Saturday 29 April 2017

City may have seen the light after detour to La La Land

'Gabriel Jesus opened his City account with a panache which explained his huge reputation among some of his greatest compatriots.' Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
'Gabriel Jesus opened his City account with a panache which explained his huge reputation among some of his greatest compatriots.' Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
James Lawton

James Lawton

Sometimes you have to own up to an impertinence. You have to say you may have got it wrong. And, in this case, that perhaps football's most celebrated coach might just know what he is doing.

This was the dawning possibility this week while watching arguably the most fluent, integrated and luminous performance of the Premier League season.

Two weeks ago it was said here that the author of this outpouring of truly exceptional football, Pep Guardiola, was inhabiting La La Land when taking his Manchester City team to the Oscar-nominated musical of that name in the wake of a most shocking 4-0 defeat at Everton. He would, it was suggested sternly, have been far better off digging up an old war movie. Something along the lines of 'The Naked and the Dead'.

However, who can now argue that there is not a powerful sense of resurrection in the air: regained bite, belief and a system of play that flowed with a wonderful, yet hard-edged, elegance.

Crushing

After the Everton debacle, a crushing blow after weeks of eroding confidence, the most serious charge was that Guardiola might just be in career freefall. The famed creator of Barcelona's all-conquering tiki-taka game, brought in to apply his final, masterly touches to City's billion-plus investment in a future at the top of the European game, was in serious danger not only of losing the plot but being exposed as the super coach without any clothes.

Or so the argument went. At the Olympic stadium on Wednesday night his football was beautifully dressed and if it is true West Ham United are not Real Madrid, City dismantled them with at least some of the style displayed by Guardiola's all-conquering Barca.

Also, if beating West Ham is a long way from confirming yourselves as a new dominant force there was something about this victory which spoke of a lot more than a small stride away from dismal form. It was everything the disaster at Goodison, and the slide away from the front rank of the title race, was not. It flowed as mellifluously as honey. Some of the passing was as sublime as it was error-free. The front three of an average age of 20, Leroy Sane, £27m Brazilian signing Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling, were endlessly inventive and quick and when Jesus opened his City account with a panache which explained his huge reputation among some of his greatest compatriots, the eyes of the benched Sergio Aguero were huge pools of instant reflection. At the centre of it, no doubt, was his own previously unchallenged place at the heart of the team.

Indeed, City might just have been heading into new and more promising terrain. Guardiola was quick to say that with their nine-point lead - and 10 over City - it is still Chelsea's title to lose, and by some distance, but neither could he keep the excitement out of his voice. Two weeks ago, it can still be argued, Guardiola did have a look of a man who might be creating his own La La Land. He was tetchy and sarcastic and appeared to be a long way from that serenity he displayed when Lionel Messi was responding so brilliantly to all his promptings.

On Wednesday he was a man who might just have had a glimpse of a future that worked. His enthusiasm for the young striking trio could not be disguised even as he sought to soothe an Aguero plainly startled by his omission. He declared: "They proved they could play together. Aguero is so important for us. He knows and everyone knows we can't win without his contributions. I sit down with my staff and we take the decisions and it depends on the performances of the past."

Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva had moments of great influence and when the patiently functional Yaya Toure drove home a second-half penalty Guardiola's reaction was of a coach thrilled by the efficiency of all of his team's working parts. Here was a man who might suddenly have been celebrating a thousand options. Including the satisfactory one of placing the lightly-worked but competent reserve goalkeeper Willy Caballero for the besieged Claudio Bravo. Clearly, though, it was the instinctive brilliance and speed of Gabriel Jesus which most persuaded Guardiola that an extremely significant corner may well have been turned.

Briskly

He borrowed happily the imagery of the Leeds United owner after briskly sacking a new coach, saying, "You know it is like a water melon. You have to open it to see if it is good or not. The prospect is good. Jesus is a fighter with an instinct for goal. He has dreams of what he wants to do in his career in the future and we're going to try to get it for us. Our front three have an average age of 20. In Europe nobody has strikers that young and I believe the fans are right to be excited."

But then what's in a single victory by a team which has acquired an unwelcome reputation for psychological and tactical inconsistency? The answer is everything or nothing. If the superior touch and mood is not reproduced against a Swansea team impressively re-organised by new manager Paul Clement, Guardiola will no doubt be getting more advice on things other than his choice of morale-boosting movies. It is also true, however, that there are times when a team truly finds itself, believes that the rain has gone and that they can see clearly now. That seemed like reasonable speculation when Guardiola was drawn to his feet by Jesus's goal. It was a response born not in La La Land but a moment which might just have been founded in a new and thrilling reality.

Irish Independent

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