“I think that is the spirit you need. If you want to be a champion, you have to play a game like this.”
Those were Fernandinho’s words in the aftermath of Manchester City’s hard fought 2-1 victory away at Burnley on Saturday and of course, he was absolutely right.
In order to be a champion – particularly, although not exclusively, a Premier League champion – you need to be able to adapt.
Manuel Pellegrini had a seemingly unshakable belief in his City side’s capabilities and a single minded, almost tunnel vision approach when it came to tactics. “We will not change the way we play” could have been the Chilean’s catchphrase during his three seasons in Manchester such was the frequency with which he uttered it, but what happens when the other team stops you from playing the way you play? More often than not, you end up on the wrong end of a humbling defeat, just like Pellegrini’s team did on City’s last visit to Turf Moor in March 2015.
No, to succeed in the Premier League you have to be versatile and on Saturday, Pep Guardiola’s City demonstrated that there are several strings to their bow.
Being able to play aesthetically pleasing, possession football from your goalkeeper to your striker is fantastic, as is being able to counter attack with speed and precision, but sometimes you’ll come up against more agricultural opposition who’ll drag you down to their level and once you’re down there, you simply have to be able to fight your way back up.
In terms of their respective resources, expectations and playing styles, City and Burnley are Premier League polar opposites but you could have been forgiven for momentarily forgetting that on Saturday. Football is a game in which anybody can theoretically beat anybody if the wind is right and Burnley knew that if they got in City’s faces and made their lives hell for 90 minutes, they’d be in with a shout.
The Clarets – a team carved out of granite in the image of their manager, Sean Dyche – hassled and harried City’s stars from the first whistle to the last and, in the case of poor Raheem Sterling, often sought to maim and dismember. They had the best of the opening exchanges and took full advantage of City’s initial bewilderment by going in front through a beautifully struck Dean Marney volley after 14 minutes.
That was City’s cue to wilt and become passive observers of their own downfall but instead, the catalyst of their revival came from the unlikeliest of sources. Fernando, probably the most surprising inclusion in the starting line-up, stuck out in those first 15-20 minutes like the rogue screw you inevitably discover after you think you’ve correctly assembled a piece of flat-pack furniture but then, all of a sudden, he came to life and began to take control of the centre of the park.
After the match, Guardiola acknowledged the Brazilian’s role in his side’s comeback and spoke in glowing terms about the player’s professional attitude and how he can come into a game for the last two minutes and play like it’s “the most important two minutes of his life”. The defensive midfielder has so far largely underwhelmed during his two-and-a-half years at the club but once he found his footing and got stuck into this match, his teammates followed suit and before long, Sergio Agüero had poked in following a goalmouth scramble to draw the Blues level in the 37th minute.
That equaliser came at a very good time for City and allowed them to confidently approach the second period in search of all three points. A mixture of good fortune, farcical defending and sheer bloody mindedness enabled Agüero to shin home the greatest goal Shaun Goater never scored on the hour mark and 2-1 was eventually how it finished. Burnley made them sweat blood for it and they were clinging on for dear life at the end, but for the first time in the Premier League this season, City came from behind to win and that demonstration of resilience in the face of adversity is a very encouraging sign indeed.
City, who are currently third in the table, really needed those three points in order to stay in touch with the league leaders heading into a hugely important month, which begins with Chelsea’s visit to the Etihad at the weekend. For the first time since before the start of the season, City’s players will have had a full seven days to recuperate and Guardiola will no doubt be devoting the majority of his week to formulating a suitable strategy for dealing with Antonio Conte’s high-flying team.
And he’ll have a lot to think about. Chelsea are currently on a seven match winning streak, during which time they’ve conceded just a single goal and at the other end of the pitch, the likes of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard are in frightening form again. While the West Londoners are reaping the rewards of having a settled and cohesive defensive unit, Guardiola still doesn’t appear to have settled on his best back three, four, or five and City’s vulnerability in that department could ultimately be what holds them back this season. There’s been talk of a dip into the transfer market in January and the acquisition of a proven Premier League central defender would, at this moment in time, be welcomed with open arms.
Guardiola reacted rather frostily to a question in his post-Burnley press conference about his team’s inability to keep a clean sheet at the moment (they’ve only kept two in the league all season and the last one came against West Bromwich Albion almost a month ago) but deep down, he’ll know that they can’t expect to outscore their opponents every week and he’ll be working day and night on a solution. Solidity at the back has been a cornerstone of everything the Catalan has achieved everywhere he’s been and we have to trust that given a little more time, he’ll get it sorted.
Defensively ropey though they may be at the moment, City are just a point off the top of the league having only lost once all season and their win at Turf Moor was their sixth victory from seven away from home in 2016/17. With just over a third of the campaign now gone, City’s title challenge is still in rude health and if they’re able to take positive results away from their upcoming encounters with Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool this month, it will set things up very nicely for the second half of the season.
Though it’d be foolish to write off any of the Premier League’s current top six for the title this year, it feels like Chelsea and Liverpool, who are presently first and second, will be City’s biggest threats to the crown. Both teams appear to be benefiting from not having any European football to distract them this season and while they’ve both played just 16 matches so far, City have played a whopping 22. When you take that into consideration, it’s quite remarkable that things are still so tight at the top of the table.
And now we enter December, a crucial month for City in which they’ll face three of the current top four before having to negotiate the busy Christmas period. Thankfully, they don’t have to worry about the Champions League again until February and with no international breaks scheduled until the end of March, Pep Guardiola finally gets a clear run at the Premier League. Of course, there are a number of things which can and will be improved upon, but the progress report from his first four months in charge of the club makes for very pleasant reading.
Victory over Chelsea at the weekend won’t come easily but City have shown that they have the stomach for a fight with the best of them and if they do take all three points, it will represent another huge stride forward for a team which already bears the mark of champions.
Written by Dan Burke
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