With the full time whistle at the Stadium of Light, Manchester City broke a club record. The 2-0 victory – and, more importantly, clean sheet – was their fifth shut-out away from home on the bounce across all competitions, and it’s the first time that’s happened in their 123-year history. Crystal Palace, West Ham, Bournemouth, Huddersfield and Sunderland all failed to beat either Willy Caballero or Claudio Bravo, following the 4-0 loss at Everton back in January.
Yet, despite that tightening up – and it’s still only a term that can be used loosely, given the defensive display in the 5-3 win over Monaco – the biggest reason for the turnaround in form is what’s happened at the other end of the pitch.
For all of the questions about Sergio Aguero’s future, the striker has proved in the last few weeks that he’s well up to the task of what Pep Guardiola demands from the position. The Argentinian’s goals haven’t slowed down, but he’s also dropped deeper to be more involved in the build-up play. In the victory over Monaco, he produced more tackles than any other outfield player – though perhaps that reflects as badly on the defence as it does on the striker.
But the biggest improvement at the club, and what’s drawn a run of seven wins in eight games, has been the newfound sense of balance the attack has. With Raheem Sterling on the right and Leroy Sane on the left, City’s shape hasn’t looked as comfortable and as fluid since Roberto Mancini’s title-winning side of 2012.
Sterling has been the talk of the town ever since his high-profile move from Liverpool in 2015. Barely a week has gone by without some form of coverage in the press – usually for his off-the-field life, rather than what he’s contributing to the City team. After what was a difficult ending to his first season at the club, as he and a number of others struggled to make an impact in the final throes of Manuel Pellegrini’s reign at the Etihad, Sterling returned to the team in great form.
Despite not getting the decisions he should have on more than a couple of occasions this season, the winger has been a big influence on City’s forward dynamism – getting to the by-line to deliver dangerous crosses, cutting inside to provide assists and being fouled inside the box on what seems like a fortnightly basis, whether or not the penalty was given.
While he’s hugged the right flank and the spotlight has been focused firmly on him, Sane has been getting chalk on his boots from the left and has gone largely unnoticed for it.
It was a slow start for the German, as he arrived at the Etihad injured following his transfer from Shalke in the summer. After a couple of introductions from the bench and the odd start here and there, he was slowly fitting into the team. Immediately, his pace was clear – he roasted the Manchester United defence several times on his debut and was unfortunate not to have created or scored a goal in his 30-minute cameo.
Guardiola kept the German’s contributions light and some fans were sceptical of what he could do to influence the team. By the time City played Chelsea at the beginning of December, they were seeing just what the winger could do – and it could be argued that his departure at 1-1 on 69 minutes was a contributing factor in the home side losing control and the match. It finished 3-1 to the visitors in the end.
By the second half of the 2-1 victory over Arsenal, a game in which he scored the equalising goal, Sane was hitting his stride. It was the first in a run of six strikes in 10 matches, with many more chances created along the way – and it probably would have been more but for injury cutting down his involvement through January.
It’s no coincidence that City’s form dipped again when the German was unavailable, hitting a nadir with the 4-0 battering at Everton.
At this point in the campaign, there’s nobody more exciting for City fans to see on the ball than Sane – especially on the break. Every time he picks up possession, be it on the halfway line running forward, or on the edge of the box with a full-back flummoxed as to whether to step left or right to try and stop him, Sane gets the fans on their feet.
He’s spent the last month-and-a-half breezing past defenders like they weren’t there and creating chances for himself and his teammates willy-nilly.
Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s match with Stoke, the manager explained why the German’s now hitting the form he is: “He knows his teammates better. People believed that immediately he would settle within a few seconds. He needs time. From the moment he was involved, on and off the pitch, the English players like Raz [Raheem Sterling] and John [Stones] helped him a lot.
“The quality was there in the beginning. He’s playing good, but also we’re showing him a lot of clips – how many not good things he is doing and what he can improve.
“You cannot expect at 20 or 21 everyone is done. He has a lot of time to be a better player – a lot.”
The manager wasn’t interested in accepting praise for his role in Sane’s development, though. At the media conference, he was quick to point out that it was all the German’s own qualities that have been on display this season.
“You as journalists give a lot of credit to the managers about what we do. But without his [Sane’s] qualities and skills, his willingness to be better, [it] would be impossible,” Guardiola said.
“Sane has good actions as a winger, but still has to be more 90 minutes more in the games. Sometimes He still disappears a little bit. That’s part of the process, that’s why it’s nice to work with younger players because you can imagine what they are going to be like in the next years. Not just with Leroy, all the players we have.”
Sane was one of the players – along with Caballero, David Silva and John Stones – who Guardiola gave coaching to immediately after the victory at Sunderland. The manager was seen in deep discussions with some of his players on the pitch, pointing out positions and actions they could take to improve.
Guardiola explained why he chose that time to do it: “Everything is fresh. They remember it. The action is two, three minutes ago. We’re always on the pitch after the game, to celebrate how good they were.”
Written by David Mooney
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