Sunday, April 8, 2018

THE FLIGHT OF ICARUS

There had been severe doubts in many quarters about City’s ability to stage an apt Premier League coronation after the gross mishap in midweek when they had shot their Champions League feet off with the ceremonial cannons, but this, ladies and gentlemen, was the real deal once again. 45 minutes more and the party could be launched in earnest.  

With a rich history of urinating on their own party bonfires, they came in their masses to witness one thing or another: the feast of Steven or another raging embarrassment and damp squib.
The first British winners of a European and domestic double had done so in the teeming rain of the Prater Stadium with the whole nation watching Chelsea v Leeds in the FA Cup final replay instead. Big Mal’s boy wonders had gone out of the FA Cup in the quagmire of Halifax. Alan Ball’s football genius tactics had brought Steve Lomas to the corner flag to time waste when City needed another goal v Liverpool to stave off relegation. Third division play off glory had been rescued from the biggest wreck of all against Gillingham. FA Cup delight at Spurs had only come after going down to ten men and dropping three goals behind. The first Premier League trophy in 2012 had been hauled in with the small matter of two goals in injury time to thwart United. I could go on but the walls are closing in on me.

So here we were confronted by that self-same United, the behemoth of old, grown wrinkly and slow moving under the stop-and-swivel tactics of Jose Mourinho. Still second though, still grumbling and growling, still hauling its hunking weight across the pitches of England with the whiff of ancient authority. The ghost of Alex Ferguson still haunts the fields of the Premier League and the not-in-my-lifetime irreverence still sends a shiver down many spines. Drawn to the fight as ace party poopers may have been an oddly reduced role for United to play, but here they still were, standing tall and ready for the off.
By half time it was clear we were watching the effervescent, sweet-smelling City that we had all been hoping for. David Silva’s little pirouettes were working smoothly, the no-number-nine policy was causing havoc with Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva alternating as the most advanced and Captain Vinnie had decided to dust down his raging bull impersonation.

The only thing missing from the whole glossy show was Raheem’s pocket compass.


Under the half time arc lights all had seemed so well. United, cowed and miserable, two goals down but a whisker from a five-goal drubbing, were making Ferguson wriggle grim-faced in the comfy seats. David Gill sat alongside looking for all the world like the man who had sat on a pin cushion.

Then a strange but remarkably comforting thing happened.
Despite all the money, the glistening new stadium with its towering stands and the immaculately dressed über-coach, City, dear old City, reverted to type. The ghosts of the Shay, of Romark, the bog-eyed soothsayer who put a spell on Malcolm Allison, of Alan Ball’s corner flag routine, of Raddy Antic, of City’s late 90s in-house Manager of the Month award and the grating sound of a thousand giggling adversaries came back all at once.

United, flat, horrible and defeated, suddenly perked up. Paul Pogba, the inevitable target of Pep’s first attempt at Mourinhou-esque mind games in the build up to the game, also sputtered into life. It all seemed so natural, so inevitable, as one goal became two and two became three.
Towering Vinny and the whirling dervish Otamendi stood like pillars of salt as United carved their way through. Raheem stood and pondered his three clear misses, then added another for good measure as the game stuttered towards its cataclysmic end. Gabriel Jesus, mindful of his no-show at Anfield last week, entered the fray with a bee in his bonnet and was booked for swinging his legs at anyone that came near him. Kevin de Bruyne and Sergio Aguero, wrapped up in cotton wool for Liverpool, were suddenly out there too, a moving breathing admission from the coach that events had overtaken him.

Even the referee, the learned Mr Martin Atkinson of Drighlington, added some light shading of his own to this drastic tableau of ever-darkening colours, waving away penalty appeals after Ashley Young had demolished Aguero in the box.  By the end, all light had faded. We were spiralling back down into old familiar territory. All those voices of approval that have talked up City’s wonderful passing game all season were suddenly guffawing again, just like in the olden days.
But, as the lights went out on the party that never was, you couldn’t help wondering what this contrary old beast had in store for us all next Tuesday and, whatever it was, would we be able to stand it?

This article originally featured in the print version of the Irish Examiner's Terrace Talk column





Tuesday, April 3, 2018

CAULDRONS AND CALLING CARDS


When Alex Ferguson uttered his immortal reply to the question put to him by a reporter, to wit “do you think Manchester United will ever go into a Manchester derby match as underdogs?” his reply was widely greeted with mirth and knowing nods of the head.
The old sage had spoken again and the club he had disparagingly named the noisy neighbours had been put firmly back in their place.

Ian Herbert in the Independent even went so far as to call his response “a perfect piece of theatre”, as the United manager exhibited his certainty for all to see.

The gushing did not stop there: "For fully 15 seconds he eyed his inquisitor, a glint in those narrow eyes, and you wondered whether that individual would be on the receiving end of the full force of his opinion. "What time is it?" he said, at last. "I think it is time for me to leave..... Not in my lifetime."
It was fair to say that Ferguson had by this time of his career large sections of the press easting out of the palm of his hand.
The year was 2009 and, nine short years later, it is clear for all to see which of the Manchester giants has swept enthusiastically to the forefront. City – one victory away from securing their third league title in seven years – will do just that if they defeat -- of all teams – Manchester United next weekend.

For United it is the nightmare scenario that was introduced as a possibility some weeks ago and has since then been inching towards reality as inescapably as a landslide making its way down a heavily drenched hillside.

City’s usurping of United’s top dog status is not all, however. There is another very realistic scenario that could heap even more humiliation on their neighbours: this game of the century, this utterly unique opportunity to grab the limelight even more forcibly whilst playing the local rivals is not even top of City’s list of priorities in this week of vital Champions League action.

