Pep Guardiola’s City versus Big Sam’s Crystal Palace, a clash of contrasting football philosophies. *Warning! There’s a fair bit of gushing over David Silva’s brilliance. You have been warned!*
As there’s been plenty of coverage in the mainstream media about this game and as such, this will be a much shorter and less detailed article that the usual.
Pep named arguably his strongest and most attacking starting line up (of the players fit and available), with what was effectively a W-shaped front five, composed of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva tucked in behind Leroy Sané, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling. Yaya Touré was the ‘holding’ midfielder, not that there would be much call for such a position in this fixure. Gaël Clichy, Vincent Kompany, Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho made up the defence, with Willy Caballero in goal.
Crystal Palace had a somewhat of a makeshift defence, which saw Jeff Schlupp start at Centre-Back, alongside Martin Kelly. Joel Ward and Patrick Van Aanholt were the Full-Backs. McArthur and Milivojevic made up the midfield, with Andros Townsend, Jason Puncheon, Wilfred Zaha and Christian Benteke comprising the Palace attack.
David Silva’s inclusion was a surprise, as Pep had suggested in his pre-match press conference that “Merlin” wouldn’t be fit in time. As it turned out, Silva’s presence was vital to City’s performance. It was the Spanish Wizard who started and ended the move that led up to City’s opening goal, which came in just the second minute of the game. Silva was given far too much time on the ball on the edge of the Palace box in the centre of the pitch, he played a chipped ball out to Sterling on the left. Sterling played the ball back across goal and a poor headed clearance from Martin Kelly saw the ball fall perfectly for Silva to side-foot in his 50th City goal. It was the fastest goal City have scored since February 2015, against Newcastle at home, and it set the tone for the afternoon.
City went on creating numerous chances as the first half went on, but frustratingly they were unable to increase their lead. By the end of the first half, the blues had enjoyed 69% of the possession, but had only the one goal to show for it.
City started the second half as brightly as they had the first. An early Kevin De Bruyne corner was cleared by Joel Ward, but the ball again fell to City. Having been up in the Palace box to attack the corner, City captain Vinny Kompany found space as the ball was cleared, De Bruyne picked his countryman out with a low and short pass. The City captain struck the ball first time, and blasted it in to the back of the net, Wayne Hennessey had no chance. It was the skipper’s 2nd goal in fourth games and the impact his return has had on the City team is almost tangible.
Ten minutes later, City were 3-0 up. Gabriel Jesus’ high pressing saw Palace lose possession on the edge of their box. The Brazilian played the ball to Kevin De Bruyne, who hit it low and hard past Hennessey. To be fair to De Bruyne, I’ve been critical of his performances this season, but put in a superb performance against Palace. It wasn’t just his attacking efforts that were on song, he worked hard off the ball to, something which (if you’ve read the previous posts you’ll know) he’s lacked on occasions this season.
The scoreline saw Palace’s heads drop and they went into damage limitation mode. To be fair, they had created one or two chances earlier in the game; a Christian Benteke header forced Willy Caballero into making a good save. However, the Eagles didn’t see much of the ball and they hadn’t offered much. Despite the team selection, Palace didn’t really make use of their pace and counterattacks were few and far between. The City defence were called into action on a couple of occasions, but the presence of Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi at the back swept up easily.
As some of the more unreliable media outlets had recently been saying that Pep and City had been interested in signing Wilfred Zaha in the summer, so I’d been keen to see Zaha play in the flesh again. To be honest, I didn’t believe for there was an ounce of truth to these ‘headlines’ for one second, but I still thought it would be interesting to see how the once thought of ‘big hope’ had progressed since he’d returned to Palace from the team in Trafford. His performance did nothing to convince me that City would be interested in him. He was given plenty of space by the City defence at times and offered nothing; to the point that the close marking of him by Clichy and Otamendi faded as the match wore on, seemingly because they realised it wasn’t necessary. If anything, I was disappointed for Zaha, because he had been dubbed the next big thing, but there was nothing special about him (still it was funny when those [unsubstantiated] rumours were going around about him and Moyes’ daughter).
As the game went on, Silva was orchestrating everything and with the game sewn up, Guardiola could take “El Mago” off for a rest. I’m convinced that he is the best footballer I’ve ever seen play for City. Granted, I’m only 27, and apart from brief recollections of Kinkladze, there’s really not been anyone I could truly call a ‘great player’ until the recent years. Don’t get me wrong, Horlock, Goater, Dickov, Shauny Wright-Wright-Wright, etc were great for the time, but if we’re talking about true class talents, then I can only really compare Silva to the recent greats; Tevez, Agüero, Touré, even Kevin De Bruyne etc. However, even compared to them, Silva is just a class above. No player in the Premier League has been involved as many goals since 2011 as David Silva and that’s a fact. Silva’s brilliance isn’t in his flair, he does everything you’re told to do as a kid, but does it well. He makes football look easy and the way he glides about the pitch (because you never actually ever see him sprinting) is as if time has stood still for everyone else.
Raheem Sterling added City’s fourth goal in the 82nd minute, after a nice header from Pablo Zabaleta set him up for a volley. The game was capped off with a rare Nicolas Otamendi goal; a header coming off from a Kevin De Bruyne free-kick. It was a deserved goal for Otamendi and it capped off one of his better games this season.
I’ve mentioned the influence that Silva and Kompany have on the City team when they’re in it and Otamendi looks twice the player with Kompany alongside him in defence. Whilst it’s great to see Kompany and Silva back in the team and great to see that they can still command the same influence at the highest level, there have been far too many reminders this season that when these two are out of the team, the team struggles. It’s a shame for all concerned that John Stones and Vincent Kompany haven’t been able to play that many minutes together this season, because ‘Stonesy’ could learn so much from a player like Vinny – for the same reasons I gave about Marcus Rashford in the article on the Manchester Derby. When Kompany plays, the back four play better, fact. With regards to Silva, when he’s out of the team City look turgid and lacking creativity, despite the likes of De Bruyne, Sterling, Sané and co. However, you have to wonder how long these two have left at the highest level, but that’s another story for another piece.
City’s performance against Crystal Palace was superb, I can’t think of a single player that had a bad game. It was the complete performance, five goals scored and none conceded. City had 69% possession and 26 shots to Palace’s 5, though only 8 of City’s shots were on target to Palace’s 2. Hennessey played well and kept the score down for Palace, it could’ve been a lot worse. From City’s point of view, it was the complete Guardiola performance.
Pep has complained a few times this season that City’s biggest problem is that they don’t score enough goals, that’s one way of looking at it. I’d say defensive frailties, a lack of cutting edge and shyness rather than ruthlessness, have been City’s biggest problems. Three games left and City can’t afford to let this standard of play drop.