Beyond the broad grins tumbling out of the Etihad Stadium turrets and bouncing merrily down Joe Mercer Way, Manchester City’s emphatic 4-1 derby victory over Manchester United deservedly won widespread admiration.
Having stuttered during the opening weeks of the season, this was a remarkably timely realisation of the dynamic, progressive footballing style trumpeted as being synonymous with manager Manuel Pellegrini upon his summer arrival.
It was a performance inspired from the back by totemic skipper Vincent Kompany and controlled by Yaya Toure and Fernandinho in the engine room – the latter turning in his most complete performance since a £30million move from Shakhtar Donetsk, while City simply do not lose when the former imposes his will on games to such an extent.
Handed such a rock-solid platform from the game’s opening exchanges, City’s forward quartet took full advantage. Samir Nasri schemed from the left with a demonstration of razor-sharp craft and guile he has fallen shy of far too often in a sky blue shirt.
Nasri crowned a dizzying period after half-time by crashing home a Jesus Navas cross – the Spain international who could not match his team-mates’ persistent involvement at the hub of the hosts’ best work but was clinically effective at rapid speed whenever called upon.
As is seemingly customary on these occasions, Sergio Aguero was the goal hero – volleying a brace as Rio Ferdinand became well acquainted with his shadow.
The fluidity of movement demonstrated by Aguero, Nasri and Navas in attack obliterated United’s intention of containing via “two banks of four” in a rigid 4-4-2. City’s XI could also be listed as a 4-4-2 but the contrasting approach of both teams brought to mind Pellegrini’s famous dismissal of formations as “telephone numbers”.
City left the purists purring with a scintillating display of progressive, contemporary football. Nevertheless, there was an altogether more “old school” ingredient that helped Pellegrini to cook up the sweet taste of derby success.
Alvaro Negredo put failing to make the grade at Real Madrid behind him by amassing an astonishing scoring record of 102 goals in 209 La Liga appearances for Almeria and Sevilla. International recognition and strikes at the highest level followed but, somehow, this was not what immediately caught the imagination.
The 28-year-old’s uncompromising, muscular style earned him the nickname the Beast of Vallecas (Vallecas being the working-class Madrid neighbourhood from which Negredo hails). Goals undeniably helped, but the manner in which Negredo got them earned a place in the hearts of Almeria and Sevilla fans and ensured opposing centre-backs left the field grimly aware they had been in a game.
Another man noted and lauded for his might, Nemanja Vidic, was the latest to face this reality at the weekend. Lovingly serenaded by the United faithful with a terrace chant straining to rhyme his native Serbia with “murder yer”, Vidic came off comfortably second best in the type of brawn versus brawn battle understood to be his forte.
A possible reason for this is the modern game’s tendency to move away from the traditional number nine, best exemplified by Barcelona and the Spanish national team. The latter’s occasional preference for the “false nine” system populised by Barca - based around fluidity and interchangeable forwards - means Negredo, arguably his nation’s finest practitioner when it comes to old-fashioned centre-forward play, has to scrap for international caps.
With Barcelona standing as the tiki-taka Zeitgeist, at least before their humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League semi-final, the upshot is Vidic and his sort have a dwindling number bruisers to deal with on a weekly basis. The preference for top clubs is the sort of mobility provided by Aguero, Nasri and Navas – even Chelsea in their post-Didier Drogba era boast an array of twinkle-toed little men, while the strapping Romelu Lukaku continues to learn his trade on loan at Everton.
When Jose Mourinho’s team played out a goalless draw at Old Trafford earlier in the season, they did so without a conventional centre-forward – producing the kind of comfortable night accomplished centre-halves such as Vidic have perhaps become slightly accustomed to.
Negredo survives in this environment at the peak of the game by virtue of a razor sharp football brain, exemplified by shrewd and intelligent movement, and a sublime left foot - his delicately weighted through ball to tee up Navas in the 5-0 League Cup demolition of Wigan on Tuesday night showcased this side of his game in all its glory.
The application of these talents brought about a truly harrowing afternoon for Vidic, who almost came over as a flat-track bully when Negredo so comprehensively manhandled him to lay on Aguero’s second moments after half-time.
Much as football is a team game, a chastening experience for a key individual can have a wide reaching impact. Imagine the levels of collective fear among City fans for the weeks ahead had Wayne Rooney subjected Kompany to something similar.
As United lick their wounds City must now confront a less glamorous but ever more troublesome foe – a Premier League away match.
