In the end, a hugely fortunate, if deserved, deflection preserved Manchester City’s unbeaten start to the season which has seen them drop just 2 points while scoring at will against often traumatised opponents.
Given the disparity between the two competing clubs – in finance, experience and recent history – the unrestrained celebrations of City (which shouldn’t be begrudged) at the final whistle spoke volumes about a feisty, enthralling game where the winners had to strain every sinew and draw deep on their considerable reserves of talent to overcome their relentlessly dogged hosts.
The petrodollar funded City have created a formidable squad of world class players, Delph and Walker notwithstanding, and look to be marching towards the title virtually unopposed with a scintillating style of play which forces even the best in the division in to defensive shells. Those who don’t are routinely annihilated by City’s ruthless exploitation of space – the most improved team in the Premier League, Watford, didn’t adapt their own refreshingly expansive style and conceded 6 at home.
Faced with his most formidable challenge to date, David Wagner devised a plan to have a chance of being competitive. With an opponent containing threat from all areas and a penchant for playing between the lines, the strategy he adopted was far more complex than simply putting everyone behind the ball and the cliché “parking the bus” completely under estimates the planning required to execute it.
Foregoing possession and ensuring that players do not over commit in rare forays forward was essential to the containment plan with obvious detrimental impact on the home team’s threat – but added to the essential values of hard work and tenacity were the rather more cerebral qualities of intelligence, concentration and patience.
City’s threats are legion. In De Bruyne and Silva they possess two of the best and most creative midfield players in the world. Out wide, the much improved Sterling and Sane offer outstanding pace and trickery (with Sterling’s wing supplemented by the very swift Walker), Aguero is amongst the best penalty box strikers on the planet and Fernandinho is more than capable of hurting teams when he arrives in the area.
The scale of the home team’s task was monumental and a narrow defeat a huge achievement considering the gulf in quality.
Wagner’s plans worked particularly well in the first half with the midfield triumvirate of Williams, Hogg and Mooy largely stifling De Bruyne and Silva and restricting City’s usual intricate moves between the lines – the number of overhit passes by the visitors was no coincidence as their range was disrupted.
On the rare occasions that City broke free from the shackles, Malone prevented Sterling a clear shot at goal, Schindler crunched in to Aguero when it looked like the Argentinian would add to his record City goal haul and Fernandinho was forced in to an additional touch before firing over, failing to capitalise on Sterling’s excellent movement which created the chance.
Lössl had little but routine work to do, other than a good stop from Aguero before Sterling’s miss, as his colleagues frustrated their illustrious opponents.
Transition, however, was inevitably difficult and largely rested on the huge shoulders of Depoitre. Unable to provide quick support to him, the Belgian’s hold up play was essential if Town were to trouble the visitors in any meaningful way, but other than an ambitious Smith effort which sailed over the bar, Town were entirely on the back foot for the first 40 minutes as they concentrated on repelling.
The final 5 minutes of the half turned the game on it’s head. A rare attack resulted in a corner – the first of 3 in a spell where City’s intensity appeared to drop off – and Schindler’s flick on presented a good chance at the far post which his central defensive partner Zanka was unable to convert.
Town then broke up another City attack and Depoitre skilfully flicked the ball around his compatriot Kompany before waiting for just the right moment to release Ince down the right. The immediate threat was cut out by Delph at the expense of a second home corner from which, Kompany nervously headed over his own bar for the third.
Ince swung this delivery to the near post with Schindler timing his run to perfection for another flick on. This time, Otamendi was unable to get out of the way and the ball cannoned off him in to the net. Incredibly, Town were in the lead and the noise levels, already tremendous, reached a crescendo.
The lead came against the run of play, but not against the run of the plan. Subduing City’s talent had taken immense amounts of courage and resilience but also had the effect of frustrating the visitors and impacting on their concentration. The 3 corners unsettled the champions elect – up to that point, Kompany and Otamendi had enjoyed relatively comfortable lives and maybe complacency set in as Schindler created two chances from them.
