Nobody seems to know who originally coined the phrase “a game of two halves” but it’s a good job somebody did, because how else would you adequately describe City’s 2-1 victory over Arsenal on Sunday?
The Blues were thoroughly turgid in a first half which saw them fall behind to another awfully defended goal after less than five minutes and they offered little to suggest there was any hope of a revival in the following 40. Their Sergio Aguero-less attack lacked a focal point, their midfield was void of authority and their defence looked like it’d let Arsenal score as many as they wanted.
Maybe Pep Guardiola tore a strip off his players at half-time or maybe he just calmly tweaked his tactics, but the team that trotted out for the second half was unrecognisable from the one which appeared to be meekly bowing out of the title race in the first period and in the end, they were more than worthy winners.
Of course, there’s still an awful lot of ground to be made up on the Premier League’s pace-setters and at this stage of the season, there isn’t a great deal of difference between being seven points or 10 points off the summit, but had City been beaten at home by another (supposed) title rival so soon after the hammer blow dealt to them by Chelsea a few weeks ago, it could very well have been curtains in December.
Instead, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas and as we approach the season’s half-way point, things are beginning to look an awful lot rosier for City. This time last week, Pep Guardiola was a man under fire but back-to-back home wins over Watford and Arsenal have gone a long way towards restoring his supporters’ faith in him and restoring his players’ confidence in themselves. There’s still much work to be done but it’s nice to be reminded that the scale of the task at hand is not beyond City’s capabilities.
You don’t need to watch Arsenal Fan TV (although I’d highly recommend it) to know that Sunday’s result was as much down to City being good in the second half as it was to the Gunners being very, very bad. Goals change games and City’s equaliser, coming so soon after the restart, swung the contest back in their favour and by the time Arsenal realised they needed to react, they were already 2-1 down and rapidly running out of time.
But to suggest City only won because of their opponents’ ineptitude does them an extreme disservice. City won because they were aggressive and pro-active in the second half, with and without the ball, and they showed that with or without key personnel, they are still a very good side.
The noises made by Guardiola during the week since the defeat at Leicester suggested he’s perhaps realised that for the time being at least, he will have to adapt his tactics to suit the tools currently at his disposal rather than trying to constantly ram square pegs into round holes. He went with the same four players at the back against both Watford and Arsenal and it’s no coincidence that they won both games and looked, by this season’s standards, defensively rigid. Had Odion Ighalo taken his chance to equalise on Wednesday night, or had Theo Walcott taken his chance to double Arsenal’s advantage in the first half on Sunday, then things could have been very different but while City’s defence still don’t look completely convincing, they at least appear to be finally finding some rhythm.
And while the thought of City lining up against the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Granit Xhaka without Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan in midfield kept many of us awake on Saturday night, we really needn’t have worried. Guardiola seems to have been on a personal quest to re-introduce the rather archaic notion of the “second ball” into football’s lexicon in recent weeks and in Fernando, he had a player on Sunday who controlled the second balls and subsequently dominated the middle of the park. The Brazilian did little, if anything, to get us off our seats but he pressed hard, won his duels and did the simple things well. He was arguably City’s man of the match and could just have a big role to play in this team this season.
Alongside him, working just as hard, was Yaya Toure. It wasn’t very long ago that there seemed to be no way back into Guardiola’s reckoning for the Ivorian. His game seemingly lacked the energy and the intensity required to play for City nowadays and his style, whether you’d call it languid or lazy, wouldn’t be indulged under the new regime. But that was the old Yaya and the new and improved version was a monster at the heart of the midfield on Sunday, winning the ball back on 12 separate occasions and completing 83 passes – more than any other Premier League player during the weekend. If he keeps performing like that, this season might not be his last in a blue shirt after all.
City’s combative midfield provided a solid foundation for their attacking players and while Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva both had big parts to play, the plaudits belong to the Blues’ goal-scoring wingers. In the first half, young Leroy Sane looked as timid and unsure of himself as he has most of time he’s been on the pitch this season but Guardiola moved him over to his favoured left side after the break and his well-taken (if slightly offside) equalising goal couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. Despite his hefty price-tag, it’d be unfair to expect too much from the 19-year-old during his first couple of seasons in England, but he’s a star in the making and his first goal for the club should provide him with some much needed self-belief.
On the other wing it was Raheem Sterling – a seasoned veteran compared to Sane – who had the final say. Joni Mitchell was bang on the money when she said “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” and City probably missed Sterling much more than they thought they would against Chelsea and Leicester. Since he returned from injury in mid-week, he’s helped his team to force the issue with dynamism and tenacity and reminded everyone what a prodigious talent he is. De Bruyne’s pass for his goal was world-class but Raheem still had an awful lot to do and he did it extremely well, burying the ball superbly with his left foot past Petr Cech to lift the roof off the Etihad Stadium.
Up next, City have a very winnable fixture away at Hull followed by a trip to a ground they haven’t won on since Kevin Keegan was in the dugout and Busted were top of the British singles chart. They can’t let the gap between them and the top of the Premier League chart grow any wider but they’ll go into both games brimming with confidence and buoyed by a strong sense of team spirit, as evidenced by the celebratory, full-team group hug at the final whistle.
In fact, that heart-warming togetherness was on display before a ball had even been kicked on Sunday. Paying tribute to an injured team-mate is unorthodox in this country and it was therefore surprising to see City’s players enter the pitch wearing t-shirts bearing Ilkay Gundogan’s name and number. What was more surprising, however, was the reaction on social media to what, from where I was sitting, was the kind of nice touch we don’t see often enough in football.
The T-shirt support for Ilkay Gündogan yesterday was cringeworthy. Just embarrassing IMO, he hasn't died FFS!
— Mario L. (@styakstaro) 19 December 2016
Nice touch from City re: Gundogan named shirts. Assuming 'nice touch' means pointlessly over the top gesture for still alive human being.
— Andrew Allen (@AAllenSport) 18 December 2016
Manchester City players wearing shirts with Gundogan's name on. That's me done with Football for today.
— TheODDSbible (@TheOddsBible) 18 December 2016
True, Gundogan hasn’t died, but he’s had an awful and painful week and if turning on his TV and seeing that gesture from his team-mates lifted his spirits even a little bit, it served its purpose. If you thought it was “embarrassing” or “cringeworthy” then fine, but it wasn’t for you, it was for the poor lad at home with the sore knee.
Perhaps it was, as many have said, “a bit much” but kindness need not be limited and of all the things you could have a go at City for, I never thought being too nice would be one of them.
Well done City and get well soon Ilkay. You will be missed.
Written by Dan Burke
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