Not only have City overtaken their neighbours and consolidated that position of superiority, they are now in a position to state without fear of being contradicted that two games against – of all people – Liverpool, are now more important than closing out the title against United.
Ferguson, you imagine, would not have been alone in finding it tough to imagine such a scenario.

Liverpool it was who – on the occasion of the afore-mentioned press conference – the United manager had quoted as his club’s fiercest rival. Now, the shoe appears to be on the other foot.
City, planning meticulously for the trip to Anfield in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal, may well decide that it is worth playing reserves and kids against United at the weekend to spare the legs of the likes of David Slva, Kevin de Bruyne and Fernandinho for the second leg against Liverpool a week hence.

“History” was the one word reason Ferguson gave for naming the Liverpool rivalry as the most relevant and indeed, on a European front, history also conjures some wonderful Anfield nights of raw passion and drama. From Monchengladbach through Benfica to St Etienne, Liverpool fans have witnessed some stunning nights of European drama down the years.
Now it is an equally memorable European tie v Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest that City would like to emulate, one of the few in the 70s and 80s that turned and hit Liverpool square in the chops.
It is nearly 30 years since the last of Liverpool’s league titles, however, and sporadic European success since then has also begun to fade into the memory. City, the first English side to be European and domestic winners in the same season (1970), represent what comes next as well as what has been.

In the infamous press conference alluded to at the beginning of this article, Mark Hughes – then in
The "Anfield cauldron" did not put off Forest in European competition
charge of City – also had his say, once Ferguson's dominance of the podium was over. The Welshman, far from looking back and citing historical importance, revelled in future hierarchies. “For far too long the Top Six has been set in stone and we are trying to change that” was the crux of his offering.

Nobody can doubt that City have --in the space of nine short years -- certainly achieved that.
In breaking up the cartel that ruled the Premier League roost for more than a decade, City have opened up the top four race into a much more competitive affair that has greater ability to provide surprises. Liverpool, United and now Arsenal – a club seemingly permanently lodged in the top four places for two decades – are experiencing what it is like to be on the outside looking in.

Now it is City that possess the longest unbroken run of appearances in the Top Four (that 2009 season was the last time they finished lower than 4th). Since then Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and now Pep Guardiola have brought the ship home in 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 4th and 3rd. A third 1st place will be added this weekend if City can fend off United over 90 minutes in what promises to be a scorching Etihad atmosphere.

Before that, however, is the small matter of Liverpool away in the Champions League. Scorching atmosphere, we are promised, will be an understatement for what the teams will come out to at Anfield. You get the impression the City players will relish it and will also relish the opportunity to prove that the 4-3 reverse there in the league was an aberration in a season of silky smooth progress to the top.

After all, not in our lifetime have we seen a Premier League side do the things City have done this season.

This is a longer version of the article that first appeared on the pages of ESPN's website.





Thursday, March 29, 2018

REELING AROUND THE FOUNTAIN


A brief look at tactical deployment during the Premier League era -

Part One: From Reid to Keegan

An England playing style reminiscent of Pep Guardiola’s City has been evident in the last two international friendlies played under Gareth Southgate. With two members of the back four well versed in the Catalan’s modus operandi, the idea was plain to see.

Kyle Walker and John Stones have become well used to the high risk low maintenance possession game that Guardiola espouses and their working of the ball through tight spaces for England was reminiscent of many City performances this season.
With Tottenham and Liverpool also providing plenty of players for the national team, Southgate appears to be propagating a similar style of play to those teams. Possibly only the contingent from Manchester United have a steeper adaptation process to tackle.

All of this pleasant tippy tappy football is a far cry from the early days of the Premier League.
As chronicled by Michael Cox in his seminal book, The Mixer, England’s top flight tactics have developed a degree of sophistication that was noticeable only by its absence in the 1980s.

The arrival of Guardiola in England has further fine tuned a growing penchant for a strain of meticulously planned possession football that has carried City right to the top of the domestic tree and threatens to plant them even deeper into European football’s psyche this season.
As English football has developed its tactics within this timeframe, City’s style and shape have also seen several significant changes of direction.

As founder members of the Premier League in 1992-93, City played a brand of unsophisticated percentage football under Peter Reid, a robust approach copied by many in those early days.  Games with Wimbledon involved craning the neck to follow the path of long balls punted towards John Fashanu, while Dave Bassett’s Sheffield United thought nothing of pumping the ball incessantly down the middle and onto the broad forehead of Brian Deane. With Chelsea’s front line including bar room brawler Mick Harford, the ambling bulk of Tony Cascarino and the pugnacious Neil Shipperly even the aspiring classes were liberally scattered with battering rams. Crystal Palace, with a fast running duo of John Salako and Chris Armstrong that scorched many a pedestrian defence, also favoured getting them free as quickly as a Geoff Thomas welly downfield  could instigate.
Reid, a workhorse midfielder for Bolton and Everton, had reached England status in time for the 1986 World Cup, where he was famously outrun by Diego Maradona in the fateful quarter-final game at the Azteca. Shaping a side in his own truculent form, Reid cobbled together a team that was both difficult to beat and hard to watch. If he had looked like a steam engine being passed by the Bullet train in Mexico City, Reid’s City side at least contained some semblance of pace down the right from David White and at left back from Terry Phelan. Otherwise it spent most of its time chugging rather than flowing.

Reid was joined in a workaday midfield by Fitzroy Simpson, Mark Brennan and his Merseyside mucker Steve McMahon, by this time a portly version of the all-action pivot that had served Liverpool so well through the mid-to-late eighties.
On the left ex-Oldham Athletic technician Ricky Holden is perhaps still feted as the slowest thing ever to be released down the side of a football pitch in the history of the Premier League.

