By Dom Farrell
Somewhat unfittingly given the swashbuckling nature of his team’s play this term, Edin Dzeko brought up Manchester City’s goalscoring century last weekend with a scuffed shot that required recourse to goal-line technology following a suspected handball by David Silva.
Like any self-respecting striker, Dzeko will tell you they all count. Keeping count, on the other hand, briefly appeared to be more problematic for the big Bosnian during a now infamous television interview in the immediate aftermath of the 6-0 Capital One Cup shellacking of West Ham.
Indeed, from goal-hungry strikers losing numerical track to opposition defences losing their collective will, Manuel Pellegrini’s men have swept all before them in recent month and, when Dzeko registered the ton during the 4-2 win over Cardiff, a number of records tumbled.
January 18 is now comfortably the earliest date in any season that Manchester City have reached 100 goals, smashing through the March 5 mark set by Kevin Keegan’s Blues in 2002.
Like Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison’s 1967/68 vintage and Roberto Mancini’s heart-stopping heroes of 2011/12, Keegan’s team lifted the league title after reaching three figures, albeit in the second tier.
That certainly bodes well for Pellegrini’s side and, of all City line-upsfrom the modern era, the team of Keegan’s first season in charge has as good a claim as any to being a stylistic bedfellow.
Dzeko, Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo are weighing in with goals by the bucketload and Keegan also enjoyed the luxury of three free-scoring frontmen in the form of Shaun Goater, Darren Huckerby and Paulo Wanchope. For David Silva and Samir Nasri’s mercurial dual-playmaker act, see Ali Benarbia and Eyal Berkovic; if waspish, committed wing play complete with a questionable final ball is what you’re after, then take your pick from Jesus Navas or Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Crafting a comparison between Yaya Toure and Kevin Horlock almost certainly stretches the analogy too far, but it was ‘Super Kev’ – the scorer of many crucial goals during his City career – who crashed home with a swipe of his trusty left boot to secure City’s century and a 2-1 win over Birmingham at St Andrew’s.
It was a scoreline to flatter the hosts on a night when City attacked with a verve and variety that had come to define their season, following a shaky start during which the team was sporadically exceptional while searching for an identity. Sound familiar?
Watford, who visit Manchester in the FA Cup fourth round this weekend, were the first team to take on Keegan’s City and they were dispatched 3-0 – Berkovic finding the net on an impressive debut.
Benarbia arrived from Paris Saint-Germain in September 2001, his mesmeric orchestration of the 3-0 home victory over Birmingham belying the fact his plane into Manchester arrived only two hours before kick-off. In a 6-2 demolition of Sheffield Wednesday the Algerian schemer was both goalscorer and puppeteer and the City faithful had a new darling.
Such performances remained the exception – chastening 4-0 reverses at the hands of West Brom and Wimbledon came either side of those Benarbia masterclasses – but things changed on December 1, when Grimsby’s Blundell Park provided the unlikely setting for footballing revelation.
Reverting to the 3-5-2 formation he employed in the opening weeks, Keegan paired Berkovic and Benarbia together in central midfield. Horlock was employed as a midfield anchor behind them for the first time, adding crucial balance.
The early career progression of Shaun Wright-Phillips from academy stand-out to £21million international winger can also be traced to that dank winter afternoon on the east coast.
Two years on from his City debut, Wright-Phillips’ development – regrettably not for the last time – had stalled. Too slight to play up-front, Keegan employed him “in the hole” for the second home game of the season against Crewe, where a horribly nondescript display was mercifully cut short at half-time.
Wright-Phillips began to show his promise once more as a conventional wideman in a 4-4-2, meaning Keegan was loathe to discard him when the back three returned. Perhaps by process of elimination, with Berkovic and Benarbia eminently more qualified “number 10s” and Goater ploughing a familiar goal furrow alongside Huckerby up front, the manager selected his pocket rocket at right wing-back versus Grimsby.
This was to the initial dismay of those who revelled in Richard Dunne’s interpretation of the role during October’s reverse fixture, carried out with all the grace of a wardrobe on roller skates. Wright-Phillips became a fixture in the position, his tireless work rate wonderfully complimenting instinctive natural ability.
The performance at Grimsby itself was no more than workmanlike, City waiting until Huckerby’s 74th-minute penalty to break the deadlock before Goater sealed a 2-0 win, but the settled line-up that had proved so elusive was now in place.
Building upon Horlock’s foundation behind the irresistible creative hub, City’s forwards made hay as Wright-Phillips and Danny Tiatto tore mercilessly down the flanks. Like those facing Pellegrini’s men today, opponents were given little to no respite. There were only three more league defeats post-Grimsby and emphatic triumphs became the order of the day.
Wanchope’s first-half hat-trick made a mockery of Burnley’s top-of-the-table status in a relentless 5-1 festive thrashing at Maine Road. A month later, City thumped Premier League Ipswich 4-1 in the fourth round of the FA Cup – their relegation on the same Portman Road pitch eight months earlier feeling like a scarcely believable event of the distant past.
Promotion rivals Norwich and Millwall were seen off in consecutive home games despite early red cards for Tiatto and Benarbia. In the first game, Tiatto’s dismissal stirred the old warhorse Stuart Pearce into a righteous fury that became the embodiment of the steel fist lurking inside City’s velvet glove.
If Wolves’ limp loss to Millwall on April 5 confirmed promotion in anti-climactic fashion, City made up for it a day later by clinching the title with a 5-1 dissection of Barnsley, where Huckerby claimed a second consecutive home hat-trick and Benarbia touched perfection.
He would do so again in the penultimate game at Gillingham by launching an astonishing scooped backheel for Goater to drill a volley into the bottom corner. It remains a goal that measures up to any in Manchester City history, somewhat fittingly given the entertainment that team produced.
The harsh realities of the Premier League meant a more pragmatic approach brought a highly respectable ninth-place finish in 2002/03. As the move to a shimmering new home beckoned, Keegan shot for the stars and unwittingly torpedoed the blue moon. Goater, Huckerby, Horlock and Benarbia would never play a competitive game for City at Eastlands; Steve McManaman, Antoine Sibierski, Paul Bosvelt and Trevor Sinclair would almost get them relegated.
Pellegrini has the luxury of not needing to consider the type of transfer gambles that brought Keegan down and appears to be constructing something built to last. If that well-oiled winning machine hoists silverware in May, I will think back to the first City team I loved for what they did as opposed to simply who they were.
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.”
Invite other people to join you on this network