The travel sickness that regularly hindered Roberto Mancini’s reign still seems to be skulking in the bowels of the team bus ahead of Saturday’s trip to Aston Villa if this season’s excursions at Cardiff and Stoke are anything to go by.
Hopefully the 3-0 victory over Viktoria Plzen that set a phenomenal week in motion has conquered some demons in that respect and, with Villa missing talisman Christian Benteke in attack, the impression is the Blues would be foolish to pass up the chance to collect a first domestic three-point haul this term.
Edin Dzeko has responded superbly to losing his league starting place to Negredo with two goals in as many cup outings and a recall for the big Bosnian would not be without merit, particularly against a Villa side who may operate on the front foot and offer space on the counter attack.
But whether from the start or off the bench, Negredo will have a role. His robust style, allied with Navas’ electric pace offer City a route to escape the predictability that has rendered them impotent away from home too often in the recent past.
By Dom Farrell
It isn’t hard to pinpoint the moment when Gareth Barry’s reputation took a seemingly irreversible hit in the fickle collective opinion of English football fans.
A slack 67th minute pass from the then Manchester City midfielder set in motion a chain of events leading to Germany’s third goal in their 4-1 2010 World Cup mauling of England in Bloemfontein, but it was his contribution - or lack thereof – three minutes later that sealed his fate.
A quick look back at the highlights video shows our hero failing to deal with a punt towards the left wing, with numerous England players committed forward chasing the game. He is presumably distracted by the treacle slurry he appears to be running through as Mesut Ozil streaks off towards the Highveld and tees up Thomas Mueller for his second of the game.
To use the lexicon of Malcolm Tucker, England’s entire campaign that summer was an omnishambles. But these occasions of national mourning and unsold plastic car flags are no time for measured reflection. The good people of St George and Richard the Lionheart need a scapegoat and Barry had sprinted to fill the vacancy , or at least tried his very best to do so.
From that point onwards, things got a bit ridiculous. During every England game in which he subsequently featured, Barry became one of the top Twitter trends in the UK. A quick click on his name revealed an astonishing spew of bile and brickbats.
Not that such social media hot air and similar nonsense from radio phone-ins – increasingly the preserve of football’s lunatic fringe in the 21st century – was ever likely to fluster this most unflappable of footballers. Barry simply went about compiling the two most successful seasons of a distinguished club career, helping himself to FA Cup and Premier League winners’ medals.
This is probably not the first Gareth Barry tribute piece you’ve read since his loan move from City to Everton was confirmed on transfer deadline day. From local newspaper columns to pieces on the official website and a variety of blogs, many queued up to offer reverent praise. Perhaps some felt a bit guilty having taken the man for granted and never really fought his corner.
The exhilarating highs of the past few years following Manchester City were provided by the likes of David Silva, Yaya Toure, Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli and Sergio Aguero. Those stars earned lavish praise and terrace chants, while captain fantastic Vincent Kompany inspired all and sundry. Barry just got on with his job – namely laying the platform for these men to flourish – and occasionally departed to bear the three lions as much across his shoulders as on his chest.
Starting with Roberto Mancini’s acquisition of Patrick Vieira in January 2009, plenty of pretenders to Barry’s holding midfield role arrived at Eastlands. Across three-and-a-half wonderful years under the Italian, he saw off the challenges of Vieira, Owen Hargreaves, David Pizzaro, Javi Garcia and Jack Rodwell to retain his place on the team sheet as links with Daniele De Rossi never really went away.
When Mancini chose to take the handbreak off at the start of the title-winning season, it was tough-tackling terrace favourite Nigel de Jong who made way to accommodate an extra attacker, with Barry’s more subtle qualities correctly retained. Only weeks earlier, he was benched for the Community Shield defeat to Manchester United as De Jong and James Milner continued their fledgling pre-season partnership in the engine room.
Even so, conversations at the pub with fans of other clubs would revolve around Barry being “rubbish” and were often followed by an insistence that Adam Johnson should be in City’s first XI. One is a “Match of the Day player” and the other is not. The Saturday night hoards would revel in a mesmerising piece of skill from Johnson and be spared the other 80 minutes of poor decision making and highly selective team work. Barry would only crop up sporadically. The player you notice when he isn’t there or when he honks in an own goal against Southampton.
YouTube highlights reels exemplify football’s age of instant gratification better than anything else. In this respect, Barry is a man out of time. He’s like a good book. Hours are required to fully appreciate the subtleties, nuances and intrinsic value.
