A toast to Manchester City: Resilient and brilliant

Date published: Sunday 26th November 2017 6:41

The recipe for a Premier League title-winning side is pretty simple. Start with a dash of game-changing talent: Kevin de Bruyne, Sergio Aguero and David Silva, for example. Next, a sprinkle of resolve, the kind that sees only Manchester United conceding fewer goals after 13 games. Finally, a teaspoon of good fortune, such as a stoppage-time winner against Bournemouth in September.

That Manchester City required each ingredient on Sunday evening is testament to Huddersfield and David Wagner. Raheem Sterling was the game-changer, City fought from a goal down to secure a late victory, and the eventual winning goal required more than a hint of late luck.

The hosts sought to frustrate and foil at the John Smith’s Stadium, but harboured plenty of attacking threat in the first half. Nicolas Otamendi’s own goal was against the run of play, but not unjustified.

Yet while many sides would wilt after conceding on the stroke of half-time having dominated, City prospered. Within seconds of the restart Sterling was played in on goal but thwarted. A minute later, the same situation led to a different conclusion: the winger was fouled, and Aguero converted from the spot.

From thereon in, it was attack against defence with strictly no interruptions. Nine City players attempted more passes than every Huddersfield outfielder, and Aguero had as many shots as the hosts combined (4). City ended the game with 71% possession.

But for all the intricate excellence of Silva and De Bruyne, the wing play of Sterling and Leroy Sane and the constant threat of Aguero, it took a deflected goal seven minutes from time to secure a 12th win in 13 Premier League games. The eight-point gap is firmly intact at the end of November.

No side in Europe has been as punishing in attack this season, from the 7-2 win over Stoke to the 5, 6 and 5-0 victories in the space of a fortnight against Liverpool, Watford and Crystal Palace. But Pep Guardiola might well cherish these three points the most. This was a win to appease the pundits, an ugly win, the sort champions rely on.

Jose Mourinho carved two Premier League title-winning sides out of stone, teams famed more for their strength and resolve than their attacking quality. Antonio Conte’s Chelsea side were similarly known more for their defensive work, cut from the same cloth as their predecessors, counter-attacking Leicester. Manchester United’s 13 titles have been based on foundations of either defence or attack, but rarely both in the same season.

Their closest competitors for the title have dropped points in four games this season. United drew against Liverpool and Stoke, and lost to Huddersfield and Chelsea. City beat them 5-0, 7-2, 2-1 and 1-0 respectively. If they don’t grind out a victory, that is only because they have already been put to the sword.

The difference in this City side is that they are resilient and brilliant in equal measure. In 2,340 minutes in all competitions since mid-April, they have trailed for just 99. They have not lost in 26 games, and have lost just one of their last 30 in the Premier League.

That only one side has ever truly struck that balance is telling, and that City are looking to emulate their achievements is no coincidence. The Arsenal Invincibles scored more and conceded fewer goals than any side in the 2003/04 season, combining the unrivalled talents of Thierry Henry and Robert Pires with the strength and mentality of Jens Lehmann and Gilberto Silva and many others. Patrick Vieira embodied the two schools of thought alone.

No side has truly mastered that blend before or since, but one-third into the season, City are coming close. On the rare occasion they cannot talk and play their way out of trouble, they will gladly just beat you in a fistfight.

 

Matt Stead


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