Despite a concomitant lack of pace, with two 5th place finishes and a 9th, City were well placed to advance. A reliance on the somewhat agricultural tactic of finding the totemic Niall Quinn, who would nod down high balls to a stream of heavy-breathing midfielders arriving (very) late into the box had brought its rewards, but the feeling was that City’s star was once again beginning to wane.
Reid’s system unravelled at the start of 1993-94 after an ill-disciplined pre-season tour of Holland revealed little beyond hitherto unseen pace in certain squad members getting to the airport bar at Schiphol.  

As City’s new management coordinator John Maddock searched for a replacement for the
Brian Horton: brave tactics
swiftly ditched Reid, the names on the short list yelled Route One: Joe Royle, Dave Bassett, Steve Coppell, all of whom had had success with unsophisticated tactics at Oldham/Everton, Wimbledon/Sheffield United and Crystal Palace respectively. Oddly, given his predilection for outright disaster, chairman Peter Swales’s gaze had also fallen briefly on Terry Venables, who would have provided a very different tableau of football tactics had his signature been pursued to a close.
Four years later Venables would bring England to the verge of European Championship success in 1996 with a fast flowing side dominated by the grace and guile of Paul Gascoigne, Teddy Sheringham and Darren Anderton.

For the time being, City were stuck with the more prosaic skills of Gary Flitcroft, the ageing hulk of McMahon and the intimidatingly bent nose of Michel Vonk. The man charged with getting results from a stuttering side was also to come from left field.
Nobody at the club could have envisaged the tactical revolution that came about under Reid’s little-heralded successor, Brian Horton. A manager with scant top flight experience, Horton proceeded to give City wings, quite literally. But first he had to make do with what he had inherited. This included a lightweight midfield built on the shifting sands of Norway’s Kare Ingebrigtsen and AlphonsGroenendijk, a Dutch midfielder with the stringy build of Arnold Muhren but none of the delicate placement.

A stodgy season grew increasingly tetchy as City sank towards a relegation zone occupied by flyhackers Sheffield United and a wilting Oldham, plus a Swindon Town side already long aware of their fate. Horton’s influence began to be seen that spring. With the recruitment of David Rocastle from Leeds (a swap that took White’s diminishing pace to Yorkshire), City’s midfield suddenly possessed a degree of class not seen for some time. In came Paul Walsh up front and Steffan Karl in midfield. An unknown German by the name of Uwe Rösler also joined from 1FC Nürnberg, as did Everton’s hot and cold winger Peter Beagrie.
Things clicked immediately. Rösler and Walsh both scored in a rousing 2-2 draw at Portman Road, before big wins over Villa and Newcastle plus a Karl-inspired victory at The Dell dragged City clear of the trap door.

With the flying pair of Nicky Summerbee and Beagrie feeding a front two of Walsh and Quinn or Rösler, City’s historical flair for attacking football was rejuvenated the following season (1994-95). Although Horton’s team’s lacked much of the sophistication and precision of Guardiola’s side, the end result was often strikingly similar, with a flurry of high scoring matches and unrivalled entertainment. Mobility in the forward ranks allied to effervescent wide players driving for the byline meant City’s shape had been irrevocably altered towards the offensive. A better balanced midfield diamond housed the energy of Ian Brightwell or Steve Lomas in harness with the drive and craft of McMahon and the speed and trickery of Summerbee and Beagrie. For a while it was a bewitching concoction, with early season dismantling of West Ham and Everton boding well for what was to come. When City came up against another side playing a broadly similar style, Ozzie Ardiles’s Tottenham, a festival of attacking ensued, with City running out 5-2 winners in a match still warmly remembered today.
It spoke volumes that such an unhinged match got Ardiles the sack, while City sailed on happily to a League Cup tie at Loftus Road the following midweek, where another attack-and-be-damned performance saw a 4-3 away win. The squad was thin, however, and it took little to break the magic. A 3-3 draw with Southampton was the prelude to a horrible cave-in at Old Trafford (0-5) and Horton’s experiment was on borrowed time. The diamond finally shattered completely in a League Cup quarter final at Selhurst Park, where the usually ineffective John Salako and Chris Armstrong suddenly turned into Gento and Puskas. City’s five man attack left the defence half naked and even Salako knew exactly what to do when confronted with a semi-dressed Alan Kernaghan: Run for your life!

City’s descent from the Premier League to the third tier of English football was overseen by the tactically bereft Alan Ball. A World Cup winner from 1966, the flame-haired Ball carried none of the nous and playing ability that had brought 72 England caps to his managerial career at Maine Road. The peak of Ball’s season in the sun saw him give the incomparable Georgi Kinkladze a free role in behind the strikers, but forgot to tell Steve Lomas what to do to help.
It was the Premier League era of Juninho and Cantona, Bergkamp and Zola. Even dreary old Bolton had Sasa Curcic, but the trick was finding a system into which these maverick foreign talents would fit. City and Ball failed to do so with dramatic effect, as did Bolton, fellow relegation fodder that season.  
Ball had done much the same in his previous post at Southampton, turning them into perennial strugglers on the back of his idea to "just give the ball to Le Tissier". Relying so heavily on one talented individual - albeit in the case of Kinkladze and Le Tissier extremely talented players - meant resentment from others and a lack of a coordinated system.

As Summerbee later stated "Ball changed systems all the time to accommodate Georgi and changing all the time is a sure sign you don't have a clue what you are doing". *

Producing the feeble “Buster” Philips from Exeter and announcing that the winger with the frame of a 12 year old would be England’s first £10m player reeked of desperation, while Ball’s tactical teach-ins simply smelled the place out. Tiring of trying to organise his own team, Ball eventually sat back and enjoyed other peoples’ dismantle City, as in the 4- and 6-goal beatings at Anfield within four days of each other.
With no discernible shape at all under Frank Clark, Asa Hartford and Phil Neal, City collapsed further. Clark's gamble of getting even less talented players than Ball had worked with to fit in around Kinkladze's mesmeric skills brought disastrous results. 

