Had Leroy Sané disintegrated in his right-flank duel with Bryan Oviedo on his full debut, maybe we’d be questioning Pep Guardiola’s line of thinking. Had the Catalan’s 3-2-4-1 formation been devoid of fluency, a plastic bag over the heads of his players, perhaps we’d be criticising his judgement. Had Ronald Koeman’s Everton come to the Etihad Stadium on Saturday afternoon and outplayed us, it’s possible that we’d be talking about a wobble.
Had Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Agüero netted the two penalties that City were awarded in this 1-1 draw, I think I could have been sat here eulogising one of our best performances of the season.
Both players were doubts ahead of this game that saw us prance and pirouette in front of our visitors without ever having the chance to take a final bow. Agüero had endured a difficult fortnight with Argentina where his skewed penalty against Paraguay only served to convince the Argentinian fans that he is about as much use as a sober Diego Maradona to the national team, while De Bruyne was still believed to be recovering from a hamstring problem. The magical hands of Dr.Ramon Cugat ensured Guardiola could name his best player in the starting eleven, while Agüero and Kompany took a place on the bench. In hindsight, we may have been better off recalling Yaya Touré to the squad and re-signing Mario Balotelli.
Basking in the sunlight that shone onto the right wing, Sané and his teammates were utterly dominant in the first half. The German prodigy, who with his excellent cheek-bones and exquisite fro, would make a great sportswear model, has yet to fully introduce himself to the fans since moving to the club in the summer, but there were glimpses of brilliance in his first half display. Mesmerising Oviedo with a deft flick of the left foot, the 20-year-old skipped past the Costa Rican and to the by-line in the opening few minutes of this game, but could only find the meaty head of Ashley Williams with his cross.
There would be more chances for Sané to demonstrate his class, however. Equipped with the pace of Gerard Deulofeu and Yannick Bolasie on their flanks, Everton waited patiently in their own half for a chance to counter allowing City to interminably recycle possession in front of Maarten Stekelenburg’s 18-yard-box. Sané had clearly been identified as the go-to man and although breezing past Oviedo with the pace he has would never be a problem, finding a teammate with a cross would be. Poor end product would be the downfall of City in this game.
Everton’s defence deserve credit, however. The travelling supporters boomed out an imaginative chorus of ‘Manchester is full of shit’, but their two centre-backs, who both reside in Greater Manchester, were anything but. Both Williams and Jagielka are your traditional brutish central defenders – physical, unbeatable in the air and vocal. They made sure Kelechi Iheanacho, who started up front for City, would have one of his quieter games for the club. But when you’re being pressed and tested so relentlessly, something will eventually give. Jagielka could not complain when his trailing leg brought down David Silva in the box and City were awarded a penalty. Up stepped De Bruyne who watched on in horror as Stekelenburg palmed his spot kick away.
So long as Koeman’s men at the back were keeping De Bruyne and company at bay, there would be chances for his side to exploit City’s three man defence. The chance came in the 64th minute when Romelu Lukaku found himself one on one with Gaël Clichy. This was a duel the powerful Belgian was always going to fancy himself in, but Clichy made things all too easy for the Everton striker, showing him onto his favourite left-foot and allowing him to finish past Bravo unobstructed. Speaking in the pre-match press conference Guardiola insisted that ‘you don’t lose, you just improve’. If Lukaku’s goal was going to send City to their second league defeat of the season, City would have to improve in front of goal to make sure their dominance actually counts for something.
City entered the final 30 minutes of the game with a new-look strike-force Guardiola hoped would finally start firing. Agüero replaced Iheanacho. Nolito for Sane. Agüero is an altogether different prospect than Iheanacho and immediately had his markers quaking as he forced the impressive Stekelenburg into a smart save at his near post. His next move was to burst into the penalty area where his run was halted, illegally, by Jagielka. This would be the second time the 34-year-old stained a great day’s work, but also the second time Stekelenburg would dive to his left to keep us out. We’ve been awarded 7 penalties so far this term, but what’s the use in a spot kick if we can’t put it in the back of the net?
And then with his first touch, Nolito headed in from a clever Silva cross. Relief, and a moment to appreciate just how much of an inspired signing the former Celta Vigo man has been for us. Nolito is a generally likable chap, a cheery fellow with a knack for being in the right place at the right time and a player who links things so effectively in the final third of the pitch. There’s a feeling that the Spaniard, who celebrated his 30th birthday today, was signed as a bit of a utility player, but he again proved that he is an incredibly important member of the first team. His goal meant City had 20 minutes, plus the extra 90 minutes that Michael Oliver should have added on to make up for Everton’s awful time wasting, to push for a winner.
De Bruyne came the closest to grabbing the winner with an awesome 25-yard strike moments from time, but blocking its path was Stekelenburg who, with his ubiquitous hands, thoroughly deserved the Man of the Match award.
To call this a wobble would be a disservice to just how well we played today. Yes, City should have won, but sometimes, quite simply, goalkeepers have stormers and players miss penalties. Not to worry.