Chelsea defence, drawing a string of first half free kicks in dangerous positions. His shadow Marcus Alonso was booked for one foul too many and was afforded little chance to leave his tracking duties to create some damage of his own. The speed of his running through the inside right channels was too much for ponderous Chelsea defenders. Volleyed a strong left footer over, when with a little more composure, he might have added to Citys score. Ball snatched in extremis from his toe end as he was shaping to shoot just after this too, having been set up beautifully by David Silva.   
FW, Gabriel Jesus, 8 – Selfless and capable performance from the Brazilian, putting a real shift in for the team. This was encapsulated in his constant closing down of the Chelsea defenders and goalkeeper, leading to multiple losses of possession from the home side. Sterling effort. When the day demands that he "disappears" into the team effort, this is exactly what he does, with his deftness of touch playing a vital part in the goal and his holding play good enough to maintain possession with plenty of attention from home defenders. Amazing technique on show towards the end, firstly to fashion a cushioned volley that was arrowing inside the far post when Rudiger got his head to it in last gasp desperation and secondly when trapping Edersons fifty yard punt down the middle of the park in injury time. Killed it dead.     

Bernardo Silva -- Arrived as a 75th minute replacement for his namesake David and took only a few minutes to get into his stride. That Citys passing through the middle did not skip a beat in the meantime showed how well he adapted to a more central role.

lkay Gundogan – Arrived on 83 minutes for Leroy Sane and immediately threaded a wonderful ball through the middle of the Chelsea defence. Sprightly and alert, he looks keen to catch up for lost time.
Danilo – 93rd minute time waster to replace an absolutely exhausted De Bruyne.    

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