Tuesday, January 2, 2018

BACK TO WORK


Farewell then festive season and bon voyage too to the unprecedented 18 wins-on-the-trot. Away they go, never to be seen again. It’s a record around these parts by the way, but not in Germany.  

A 2017-18 Premier League campaign that is yet to see a defeat has now witnessed its second draw on the very last day of the year. The only other one, remember, came in the first home game of the season, when Kyle Walker was banished from the field for waving to his Mum in the stands.

What Pep Guardiola and his players have achieved in going so long unbeaten whilst playing such scintillatingly attractive/effective football should not be underestimated. After all, as the Catalan coach will have heard every day of his year and a half stay in sunlit northern England, the Premier League is the toughest league in the world. This the mantra with which the highly impressive Football Association marketing juggernaut keeps the entire globe tuned in to its whirling limbs and gracefully flying muddied spheres.

Having seen Ilkay Gundogan, Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne (twice) being subjected to lunging, thoughtless over-the-top tackles in the last five games, it is questionable whether the Catalan will be raising a glass to that “toughness”, a brutal form of energy that frequently surfaces as ugly thuggery. Maybe the ball does run a little faster here (it must be the clean air), maybe the speed of the action can lead to bone-jarring “accidental collisions”. That’s all well and possible, but in that case, this careering around needs to be adequately policed and that was plainly not going to happen with Mr Jonathon Moss roaming the prairie.

De Bruyne, the latest and most obvious target as the fulcrum of City’s forward march, now lies bruised and battered, with only the hollow warnings that this was always likely to happen ringing in his ears. We told you so, but it has happened anyway.

Having been assured from all corners of the football planet that his pretty football ideas would founder on the rocks of hard practicality in England, Guardiola may have taken a little time to get used to his rough new surroundings. His first season, ending trophyless for the first time in his glittering managerial career, seemed to confirm to all those detractors that it was indeed pointless transferring Barcelona pussyfooting to the Premier League.

This season’s immaculate start to the season proved all the doubters wrong, however. With an injection of pace to the flanks, a goalkeeper, who can play as well with his feet as any of the outfield men, and a squad imbued with the Catalan’s playing ethics, there has been a smooth transition to some of the most wonderful football seen played in 25 years of Premier League action.

Guardiola, then, must be praised for sticking to his guns. Seen as stubborn and unresponsive to others’ ideas, the Catalan has merely been staying true to his principles of keeping it simple, holding possession and pressing the opposition fast and as energetically as possible.

So far nobody has found an answer to this free-flowing passing machine of a team, but there seems a glimmer of hope for those in distant pursuit.

Those that have come closest have been sides that have managed to combine blanket defence with the ability to raid quickly forward when the few opportunities presented themselves. The autumn clashes with Southampton, West Ham and Huddersfield, none of them title challengers in any shape or form, provided City with some tough questions to answer. In ending City’s triumphal winning streak at 18, Crystal Palace managed to combine both the suffocating defence and occasional bright energetic forward movement. Roy Hodgson’s side emerged relatively unscathed (but possibly a little tired) and within an Ederson ankle’s width of actually becoming the first side to defeat City in domestic competition this season.
* City ‘keepers have now saved 10 of the last 17 penalties they've faced in all competitions, with four different goalkeepers saving those 10 (Hart, Bravo, Caballero and Ederson).

They managed this by sticking to their beliefs and bringing an amount of energy and concentration to the game that few have been able to match against the grinding passing machine that City throw over their opponents like a horse hair rug. By pressing and sharing the attacking responsibilities with their guests, Palace succeeded in providing City with some new problems.

Admittedly, City were far from their best on this occasion. The first half was one of the worst 45 minutes of football served up so far this season, with Leroy Sane wasteful and petulant, as he misread De Bruyne’s intentions and ran in to multiple dead-ends. At the back, City put out a four, three of which hailed from FC Porto, with Mangala again providing the game with one of his odd moments of paralysis that almost led to a goal, had the bumbling Benteke not stuck to his solidly appalling form of 2017 and hit his shot straight into the defender’s ankles instead of a totally unguarded goal. Danilo too, looked uneasy when the zippy Zaha switched to his wing, having had a titanic struggle with Walker on the right.

In the middle, De Bruyne without Silva and with the sound of snorting nostrils all around, looked reluctant to take the game by the scruff of the neck. With Gabriel Jesus joining the Belgian in the Selhurst Park first aid tent, it might just be that a growing list of injuries will provide City with the biggest challenge of the season. Mendy, Stones, Aguero, Kompany, now Jesus and a heavily bruised De Bruyne, the list continues to expand at an astonishing rate.

It was clear, as time moved on, Guardiola would also have to nurse injuries and tiring legs. Winning, as any footballer will readily admit, certainly helps take the mind off the negative aspects that can begin to creep in during a long hard season.

The congested Christmas fixture list will now give way to the congested January fixtures. Of nine December fixtures, five were away from home. January heralds five homes out of the seven scheduled games. Watford, Newcastle and West Brom visit in the league, while Burnley and Bristol City are the cup opponents due at the Etihad. There will be more defensive blankets laid and more robust tackling to nullify City’s twinkling feet.

That many are treating an away draw as a disaster only serves to show where City are in respect of the challengers. Now Watford arrive to see if they can take any advantage of, what might we call it, a blip? Is a draw after 18 wins a blip? Nobody really knows until the next game rolls around.

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