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. 




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