Manchester City mini crisis is over: Pep Guardiola’s side restore calm against Southampton - (2021)
The last 20 minutes of title winners’ matches are supposed to be a time of either tedium or showboating. There is such a gap between the Premier League’s haves and have-nots that well over half of league games will be over as contests before the game enters its final throes. If you’re having to fight back then, you didn’t do your job well enough in the first 70 minutes.
The pattern is predictable. Possession is exchanged at half-pace between defenders and midfielders, each taking one or two touches before passing it on. Occasionally, an attacker may spring into life and attempt the audacious or a substitute might add some life. But these are the exceptional moments; serenity generally rules.
It is precisely this sound of silence that Pep Guardiola has missed, when the only noise from the stands comes from an away support repeatedly singing his name as if it is their mantra. Against Leicester City in the EFL Cup, City entered the final 20 minutes a goal up and conceded. Against Crystal Palace, they were 3-1 down and shellshocked. Against Leicester City in the league, they had been pegged back and were eventually defeated, having a man sent off in the process. At precisely the time when City were supposed to be strolling, they were in a desperate sprint.
Turning things around
Albert Einstein is often misquoted as defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. I don’t know if the great man – or indeed whoever did say that line – ever stood in the Kippax Stand or if some distant relation still wanders past Asda Eastlands at 1.30pm on a Saturday, but the misquote was beginning to stick to Manchester City like an unpleasant smell.
City have been locked in Groundhog Day. Every time the alarm sounds on the bedside table, their players resolve to take the lead against a comparatively mediocre Premier League side, dominate said team without extending their advantage and then allowing the opposition back into the match. Everton, Crystal Palace, Leicester City – in league and cup – and Southampton.
Against Palace and Leicester, City had compounded those mistakes with a profligacy in front of goal and a weakness in defence that had resulted in humbling defeat. Their hopes of defending the league title had regressed from probable to unlikely in one wretched December run. Liverpool’s form is stupendous, but it has been aided by City’s sloppiness.
On the south coast, City finally avoided the second half of that horror story. Guardiola had only once lost three consecutive league matches in his managerial career, and that never seemed possible after James Ward-Prowse had deflected the ball past Alex McCarthy. Palace and Leicester have a presence in the final third that a Danny Ings and Nathan Redmond-less Southampton lacked.
On the balance of play, it was the least the visitors deserved. The interchanges of passing between Silvas David and Bernardo are a joy to behold when afforded time and space. Twice they began passing moves with the unflappable Ederson coping effortlessly with passes under pressure and ended them 90 yards down the pitch with the same insouciant single-touch football. Southampton goalkeeper McCarthy was probably the game’s best player.
But do not be fooled into believing this was always a procession. Ward-Prowse was made doubly angry about his inadvertent finish by his vehement appeals for a penalty. Oleksandr Zinchenko was robbed of possession for the Southampton equaliser, proof that Guardiola’s full-back concerns remain. Sergio Aguero scored the third goal but is still snatching at chances. If City took as many points as Liverpool this weekend, the latter
Read more: James Ward-Prowse vs Manchester City: Should Southampton have had a penalty?
City’s galling tendency in the last month has been to take their foot alarmingly off the gas after taking the lead. Scoring again would be lovely in the same way that a new pair of trainers might be, but there is no desperation or panic to extend the lead. That is in stark contrast to Liverpool, whose relentlessness never changes whatever the score. Contentment leads to complacency, that killer of elite performance.
But at Southampton, City and their manager finally enjoyed those precious moments of late, quiet bliss. St Mary’s was so quiet that you could hear Ralph Hasenhuttl asking for more from already-beaten players, the ball passed around at half-speed. Guardiola watched from the touchline, truly satisfied for the first time in a month. The mini-crisis is over. Now to keep a first clean sheet since November.
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