All is not lost for City

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER -

THEY may not have re­mained un­beaten like the Arse­nal In­vin­ci­bles, they may not win the quadru­ple or even the tre­ble like Manch­ester United, but make no mis­take, this Manch­ester City team is one of the best of the Premier League era.

The league form they have shown through­out the sea­son is out­stand­ing, and they have won the ti­tle Pep Guardi­ola’s way when 99 out of 100 ex­perts pre­dicted it could not be done in Eng­land.

Apart from City fans, the only peo­ple who re­ally wanted Guardi­ola to suc­ceed were the academy coaches up and down the coun­try who needed some­one to prove that brand of foot­ball would work, be­cause that is all they have been do­ing for the last four or five years.

No one was rav­ing about the way An­to­nio Conte won the league with Chelsea last sea­son, al­though a few man­agers have tried three at the back since. But ev­ery­one would love to play Pep’s way and he is en­ti­tled to feel proud of that. It is easy on the eye and very much the Span­ish style in the English Premier League, which many thought couldn’t hap­pen. And they have gone to the next level with th­ese play­ers.

There are so many coach­ing badges fly­ing around at clubs now that the play­ers today must be bet­ter coached and pre­pared and they have it all to a cer­tain de­gree, but I would say this City side is up there with the very best be­cause they are the most dom­i­nant in pos­ses­sion.

When I first played against Arse­nal a few years ago now, I didn’t know where to go to get the ball back off them. Now as many as 10 teams make those kind of move­ments in the Premier League but Pep has brought some­thing ex­tra to that game.

Their game is pos­ses­sion-based from the first minute and Pep has a 15-pass rule to break teams down. The dif­fer­ence be­tween this sea­son and last is that Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva want to get for­ward and they do not pass the ball for the sake of it. Around them, play­ers make dif­fer­ent move­ments to other teams, so the full-backs play high and they close the op­po­si­tion down in their cen­tral mid­field and de­fence and they are brave, leav­ing spa­ces be­hind.

There are three I’d sin­gle out. De Bruyne must be a dream to play with be­cause he is not greedy or look­ing to be the hero. He con­sis­tently just wants to play for­ward; he passes the ball to cre­ate space and op­por­tu­ni­ties for oth­ers. There’s a big dif­fer­ence in a player whose passes open up the pitch or get the ball be­hind the op­po­si­tion de­fence.

Don’t for­get, De Bruyne used to be a winger and he is turn­ing into an Ini­esta/ Xavi-style player, with an even greater range of pass­ing than those two. He takes the ball from back four at times and pen­e­trates more from the cen­tral ar­eas, look­ing for the killer pass for the play­ers up front be­cause he knows they can make runs into space and they know they are go­ing to get the ball.

A lot of peo­ple wrote Ra­heem Ster­ling off, but those who un­der­stand foot­ball. No one would have ex­pected him to get more than 20 goals this sea­son, but he needed time to de­velop and he has the at­tributes to be a top player. He will miss two or three chances in a game be­cause he is not a nat­u­ral fin­isher but he is a prime ex­am­ple of a player who has em­braced Guardi­ola and is learn­ing from him.

Per­haps Guardi­ola de­cided the An­field crowd didn’t need fur­ther en­cour­age­ment to boo his side by in­clud­ing Ster­ling from the start in the first leg, but it was a mis­take. He will start in the sec­ond leg. And if Ser­gio Aguero doesn’t start, City are out, or they will need a mir­a­cle if he is not fit. He is the one striker who has that cut­ting edge: when the ball falls to him in the box, he scores. When it looked like he was on his way out of the club over a year ago, Aguero prob­a­bly had a re­think and asked ques­tions like ‘where will I go?’ and ‘who wants me?’ and ‘how good and loyal have Manch­ester City been to me over the years?’ or ‘can I work my way into the team play­ing the man­ager’s way?’

He has an­swered all those ques­tions with his goals and has played ex­actly to Guardi­ola’s stan­dards. The tie is not over. If Liver­pool can score three in the first half against City, then City can score four over 90 min­utes against Liver­pool. The prob­lem is Liver­pool can score one or two as well. The big test for City will be keep­ing the clean sheet.

The City play­ers looked shell-shocked in that open­ing half. I don’t think it was any­thing to do with the at­tack on the bus; I just feel they didn’t han­dle the at­mo­sphere. The noise of the An­field crowd sends shiv­ers down your spine and gives the Liver­pool play­ers a 10 per cent ad­van­tage on a Euro­pean night.

If there is one thing I don’t like about Guardi­ola, it is when he ap­plauds his play­ers when things go wrong. So when his keeper Eder­son booted the ball into touch, Guardi­ola put his hands in the air in the tech­ni­cal area and clapped. It em­bar­rasses his play­ers and if any­thing makes their mis­takes worse.

Eder­son is not stupid. He is on more than £100,000 a week. He should not be told to keep go­ing. Play­ers are big enough and bold enough to get on with the game with­out the man­ager en­cour­ag­ing them in such a false way.

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