EPL Notes: Manchester City seizes chance in first derby of the Guardiola-Mourinho era

Somehow, the first Manchester derby of the Guardiola-Mourinho era was only decided by one goal. City won 2-1 in an enthralling contest of shifting momentum and missed opportunities. Not all of that was down to the coaches. The players had a say.

City could have buried United in the first 30 minutes and might have picked the home team off on the counter-attack in the second half, but somehow could not score a third. The brilliant Kevin de Bruyne, having scored with his first shot, could not score with his next five, though one rebound off a post, set up Kelechi Iheanacho for the winner.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United’s alpha predator, took 10 shots. That’s normally enough for him to destroy any team. He pounced ruthlessly on an error by Claudio Bravo to give United hope and missed the rest.

The officials, inevitably, played a role. Every challenge and every ball into the box seemed to bring a frenzied appeal. Wayne Rooney might want to join his children some time for a game of “Pin The Hand on the Footballer”. Here’s a clue Wayne, the small of the back is not the hand, the face is not the hand, and the chest is not the hand. Even so, United might have had a penalty, so might City. Neither did.

Yet, for the first 40 minutes, the game was shaped by what one coach had got right and the other had got wrong. Pep Guardiola’s City looked capable of hanging a five-goal drubbing on José Mourinho’s United just as Pep’s Barcelona did to José’s Real Madrid in the first ever league meeting between the coaches in 2010.

Guardiola sets his team up to seize the initiative. That’s what City did. Mourinho sets up his team to absorb and react. Yet for 40 minutes, at the heart of the United team there was a huge mobile hole wherever Kevin de Bruyne was. United did not seem to have a clue what to do. Neither Paul Pogba nor Marouane Fellaini seemed interested in marking de Bruyne. City’s Fernandinho won more ball on his own than the two men United started in central midfield. There’s no advantage being big if you won’t throw that weight around.

Mourinho had two ready-made scapegoats. He yanked off the wide players, Jesse Lingaard and Henrikh Mkhrtaryan who had barely seen the ball as City dominated.

“I had two or three players in the first half that, if I know what is going to happen, I don’t play them,” Mourinho said. “But this is football and sometimes players disappoint managers. It’s my fault because I’m the manager and it’s always my fault because it’s my choice.”

Mourinho might mouth the words “my fault” but players know the key was that they had disappointed the manager. Yet, suddenly picking Lingaard and Mkhrtaryan over Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford smacked of “look at me, I’m so cute” team selection by the manager. They were set up to fail.

Their exit allowed Mourinho to push Fellaini and Pogba forward, rewarding failure. On came little Ander Herrera, prepared to do the hard work of tracking de Bruyne.

That tactical switch altered the shape of the game. Yet perhaps that gave Guardiola something he needed. City hung tough and hung on. After some of the collapses last season, that is something the team needed to find out it could do.

Worst Foot Forward  Claudio Bravo made his first start for City in the cauldron of the Manchester derby and ended up a winner. Yet with almost everything the new man did, the player he replaced, Joe Hart, became a better goalie.

Guardiola made clear he wanted a goalie who could play with feet. Traditionalists objected that, first and foremost, goalies needed to be able to exploit their special legal advantage and use their hands. Pep was undeterred. He bought Bravo and banished Hart.

Pep’s public position put specific pressure on the new man. It could explain why with City in control, Bravo needlessly charged 12-yards out of his goal to hand United a lifeline. Bravo probably felt he needed to prove he could catch a cross in a crowd. He couldn’t. He collided with John Stones and dropped the ball at the feet of Zlatan who scored. It was not the only time Bravo came out aggressively for balls he would not reach.

Hart might have smile ruefully as he watched. Good Old Joe, it should not be forgotten, has misjudged some sorties and dropped some crosses in his time.

Worse was the way Bravo started trying to prove his manager right with his feet. He repeatedly dribbled round his area, delaying City attacks and giving United players the chance to surround him. When they did, Bravo, the last man, tried to dribble past them.

Early in the second half, Bravo beat Herrera only to give the ball to Rooney. Bravo lunged and won the tackle. It was ugly, but it was probably fair.