Such was the shambles inherited by Joe Royle late in 1996-97, in fact, that a return to
"Loft it to Quinny"
Reid’s Dogs of War style was deemed the only real way forward for a club truly down on its luck. With Kinkladze now underused and a short experiment with a free “running” Peter Beardsley ditched, City were on their way to the third tier.

Incredibly that Dogs of War philosophy carried City a certain way on the road to recovery, the acquisition of bull like central defender Andy Morrison and later well travelled Richard Jobson provided a solid defence for the first time in four years. Royle also struck lucky with a little and large strike force of Paul Dickov, stolen from Arsenal, and Shaun Goater. While Dickov provided unstinting graft, Goater soon proved to have the uncanny nack of scoring off absolutely any part of his body he got in front of the ball, including a shoulder in the play-off semi-final with Wigan that brought City to the edge of a comeback to the second division. Goater had the nimbleness of a man delivering a piano, but was one of those players who just could not stop scoring.  
Cavalier days eventually returned under Kevin Keegan. City’s boom or bust tendencies were there for everyone to see, as Keegan’s all-out attack would eventually give way to the ultra prudent stewardship of his assistant Stuart Pearce. Keegan's fantasy line-ups and the vast desert plain of Pearce’s tenure will be tackled in Part Two, as well as a look into the We'd Rather Not Score tactics that almost ruined an entire generation of City fans.

* From The Mixer by Michael Cox

Monday, February 26, 2018

TIME'S ARROW


There have been many images of Vincent Kompany over the last three seasons: Vincent Kompany on crutches. Vincent Kompany sitting on the turf, head in hands. Vincent Kompany being helped from the pitch shaking his head.

The beaming, pride-filled Vincent Kompany lifting the League Cup for the third time in a glittering Manchester City career is by far the most agreeable image of a player, who has been struck down by so many setbacks (41 and counting, according to the Mail), many felt this day, this great release from recent purgatory might never come. 

Kompany represents the oldest of old guards at City, from a time when the new boss’s accent was Welsh and the team’s playing style was slightly less well balanced than the smooth-as-silk repertoire we see today. Brought in as a £6m defensive midfielder by Mark Hughes, Kompany arrived at a time when City transfer splashes were just becoming a topic in the mainstream press.

Thaksin Shinawatra was wooing the locals with free satay sauce and the sumptuously exotic likes of Roque Santa Cruz, David Bentley and Ronaldinho were all said to be winging their way to Manchester.

Instead City hauled in the Brazilian genius of Jô to join the Bulgarian splendours of Martin Petrov and Valeri Bojinov and the hitherto little-known talents of Kompany.

Kompany makes his City debut v West Ham in 2008
European football was also on the agenda, but in the shape of a UEFA Cup trip to play EB Streymur, champions of a bleak scattering of rocks in the northern Atlantic. The club's game in the Faroes would go down in fan folklore. To match the basic ruggedness of Torshavn, City played the second leg at Oakwell, Barnsley. Multiple trips to the Nou Camp and Bernabeu were still a distant pipedream.

City had started the season with a 4-2 walloping at Villa Park. The side contained Tal Ben Haim at centre back and a midfield of Kelvin Etuhu, Gelson Fernandes and Michael Johnson. Ched Evans led the attack. By the second game of the season, at home to West Ham, useful signs for the future of the club had arrived in the shape of debutante Kompany. Starting in midfield, the Belgian would drop into central defence after Micah Richards had spent ten minutes on the turf attached to breathing apparatus. And so Kompany’s short journey from SV Hamburg to City’s central defence was already complete.

Since then he has grown into the club’s captain, an ambassador for everything right about Manchester City, an eloquent spokesman for the sport and a business graduate in his own right. Throughout this journey to greatness, he has been a humble and enthusiastic purveyor of everything sky blue.

In City’s simple dismantling of an end-of-era Arsenal side, he was immense, at once bossing the defence, charging forward through the middle and menacing David Ospina’s goal at the other end.

As fitting as it was to see three old hands, Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, forming the foundation of City’s third League Cup win in five years, the bright future under Guardiola may not include any of these players. Kompany’s injury troubles, allowing him only sporadic participation in City’s ascent to Europe’s top table are well documented. Little Silva, directing the midfield traffic in the face of Kevin de Bruyne’s muted performance, and the goal machine Aguero may only last one more season before they too become surplus to increasingly stringent requirements.

Look familiar?
With Yaya Toure’s gigantic presence also waning, it feels like City are coming to the end of the first great chapter of their modern renaissance. Supporters will grimace in attempting to imagine the club without these stalwarts, but that time is closing in fast. Hamstrings are tighter, muscles more susceptible to pulls and the battery levels are not as high as they used to be.

Niggling injuries have long staunched Kompany's flow, but they were not to be a hindrance on this grand occasion.

He proved faster than the rocket-heeled Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as he shrugged Arsenal’s shiny new purchase off the ball in an epic thrust of his battered old frame. Down on the right flank, he produced a soft shoe shuffle that left Hector Bellerin scratching his hair extensions and those trademark surges through the middle that used to announce the arrival of the charging Yaya Toure now revealed Kompany in full flow.

The big man’s usefulness did not halt on arrival at the edge of the opposition penalty area either. Having scraped the post with a right foot poke, his moment of glory was not far away. De Bruyne’s intelligent flat corner to the edge of the area allowed Ilkay Gundogan a shot and, as it floated gently into the sea of flailing limbs in the box, a muscled leg let fly, diverting the ball past Ospina. It was Kompany of course, that galloping colossus, all uncontrollable body parts as he cavorted towards the corner flag. The elation stretching his face mirrored that of the last gargantuan goal pocketed in his name, his giant leap sealing the critical 1-0 win over a timid Manchester United that completely rerouted the 2012 title run-in with three games to go.

