Wednesday 21 August 2019

Comment - Man City bamboozling their rivals by doing most things better

Manchester City's David Silva. Photo: Reuters
Manchester City's David Silva. Photo: Reuters

Jonathan Liew

The essence of football is that the odds are stacked in favour of defence. Goals are rare, and therefore, so much more valuable because it is far easier to prevent a chance than to create one.

While you often need everything to go perfectly to score a goal, the principles of the game are built on the fact that you do not necessarily need to play perfectly to stop one. Until Manchester City came along, that is.

You get the ball. Instantly, you see Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane hunting you down. A few yards away, Sergio Aguero is blocking the easy pass to your right. Raheem Sterling is blocking the pass up the touchline. Can you maybe bend the ball around David Silva (below)? You have fractions of a second to answer.

Too late. Sane has wrapped one of his telescopic legs around yours, De Bruyne has gathered up the loose ball, and once more you are defending for your lives.

Multiply this scenario by 10, by 100, by hundreds, and you get some idea of what playing City these days entails: a never-ending series of multiple-choice problems, each with only one perfect solution.

Can you pull off the first-time backheel around the corner? Can you find exactly the right sliding tackle that will win the ball off a hurtling Gabriel Jesus without giving away a penalty? Where will Sane be in exactly 2.5 seconds? Can you be absolutely perfect? Because more often than not, you know that City will be.

Arsenal did not play appallingly here. This was certainly not their worst performance of the season by any stretch.

You could point the finger at individuals - at Alexis Sanchez, Francis Coquelin, Granit Xhaka; the usual suspects.

You could point the finger at Arsene Wenger, whose decision to omit Alexandre Lacazette looked intriguing at kick-off and downright negligent by the time he had hauled Arsenal back into the game with a powerful finish.

But really, Arsenal were no worse than any other team to visit the Etihad and have their dinner money taken this season. They were simply incapable of perfection.

Asked time and again to pick the perfect pass, make the perfect run, maintain the perfect defensive shape, they simply did what anybody else would have done under City's relentless interrogation. They squealed.

City's first goal - a masterclass in the accumulation of fine margins - was a case in point.

Alex Iwobi gets bundled over in the build-up. Nacho Monreal is brushed off just a little too easily. Laurent Koscielny tracks Kevin De Bruyne, but not quite enough to stop the shot going in between his legs. Petr Cech gets a fingertip to the shot, but not quite enough to divert it around the post.

De Bruyne's goal was thus the product not simply of a fine finish, but City doing a dozen separate tasks slightly better than Arsenal.

And that, really, was the story of Arsenal's afternoon.

Shortly after half-time, Sead Kolasinac almost plays Aguero offside, but not quite. Monreal almost gets the right side of Sterling, but not quite. A penalty results, and with 40 minutes of the game remaining, Arsenal are as good as done.

Which makes it sound simple, but of course it's not. Even with elementary tasks, you don't simply get better at them overnight. Sterling's little burst of speed to break the offside trap was the result of months and years of training sprints, dead-lifts in the gym, unhealthy meals not eaten, nights out not enjoyed.

The covering runs Nicolas Otamendi made to snuff out numerous Arsenal attacks do not simply happen, but are drilled by a honed footballing instinct, a learned caution, pure remorseless experience.

City's superior physical condition was evident throughout: winning the 50-50 balls, intensifying the press, not going to ground unless they absolutely have to.

Mentally, of course, this sort of stuff begins to take its toll after a while.

And it was interesting to note that, while Pep Guardiola was his usual apoplectic self, Wenger and his troops seemed more subdued than usual: plenty of open palms, plenty of hands on hips.

City had simply broken them: broken their shape, broken their plan, their spirit. And they may already have broken the rest of the Premier League.

(© Independent News Service)

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