“Winning when not playing well is the mark of champions”, or so they say.
It’s one of football’s most grating clichés but like all clichés, it also happens to be founded in truth (which is also a bit of a cliché in its own right).
City’s 1-0 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday evening leaves them three points behind leaders Leicester City (who visit the Etihad Stadium on Saturday lunchtime) in the race for the Premier League title but it was a rather turgid performance from Manuel Pellegrini’s side which left many supporters feeling disappointed and dissatisfied.
This has been an absolute horrorshow
— Typical City @TypicalCity February 2, 2016
The Blues only managed two shots on target all night (one of which was Sergio Agüero’s 16th minute winning goal), failed to control the game in midfield, defended poorly and rode their luck. Despite all of that, they were still able to keep a clean sheet and came away with a vital victory which sets things up nicely for the showdowns with Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur in the next two league games.
The question is then, just how important are performances compared to results at this stage of the season?
Football is, first and foremost, a results business (another cliché).
A victory can often paper over the cracks of a poor performance, whereas a defeat can make a performance seem much worse than it actually was.
(Indeed, this column would no doubt have had an entirely different slant to it had City not won at Sunderland. The irony is not lost on me.)
Several of City’s results this season have fallen into the former category (Crystal Palace away, Swansea City at home, Watford away to name but three) and in all cases we might have allowed ourselves a moment of self-reflection in the immediate aftermath, but ultimately we took the points and moved on to the next game.
The performance at the Stadium of Light was in many ways a microcosm of City’s season so far. They defended shoddily, didn’t work hard enough when not in possession of the ball and relied upon the brilliance of Joe Hart and a goal from Agüero to seal an unconvincing win.
It’s easy to see why people might look at the performance in isolation and conclude that it wasn’t good enough. It’s perfectly fine to expect higher standards of this group of players.
But with 14 league games to go this season and the title race wide open, it’s also fine for City to “win ugly” from time to time, because winning is really all that matters from here on in.
Let’s not forget that Tuesday night’s was City’s third game in less than a week. The Blues gave everything in knocking Everton out of the Capital One Cup last Wednesday and trounced Aston Villa in the FA Cup at the weekend before picking up an important league win just three days later.
Six players (Clichy, Otamendi, Fernandinho, Fernando, Navas and Sterling) featured in all three matches (Otamendi played 90 minutes in each) while the names of Fabian Delph and Jesús Navas were both added to City’s already lengthy injury list. So many high stakes games in quick succession was bound to have an effect on performances at some point, and there’ll be plenty more fixture congestion where that came from before the season’s out.
England’s top flight hasn’t been as open as it has been this season for decades and the team which ultimately wins the title will more than likely do so with one of the lowest points totals of the Premier League era. Any of the four or five teams at the top of the table could still be in with a chance of winning the league so long as they’re consistently able to pick up results between now and the end of the season. It’s really that simple.
If City perform as they did against Sunderland when Leicester come to town at the weekend, they could well find themselves on the losing side, but let’s cross that bridge if we come to it, shall we?
Particularly now that the end of Manuel Pellegrini’s managerial reign is in sight, the time for pontificating over performances is as good as over and we’re in no position to turn our noses up at any victory, whichever way it comes.
Three points that are key to staying in the race. Now it’s time to rest and prepare for major upcoming matches.C’mon, City!
— Sergio Kun Aguero (@aguerosergiokun) February 2, 2016
City’s inability to dominate the league has been frustrating this year, but perhaps we should allow ourselves to take more encouragement from the win at Sunderland than we currently are doing.
Perhaps winning when not playing particularly well really is the mark of champions.
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Written by Dan Burke