A leaf through City’s match stats in recent seasons shows he often topped the kilometres-covered column. We’ve already touched upon how he never goes anywhere in a particular hurry, so one assumes he must have never stopped moving. In truth, the lack of pace rarely mattered, such are Barry’s peerless skills of anticipation and swiftness of mind in launching attacks with a perfectly judged, simple pass.
If one moment sums up what Gareth Barry was so brilliant at for City – a highlights reel moment for the anti-highlights reel player – it is his role in James Milner’s opening goal during last season’s derby victory at Old Trafford. After Samir Nasri failed to collect Gael Clichy’s pass in midfield, Barry read the situation in a flash, harried and applied intelligent pressure to force an error from Ryan Giggs. As usual he did not have to go to ground to make the tackle, paving the way for a workmanlike but decisive trundle towards the United goal.
Want to see how terrible a defensive midfielder who lacks pace looks without these qualities? I point you in the direction of Javi Garcia. City must have searched high and low to find a Spanish international midfielder who appears so utterly inept from within the country’s phenomenal array of talents. And yet, Garcia now stands as the only out-and-out holding player on City’s books, undoubtedly with a key role to play as the Champions League graft begins next week.
As much as Yaya Toure and Fernandinho is a dream-team combination on the ball in the centre of the park, the pair often resembled a pair of saloon doors when out of possession against Cardiff and Hull, leaving a defence depleted by injury and grappling with a new manager’s methods horribly exposed.
Manuel Pellegrini’s primary challenge is to have a defensively functional midfield in place this weekend, when the ever-troublesome trip to Stoke kicks off a challenging run of fixtures. It is hard to escape the fear that the ideal man to solve the problem was sent packing down the M62 a couple of weeks ago.
Statistics published by the social media networking site LinkedIn prove that Manchester City really is, “the only team to come from Manchester.”
The Manchester City FC Supporters Group, setup in July 2008, now has just over 1,100 members. The LinkedIn statistics show that 29% of the MCFC Supporters Group are based in Manchester, versus only 6% of the Manchester United Supporter Group.
The MUFC supporter group has the same percentage of fans in Manchester as it does in London at just 6%, with 3% of supporters coming from Mumbai in India.
The Manchester United Supporter Group, created in February 2008, now boasts over 5,000 members. Interestingly the group description helpfully reminds potential group members that United is a club from the UK by stating, “For all those fans who love Manchester United (UK) and would like to connect on LinkedIn.”
Dzeko's - back on form
By Dominic Farrell
Manchester City were simply irresistible as they dismantled Newcastle at the Etihad Stadium last Monday and deserving of the plaudits that flooded their way.
A verve and incisiveness seldom seen last season left a Newcastle side reeling from Arsenal’s approach for subsequently absent midfielder Yohan Cabaye sprawled over the ropes in the opening exchanges.
Edin Dzeko led the line with the marriage of muscular presence and assured touch that he often falls frustratingly short of; Jesus Navas buzzed incessantly inside and outside of the right channel to lend the team a thrilling new dimension; David Silva schemed shrewdly between the lines, his mojo working once more.
If 4-0 flattered anyone it was Newcastle – dreadfully undermined by captain Stephen Taylor’s bizarre decision to clout Sergio Aguero around the head before half-time and receive his marching orders – as City clanged down a marker to their title rivals. Some enthralled observers were scrambling around for blue and white trophy ribbons. Roberto who?
And then there was Cardiff. Playing amid a din induced by patriotic fervour as the Welsh capital welcomed Premier League football for the first time, City’s make-shift central-defensive pairing of Javi Garcia and Joleon Lescott rode their luck to preserve parity at half-time. The disintegration and set-piece folly that followed Dzeko’s opening thunderbolt was alarming.
Much of City’s display merited the brickbats that balanced out the post-Newcastle love-in, even if some reactions were extreme (a personal favourite was a forum poster likening Fernandinho to Gelson Fernandes with no reference to near-acronyms).
By the same token, Cardiff grabbed their big day superbly – Aron Gunnarsson capped a magnificent display with the equaliser and midfield counterpart Gary Medel also stood out within a team performance of boundless intensity. With due respect, Malky Mackay’s men may not play better this season. That does not mean Manuel Pellegrini and co can write off Sunday as a freak result.