Here he was again, melon grin splitting his well worn features. Here he was playing in and scoring in a great Wembley final that he may well have thought was now beyond his fading powers. With John Stones and Aymeric Laporte on the sidelines looking on and Nicolas Otamendi as strong as an ox in the new firmament of City’s defensive stars, glory days like this may be numbered for Kompany in his soon-to-be capacity as apparent 4th choice centre back.

His total of 47 appearances in the last three seasons is only 10 more than centre back partner Otamendi’s total for the present campaign. His body’s capacity to recover has been questioned for over three years of trouble and strife, pulls and tears. For a player who has made it his trademark to go full throttle into the hectic field of battle, the body now says “be gentle with me”.

Vincent Kompany has given everything he has got for City in 326 appearances for the club. At Wembley his just reward was delivered in the fullest of spotlights. May it not be the last pot he lifts skywards in the name of Manchester City. This man of stout dignity, this captain for all seasons. 




Thursday, February 15, 2018

THE UNDERRATED BEAUTY OF COLLABORATIVE RIGOR

This article first appeared here on the pages of ESPNFC in abridged form. 

Swiss efficiency – from the herd of punctual trams to the hordes of office workers packing into Migros food hall at 11.45 for lunch – was everywhere to be seen in Basel.
The gleaming headquarters of Novartis, steel, glass and millions of tiny rivets  speak louder and more eloquently than the dark gothic shrines around the Münsterplatz these days. Bayer are here too, housed in giant metallic cubes that house busy humans in varied states of functional exhilaration.
Fountains pump jets of water at vigorously timed intervals, while foggy looking blokes with Manchester accents f and blind about having paid "50 quid for a couple of Baileys and Amaretto".
The waiter waits in the Zum Braunen Mutz. He waits non-plussed as you rummage for enough money to cover the modest round you have stutteringly ordered from him. He avoids eye contact as you wipe away a tear. 
That nationally stereotypical lust for efficiency and productivity will have won Manchester City some new fans in this frozen corner of the country, after a ruthless display of the by-now well worn passing routines ripped the will to live out of Raphael Wicky’s slumbering team.

Basel, returning from a long winter break, will have been less enthusiastic at resuming work than the city’s workforce appears to be after their early lunches. Off the pace and out manoeuvred by a City side as slick as they were hungry, the home side’s hopes had been demolished completely inside 20 minutes of the first half.

City’s dominance will have confirmed fears held in Madrid and Munich and in Paris and Barcelona, that here is a team that could well move through to the final in Kiev this May, if they keep up this coruscating pace and precision. We have become accustomed to seeing City’s delicious brand of pass and move flatten domestic opposition, but now the reality is beginning to dawn on the continent that in this theatre too they are barely to be held. For Maurizio Sarri, boss of Napoli, the penny dropped some time ago. "I'm not watching Juventus and Tottenham," he spluttered, "I want to see Manchester City."
Herr Wicky, a young coach with strident hair, has some sticky problems as he tries to get serial league winners Basel out of the 2nd place they currently occupy behind Young Boys. As Celtic can testify, 2nd place domestically is the same as 7th or 16th - if ever there were so many participants in the Swiss Raifeisen Super League -  but marrying being domestic giants with continental pygmies does not come easy. A sticky Wicky, one might say. Despite this, the local pygmies had devoured Benfica 5-0 and beaten the once much-vaunted Manchester United in the group stages, so due note had been taken. 

Wicky and his staff had made all the right noises beforehand of wanting to be energetic in their tracking of City’s main men and diligent in harrying space, but to carry this out, you first have to get close to your opponent. Guardiola's somewhat laconic performance at the pre-match press conference had involved only a simple parry to the tabloid press's interest in Leroy Sane's miraculous powers of recovery. "He's young" he smiled as the great and the good of her majesty's press looked for an angle.  
He is young, as are many of his colleagues, and this was to prove telling as City shot out of the blocks with three quick goals in 23 minutes. 
With Ilkay Gundogan lively if over-elaborate and Fernandinho shovelling up all the midfield loose balls, City quickly had a platform to feed the tireless running of Sergio Aguero, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling. 
"He's young..."

It has of course been a recurring theme throughout this blistering season of goal-strewn football. Having taken a season to ingest the Premier League sights and smells, Pep Guardiola has put his thoughts into deeds and what a sonnet it is he is constructing in the name of Manchester City.

Sweet music flows from the beast where creaking noises used to emanate. Even the back four, erratically efficient in Basel , seems able to make mistakes and get away with them. Maybe Basel’s drowsiness had something to do with this, as Vincent Kompany prodded short passes to nobody in particular and Ederson played his game of Russian roulette, slicing his passes hither and thither through the narrowest of margins.

So underused is the Brazilian goalkeeper, that you begin to get the idea that he is taking greater risks with his passing each game, just to liven affairs up for himself and his defensive colleagues. Certainly, a more alert side than Basel might have pounced on one or two of the loosely defended balls on this occasion. Early on in fact came several tasty pickings for Basel, as Otamendi swung a boot and inadvertently made a comfortable pass in completely the other direction and Ederson dawdled out disinterestedly to a dangerous-looking one-on-one.  

However, to labour these points is to very much miss the point.

City are in such perfect harmony going forward that a special kind of telepathy appears at times to be at work. With the successful return of David Silva, Fabian Delph and Leroy Sane – surprisingly rapidly in the latter’s case, but absolutely nothing to do with the good lab-coat wearing folk at Novartis – City’s personnel changes but the effectiveness of the whole remains utterly unaffected.

