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Howard Hockin: Manchester City are a work in progress, but the signs are good

So over the traditional sound of an English summer, the drone of lawnmowers, the smack of leather on willow, has been added a new noise – fifty thousand City fans muttering “what on earth was that??!”

The wait was over – everyone ready for some proper football after a lifeless Euros, and a week of watching horses prance around a sandbox.

And so to a new era in City’s eight year history (hashtag sarcasm). Fullbacks in the centre, Kolarov playing and even more central, Hart handing out the half-time oranges. A brave new world.

All the talk before the match was not of the new manager’s first game, 195 days after his appointment was announced, and the important question of what he might wear on the touchline, nor the threat of David Moyes’ Sunderland team, a team that the history books may show have been beaten regularly but have also provided stubborn opposition and almost derailed the odd title challenge. No, it was all about Joe Hart.

News filtered through on the eve of the game that Hart would be dropped for Caballero. It may have angered many fans, but it wasn’t really that much of a surprise. All summer the rumours have flowed about Guardiola searching for a replacement for Hart, but with no one acquired and Caballero the alternative, most assumed that for now Hart would continue in goal. However, Guardiola could not bring himself to support Hart in the pre-match press conference, and as we discovered that the rumours were true and Hart was on the bench, I could not help but assume that Hart’s City career is indeed nearing an end.

A discussion of Hart’s situation merits a blog of its own, so I’ll keep it brief. I have never considered Hart quite world class, but he has my utmost respect, and had handled criticism and dips in form immaculately in the past. The debate over whether he should remain in goal, the holder of more Golden Gloves than any other keeper, is not just down to a question of ability. Joe is one of ours, has come through the ranks over many many years, a rare commodity at a club that has seen seismic upheavals. I see no cockiness or arrogance that outsiders accuse him of (though a goalkeeper has to have such qualities anyway – it is a unique position in the team). He has always been frank, always honest, fronts up, acknowledges the fans, and has integrated himself into this club of ours. He’s had some pretty great performances too.

Sadly Guardiola will decide a keeper on other factors, as he is fully entitled to do. We knew when he arrived that he may make bold, unpopular decisions, and it seems Hart may be the first of those. For now, we can only wait and see what happens.

For the record, I rate Caballero higher than most other City fans – I don’t think he is the liability that many others portray him as. Either way, he’s not good enough to be our first choice keeper in the future, so it seems further transfer activity is on the way.

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And so to the game – not quite a full house, which is disappointing, but we don’t need to go down the road of discussing attendances again. It’s holiday season, our fan base is not as big as others, football is expensive and no one is obliged to attend any football match.

As was expected form pre-season picks, Kolarov has somehow found himself not only in the City team, but in the centre of defence. Sterling was allowed to roam on the right for once, and Nolito on the left. Stones went straight into the team. There were no surprises elsewhere, no full-backs in attack or strikers acting as pivots.

Well, not quite anyway.

The only other thing to note was no Toure in the squad – but maybe he is being held back for midweek.

So, in a game where City created hardly any chances of note and needed a penalty and a slice of fortune to win, we must all be disappointed, yes?

No, not really.

As we saw the full backs occupying central positions, we knew that we were seeing something new and different, and after a sluggish pre-season, we also knew this change of style and philosophy (or more to the point, the introduction of one), would take time. For me, it is all about getting through the first month as players get used to what is being asked of them, much of which will be a massive departure from what has gone before. If we can get results in the meantime, then great.

And it was a good start. Sterling was lively, and when turning in the box, forced a clumsy foul from Patrick van Aanholt. Penalty, and even though the keeper went the right way, Aguero’s shot was precise, and City had an early lead to relieve the pressure.

And good to see Sterling supported by the crowd. Do keep it up please, it helps.

After that however, we may have expected the floodgates to open, but they did not. Sunderland kept their shape and fashioned the odd opening, Caballero saving well from Defoe, and chances for the homes side were hard to come by.
And so it continued in the 2nd half. Iheanacho came on, Fernandinho slotted into defence for the latter stages and Navas replaced Nolito to provide pace down both flanks.

The pessimists amongst us though (I’ll never get rid of such an outlook) feared that this was the sort of game where the opposition would nick an equaliser to ruin the day, and bang on cue, Rodwell fed Defoe, who evaded Sagna in a central position to slot home under Caballero’s body.

With just 15 minutes to go, it seemed like a frustrating start to the new era. In the end though, City got a bit of luck – and hopefully have employed a “lucky” manager. Navas put in a good cross for once (to be fair he’d put in more good crosses if we gave him some options more often) and at the far post debutant Paddy McNair nodded the ball into his own net with no City players behind him. In his defence the ball was travelling at speed just a few yards from the goa and he had no time to react. Still, we’ll take it, and can feel no sympathy for Sunderland who continue to hand over their millions for a succession of United outcasts. You reap what you sow.

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What followed was a nervy few minutes, though on two occasions City broke and should really have put the game to bed. In the end it didn’t matter, and three points were gained. Relief, and onto the next game, an important one for differing reasons.

But whilst the game looked disappointing to many an onlooker, there was more than enough on show to suggest that the future is very bright indeed. Progressive tactics, high work-rates, some superb passing and distribution and domination of the ball. A work in progress, but when it clicks, it should really click.

Fernandinho was as usual excellent, making a team-high three tackles and three interceptions and regained possession seven times. Kolarov was excellent, making us question everything we thought we knew. If Guardiola can transform him, then this team really can achieve anything. Stones fitted in seamlessly and looked classy throughout in a new, experimental pairing, and Sterling looked like the player we thought we had bought. Aguero was quieter though, and seemed disconnected from play at times.

But three points is three points. There’s no rest for the wicked, and it will be interesting to see the team and style for Tuesday’s game in Bucharest. It’s stressful, nervy and often frustrating, but it’s good to be back.

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