Monday 15 October 2018

Aguero hat-trick a reminder of Pep's options

Manchester City 3 Newcastle United 1

Manchester City's Sergio Aguero with the matchball after scoring a hat trick. Photo: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters
Manchester City's Sergio Aguero with the matchball after scoring a hat trick. Photo: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters

Etihad Stadium

Manchester City chose to withdraw from the race to sign Alexis Sanchez after balking at the cost of the deal but that blow must have been softened in the knowledge that they still have Sergio Aguero to knock in the goals.

Pep Guardiola must have been hoping for a reaction, not just to City's first domestic defeat of the season at Anfield last Sunday, but from Aguero in response to the news the burden of leading the line will continue to rest heavily on his shoulders. The Argentina striker did not disappoint.

A hat-trick took Aguero's total for the season to 22, just 11 short of his highest tally for the club and we are still in January. Newcastle briefly threatened to make a game of it when Jacob Murphy's first goal of the season made it 2-1 and, for a moment, the away team discovered some adventure that hitherto was painfully lacking.

But then Leroy Sane produced a moment of sublime individual skill to tee up Aguero for his third goal and suddenly Guardiola's frustration at seeing his team miss so many chances, not to mention the loss of Sanchez, must have subsided.

The criticism of Newcastle's approach at home to City at Christmas had clearly washed over Rafael Benitez. It was clear from his line-up - one bank of four almost sat on a bank of five - that no-one, his former player Jamie Carragher included, was going to shame him into altering his ultra-cautious blueprint, especially at the Etihad Stadium where City had not lost for approaching 14 months.

Yet there is sitting deep, defending in numbers and looking to strike on the counter and there is defending your 18-yard box with eight or nine players, no hint of aggression or pressure on the ball 30 yards out and no sign of any real ambition to push beyond the halfway line. If it gets you a point, it's job done, however stultifying a spectacle it makes for, but you can't blame those who wanted to tune out.

Manchester City's Leroy Sane gets away from the Newcastle United defence. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Manchester City's Leroy Sane gets away from the Newcastle United defence. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

At St James' Park, Guardiola claimed it is particularly difficult "when the other team doesn't want to play", and while every manager reserves the right to set up and play how they want, the script was the same. There was one team playing here, and it wasn't Newcastle, who saw just 18 per cent of the ball in a first half where City had Sergio Aguero's header to show for their territorial dominance.

Kevin De Bruyne sidestepped Javier Manquillo on City's left flank and whipped in one of those trademark venomous crosses. Ireland's Ciaran Clark has a distinct height advantage over Aguero but it was the Argentina striker who rose quickest and highest to glance a finely taken header into the corner for his 20th goal of the campaign.

It was curious, then, that Newcastle waited until they were 2-0 down and with just over 20 minutes left on the clock to realise this City defence could be got it if only they exerted pressure.

It could have got ugly when Manquillo bundled over Raheem Sterling and Aguero did the business from the penalty spot but five minutes later Newcastle had pulled one back.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Clark sprayed a sliding pass from just inside his own half in behind Zinchenko for Jacob Murphy to race on to. As Ederson advanced, a little composure was required and that was precisely what Murphy provided, dinking a lovely finish over the City goalkeeper.

Benitez must have thought Newcastle had equalised soon after. Mohamed Diame charged into the penalty area, cut inside John Stones and fired a shot at Ederson, who saved. The City goalkeeper then fumbled the ball at the second attempt, Ayoze Perez shot was blocked and an uncharacteristically chaotic Ederson dived at the feet of Diame for the loose ball before Fernandinho cleared.

City had been unlucky to have a wonderful team goal ruled out for offside in the 18th minute and some of their interplay was spellbinding, if just lacking the killer finish. City's crucial third goal owed everything to Sane's brilliance on the ball. Diame and DeAndre Yedlin both had a couple of stabs at trying to get the ball off him as he wove in and out of them but they did not get so much as a snip at his heels. He then had the presence of mind to square to Aguero to fire home for his hat-trick. Game over.

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