Saturday, October 15, 2016


"Manchester City are the best team I have faced in my managerial career so far..."
So spoke Ronald Koeman, manager of a beleagured Everton side, at the end of an enthralling contest that saw Guardiola's City attempt to resurrect Joe Royle's Typical City with a performance that involved yet more innovative formations, two more missed penalties, an avalanche of scintilating attacking play, an opposition goal from a freak breakaway that was their only attack on City's goal in the first 70 minutes and capatin Vincent Kompany playing as a striker for the last ten minutes.

Breathtaking, ridiculous stuff.

The scoreline will suggest City's unfortunate venture into negative returns continues apace. The usual suspects will be rubbing their hands with glee. Anyone, who watched the match, however, will attest to the fact that Guardiola's men led a full-on match-long barrage of the Everton goal, only to be met by carpet defence and - when that finally started to melt under the pressure - a goalkeeper in Maarten Stekelenburg, who decided this was going to be his day of days. Saving two penalties might be enough for some people but the lanky Dutchman saved the best for an astonishingly agile stop from Kevin de Bruyne's piledriver, as City turned the screw in the last quarter of an hour.

An intriguing game had started with yet another tactical shuffle from the Catalan. A three man defence. Against a team in the top six. That one of the three was the featherweight Gael Clichy led some to wonder aloud if one of the midfielders might be about to appear at right back. Fernandinho, the most likely candidate, stayed put  alongside the mobile Ilkay Gundogan in a two-man shield of the sparse defensive line. Ahead it looked like City were completing the set-up with a 3-2-2-3, Sterling and Sané both pushed up high alongside Kelechi Iheanacho in the central role. Koeman later suggested he had envisaged this and played three up front, although "upfront" in this case meant just beyond the half-way line.

No Aguero and no right back. Good start.

As it turned out City could have played with one defender, such was Everton's lack of ambition. Packing the two lines infront of their keeper, they were content to feed the ball out through Gareth Barry and Tom Cleverley as far as the halfway line and then hope God's will would take over for them. For long periods this was as far as they got. In actually carrying the ball across the halfway line, Everton were an experiment in treating the attacking half as an area to be avoided at all costs. When they did get the ball across the sacred white line, it invariably came via the big boot of Phil Jagielka and was aimed vaguely at either Lukaku or the gaping spaces around him. The useful prompting of Gerard Deulofeu - who had been pushed up further towards Lukaku to try and provide an outlet - proved a little too cavalier for Koeman's liking on this occasion, so Everton's best player was hauled off so that they could pack another workmanlike runner, McCarthy, into an already busy midfield.

City's patient passing eventually produced two penalties, either side of a goal from Everton that had against the run of play written through it like a stick of Blackpool rock. The first, given when Silva fell hopefully over Jagielka's trailing leg, looked a poor decision, but was probably designed to make up for the fact that the referee Michael Oliver had already failed to give a clearer penalty for an Oviedo trip on Leroy Sané as he twinkled through on the right side. Sané in fact had been City's brightest player in the opening half hour.

The second, more clear-cut, was for a badly timed lunge by the same Everton defender on Sergio Aguero. Jagielka and his partner Ashley Williams at the back must have felt like they had been trying to hold back a stampede of buffalo with a trowel and a desert spoon by the end of this onslaught.

Needless to say, both penalties were saved by the flying Dutchman, both at reasonable height, both close enough to the middle of the goal slightly to the goalkeeper's left side

De Bruyne had taken the first, Aguero the second. City have now missed four this season. In fact, worse than that, much worse, they have missed four penalties in two games and Aguero has failed with three of them. Even this startling laxity might have proved academic, had Stekelenburg not suddenly taken capabilities usually only reserved for the most far-fetched science fiction movies. In the cold light of day, all that was wrong with this performance was the way the penalties were wasted. Some might also add that so much possession close to the opposition box should also have led to at least one goal in open play too, but that would be to ignore the game's outstanding player, Maarten Stekelenburg.

Everton's goal, an outstanding piece of raiding by Lukaku, who ran onto a brilliant flick from Bolasie in midfield (Otamendi diving in gung-ho just as it had been reported his illness was cured), which suddenly saw him steaming up the inside left channel with only Clichy in front of him, made City's defence suddenly look alarmingly open. It had been pressing up as much as the visitors' cautious gameplan would allow and been caught by the ultimate sucker punch. Questions have of course been asked of this department of the team for a season and a half now and this game will give the critics more ammunition.

City have a chance to adjust their profligacy in a low-key game on the continent this week. With the energy levels rising, the passing exemplar and the odd tactical tweak never far away, it will be interesting to see how it all goes for Guardiola's men back on his old stamping ground. If they are awarded a penalty, however, it might be wise to play it back towards the centre circle and start afresh.


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