Struggling Middlesbrough ‘welcomed’ Manchester City to the Riverside stadium on Sunday, knowing they’d need to dig deep to keep their Premier League dream alive. City on the other hand can’t afford to drop anymore points in the race for Champions League football.
Pep Guardiola made a host of changes to the team, some popular, others not. In an effort to accommodate both Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus, Pep went with a back three, five in midfield and the two South Americans upfront. Youngster Aleix Garcia came into midfield alongside Fernandinho, whereas Sterling and Sané were both relegated to the bench. I’ll be honest I was sceptical before kick off, I’m yet to see City play three at the back convincingly – with any manager in charge, let alone Pep.
In all honesty, not much happened for the early part of the game. The first half was quite a sloppy affair by both sides; neither side really looked in the best of form in the opening minutes.
The first real chance City created came in the 36th minute in the form a good cross from Nicolas Otamendi. However, it was met with a poor header from Gabriel Jesus, and went off target. Jesus should’ve scored.
City’s poor performance in the first half was summed up by the way the ball was surrendered, rather than given away, for the Boro counterattack which ended with a well taken goal from Alvaro Negredo. The former City striker turning in front of the City goal and despite slipping as he hit it, the shot flew in off the post. The static City defence watched it go in, after Negredo had been allowed far too much time and space. Sorry to disappoint the critics, but Willy Caballero couldn’t have done anything to stop it. What was disappointing to see, apart from the poor defending, was the lack of effort by City’s midfield during the Boro counterattack. Too many joggers. Worse still, Negredo’s goal was the first and only shot on target in the first 50 minutes of the game.
The first half drew to a close with Pep looking baffled on the touchline. Im sure they’ll be some arguing that the display further evidenced that Guardiola had underestimated the Premier League and that he’s overrated… To go with the baffled looked; Pep, Arteta and the bloke with the clipboard that looks after Pep’s Fruit Pastiles (I can’t remember his name at the time of writing), were ‘chatting’ on the bench, presumably about what to do next to get city back in the game. However, worryingly Arteta looked the most managerial of the three, Pep and Fruit Pastille man just looked perplexed. No other way to describe it.
Something needed to be changed if City were to get anything from the game. They hadn’t looked comfortable with three at the back. They’d been guilty of sloppy passing and niggly needless fouls. De Bruyne had also frustrating; holding onto the ball for too long, playing wrong passes, not lifting his head up. All the things that he’d done right last season, he’d got wrong in the first 45 minutes at the Riverside. At times Agüero and Jesus were stood too close together, this wasn’t to say that they can’t play together, quite the opposite in fact. The reason they were too close together at times was because they were waiting for Clichy and Navas – the wing backs that had been expected to add width to City’s play – to catch up with the speed of the game. Clichy and Navas have added nothing and their contribution had been arguably detrimental.
I think the conclusion at half time was unanimous, City were paying the price for a bizarre team selection. Virtually all over social media the same statistic was being banded round; City haven’t won an away game in the Premier League that they’ve been losing at half time since 1995. There was nothing to suggest they’re were going change that stat either.
On to the second half…
The second half started with a couple of rough tackles from both sides, but for me Adam Forshaw should’ve been sent off. He’d already been booked for a senseless foul on Leroy Sané. Shortly after he committed a further, similar foul, but the referee decided to chat to him rather than give second yellow. Perhaps this is an example of the new concept of “game management”? If so it’s a poor example because it sets the precedent that there’ll not be second yellows, right?
With 20 minutes left, Leroy Sané was tripped by Marten De Roon and a penalty was given. That’s the narrative. It upset the Boro players though, as they felt hard done by.
They’ll be those who argue that Sané “played the referee” for the penalty, because of the manner he went down and the amount of contact involved. But what about Rashford for United earlier in the day?
We all hate to see players dive. It’s made even worse when ex-players turned pundits try to defend the art of diving by saying a player “anticipated” contact. That’s pathetic nonsense. The fact remains in this case that Sané was fouled, there was contact and the referee gave the penalty. Sergio Agüero then stepped up and put the ball in the back of the net. 1-1.
Boro’s second goal was another gift from a very poor City defence. Calum Chambers on loan from Arsenal poking the ball home amongst the lathargic City defence. Part of the credit for the goal should be shared with Alvaro Negredo for the hard work he put in to create the chance and for forcing some good saves from Willy Caballero.
Frustratingly for City, they’d had 68% possession and yet found themselves trailing a goal behind twice in the game. Counterattacks have been dangerous this season and arguably the lack of suitable fullbacks have been key to this failing.
City’s second goal was hard earned and gives City fans reasons to believe that Agüero and Jesus can play together. A lovely lobbed pass from Agüero on the edge of the Boro box into a crowded area was met by Jesus with a leaping header. The Boro defending was great, but it was a well worked goal nontheless.
On balance the 2-2 draw seemed fair over the course of the 90 minutes. Boro had played with the greater passion and desire, but City had dominated possession and had the edge qualitywise. It’s great that City had fought back to earn themselves a point, but it felt like an opportunity wasted and they shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place.
The team selection put the Blues on the back foot; why did Pep mess with it and go three at the back? it was a frustrating afternoon, mostly of City’s own accord.
I can see why some City fans are frustrated with Guardiola and his management style; in England the fans want to keep things simple, play your strongest XI get the game won and don’t mess about. Pep likes to try and find new and different ways of getting his team to work and play. This season there’ve been too many draws and points avoidably dropped and it’s starting to irk City fans, but this is just a learning curve, next season Pep will have got it right and it’ll be a different story, I honestly believe that.