Despite rarely getting forward, it was probably Wagner’s finest 45 minutes as Town manager; City is on a different football planet, with a world class manager, wealth beyond imagination and a depth of squad to make eyes water.
The second half was a little different. Transition, already difficult, became tortuously improbable – though it should be said that City illegally prevented breakaways on several occasions without incurring punishment from a referee who, while getting most decisions right, failed to apply equal justice – and even Mooy’s vision was severely impaired by the lack of options available to him.
While the same fundamentals were in place, incessant pressure invariably brings reward and the restart seemed to catch Town a little cold as Sterling – the stand out player for the visitors – got the better of Van La Parra and Malone twice. Both occasions resulted in penalty appeals and both were legitimate. While Lössl’s interruption of the England international was deemed, rather generously, fair, Malone’s was not – even if it was the softer of the two. City’s targeting of Town’s left had paid immediate dividend and Aguero rolled the penalty in after waiting for Lössl’s dive.
To their credit, Town stuck to their task despite the blow of seeing their lead wiped out within a couple of minutes of the restart and the expected flow of goals from the visitors failed to materialise.
The defensive plan continued to work, though City’s penetration of the box increased and pressure on the excellent Schindler and Zanka intensified. Williams, Mooy and Hogg remained effective against the disappointing De Bruyne but the equally masterful Silva exerted more influence.
Desperate clearances became more prominent, as did the feistiness of the contest. A coming together between Walker and Van La Parra resulted in no free kick or booking, perhaps correctly, but lead to a spat between the £50M man and a furious Wagner. Despite a string of obscenities directed towards Town’s coach, only Wagner was spoken to by the referee whose curious interpretation of appropriate punishment baffled and enraged the crowd throughout the half and even after the final whistle had blown.
The raucous atmosphere, interruptions and the increased ugliness helped the home team, however, as City’s flow was impeded and their frustration mounted.
It was perhaps inevitable that the home side became more ragged as time passed and a clumsy challenge by Hogg – punished, of course, by a booking – gave Sane a chance from a free kick. With Lössl motionless, the young German’s effort cannoned off the bar (and actually achieved a better level of transition than Town had created, only for an unpunished De Bruyne to try to prevent the counter with a hand). De Bruyne’s body check of Van La Parra, again thwarting transition was also unpunished while a similar offence by Malone saw the full back yellow carded. The inconsistency was hugely frustrating.
Fernandinho was booked for an outrageous dive, however.
Last ditch challenges and scrappy play from City restricted the visitors but the pressure on the home side was unrelenting and clever balls in to the box became more prevalent, even if composure was strangely lacking in players of such talent.
When it came, late in the game, the winner was more than a little fortuitous. The ever dangerous Sterling attempted a one two with De Bruyne, the Belgian’s attempted return deflected in to the path of Aguero whose shot was saved by Lössl only for the ball to hit Sterling and loop agonisingly in to the net.
Cruel as the circumstances were, City’s fortune had been earned and, indeed, Sterling’s was too.
A late Mooy free kick, a half chance for substitute Mounié and a decent run by Quaner which lead to a corner saw Town come back in to the game a little in the latter stages but their inability to capitalise on the spaces left by City’s incessant attacking ultimately cost them a point. It should be said that the visitors ability to recover possession was also a major factor and they were helped by several illegal interventions as already described.
City’s relief was evident. They ran the clock down effectively – helped, again, by a referee who allowed them ridiculous amounts of time to take injury time free kicks without adding anything on – and the final act was them taking the ball in to the corner resulting in an altercation started by Sané with Van La Parra which continued after the final whistle. True to form, referee Pawson meted out a yellow card for the German and a potentially damaging red for Van La Parra.
It was a stupid, if provoked, piece of indiscipline from the Dutchman (who has plenty of form in this area) and rather soured what had been a remarkable, if unsuccessful, home display.
Similar resilience will be needed against Arsenal on Wednesday who play with the type of intricacy Town largely subdued in this game, but the absence of Van La Parra is a blow.
However, Town can take enormous pride from a great performance against a ludicrously talented team and, hopefully, augurs well for contests against significantly less well endowed opponents in the future.