Just to state the obvious, this piece will be a lot shorter than other match reports, purely because very little happened.
The surprises before the game weren’t the fact that Pep was rotating the squad, that can be expected when you’re playing every 3 or 4 days; no the talking points were the fact that Agüero was captain and Sterling wasn’t in the squad at all.
Thinking about it, Sterling has been one of City’s most effective players as of late. His part in a front three, along with Sané, is exciting and hopefully, will continue to improve. At the time of writing, I’ve heard nothing in regards to injuries for Sterling, so I can only assume that Pep gave him the night off. If so, it’s quite surprising because he’s still young enough, you’d think, to be able to manage a game every 4 days (England fans will probably argue that this is the same player that Roy Hodgson said “was too tired” to play – but that’s a non-issue; different circumstances and a long time ago). Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that he would have at least been on the bench, just in case.
In terms of Agüero wearing the captain’s armband, I think this can be interpreted in a number of ways. For example, is Pep making a statement? Trying to silence the media and show that all is well between him and Kun? Is it another lesson Pep’s trying to teach Agüero? Is he tying to motivate him? Encourage him to play more for the team and more tenaciously – like Mancini did with Tevez? I’ll be surprised if one or more of these points isn’t sensationalised by the media, as they dissect the game and find faults. In my opinion, it’s a non-issue as well, for two reasons; first of all, it’s just an armband nowadays, teams rotate the captaincy quite often nowadays when the main club captain isn’t playing. Secondly, Pep has said all season, that in Vincent Kompany’s absence the players will nominate the captain for each game – I understand is one of his team building theories.
On to the game then… this’ll probably be brief…
The match started slow, it was mostly slow in he middle bit and ended slightly less slower, but only slightly.
The first 20 mins flew by, but not in the usual positive way, just in a sort of “oh there’s a sideways pass” and “oh another throw in”. It was clear from the offset that Hughes was there to grind out a nil-nil. Stoke played a tight formation with the midfield and defence compacted together – something which only became more compact as the game went on. The Potters tried forcing City out wide.
In many ways, Stokes idea of forcing a point out of the game was the same strategy Sunderland tried, but Stoke did it better. At times it felt like a trip back in time to watch a Tony Pulis Stoke side. It was ‘that’ kind of 0-0. At half time it just felt like it was inevitable that the game would finish as a draw. The referee was poor at managing the game and keeping the intensity flowing. Stoke were guilty of wasting so much time during the 90 minutes. They wasted enough time to rival an Everton team with Tim Howard in goal, who I think hold the record for time wasting at the Etihad Stadium (13 minutes 40 odd seconds I think was the statistic from a few years ago) – it must be true, it was pointed out by Carragher and Neville on an episode of Monday Night Football – if I recall correctly.
Thinking back over the game, the only shot on target in the entire match was a Kolarov free kick. That’s both a credit to Stoke’s compact defending and a criticism of City’s lack of incisive play.
In he absence of Sterling, Navas played on the right. I’ve defended Navas over he years, he’s a hard worker. However, he’s passed it now. He’s a bit of a one trick pony, and the one trick was his pace. He’s past the big 3-0 threshold now and his legs aren’t as quick as they were. I wouldn’t say he had a bad game against Stoke, in fact it was one of his less frustrating performances for quite sometime -which was reflected in the applause he got when leaving the field- but he’s not up to the standard required for City’s ambition. I can appreciate that he does the role asked of him by Pep, and Pep picked him to play the role Sterling has bossed, but despite his efforts, he didn’t have the edge. Perhaps Sané on the Right with Nolito on the left might have been a good alternative.
As I’ve mentioned, there weren’t too many talking points from the game. It was a case of just trying to find a way to break through. Agüero continued his deeper role but pushed forward as the game went on. De Bruyne also appeared to continue his recent form and still looks like a frustrated player. His passing for the most part was below his usual high standard.
Leroy Sané did have a good chance to find the back of the next when a loose ball from a cross bounced to him in the Stoke box, but he caught it wrong and shinned it over the bar. Another opportunity missed, but it felt like one of ‘those’ kind of nights.
De Bruyne was involved in a rough challenge from John Walters, who received a yellow card. It was a poor tackle that came from behind, with little to not attempt being made to get the ball. I noticed a few blues calling for a red card, but as cynical of a challenge as it was, I couldn’t see the argument for a red.
The introduction of David Silva during the second half, meant De Bruyne would finish the game playing on the wide right. It was from this position and during the last 15 minutes that he started to have a notable influence; playing two exceptional balls into the box. The latter effort swung in to Agüero, who had Iheanacho lining up behind him, only yards out of goal and at the near post. However, the ball had a lot of pace on it and Agüero didn’t connect right, and the effort went narrowly wide. This was in the closing minutes and really felt like a golden chance missed.
City will now turn their attention to Middlesbrough for the early kick off in the FA Cup on Saturday, in a fixture which will not see a replay, should it remain a draw at full time, as per the rule changes. Given the circumstances, it should make for a more entertaining game than the Stoke fixture. Boro will be desperate to stay in the Premier League, but the opportunity to knock out City and get a trip to Wembley will be a huge incentive, so there’s every reason to believe that City could have a huge fight on there hands at the weekend. Additionally, City face Monaco away on the Wednesday, so this too will play a part in team selection for the blues. I hate to say it, but it’s games like Stoke at home and Boro in the cup, that City should be winning, and yet these can quite easily turn into missed opportunities if City aren’t careful.