So imbued in these players is the system of pass and move, the ball zipping along that invisible thread as if being pulled by some puppet master above the main stand, that individual elements hardly seem to matter. They do, of course, with Kevin de Bruyne’s presence near Fernandinho the pivot for everything good that happens in City’s engine room. This is not to belittle the contributions of others, the ceaseless breaking of Kyle Walker, Sterling and Bernardo down the flanks, the prodding and jostling of Nicolas Otamendi in central defence and the agility (one sudden superb save required in an hour and a half of perfecting his passing angles) of Ederson, but certain players will be indispensable when the big games inevitably come round for this side.

Guardiola’s job now is to shepherd those precious legs and lungs through the rest of a less punishing February. With vital cup encounters v Wigan and Arsenal coming up, City could end the month with the first of a possible – whisper it – four trophies on the boardroom shelf and the likelihood of the other three joining it hugely enhanced.

BOING
A club once revered for its ability to shoot itself solemnly in the foot without due aid from others, is slowly growing into the most reliable of teams to support. Those battered fans, who exited  the St Jakob Park in Basel this midweek to return to the warm embrace of the Zum Braunen Mutz, have survived traumas in the past that many clubs’ fans have not had the dubious pleasure of experiencing. We've seen things etc etc. Well, there were sights to be seen in Basel, make no mistake, from the fast flowing Rhein to the fast running Raheem Sterling, everything was a blur of shining, liquid forward movement. As the Münsterplatz bells rang out, it was difficult to deny this was another metaphor in a dimly lit town full of the things. As the moon rose high in the frozen night sky, you could only imagine it falling from its majestic height  and being trapped instantly on the instep of Bernardo Silva. We had been serenaded again and the art and endeavour of Guardiola's maestros had lit up this land of scientific certainty.
No certainties in football, that's for sure, but in this season, decorated so beautifully with the art and craft of talented men, there was perhaps only ever one sure thing:  maybe it is only really City that can stop City now. 
City not putting all their still life pears in one basket.







Friday, January 26, 2018

TIGER BAY

The end of Tony Coton's participation in the '94 cup tie
And so the attention swings gently from the League Milk Littlewoods Rumbelows Carabao Cup to the FA Cup.

Having secured a place in the League Cup final v. Arsenal on February 25th, Pep Guardiola’s men will this weekend try to maintain a parallel course for the concrete heaven of Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup. With Premier League games coming thick and fast and a return to Champions League action in the Swiss Alps next month also on the menu, City’s success under the Catalan is illustrated perfectly by an increasingly cluttered fixture list.
A visit to the sun-kissed boulevards of Cardiff will resurrect recent memories of the 2013-14 season, when the Welsh side enjoyed a single season rubbing shoulders with the great and good of English football. Their exploits against Manuel Pellegrini’s side that season bore some fruit, with a topsy turvy early season win at home (3-2) and an equally entertaining defeat (2-4) on their trip north to play at the Etihad. The game in Wales in particular is still remembered as prime Pellegrini Evidence of slackness, lethargy and an it’ll-all-be-fine-won’t-it mentality that set in good and strong during the Chilean’s three year tenure.

FA Cup matches between the two sides have been few and far between, starting with a clash way back in 1924. A positively humungous Maine Road crowd of over 76,000 turned out to see a 0-0 draw between the two sides. That’s 76,000, seat-counter fans. Figures and dates like these bely the modern day gripes of rival supporters that City have few fans and even less history. Where were you when you were shit, indeed. As the popular retort goes, watching/beating/running you when we were shit.
One hundred years ago, the club was not only winning trophies but regularly doing so in front of some of the biggest crowds in the country. So much for teenage Twitter warriors that can just about remember David Beckham.

With a replay won 1-0 in Cardiff, City were set to do the same again when the teams were drawn together in 3rd round in 1961. Once again the tie went to a replay, after the two sides drew 1-1 at Ninian Park in front of 35,000 spectators. The replay in Manchester was goalless but the second replay, played at Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium, finally brought a winner, once again City (2-0). Two games were also needed in 1967 in the 4th round, with a 1-1 draw in Wales preceding a 3-1 City win in Manchester. 
The most recent cup confrontations between the two sides came in 1982 and 1994, the first of which saw John Bond’s side -- fresh from participating in the previous season’s Centenary Cup Final v. Tottenham -- needing only one game at Maine Road to dispose of their opponents 3-1.


Then as now, City faced second tier Cardiff as league leaders. Then, as can be expected this weekend, the lower league side played with a “nothing to lose enthusiasm”, according to Derek Allsop in the Daily Mail the next day. Guardiola’s side can expect much the same at the weekend from a side that has re-acquitted itself well since relegation from the Premier League and is now fighting once again for promotion.
Strangely, for a City side that was top of the pile domestically, there was a distinct fragility about City at this time. Bond’s emergency team building the year before had brought in the likes of Tommy Hutchison, Bobby McDonald, Gerry Gow, Phil Boyer and Trevor Francis. The addition of Francis, however, for 1 million of the queen's best pounds had blown the club's kitty (a small tin kept under Peter Swales's wig) straight into the ship canal and City had a threadbare look about them that would see them relegated the very next season.

By 1983-84 Cardiff would be visitors in the league, not just the cup and there would be problems galore with that too.
City have already experienced the quality and enthusiasm of the top echelons of the Championship with gruelling League Cup battles against Wolves and Bristol City this season. These two second tier sides have been responsible for the two best performances from away sides seen at the Etihad this season so far and that includes the much vaunted likes of Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal, all of whom were a distinctly damp squib.

However, it is the most recent FA Cup tie between the two teams that may give us the greatest pointer to what to expect. In January 1994 a buoyant City side arrived in South Wales to play a Cardiff team down on its luck. Ninian Park, their ancestral home, had been allowed to drop into a dilapidated state and the stench of decay was all around. As well as this, the sounds of war could also be heard at one of the most hostile grounds to visit in those unreconstructed days. A trip to Cardiff matched Leeds, Millwall, Chelsea and certain parts of the West Midlands (Birmingham, Wolves) for a “grand day out”/keep your wits about you stroll around town.

