1. Excellent Result, Pretty Middling Performance
A wonkily-balanced beast if ever I set eyes upon one, this was a result that on paper merited the highest praise going, because as well being an all-conquering sort of mob, who routinely pummel their opponents for five of six of the finest, City were on a run of 15 consecutive wins, which even the most begrudging would admit is indicative of a team that knows what it’s about.
You would therefore think that a draw against this lot is something about which to make quite the song and dance. And yet…
Not to put too fine a point on it, and not to denigrate the efforts of our honest lot – but we were pretty bang average throughout. One understands the mentality of setting up to defend as if lives depended upon it, but there was little chance of this tactic holding out for the full 90 minutes, and as it happened it only lasted 20.
Nor was our defending much to write home about. Admittedly City don’t make such tangos particularly easy work, but for all the finery about the build-up to City’s two goals, our defending was pretty wretched fare, with runs not tracked and lethal strikers not appropriately shackled.
And aside from the goals, City did not just dominate possession, they fairly comfortably made a hatful of chances.
So defensively this was no particular masterclass, and going forward there was no great bite either. The bods inform me that we managed three shots in the entire game – one of which was Kane from halfway, and the other two of which we scored. And as the goals themselves were from a corner and a most peculiar long-range effort, it all points towards a performance in which we did precious little to trouble City in any department.
So much for the debit column. Squinting so that the glass is actually half-full, the fact is that we scored twice at the Etihad and came away with a draw. Precious few teams will do either of these things this season.
To play as poorly as that and come away with a point, against the current and likely future Champions no less, is the sign of a team that has some backbone to it. In seasons gone by we have fallen short in our away fixtures to the Top Six. No matter how we went about it, ultimately we achieved something pretty impressive yesterday.
2. KWP Survives
Pre kick-off the prognostications of doom amongst the great and good of AANP Towers were so heartfelt and unanimous that one might have been in the waiting room for the fires of Hades. ‘We’ll take a hammering’ was the gist of things around the campfire, with young Walker-Peters identified as the egg in for the worst of the treatment, being up against Sterling.
It is to KWP’s credit therefore, that he lived to tell the tale.
He was not quite flawless in his day’s work – Sterling had the freedom of Manchester for the first goal, and bested our man in a couple of one-on-ones thereafter – but nor was this the stuff of nightmares. Considering his defensive prowess alone, KEP certainly rolls up his sleeves and sticks to the task at hand.
He received a degree of help from midfielders in the vicinity, as I am sure Our Glorious Leader had mapped out ought to be the case beforehand, but with memories of Sterling tearing apart Trippier in last season’s Champions League, it was a mild relief to see that KWP possessed at least a vague sense of the guidelines around right-backing-vs-Sterling.
3. Playing Out From The Back
For the first 20 minutes our heroes did not touch the ball, at the culmination of which period City scored and all manner of problems arose. Immediately afterwards however, and for occasional short bursts thereafter, the gameplan from our lot seemed to be to pass out from the back.
Now as any right-minded soul will tell you, the sight of your team trying casually to one- and two-touch their way from their own penalty area up to halfway is enough to do the cardio apparatus some serious mischief. I’ve seen it with England, and yesterday our heroes had the AANP heart-rate surging through the roof as every one of them who received possession in and around our own penalty area casually left it until the last possible moment before releasing to a nearby chum.
Marvellously, and barely credibly, it often worked. With City attackers homing in on whomever of our mob were in possession, said man in possession would dip a shoulder and squirt the ball towards a colleague, who would gather it in the nick of time, dip a shoulder and squirt the ball onwards, and the whole death-defying system repeated.
At any given juncture in this precarious fandango, it appeared that an approaching City type would steal in and be away with the ball, and in on goal. As such, the whole thing could only be watched from behind the sofa.
But somehow, and to the credit of goalkeeper, defenders and midfielders, our lot generally kept their heads sufficiently to keep doing this, and successfully so.
In theory, this can be a pretty handy way of beating a high press and finding things opening up considerably on halfway. It retains possession – which is a pretty vital commodity against City – better than a goalkeeper’s punt upfield would. It’s just torture to watch.
Within this approach of playing out from the back, I’ll give a gentle doff of the cap to young Master Winks.
As noted in these very pages last week, when we’re pushing for a goal and in need of an incisive, defence-splitting pass, Winks is not necessarily the man. His safety-first mentality and tendency to protect possession first and worry about creating chances later means that he is not really the chap towards whom you turn when in need of attacking inspiration.
However, if the order of the day is protecting possession because failure to do so will result in City running rings – and passing triangles – around you, then Winks’ number ought to be on speed-dial, and I thought that yesterday, when we had those little spells of possession, he played the role of string-puller-in-chief with a decent slab of aplomb.
In terms of protecting the ball, dipping his shoulder, finding space and then giving it, he starts to remind me of Michael Carrick, from the misty-eyed days of Martin Jol (blessed be his name). Winks does not have the passing range of Carrick, but something about the way in which he protects possession gladdens the soul.
However, after an hour we were trailing and in need of a goal, so he was rightly hooked.
5. Eriksen Anonymous
A bit harsh to single out Eriksen as under-performing, as few in lilywhite (or rather natty dark blue) did much to enhance their reputations yesterday.
However, the debate about the merits of otherwise of Eriksen rages on. To recap, the AANP view is that for a man of such talent, he ought to be the central figure in games, with everything going through him and emanating from him – much as was the case last week when he trotted on against West Ham. Too often, continues the AANP view, Eriksen will produce one or two gorgeous moments, which make it to Match of the Day highlights, but will be largely anonymous for the remaining 89 or so minutes.
The contrary view is that this does the chap an enormous disservice, that he was overworked last season – which explains his occasional quiet games – and that he is the one man in the team capable of producing game-changing moments of creativity from midfield.
To be honest I think it is possible to hold both views without contradiction, but that’s one for another day.
Yesterday, having been restored to the starting line-up, I looked pleadingly towards Eriksen for some on-ball leadership, but after 90 minute it felt that this was another one chalked up as a bit of a non-event for the fellow.
To reiterate, a little harsh to single him out, but in the context of the ongoing arguments about whether he really is indispensable to our cause, this was an opportunity missed for him to get on the ball and boss things.
All in all, points away to Man City are like gold dust. For all the grumbles about performance, this was one heck of a result for us, and should performances dial up a notch or two, as one would expect, we might be in for a decent ride this season.