Pellegrini has been successfully cast as the anti-Mancini - his purported arm-around-the-shoulder managerial technique bringing early success in the form of a rejuvenated Dzeko. But the defeat at Cardiff displayed flaws that often undermined City away from home throughout Mancini’s reign. It was anything but a freak result when cast in that light.
The idea that Pellegrini would come in as a glorified grief counsellor, give everyone a cuddle and fix all the problems in one fell swoop is wholly unrealistic and disrespectful toward the many talents of the manager and his predecessor.
Having watched his charges dismantle Newcastle, Pellegrini’s decision to field a similar XI at the Cardiff City Stadium was wholly understandable – Garcia replaced injured captain Vincent Kompany in the only enforced change – but it left him with a front row seat to a conundrum that Mancini often failed to crack; why do City sides that routinely dominate at the Etihad regularly flounder against a similar standard of opposition away from home?
The temptation post-Cardiff is to focus on Joe Hart’s haphazard form and more points dropped in Kompany’s absence– both are major concerns, particular the latter given the frequency with which the Blues’ toweringly influential captain has collected niggles since pinging a calf against Sporting Lisbon in March 2013 – but the kind of lacklustre away-day fayre served up on Sunday has arrived before with both men at the peak of their powers.
Against Newcastle, City’s front four operated with scintillating variety, rarely allowing Newcastle’s defence a moments’ peace. The game’s opening goal, with Dzeko pulling into space vacated by Silva down the left channel to cross for the Spaniard to head home from his centre-forward position, stood as the most effective example of this tactic.
Mancini also favoured fluid attackers but two of Pellegrini’s new editions helped to refine and improve City’s successful home approach on first viewing. Alongside Yaya Toure at the base of the midfield, Fernandinho helped to set a brisk tempo that meant City’s attacks never became ponderous or predictable, while Navas’ nimble and menacing wing play gave his fellow attackers and rampaging right-back Pablo Zabaleta room to manoeuvre.
Video: Jesus Navas YouTube compilation
And yet, familiar problems re-emerged at Cardiff. The Blues’ frustrations in breaking through a well-marshalled and tenacious defence descended into increasingly ragged and narrow raids as wide positions were not exploited. Navas’ departure, having been watchfully shackled by Cardiff throughout the afternoon, compounded the problem despite City leading through Dzeko at the time.
The hosts then concentrated efforts centrally without fear of being undone down the flanks and this powerful presence through the middle had a hand in their first and second goals, with City outnumbered defensively in midfield.
A strong argument in favour of Pellegrini’s appointment was the prospect of him bringing a fresh approach in Europe to prevent the Blues from falling at the group stage for a third successive season. Thursday’s draw might have done him a slight favour in that respect, but the need to re-evaluate City’s outlook away from home is at least just as pressing. Simply hoping their Etihad tactics will do the job in supposedly bread-and-butter encounters on the road will no longer do.
The Cardiff failings provide a reasonable starting point. By and large, City’s main creative talents prefer to operate from the centre, or at least moving towards it, but the amount of eye-of-a-needle passes from Silva that failed to find their mark in the final third at the weekend underlined the need for a more disciplined approach to width.
This is not to say Pellegrini should depart from his preferred brief of fluid attacking football, but this fluidity needs to run through a sprinkler and not a funnel. A combination of Navas’ natural instincts and James Milner’s unshakable commitment to do whatever is asked of him could help City to stretch their points of attack.
Such an approach would necessitate strengthening the centre of midfield, where the hastily discarded Gareth Barry, Jack Rodwell or Milner may provide a more streetwise feel in the engine room as Fernandinho acquaints himself with the Premier League’s cut and thrust. One imagines the Brazilian learned a number of lessons in Cardiff – the extent to which he heeds them will be fully tested at the Britannia Stadium the next time City hit the road.
Ah, the Britannia – a venue to provoke groans of dismay from many a Manchester City supporter. In five attempts since Premier League football returned to the Potteries, the Blues’ are yet to return with three points. Indeed, a glance at the next five away league games on the agenda – Stoke, Aston Villa, West Ham, Chelsea and Sunderland – shows a solitary victory for City in the corresponding fixtures last season.
So here’s to Pellegrini’s men getting straight back on the horse and revelling in home comforts when Hull travel across the M62 for Saturday’s early kick-off – surely a must even if league title are not won in late August. Alas, they can be lost by early November and a more combative and expansive approach on the road is needed to prevent pre-season optimism from grinding to a halt on the hard shoulder.
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