An under par, often bored looking Manchester City predictably strolled past an experimental Huddersfield Town side put together by stand-in Mark Hudson in front of a crowd collectively coming to terms with the fact that a remarkable era in their football club’s history was over.
Shorn of Billing, Mooy and Williams, the rookie manager picked a brave, imaginative but ultimately futile formation and started three of the much maligned summer recruits together for the first time. It was worth a go but, given the absentees, the chances of upsetting Guardiola’s roster of superstars went from slim to near zero.
The plan was relatively simple. Defend deep and with discipline and try to expose City on the break with Diakhaby’s pace and it should be said that the strategy sometimes felt like it may work. The young Frenchman could conceivably have put Town in front before 10 minutes was on the clock but he appeared to shoulder a Kachunga cross wide when well positioned. It was frustrating that the plan precluded the inclusion of Mounié to meet the chance though, as events were to transpire, the result would probably not have been different.
In a game where it was likely to make no difference whatsoever, Town finally found themselves on the right side of a poor penalty decision. How Marriner ruled a Kongolo challenge on Sterling as legal is anyone’s guess but, hey, thanks for the gesture Andre.
Wether Town’s tactics were working as they should or City were simply stuttering, the high quality you expect to come with an Emirate’s largesse was absent. Their possession was overwhelming but largely mundane and the breathtaking imagination they often display was replaced by ponderous build up, misplaced passing and underwhelming movement.
It was fitting that their opening goal was accompanied by a huge slice of fortune. Walker’s pass to Danilo appeared as innocuous as much of City’s play up to that point but he wasn’t closed down and decided to have a go. A not especially dangerous shot was turned in to a lethal one as it cannoned off Schindler’s head beyond Lössl and the game, to all intents and purposes, was over.
To their credit, Town kept battling away while the goal didn’t have any noticeable effect on City’s torpor. For 5 or 10 minutes before the half hour, the Terriers put some pressure on City and made them vaguely uncomfortable. Diakhaby robbed Fernandinho on the left and nearly found Bacuna at the near post only for Laporte to get there first. Bacuna was harshly booked for trying to meet the pass.
Shortly beforehand, Kongolo had a nicely struck shot easily saved while Walker may have been slightly fortunate only to see yellow for a lunging, dangerous challenge on Löwe.
The short lived dominance was encouraging and visibly unnerved the visitors but they regained control to see out a half where they were a little fortunate to be in front despite the obvious gulf in quality.
Presumably motivated by some Spanish invective in the dressing room, City put the game to bed before the hour. Upping the gears, the reigning champions were given the benefit of offside doubt twice as Sané and Sterling combined to devastating effect with a passing interchange which ended with the diminutive Englishman dive heading past a helpless Lössl.
Two minutes later, Sané scored a third as City capitalised on a misplaced pass by Puncheon. The home debutant had managed to escape a multi press inside his own half very well, only to shank his intended pass out wide to Danilo who played in Sané with an excellent ball matched by a composed, quality finish.
The fear was that the bottom club, desperately short of experience, would be obliterated but, in fact, City largely reverted back to comfortable complacency which may have been unconscious sympathy at the hopelessness of their opponents’ situation and circumstances.
Mounié replaced the raw Diakhaby whose main attribute, pace, needs to be supplemented with experience which may make him a player in time, and the Benin international had quite the 30 minutes. He curled an excellent shot just past the post, had a decent header routinely saved and won a lot of aerial duels. Unfortunately, his half hour will mainly be remembered for a horrendous miss with the last kick of the game when he fired wide from 3 yards out.
The consolation would have been a small and probably deserved boost for the beleaguered Terriers. Nobody could complain about their effort, there were little spells of decent play and considering the opponents, there was a desire not to be humiliated after a horrible start to the second half.
City should have scored a fourth towards the end of the 90 minutes when the Silvas combined to put Bernardo through. Lössl, whose poor distribution caused the problem in the first place, made a good block to make up for it.
A strange afternoon, where emotions off the pitch were probably more relevant than the action upon it, was lightened considerably by cries of “ole” for a sequence of passing which put the league champions to shame. Their international superstars could only watch in amazement as a surge of confidence injected the home side’s play. Like an indulgent Labrador staring at a kitten discovering its surroundings, as seen on several thousand YouTube videos.
With Wagner gone, leaving a moving, genuine goodbye on the big screen at half time, the future of the club is now uncertain. Not the uncertainty which precedes collection buckets, the only thing which should ever be demanded of Dean Hoyle and barely worth mentioning because of its innate ludicrousness, but the rebuilding of the club after nigh on inevitable relegation.
Understandably, most if not all of the paeans to David Wagner concentrated on the timeframe from his arrival to Stamford Bridge. In totality, January 2018 to his departure have been disastrously poor, saved only by the colossal inheritance Premier League survival has bestowed.
An inability to score enough goals, to put it mildly, and the failure to improve that all important statistic threatens to create a death spiral even while financially advantaged in the league below. The new manager will have to rectify this by any means possible.
Even in the context of the Premier League, the goals for have been disastrously low and it has consistently undermined the evident progress elsewhere on the pitch; there have been long patches when our competence up to the final third has been more than adequate to keep our heads above water.
If the promotion and survival seasons had large dollops of good fortune, it’s complete absence since August has been painful. However, when things were going well, it could be easily argued that the luck which came our way was well earned through a collective spirit which shone brightly in everything the club did on and off the pitch. Setbacks, and there were a few, were easily left in the past while now they linger in a fog of uncertainty and indecision.
Underlying the change in fortune, the absence of the leader at the club, for reasons both beyond anyone’s control and infinitely more important than football, cannot have been anything but paralysing to an adventure built upon a deep, symbiotic relationship between two remarkable individuals.
The new manager, hopefully to be installed early this week, has an enormous, multi layered, challenge in front of him.
Realistically, preparation for the Championship has to be paramount, while at the same time delivering some joy and fight on the pitch in pursuit of a third consecutive miracle and restoring pride in the more likely event of demotion.
It seems inconceivable that Mooy, Billing and Kongolo will not be snapped up by non top 6 clubs in the summer or even before the month’s end and stripping out proven talent from a squad heavily weighted towards potential is fraught with danger. Schindler, Löwe and Kachunga’s close ties with Wagner must also put a question mark over their futures, while Zanka, Mounié and Lössl have international careers to protect.
It is a considerable stretch to compare Town’s current travails with replacing a Busby or Ferguson, but the dangers of massive change loom and the complexities of managing them cannot be underestimated.
On the plus side, the loyalty of the supporters and the wider community to a club experiencing severe difficulties has been exemplary, the new manager inherits a strong, committed team behind the scenes and a substantially improved infrastructure. The foundations for future success are in place.
So, goodbye Dave. Who could have foreseen the momentous achievements and who would swap the experiences even if, deep down, we knew it was too far, too fast?