Manchester City produce Michelin-starred football to beat Liverpool and add dash of glorious chaos to title race
There is a scene in the Sherlock Holmes’ short story A Scandal in Bohemia where the protagonist has deduced something meaningful based on apparently incidental observations, and Dr Watson declares himself to be extraordinarily impressed.
“When I hear you give your reasons,” Watson tells Holmes, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself. Though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process.”
Watching Manchester City when they click sometimes feels like that. Every element of their process seems so simple, but you just try and replicate the whole. The passes across defence until a midfield option becomes available. The give-and-go moves in centre midfield, transforming defence into attack in three seconds. The overlapping runs to create danger in the final third. The pull-backs from the touchlines.
Read more: Did Vincent Kompany deserve to be sent off for his foul on Mohamed Salah?
Against Liverpool, City only found perfection three times – three times was enough. But they did so amidst increasingly frantic circumstances against the form team in the country and its best defence. The first time a mesmeric attacking move allowed Sergio Aguero to score a wonderfully thrashed opening goal. The second, Raheem Sterling surged up the pitch to feed Leroy Sane, and the German arrowed a shot home. The third time, Sterling’s wonderful dash and pass found Aguero, who has his shot saved by Alisson.
If that covers City with the ball, that’s barely half the job. Witness the concerted, collective pressing high up the field, like a swarm of bees who have heard rumours of free honey. Appreciate the discipline to play in different formations in and out of possession. And yes, note the way they commit so many clever fouls in the middle of the pitch. Several everyday ingredients combined to create something others could only dream of. This is Michelin-starred football. Fernandinho is the head chef.
The best football teams play in myriad different styles, but each depend on one thing: control. It is City’s simplicity that gives them this control and this simplicity that Pep Guardiola has drilled so hard into his players like a footballing Gradgrind and his facts. Guardiola’s belief is that if his team play their way, nobody can beat them. That is why recent setbacks have been so galling.
Sometimes of course, and it is a completely selfish wish, you do urge for a bit of chaos. We have grown accustomed to titanic title tussles being cagey. The more is at stake, the more teams are set up not to lose by safety-first managers. You cannot win the match in the first 30 minutes, but you can certainly lose it. But for the final half an hour at the Etihad, we got our glorious chaos. It is deeply pleasing to have two title rivals who are both committed to attacking, active football.
Plenty of matches are decided by margins; perhaps even most matches. But it is emphatically reiterated on nights like these. The ball is millimetres from crossing the line, the shot is inches from hitting the post and going in or inches from hitting the post and bouncing out, defenders are fractions of a second away from timing their headers and blocking the cross, goalmouth scrambles where the ball somehow stays out. The line between success and failure is so thin that it almost seems unfair for the result to mean so much. But this is the undeniable truth on which title races are founded.
City keep their heads
One of the great myths of football is that the best players in the world are necessarily those with the most ability. It may be true to some extent, and clearly Lionel Messi has an astonishing amount of natural talent. But the greatest footballers are not those who can reach the highest peak, but those who make the fewest mistakes. Messi is so brilliant because his finishing, passing and dribbling is so supreme. When he tries something, it comes off. Mistakes are rare.
That might sound a particularly curmudgeonly prism through which to view football, but it’s true. The biggest matches are more often decided by the team that makes the fewest unforced errors than not. Liverpool have a goalkeeper out on loan who can back up that theory.
Thursday night epitomised that principle, a night when Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If you can keep your head’ principle has rarely been more vital in determining the course of the match. Between Fernandinho, Ederson, Kompany, Aguero and Aymeric Laporte, there were more in blue that managed to do so in increasingly unlikely circumstances. We have a title race, and it will be sensational to sit back and watch it unfold.
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