Against the background of Newcastle United’s attempt to park the Mourinho-esque bus against title contenders, Chelsea at St James Park last week, and in anticipation of them doing likewise against fellow title contenders, Manchester City yesterday, Guardiola was persuaded to field a lively-looking attacking line-up when the Magpies came to town.
Victims of 14 goals against in their last 3 visits to the Etihad, the scene was set for a goalfest, but the reality was it was far from that as the City juggernaut stuttered, looking far from comfortable against a team shorn of transfer funds and basically leaving their quality manager, Rafa Benitez to paddle his own canoe with the resources he’s got.
By comparison, City’s abundance of riches generated from the Abu Dhabi Group intervention precisely 10 years ago, meant that players like Leroy Sane were not even consigned to the replacements’ bench yesterday.
Guardiola fielded the inevitable Ederson between the pipes with Stones and Laporte providing the central and seemingly much-favoured partnership. Walker and Mendy were seconded to parade their dual-purpose roles, one of which was to work and one to cost.
Fernandinho served in his customary berth with captain David Silva. A strong-looking field ahead saw Mahrez, de Jesus, Aguero and Sterling provide what should have been an attacking threat like no other in the Premier League.
And as City got off to their “business-as-usual” flying start at the Etihad, one could be forgiven for believing that the aforesaid goalfest was imminent. None more so than when with little time on the clock, Mahrez found himself with space on the right, he cut inside Dummett but his near post shot was the wrong option and he dragged the ball wide.
Within a minute or so City did take the lead as Mendy played in a short pass to set Sterling free. Raheem went searching for a slot and duly found it stroking the ball around three defenders and beyond Dubravka, who would go on to have to an excellent game behind a generous defence.
Cue the avalanche. But today’s warm weather kept the snow away, the warm weather presenting itself in the shape of Dubravka, who would make a series of excellent save, including a three-in-one session at one point when he would deny Silva twice and Fernandinho in a single passage of play.
But with an early goal on the scoreboard, City probably felt that they could score at will, as they did against Huddersfield, but rather than defend their box 5-5-0, the Magpies took a little heart from the tactics deployed by Wolves last week and started further up the field and harassed City the best they could.
Chances did fall to de Jesus and Aguero, neither of which were evidently comfortable today, nor had their shooting boots on and on the half hour City were to be undone by a rapid move where Newcastle simply tore the Blues to shreds.
With Mendy losing the ball in Newcastle’s half, the Magpies quickly processed the ball up to their lone-forager Rondon who spotted the run of Yedlin who de Jesus simply couldn’t catch despite tracking him all the way with Mendy having given up the ghost. Rondon’s pass into this path was first-class, splitting City’s defensive three and the American drilled the ball past Ederson to level the score.
This was a throwback to days gone by where an over-confident City succumbed to a classic counter-attack and far from going into the break comfortably ahead, they looked in danger of surrendering points once again.
However the next evidence of “throwback” was to a time in the match that I used to refer to as “City time” when having had their ears chewed by their manager, City would come out of the second half traps a toute vitesse.
And it was within this post-half-time period that history was once again created at the Etihad. With City pushing in the inside left channel, Sterling slipped the ball into space patrolled by Walker who took a quick touch, took a quick decision and able to see a pathway to the bottom corner struck a missile down that route to restore City’s lead.
Would this be the cue for a big score? Well no it wouldn’t as Newcastle defended doggedly and bravely and also kept City’s defenders interested enough to endure periods of nervousness.
Gabriel de Jesus did get the ball into the net but was correctly ruled offside. He was then replaced by Bernardo who almost immediately introduced a different kind of threat as he always does. I really do see this excellent, neat and tidy footballer as one of City’s starts in their best eleven.
It was during this period that Dubravka pulled off an astonishing hat-trick of saves from three consecutive shots, as his team hung on for dear life, with chances piling up as City not so much knocked on the door but battered it down. Almost everyone and anyone had chances to add to the score, but the attack seemed to lack conviction and the threat was insufficiently poignant to add to the score.
The biggest culprit for me was Aguero. Yes, he might have a habit of scoring bagfuls against the North East’s finest but today he displayed all of those habits that at times infuriate the admirers of City’s record goalscorer. He would shoot for goal when nothing was on and right at the end sliced one into the corner blocks when no fewer than 3 City players would have had a tap-in.
When Guardiola first arrived he told us that City’s forward play was about using players in better positions to score goals. I think at times Sergio needs to be sent a reminder. Today it didn’t really matter, but another day it will and may well cost City title-winning points.
City are not quite hitting the gas this season, yet, even though they hit Huddersfield for a boundary. They are getting caught on the ball, which didn’t happen last season and the defending is far from conclusive. In front of goal, the last 2 matches have yielded 3 goals, two from defenders as the spark plugs up top don’t seem to be firing. Aguero really does need to look around him and create goals for other when he is inadequately placed.
Free kicks are another area of concern. With Silva getting his first in recent weeks and Aguero hitting the bar last weekend, why is it that every free kick is taken by these two? It wouldn’t if De Bruyne was fit and playing. So why not give the left-footed option to Mahrez. The new signing is struggling for a true role and looks for all the world like this season’s Bernardo Silva. It was clear from the off that Bernardo was a class addition to City’s team and he has proved that so far this season. Mahrez too is a class operator and I think we will see the best from him as the year turns when he is more au fait with what happens at Planet Etihad. But it would do his confidence no harm at all if he could pop in a set piece. He tried really hard yesterday but nothing quite came off for him.
And what of Mendy? As an attacking threat, he is very dangerous, but yesterday did not get in any of those “whip-around” crosses that have been a signature of his play this season and despite his inherent jet-propulsion, didn’t seem to fancy chasing down Yedlin ahead of Newcastle’s equaliser.
With Liverpool winning at Leicester, this time without the assistance of an offside goal or penalty and despite the attritional Milner attempting to assassinate all and sundry with him appalling tackles, City needed to get off the field with 3 points yesterday and will have been pleased so to do. Having been comfortably beaten in the Community Shield by City, Chelsea seem to be oiling the wheels and are looking solid contenders, so this season promises, so far to be more of a competition.
It will interesting to see what happens when the European competitions commence next month and also this UEFA Nations Cup that seems to have displaced the unhealthy international friendlies. I’m sure depth and rotation will play major roles and this could just be where City poke their noses in front.