It’s always a good feeling to blow out the cobwebs. When you’ve spent the last few weeks running on almost empty and you’ve only just been managing to get through the day, it’s nice to sit down, relax and take the load off your feet. And, as Manchester City showed last weekend, footballers are just like the rest of us when it comes to that arena. The demolition of Sunderland resulted in City’s biggest winning margin of the season and, coincidentally, the biggest since they had demolished Burnley at Turf Moor exactly a year to the day earlier.
In the last few weeks, it’s been very difficult to see just where City were going to get their goals. Tevez was stuck on 50 and whatever he tried just didn’t come off. Dzeko has looked isolated when played as a lone striker – he can’t play the Tevez role because very few players can; the little fella’s quite unique like that. Balotelli has weighed in with the odd one, but attention has been distracted by his new hobbies of darts and karate.
In fact, I’ve said several times that, when Tevez isn’t scoring, City have struggled. True, the solidity of the defence has come in handy in those weeks – if you can only score one goal a game, clean sheets are vital and Joe Hart has 23 of the buggers so far this season (he’s closing in on the club record held jointly by Joe Corrigan and Nicky Weaver). So, while City have been out of form, it hasn’t affected the league position so badly.
Now, though, one international weekend later, and a rest for some of the City players, and it’s almost as if a completely new Manchester City have emerged. One that has pace in the attack, rather than one that would keep possession well but rarely trouble their opponents. One that was happy to move the ball quickly, rather than one that wanted three or four touches per player. One that looked dangerous, rather than one that looked toothless.
Ignoring the obvious performers, for once – because it does feel like the plaudits (and quite rightly, too) always end up going to the usual suspects in de Jong, Kompany, Tevez, and Hart – the game with Sunderland produced some good performances from players that have, for one reason or another been missing recently.
To start with, Yaya Touré wasn’t playing football like he was a metaphor for an elephant trying to disco dance. Instead, he was sharp, his passing was on target, his runs weren’t laboured and lethargic, and, not only did he use the ball well, but he used it intelligently. Since the end of January, it was almost as if he couldn’t work out what he should be doing with it: he was taking it from the defenders and, when he had the opportunity to turn, he would play the quick return pass to try and open the space for someone else. When it needed that quick ball to the other centre-back, he’d try and turn on it. His passes would go astray and he looked knackered.
Fast forward to last Sunday and you could see the effect that a weekend off had had on him. He was actually injured for the Ivory Coast’s game after picking up a knock at Stamford Bridge and so didn’t feature for his country, but it was clear that he had needed it. He was an ever-present in City’s packed run of fixtures – eased now due to no cup replays and elimination from the Europa League – and, for the last month, it had looked like he could barely run.
Not anymore, if Sunday was anything to go by.
Then there was the reintroduction of Adam Johnson. On his first start since his injury, he was instrumental in City’s victory. He scored the first, and then he continued to supply dangerous crosses and create numerous chances. He wasn’t afraid to take on the full back and he was there to stretch the Sunderland defence. While Silva and Balotelli and Milner and Kolarov can do a job in the wide areas, none of them hugs the touchline in the way that Adam Johnson does.
Without him, City tended to look very narrow because… well, because they ended up playing very narrow. With him out on either flank – because he is comfortable on either left or right foot, meaning no-one knows when he’s going to head for the line or cut inside – the opposition defence can’t sit as tightly and pack the middle as much as they would like. This gives Tevez et al slightly more space to do their work.
And, if anything, Tevez’s touch just hasn’t been right recently and that’s down to, in no small part, the number of opposition players he has around him and the lack of support he sometimes finds himself with.
With Johnson dragging the defence out to one flank, and, on Sunday, Balotelli dragging them out to the other, not only was there space for the little forward to exploit, but plenty of room for the midfield to get into the box and support him – Silva scored because of a break from midfield, Yaya Touré scored because of a break from midfield…
Despite such a good attacking performance, though, it seems very unfair not to comment on the strength of the defence. I wrote at the top of this article that Joe Hart is closing in on the club record for clean sheets in a season, but he has, in no small part, been helped out by his defence. Vincent Kompany has been drawing the plaudits, but it’s Joleon Lescott who has really stepped up to the plate.
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He was shaky when he arrived and shaky for the most part when called upon last season, he has looked a completely different player since the turn of the year. He was a surprise inclusion in the derby squad in February and has barely put a foot wrong since coming into the team, looking strong and solid. In fact, I would go as far as to say he has formed the best centre-back pairing with Kompany in the Premier League in the past two months, despite my obvious bias and limited viewing of other pairings.
There should also be a notable mention here for Dedryck Boyata, too. He isn’t a full back, though you’d never have guessed with the way he played there on Sunday and against Chelsea way back at the start of the season. The future’s bright for this one.
And all this after a weekend when Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal dropped points! This isn’t what City are supposed to do: surely, the correct thing to do would be to miss out on yet another opportunity to grasp onto that Champions League place? Third isn’t exactly out of the question, but it’s quite a challenge, despite City sitting there at the time of writing (it all depends on how many eggs Chelsea put in the attempting to win the Champions League basket, in my opinion). Meanwhile, fourth is looking increasingly difficult for Tottenham. Not only do they find themselves six points behind City, but, should they win that game in hand and beat City in their upcoming tie, the goal difference is still a large obstacle.
With an FA Cup semi final to look forward to and the heels being dug into the top four positions, everything appears to be coming up roses for City. Which begs the obvious question: who are they?
And what have they done with the real Manchester City?