"My first away trip was that cup tie, It was a week after my 15th birthday and I’m still younger now than most of the Cardiff firm that was outside the boozer" - Mark Finnegan on Twitter

For City it was supposed to be a time of renewal, with newspaper reports excitedly announcing ex-player Francis Lee’s intention to fly back from Barbados for the imminent purchase of the club.

Lee’s bid would be accepted in acrimonious circumstances the week after the Cardiff tie, apparently setting the club up for a bright future on the pitch and financial stability off it. Within four exuberant years, City were heading for a second relegation and the third division.
The Cardiff tie perhaps sowed some of the seeds of disaster when all were thinking in terms of renaissance. On a truly shambolic day, full of the noise and passion of true hatred from the home crowd, City’s stars succumbed to an acrobatic winner from Nathan Blake. “Apart from the opening minutes, it was the second division side that called all the shots,” wrote Vince Wright in The Times. With Tony Coton carried off injured and skipper Keith Curle failing from the penalty spot, it was yet another game where all the elements needed for disaster aligned quickly and accurately. 

It was a result that has been added to a sizeable list of potholes and pratfalls in City’s history. If nothing else, here we have a club that  has helped boost and maintain the relevance of the term “giant-killer” throughout its long and fluctuating history.

Today’s Manchester City wears different clothes, however, but it is worth remembering that in 1994 City were also seen as upwardly mobile and (kind of) athletically efficient (with the exception of Alan Kernaghan), certainly good enough to overcome Cardiff. What followed disproved both of those ideas with rude haste and serves a lesson to any top level club, who is foolhardy enough to underestimate opponents from a lower status.










Monday, January 22, 2018

THE JOURNALISTS: Eric Todd

PART 5: Bristol City

Eric Todd, a doyen of football writing in a time before the ceaseless clatter of social media, worked for the Manchester Guardian and later The Guardian. His words-to-frivolity (WTF) ratio was always maintained at an impressively low level, allowing carefully chosen phrases to go to work on the reader's imagination.

In days before clickbait and inane look-at-me hyperbole were the names of the game, Todd stood for conciseness, directness and descriptive brilliance. A familiar face at the grounds of the north, he had been present at the famous White Horse Wembley cup final of 1923 between Bolton and West Ham. Later, following typically sharp journalistic instincts, he tracked down the police officer who had been atop the horse that day, for an interview.

Todd's report for City's 2-0 win over Bristol City in September 1977 

Born in Leeds, Todd's breakthrough came at the Lancashire Daily Post in Preston, from where he moved to the Manchester Evening Chronicle, mainly covering football with Manchester City and cricket with Lancashire. When The Manchester Guardian moved south, becoming simply The Guardian and losing its strong northern ties, Todd lost his position as senior football correspondent in the north.

"In turn they have been visited by irresponsibility and outright inspiration"


He could be a prickly character and his no-nonsense behaviour occasionally matched the sharpness of his prose. If he felt a situation demanded that he say something,  Todd would not hold back, once standing up to a prickly Manchester United manager Matt Busby, who had been reacting negatively to questions at an Old Trafford press conference.
Todd is also remembered for a beautifully curt report on a match between Liverpool and Arsenal that had been less than inspiring entertainment. With no goals and little excitement, Todd dismissed the entire game in one paragraph. When asked about the shortness of his match report b y his editor, Todd is said to have responded "That was already more than it's worth, and that's all it gets."
On the other hand, reporting on City - a club whose quixotic nature over the years began to grow on him, brought out some of his best work. After the 1968 League title, his Guardian piece started thus:
Tell it not in Trafford Park, publish it not in the streets of Stretford. Manchester City, winners 4-3 in a magnificent match at St James' Park against Newcastle United, replaced Manchester United as title holders in the First Division. In doing so they fulfilled the ancient prophecy that the meek shall inherit the earth , with which nowadays must be incorporated football league championships as well as local councils..." 
The entire stirring report can be read in The Guardian's archives.

His admiration for the club and its supporters can be best illustrated by this extract from the Newcastle match report he penned for The Guardian in 1968:

"Then there are the City supporters, many of whom have developed ulcers and who have grown prematurely grey for the cause. I have seen them at Plymouth and Newcastle, Portsmouth and Middlesbrough year after year, "like patience on a monument smiling at grief". They have cursed, applauded, demanded, cajoled, laughed and wept. They have sworn never again to take out season tickets, never again to support their team. And always they have come back, generation after generation.  
Todd "retired" in 1973, but eloquent reports penned by him could still be found in The Telegraph later in the 70s (see the Bristol City clip, above). Always a friend of Manchester City, he died in a home for retired journalists in Dorking, Surrey on 10th December, 2000.

With him went some of the journalistic skills so badly missing in swathes of today's mainstream press.



MATCH NOTES: NEWCASTLE (h)

4 of City's best performers on the day celebrate Aguero's opener
These match notes originally aired in abridged form on ESPN's Player Ratings feature. This is an extended and therefore much more detailed version:

From playing your bogey side at a ground you never win at to playing your most pliable Premier League opponent: City could not have asked for a more appropriate fixture after the defeat at Anfield.

Needing to respond to last weekend’s first setback of the season, City succeeded in the most encouraging way possible, playing their unstoppable passing game as if nothing at all had happened.

A little strange perhaps to hear that, having had a 15 point lead cut back to 12 and, thanks to the vagaries of the tv fixture list, back again to nine, excited murmurs had begun to circulate that the team that had already "sown up the title" in November, might now be catchable.

This is how the narratives of the great and good work, big brains with big ideas and endless yards of column inches too fill

With the return of David Silva to rule the roost over midfield (an English league record 23 successive wins with him playing) and a seamless performance from yet another left back candidate Oleksandr Zinchenko, City’s win puts them right back on track.

