Sunday 25 February 2018

Patience pays off as Pellegrini restores old order


James Milner and Ravel Morrison in a race for the ball
James Milner and Ravel Morrison in a race for the ball


As Manchester City knocked the ball around at the Boleyn Ground last night, it was tempting to view their stylish victory – their first away win of the season – as an imposition of the old order.

"We went into the game knowing that everyone had won," Manuel Pellegrini said. By everyone, he explained, he meant Chelsea and Arsenal. Manchester United, of course, had not won.

This season, there is very little of the old order but City are back in the top four and five points ahead of the champions.

Victory was important for other reasons. "One point out of nine was not good," Pellegrini said of City's away record before this game but he was pleased at their commitment to a certain style as well as an overriding commitment to taking three points.

West Ham were worn down by the skill and energy of Sergio Aguero – who scored twice – and David Silva, who added the third. But Sam Allardyce's side played a significant part in their own downfall.

Later Allardyce complained about the "basic errors" which led to City's first two goals and while he admired their ability to impose themselves on the game, the first two goals were nothing to do with Manchester City's quality, he insisted.

Allardyce had named the same team which won at White Hart Lane before the international break. After that victory he was hailed, by himself and some others, as a tactical wizard, denied the top jobs because of a cruel reverse prejudice. "We knew they'd play the way they played against Tottenham," Pellegrini said. "I told them to have patience and to move the ball."

West Ham might have taken a different approach against a team that has its own vulnerabilities and, without Vincent Kompany, had started with an experimental back four. Yet City were comfortable until the final half hour when Ricardo Vaz Te made it 2-1. "Too late," Allardyce lamented.

City's purpose sent West Ham backwards from the start. If Aguero and Silva were gliding across the field, Alvaro Negredo provided the power and some subtlety.

The uncharacteristic lack of order in an Allardyce side led to the first goal when Negredo let a straight ball run by him. This was enough to catch West Ham's defence out and Aguero burst beyond the flat back four before calmly finishing past Jussi Jaaskelainen.

West Ham had no forward to hold the ball up, their midfield six was being outnumbered by fewer men but their defence was the real weakness, seemingly intent on self-destruction.

In the first half, James Tomkins and Winston Reid found different ways of setting City up, creating chances for Negredo and Yaya Toure, whose shot was kept out by a Jaaskelainen save.

The game was lost six minutes into the second half as the Hammers' calamitous defence stood off Aguero when City had a free-kick on the left and he headed in from eight yards.

City's second goal liberated West Ham, albeit briefly. If Ravel Morrison was the man people were talking about beforehand, it was Stewart Downing who provided the impetus.

Downing could probably provide Morrison with some career advice but Morrison could probably offer something to Downing too in his fearlessness, even if Morrison's career so far would suggest there's nothing wrong with a bit of fear.

Downing has always been eminently sensible and he began to find space on the right to make his well-considered judgements, first knocking a ball into Mohamed Diame, which Joe Hart came out to smother, and then taking up the position of maximum opportunity.

Downing's career has not been about winning far-post headers but when he knocked a cross from Razvan Rat on the left back into Morrison's path, City hesitated. Morrison flicked the ball over his head and, although he wanted to gather the ball himself, Vaz Te moved under it, scoring with an overhead kick and celebrating extravagantly, clearly feeling the technique should be honoured ahead of the situation in the game.

It was too late and City kept creating chances with Negredo hitting the bar and Jaaskelainen saving from Aguero and subtitute Alexsandar Kolarov.

The game was won but Silva made sure of it 10 minutes from the end, gathering Aguero's backheel and then waiting for the right moment to put the ball past Jaaskelainen.

The game was "finished" as Pellegrini said. Allardyce felt it had been over well before that. City had established some order but the season still promises to be ruled by anarchy.

Sunday Independent

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