Mourinho, of course, disagreed, “It was a penalty and a red card,” he said, thinking of the point United might have pinched.

The referee disagreed. But if Bravo keeps making the same mistake, there will be penalties, goals and red cards.

Perhaps Pep needs to tell his new goalie that he does NOT want him to play with his feet.

New Anfield, Old Liverpool  While others build new stadiums, Liverpool, valuing its money as well as its history, refurbishes one of the most famous arenas in soccer.

The 4-1 home victory over Leicester on Saturday was the first in front of a new main stand that increases capacity at Anfield by 8,500. The attendance of 53,075 was the highest since May 1977, when the old main stand was just four years old, and Liverpool, under Bob Paisley, won the title.

On Saturday, the current team provided an appropriate mix of vintage Liverpool and the more recent, less successful teams.

The opening goal after 13 minutes was a sweeping attack reminiscent of those late ‘70s teams. Liverpool created space with rapid, decisive running off the ball as they switched from defense into attack with two raking passes. Roberto Firmino controlled the ball and lost the defense with one touch and scored with the second. The ghosts of Steve Heighway and Kevin Keegan seemed to be galloping round Anfield again.

The second conjured memories of a slightly later Liverpool. Lucas with a Graeme Souness chip, found Daniel Sturridge again dragging defenders away with a cunning diagonal run. Channeling Kenny Dalglish, he back heeled the ball to Sadio Mané who finished with the cool of Ian Rush.

Then Lucas, with a little help from Simon Mignolet, broke the magic and presented Jamie Vardy with an open goal. It was a reminder that (Istanbul apart) almost every time Liverpool fans have dared to hope in the last two decades, the defense has caved. This time, Liverpool steadied. In the second half, Adam Lallana and Firmino added two more pretty goals.

Leicester, the champion, did not play badly. Liverpool was simply treating the Foxes the way it once treated pretenders at Anfield. For parts of the afternoon at the partly new Anfield, this looked like the old Liverpool.

Seeing Red A 4-0 away victory might suggest Tottenham played well. The truth is that Stoke was awful.

The match was shaped, rather bizarrely, by Stoke’s paranoia over referees.

After Marko Arnautovic saw yellow for a spectacular dive. The Stoke manager, Mark Hughes saw red. He raced out of his little box, screamed at officials and earned himself banishment. As he headed to the stands, Hughes gestured at Anthony Taylor, the referee, and at the crowd.

Stoke fans need little encouragement to heckle officials. They kept baying as Tottenham plodded to a barely deserved one-goal lead. When Victor Wanyama, already on a yellow, committed a tame foul early in the second half, the home crowd demanded red. Taylor seemed not to hear. Mauricio Pochettino, the Tottenham manager, did. Off came Wanyama. Since there was not another ball-winning midfielder on the bench, the more attacking Érik Lamela came on.

Tottenham was transformed. In the next 20 minutes it scored three goals. The last was Harry Kane’s first of the season and only the second of his 50 league goals scored before October 25th in a season. The anxiety was visible when he whiffed on a low cross. When the ball came straight back to him, Kane took the time to control it before slamming a shot into the net.

The lesson for Stoke fans? Stop booing officials and start booing your players and your manager. They are the ones who are losing the matches.

Hammered  West Ham is playing at an actual Olympic Stadium. Former league journeyman, 26-year-old Michail Antonio has just made the England squad. Dimitri Payet, once the poster boy for unfulfilled potential, has at 29, belatedly been anointed one of the world’s best.

The home team and its fans might have regarded little Watford as the supporting cast on Saturday. Sure enough, Antonio put West Ham two goals up. Payet assisted on both, the second with a Rabona. Payet then tried to score himself with a Rabona. Well before half time, West Ham was on a Usain Bolt victory lap.

This is still the Premier League. You can let up, your opponent won’t. Odion Ighalo scored. Troy Deeney, brilliantly exploiting some slack defense, leveled on half time. By the 64th minute, Étienne Capoue and José Holebas had also scored for Watford as Adrian, the home goalie, had a nightmare.

He is not the only one who needs to wake up. West Ham fans might be living a dream but they, above all, should know how easily bubbles burst. This is still West Ham.

comments powered by Disqus