At least when he goes to bed tonight, when the storm that was Saturday’s early kick-off between Manchester City and Chelsea has passed, Pep Guardiola can look forward to next weekend when he will not be forced into watching Nicolás Otamendi attempt to play football.
Here at the Etihad Stadium where arguably the two best coaches in the division met for the first time, the spotlight was shone on what could ultimately separate these two sides come May 2017. Not Antonio Conte’s focus on organisation, his gazelle-like counter attackers who snarled every time they came forward, nor the Italian’s success in sedating ticking time-bomb striker Diego Costa and restoring his status as the most lethal striker in the league – after all, Guardiola’s City had the league leaders sussed for 60 minutes in this game. The difference here was discipline.
Otamendi was the first guilty party, losing the plot before Sergio Agüero and Fernandinho decided to earn themselves lengthy suspensions. His yellow card for a strong, two-footed challenge on Costa in the first half means he will miss next Saturday’s trip to Leicester, breaking up a trio that are beginning to establish a relationship as destructive as Fred and Rose West’s. Otamendi is a front-footed defender – flat-footed, too – who has a piss-boiling obsession with staining his shorts green. It’s worrying when a refereeing display as calamitous as Anthony Taylor’s is outdone by one man’s atrocious attempts at defending.
Alongside him, John Stones has proven he has genuine quality but you get the sense that his confidence is dwindling in this makeshift set-up. In the first half he could be seen trying to weave his way to safety from his own byline, only to see Costa pickpocket him and spark a Chelsea attack. There’s a time and a place, John. As for Aleksandar Kolarov, well he’s just there for a laugh. The way Costa man-handled this back three was a warning to Guardiola, that he can not afford to continue with these players, who together look so unable to compose themselves, in the same starting eleven. But with only 19-year-old Tosin Adarabioyo and a crippled Vincent Kompany as options, Guardiola must throw some cash around in the January transfer window.
It’s a shame, because at the other end of the pitch, despite our recent wastefulness, we can be mesmerising. Leroy Sané was handed a huge vote of confidence by the gaffer, filling in for the injured Raheem Sterling on the left. The German initially struggled to wriggle himself into this physical encounter but grew into the game and produced a spellbinding 50-yard run in the second half that almost doubled City’s lead. The perpetually outstanding Kevin De Bruyne was in fine form, too, delivering a couple of balls that cast down like lightening bolts in the Chelsea penalty area. Only the linesman’s flag prevented these whippers from being directed into the back of the net.
Conte’s organised system had yet to face such a direct style of play, and full backs Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso were being pulled out of the game by the width of City’s flankers. Chelsea’s centre-backs were exposed, and at the end of the first half, they were finally punished as Jesus Navas’s cross deflected in off Gary Cahill.
But draw this City side in human form and you have a boulder-shouldered, bulging breasted physique with twigs as legs. And before the legs eventually – inevitably – gave way, Agüero and then De Bruyne could have put the game to bed. Demonstrating the hunger that Guardiola has demanded from him since joining the club this summer, Agüero sprinted onto a mix-up between Thibaut Courtois and Cahill but could not put the ball into the gaping net. And then, in a genuine contender for miss of the century, De Bruyne smashed against the bar from three yards. Could Guardiola, this breathtaking attacking unit and the supporters rely on their defence to stay solid for the rest of the game? Could they bollocks as like.
Receiving a long pass from Cesc Fàbregas in City’s penalty area, Costa turned Otamendi with ease and fired past Claudio Bravo. Otamendi had served only as an irritating fly on the Spaniard’s path to goal, never a genuine obstacle, and Bravo’s attempt at a save was feeble.
Then began the implosion. The way Bravo almost told Willian to pass the ball into the far corner was extraordinary, a lesson in how to make a striker feel at complete ease in front of goal. That’s something the Chilean has excelled in since joining City from Barcelona this season. Aye, he can spray a nice pass, but as a genuine presence able to stop shots between the sticks he’s as useful as a baked bean. Guardiola’s ideas are fantastic, revolutionary, so intelligent; ones most of us wholeheartedly endorse. The way the team battered Chelsea and created guilt-edged chances for the majority of this game evidenced that he had his game plan spot on, that his sleepless nights picking apart videos of Conte’s Juventus, Italy and Chelsea had been worth it. But, as Bravo, among others, have shown this term, his ideas can’t be implemented successfully with bad players.
Eden Hazard wrapped up the Chelsea victory in the 90th minute, slotting past Bravo after breaking away from Kolarov like a man running past mannequins. City had been made to pay for missed chances and catastrophic defending by the deadliest team in England.
As Conte danced on the sidelines, it was City’s players, and not their manager, who began to lose their patience. Agüero planted his studs into the thigh of Luiz, coaxing Taylor into his first correct decision of the day. The red card, Sergio’s second of the season, means the striker will now miss our next four games. It is Fernandinho who Guardiola will miss more, however. The Brazilian, indispensable in this squad, was the second player to see red just moments later when he reacted aggressively to a petulant Fabregas slap. The way Fabregas cowered as Ferna grabbed his neck and hurled him over the advertising boards may have entertained some, but it was an act of stupidity that could hurt City’s title credentials. It was disappointing to see such childishness from two senior players.
What unfolded in the final minutes of this game was proof that the pressure is getting to this squad. There was certainly passion in the right boot of Agüero and the clenched fists of Fernandinho, but also frustration. Are they convinced by their manager’s methods? Or are they just fed up with how shite our defence is?
It’ll be the latter, if they think like the rest of us.