Positives

What a way to come back from what could have been a demoralising defeat on Merseyside last week. 10 first half corners alone told the story of a side very keen to put the brief setback behind them. Another eight in the second half made some of the stats look a little ridiculous by the end.       
Negatives

For a side delivering such crushing possession stats, it was interesting to see what happened when the laser passing finally broke down. Ironically, this occurred on the very edge of the away side’s penalty area as City pushed for a third goal. The outcome? A breakaway goal for Newcastle which suddenly reduced the score to 2-1. Some of the blame falls at the dancing feet of Oleksandr Zinchenko, a midfielder getting slightly carried away with his roving brief from left back. 

With Newcastle's fans hitting bum notes on the terraces, empty seat watchers and No History buffs were put on high alert once again:

Manager Yet another snapshot of how the manager’s mind works: full strength side, no holds barred, same crushing tactics, complete confidence in personnel (Zinchenko thrown in at left back ahead of Danilo). Fortune favours the brave.       

Player ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
Ederson, 7 -- Nothing at all to do until the second half, when he appeared to have the brainwave of taking a few risks to liven things up for himself. First was a dodgy out-pass in the 57th minute, which livened things up at the back for his defenders. You could hardly blame him for becoming bored, but his manager might well have been doing exactly that for a couple of scary episodes deep in the second half. First serious action was coming out to meet the excellent Jacob Murphy’s run and seeing the ball looped over him and into the goal. Energetic double save later on partly due to his own butter fingers in dropping the initial shot.   

Kyle Walker, 8 – Gave away first minute foul which resulted in a scare in the box from the free-kick, but was much better than of late: involved, accurate and pacey in his right wing bursts. Came into the match more after the break as City varied the side of attack more. One hurried shot nearly hit the roof, but produced a delicious diagonal ball to Zinchenko on the opposite flank.
John Stones, 7 -- Calmest game since his comeback with the timing of passing better than of late. Early chance to put City ahead, screwing near post shot just wide, but spent most of his time playing simple safe balls across and backwards towards Ederson.     

Nicolas Otamendi, 7 – As usual the more adventurous of the central two at the back. Advanced regularly to join the attack, but also got his foot in on at least two crucial moments as Newcastle threatened. Took a painful hit on the ankle from Joselu just after the break, but recovered without obvious signs of stress.        
Oleksandr Zinchenko, 8 -- Such calm authority from such an inexperienced stand-in. Very involved right from the start, with plenty of classy touches in the Silva, Leroy Same triangles. Lovely cushioned pass on the volley to Sergio Aguero showed a player full of confidence and poise. Quick to track back and snuff out the threat, but caught too far upfield for Newcastle's goal, as Murphy broke through his channel.

Fernandinho, 7 -- Cool and authoritative with the telling foot in and the right choice of pass to launch his team mates forward, as with the pass to set up a lightning attack culminating in Sterling's disallowed goal after 18 minutes. Great variation of pass, from the golf shot to chip Walker in down the right, which ended with Sergio Aguero going close, to the long diagonal to David Silva switching play in an instant.    
David Silva, 9 – What a difference it makes to City’s play to have the Spaniard orchestrating things. Range, choice and accuracy of pass peerless. Pull back from the byline for Stones's early chance, followed by many zippy interchanges with Sane and Zinchenko down the left. A constant headache for the tracking Javier Manquillo. Still biting enthusiastically into a double tackle in the 89th minute.

Karl Darlow is beaten by the merest of Aguero touches to De Bruyne's inswinging cross from the right. 


Kevin de Bruyne, 8 – Shares the responsibility these days with Silva for City’s prodigious attacking threat. Often the deepest player to restart the push forward, he has a similarly tireless engine to club legend Colin Bell, whose incredible stamina earned him the nickname Nijinsky, after the pedigree racehorse. Threaded early ball to Silva for John Stones chance after 6 minutes. Perfect lofted ball in from the left for Aguero's first on 33 minutes, immediately after a terrible freekick and a missed ball had blotted his copybook. Low corners unproductive but a neat left footer was just touched around the post by the busy Karl Darlow.        
MF Leroy Sane, 8 – Wasteful four yard pass straight to a Newcastle defender did not bode well for the afternoon, but the German picked up the thread and, well before the end, was mesmerising the right side of the visiting defence. One of the finest pieces of skill of the season so far to run and weave through a packed Newcastle defence to set up Aguero’s hat trick goal. Pace, poise, close control, acceleration and nerveless confidence in his ability marks him out as a real star for the future, if he can control his temperament.    

Raheem Sterling, 7 – Isolated on the underused right side for much of the first period, he came into it much more after the break, running hard at the beleaguered defence. Disallowed goal at the end of a great move after 18 minutes. Team mates overestimating his pace with over hit through balls. Great run into the box to be brought down by Manquillo for the penalty. How Darlow touched his wonderfully volleyed finish onto the post, he will never know.      
Sergio Aguero, 8 -- Newcastle’s tormentor in chief. With an average of a goal or assist every 31 minutes against this opponent, he amazingly kept up the record here with a clinically taken hat trick. Had hardly been involved at all before the first goal (33'), when he had his use of strong setting hair gel to thank for the minutest of touches to De Bruyne's cross. Shots off in very restricted space (44', 60') plus two trademark canters across the box to get in a right foot diagonal shot on goal. Penalty (62') highish to Darlow's right for 2-0 and a left foot finish to complete the "perfect hat trick" from Sane's mesmerising run down the left.

Substitutes:

Bernardo Silva, NR -- Came on for Raheem Sterling after 85 minutes to carry the ball on the right. Held possession well as usual.
Brahim Diaz , NR -- Late appearance after 87 minutes to replace Sane.


Other Tedious Stuff

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