Guardiola rides his luck in City revolution's shaky start
Manchester City 2 Sunderland 1
Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30
After waiting so long to usher in Pep Guardiola, with his reputation for football and a masterplan that involves worldwide domination, it is probably fair to say Manchester City might have expected a little more from his first game in charge.
They won, courtesy of an 87th-minute own goal, but the revolution is clearly going to need time and it was difficult not to pity David Moyes and his players after they came so close to turning Guardiola's grand entrance into a personal ordeal for the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager.
Guardiola's body language on the touchline certainly did not offer the impression of a man who liked what he saw and there was a considerable element of fortune about the game's decisive moment when one of Sunderland's substitutes, Paddy McNair, turned a right-wing cross into his own net. McNair had been on the pitch only four minutes and, having just signed from Manchester United, the Northern Ireland international will have to cling to the hope he has better days ahead with his new club.
Sunderland can be desperately disappointed bearing in mind the way they refused to capitulate following Sergio Aguero's early penalty, culminating in Jermain Defoe turning in a 71st-minute equaliser, but they might also reflect they could have put more pressure on Willy Caballero, City's occasionally accident-prone goalkeeper, on a day when Guardiola left Joe Hart on the bench. All summer there have been rumours that Guardiola has misgivings about the England international and here was the hard evidence, leaving significant doubts about whether Hart will even remain at the club. Yaya Toure, another mainstay of City's successes in the Abu Dhabi era, could also be forgiven if his mind is filled with insecurity bearing in mind Guardiola did not even have a place for him among the substitutes.
There were always likely to be some high-profile casualties under the club's new management and Toure's future looks even more uncertain considering Guardiola was the manager who cut him free from Barcelona.
The other changes were of a more subtle variety. Guardiola had also tweaked City's tactics in a number of ways, not least with the full-backs, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy, often coming so far infield they passed one another in the centre-circle. In those moments Fernandinho dropped back from midfield to play in between John Stones and Aleksandar Kolarov as a ball-playing centre-half. Stones and Kolarov took up wider positions and suddenly City's 4-1-4-1 line-up had morphed into a new formation featuring three defenders, two full-backs in midfield and the other five outfield players pressing forwards. The new system still feels like a work in progress and Guardiola will have to hope his players are intelligent enough to understand what he wants.
The home supporters could certainly be encouraged by Raheem Sterling's liveliness and the first signs that Guardiola's work to replenish the player's damaged confidence is coming to fruition. Sterling was operating from a new role on the right, with Nolito taking over on the other side, and was City's brightest attacker during a first half when they had plenty of the ball without getting behind their opponents as often as they might have anticipated.
It was also Sterling's darting run that led to Patrick van Aanholt conceding the penalty that gave Aguero the opportunity to give City an early lead. Sterling had cut inside Van Aanholt and the full-back's sliding challenge, at full speed, was mistimed and risky. Aguero aimed the penalty low and hard to the right of Vito Mannone and, though the goalkeeper dived the right way, he was beaten by the accuracy and power.
Sunderland have not won any of their opening Premier League games since 2009 but the visiting players also had a new manager to impress and knocked the ball around reasonably well. It also felt like a good time to face City when the home team had a new-look defence and a different set of tactics to negotiate. Caballero's erratic nature was another source of encouragement and twice in the first half the goalkeeper's misplaced kicks threatened his own team. Caballero, to give him his due, also kept out Defoe with a smart reflex save but the most effective goalkeepers have a presence that inspires confidence and the bottom line, unfortunately for the Argentinian, is that he has rarely shown that in his time in Manchester.
The surprising part was the tempo being so slow and it dipped even more after the interval. Stones had an accomplished display but Nolito rarely threatened and Kevin De Bruyne was subdued for long spells. Sterling switched to the left after Jesus Navas was brought on for Nolito and, just after the hour, his driving run led to a chance that Aguero flashed wide. That, however, was a rare scoring opportunity.
Defoe's goal came from Jack Rodwell's through ball and was slipped expertly beneath Caballero and, having fought their way level, Sunderland really did not deserve the misfortune that cost them a draw. Navas's cross was drilled in from the right and the ball took a touch off Mannone before ricocheting in off McNair's knee. Guardiola had his first win, just not in the style that might have been expected.
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