Several things struck me during Manchester City’s 0-2 Europa League Group A win in Austria last night. Having spent the day messing around on my Twitter page making up facts about Austria (did you know, for example, that, due to an oddity in the country’s one-way system, every road in Austria is uphill? Or that Austria actually gets no rainfall, but that all of their precipitation is controlled by the government?) and the pope (he was the original choice to play Indianna Jones, but he turned the role down, y’know), I was in quite a jovial mood at kick off, despite having watched a frustrating City performance recently, at home against Blackburn.
A lot of City fans I know, after that Blackburn game, were none too happy with the tactics employed by Sam Allardyce in their visit to Eastlands – wasting time, long balls, sitting behind the ball, etc. – but that’s a viewpoint I can’t really subscribe to. Too often I heard the phrase “that’s not football” or “it’s anti-football” when the game was being discussed post-match, but when it comes down to it, I wouldn’t have expected Blackburn to go to a side that is aiming for a top four finish, not to play to their strengths and, instead, to try to beat them with possession football. It wasn’t as if City didn’t create chances – the worrying part of the game was the stat of 20 attempts on goal, but only one scored.
City didn’t play especially badly against Blackburn, they just failed to break their opposition down. Too often, the opportunity for a quick break was declined for a series of short passes in midfield or the opportunity for a first time pass was declined in favour of several touches. And that allowed Blackburn to get back behind the ball and regain their shape.
There were plenty of shots on goal from the home side, but it was frustrating to see them being largely, with one or two exceptions, of course, comfortable saves for Robinson or off target to begin with. It was doubly frustrating when it took so much work to get into a shooting position.
But then roll forward five days. What struck me in the game last night, albeit against different opposition with a different style of play, was that the Manchester City that turned up in Austria, as a weakened side, too, mark you, didn’t look the same Manchester City that passed and passed and passed the ball in front of Blackburn the weekend previous. There were penetrating runs, successful through balls, dangerous attacks, one-touch football, and two good goals to finish it all off.
The biggest reason I can see for this improvement was that David Silva was given his chance to start. From the kick off, he was involved in virtually everything positive that City did until he was substituted five minutes from time. His vision and work rate were as good as ever, but his ability to execute the right pass at the right time looked second to none.
For someone his size, he didn’t look too put off by a tough tackle here or there. He’s not the bulkiest of players, which does aid his agility, but he isn’t afraid to get stuck in, too. He showed flashes of this in his substitute appearance against Blackburn – in my personal opinion, he should have been introduced to the game much earlier than he was – and, last night, it helped him run the game.
It summed his entire night up when he broke his neck to support Tevez, who was battling his way into the Salzburg box, to end up with a shooting chance (though he did decide to cut back onto his left foot and consequently gave the goalkeeper time to adjust). Tevez, traditionally, isn’t the most selfless of players and will normally take a shot on if he can, so Silva bust a gut knowing he mightn’t have even gotten the chance to shoot. But he did and he should have scored.
Keeping our feet on the ground, for a moment, though, we should remember that Red Bull Salzburg aren’t Arsenal or Chelsea or Manchester United. But, equally, they’re not a poor side; last season, they won every one of their Europa League group stage games and were also the Austrian Bundesliga winners. Ok, so it’s not the English Premier League, but it’s hardly the Northwest Counties League, either.
The second thing that struck me was my parents’ ability to fall asleep at the drop of a hat. Not just a problem when hat shopping, but also a completely strange sight when, only seconds after the half time whistle had been blown, I was able to look across and see them snoozing away on the sofa, despite having been in full conversation with them virtually right up until the whistle.
Continued on Page TWO
Gareth Barry’s return to the starting line-up and subsequent influence on the match was the third thing that struck me. Looking back to the Blackburn match, with Milner and Yaya Touré struggling to find form and Vieira as the third, deeper, central midfielder, there was little service to Tevez (and later, Jo). And it was no coincidence that it was Barry’s introduction that made the home side more threatening.
I was genuinely quite worried for Barry at the start of the season, especially after he struggled, like most of the other England players, in the World Cup (though he was battling back from injury). With the midfield talent that Roberto Mancini brought in to City, Barry was one of the favourites among several fans to be starting more games on the bench than on the pitch, condemned to proving his worth in European or League Cup matches.
However, the man himself had no such thoughts of being a bit-part player. He’s been nothing short of outstanding so far this season and last night was just another example. It’s the hard work he does that goes unnoticed. He links the defence with the attack with simple passing and, in the case of creating one of Jo’s opportunities yesterday, superb vision and through ball execution.
He’s not a Nigel de Jong, who will break up play and protect the back four, while offering very little going forward – anyone who saw his miss (read: backpass) in City’s 1-2 victory at Fulham last season can testify for that: if the ball breaks free for a first time shot eight yards from goal, it’s not Nigel de Jong you want it to fall to.
It’s a popular misconception, especially amongst television pundits who don’t get to see matches in their entirety (yet are expected to comment on them perfectly), that when City start with Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry that they are starting with two defensive midfielders. And it’s usually followed by a criticism, especially if City are at home.
While it may be true that de Jong won’t give the side much on the attack, the same cannot be said of Barry. He is the player responsible for finding Yaya Touré in advanced positions or moving the ball wide to Milner or chipping it in to Johnson or making the late drive into the box.
In fact, here’s me calling for Silva to join the starting eleven, but I can’t for the life of me decide who I would drop – personally, I’d like to see Nigel de Jong start, Gareth Barry start, Yaya Touré start, James Milner start, Adam Johnson start and David Silva start. Though, I’m not on the same contract as Roberto Mancini, so I’ll probably be left with that selection headache on Football Manager only.
I also wondered, during last night’s match, whether the captain’s armband was having something of a negative effect on the new club captain, Carlos Tevez. When it was announced that he would be club captain for the season, I could certainly see the reasons why – if your captain is chasing everything and working hard, it’s leading by example and, in theory at least, the rest of the team should be inspired by his efforts. But I also found it a somewhat strange decision, certainly with there being other, perhaps more natural, candidates in the squad. Personally, I had been expecting the armband to be wrapped around Vincent Kompany’s arm this season.
It would be fair to say that Tevez hasn’t yet recaptured his form from last season – he’s started this season like a BBC Three sitcom: trying hard to do its job, but struggling and being taken off before the series is over. Then again, he was very involved in the World Cup (granted, any game that Tevez plays in he generally is very involved with) and he did start last season slowly, as he recovered from injury. And, while he doesn’t strike me as somebody who lets pressure get to him, I have wondered more than once this season if it is an extra burden he would play better without.
After all, it seems to have worked for Kolo Touré. Though, I suppose seven games into the season, one of which Tevez didn’t feature in and one of which he scored twice in, is a bit too early to judge. And certainly taking the captaincy off someone who’s only just been given it isn’t going to help his confidence.
Now, all that being said, City travel to Wigan this weekend. While not somewhere you would expect a team that has had great investment over the last couple of seasons to struggle, City have never actually won at the DW Stadium in the Premier League (three losses and two draws). I expect it will be a game in a similar ilk to that of the visit of Blackburn to Eastlands, so it’s going to need City to move the ball around as quickly and lethally as they did last night.
Five points from four Premier League games isn’t a great start and I think, like myself, every other City fan was expecting better. But it’s not panic stations, yet. And a victory at Wigan would be a nice kick-start to City’s season and could be the boost the side needs. City are due that kick-start. Especially after having kick-started so many other teams’ seasons over the years.
Roll on Sunday.
Written By David Mooney