“Go out there and make sure we see this one out, laddie” may well have been the instructions David Moyes whispered into the ear of 84th minute substitute Paddy McNair as Sunderland looked to claim a precious and unlikely point at the Etihad on Saturday evening. “Oh for f***s sake, Paddy” may well have been the words booming from the Scot’s mouth as the former Manchester United defender headed into his own net three minutes later.
McNair’s 87th minute blunder ensured Pep Guardiola and John Stones would emerge from their Manchester City bows with three points on a day of managerial and defensive debuts. Moyes and McNair were less fortunate – and maybe I’d even have felt sympathetic towards their hardship if they had not spent time at the swamp – but on this evidence Sunderland are in good hands.
And despite the slightly unsettling lack of creativity on show yesterday, so are we. This was a performance more fascinating than it was frustrating as Bacary Sagna and Gaël Clichy moved into central positions when the team was in possession to create more options, Fernandinho dropped into the centre of defence to cover and Raheem Sterling unhesitatingly galloped with the ball at his feet towards his man carrying the swagger that was drained out of him last season. No matter where they were on the pitch, there would be a teammate to pass to.
Watching the new system at work made for gripping viewing. Guardiola’s insistence on passing, rather than hoofing the ball, out from the back was always going to produce a few frightening moments but with time the players will become more comfortable with accepting the ball under pressure from an opponent. In Jerome Boateng and David Alaba, Guardiola had the sharpest tools in the box with which to implement his ideas at Bayern Munich. Aleksandar Kolarov and Clichy, players that Guardiola started on Saturday but will surely look to replace next summer, will take more time to adjust but the pair showed a real willingness to carry out their manager’s orders and performed admirably in unfamiliar positions. Above all, Guardiola values effort and there was plenty of it from the boys in this match.
Those who are perhaps less open to his concepts have a problem. Ronaldinho, Deco and Zlatan Ibrahimović will tell you how ruthless Guardiola is, as all have been axed by the Spaniard in the peak of their careers. It has been suggested that Joe Hart reacted aggressively to Pep’s decision to start Willy Caballero over him for this Premier League opener and with rumours suggesting Barcelona’s Claudio Bravo has agreed terms with the club becoming more frequent by the day, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Joe leave the club in the near future.
This was the main focus of the press room following the match and a question that Guardiola was always going to have to answer. “I have a lot of respect for Joe, & a lot of respect for his career. I know how good he is but today I decided it was Willy Caballero”. Guardiola, an intelligent coach, also knows that Hart is a far more accomplished goalkeeper than his Argentine teammate and his decision is likely to have been based on Hart’s attitude rather than his ability. There’s tension in the camp and history tells you that Guardiola will dispose of it very quickly.
During his time in Germany Guardiola famously said that it was his ‘desire’ to have ‘100 per cent possession’ and City had a real go at achieving that in the first half. John Stones and Fernandinho were our chief passers in this game, completing more between them than the entire Sunderland team in the first 45 minutes. Stones, a £47.5m signing from Everton this summer, not only slotted into the defence but he commanded it, mimicking his new manager with an authoritative finger and ending the game with an exceptional 91 per cent pass accuracy rate. As for Fernandinho, my mate, it’s possible that the guy was born to two very happy Turbocharged DOHC 1.6 engines 31 years ago and not two mere, mortal Brazilians. If City’s groundsmen were, for some odd reason, to extract the sweat droplets from the pitch at the end of every game and assign a cup to every player, Ferna’s would be the most full.
As the cogs turned in the bottom half of the pitch, comparatively little was happening further up it as Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Agüero struggled to get into the game. On the right hand side, though, Sterling was excellent, handing Patrick van Aanholt an uncomfortable first game of his second year in England. It was Sterling’s menacing burst into Sunderland’s penalty area that won us a penalty in the first four minutes, a penalty that Agüero smacked past Vito Mannone. A satisfying amount of City possession followed this but the lack of creativity on show was always going to lend itself to a Sunderland surge. Nolito, another debutant, saw an optimistic effort curl just wide of the post and Sergio was surprised to see a fearsome half volley fly wide, but other than that most of our play resided in the middle of the park where the team seemed fixated on one-touch keep ball. Keep the ball and you wont concede, lose it and you probably will, especially in the Premier League.
That’s the cruel lesson that Guardiola and his new team learned in the 71st minute when Jack Rodwell’s through ball wriggled its way through the defence into the path of Jermaine Defoe. In between the feet of one of the division’s best ever finishers, the ball was always going to hit the back of the net. And yet this didn’t feel weird or unexpected, but it didn’t feel inevitable either. Under Pellegrini such risky passing from the back would surely have been punished but City looked so comfortable at the back throughout this tie. Needless to say, under Pellegrini, with his style of football, we’d have probably have won this tie by three or four goals but such a convincing win was never to be expected from a side undergoing such a huge tactical shift enforced by a manager who had never experienced the league before. This was always going to be a tough fixture, you felt.
Still, a draw would have been incredibly disappointing more than it would have been embarrassing. We deserved to win this game and the stars aligned for us when former red Paddy McNair headed into his own net three minutes from time from a superb Jesus Navas cross. It may have only been a 70% on Rotten Tomatoes but it was a performance the players and the fans certainly learned something from.
Make no mistake about it, watching this evolution is going to be fascinating.