As 2017 approaches, a year primed to deliver to us the delights of Google Glass, Leap Motion and eye-tracking technology that will allow gamers to slice through virtual watermelons with a slight shift of the old peepers, here we are still reminiscing on a time where things were much more simple. Patrolling the Great Plains in the 1840’s, the Plains Indians would move from home to home, shedding the old and weak along their way; they were wise, they were respected, but they were also viewed as baggage. A tribe as successful as this would never allow themselves to be weighed down by baggage, regardless of the sentimentality involved.
Fast forward almost 180 years and here we have a Manchester City team curious position. While success is expected in every department, this is also a team in transition playing under a new manager who is demanding something very different to those before him. Teams in transition, traditionally, are afforded time. Take Chelsea in 2013 when José Mourinho’s return to the Bridge saw Chelsea finish 3rd – there was no real expectation, not even from the ‘Special One’. They won the league a year later. It takes time to adjust.
Manchester City, with their riches and bald-headed managers with cult-like status, will not be afforded that time. We’re just too well resourced not to achieve, apparently. But what people are forgetting is that this team, like the great Plains Indians all those years ago, is being weighed down by baggage, namely its full-backs. A team in transition perhaps, but it’s difficult to see this team progressing before it sheds the dead skin that is Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov.
One thing more inevitable than Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Anfield was the manner in which we conceded the goal. A Yaya Touré free-kick, a misplaced Kolarov pass and it was all over. The famous Liverpool counter attack didn’t even have to reach gale force speeds to breeze through our defence and leave us 10 points behind league leaders Chelsea.
It has reached a point where the best we can say for the pair of 31-year-old’s is that they’re trying. It’s a painful, hollow compliment to issue given their impressive contributions to the team over the years but there’s a lesson to be learnt from the Indians here and it involves leaving the weak behind, regardless of how much you love them. While I can’t say I’ve ever really felt any sort of affection for Kolarov, Zaba holds a place in the heart of all City fans.
But the truth hurts, and the truth is that Zabaleta gave Adam Lallana far too much space to float a great ball onto the head of Georginio Wijnaldum who should have never beaten Kolarov in the air to nod in an 8th minute winner. Against a Liverpool side that have now not been beaten on home turf in 24 games, you can not afford to concede so early and so easily. City have now conceded six times in the opening 15 minutes and have conceded with the first shot on target in six matches. Those are worrying statistics.
The rest of the game was a slog, a clumsy show of misplaced passes, tired huffing and puffing. It was everything you’d expect from the footballing grand finale of year that has been plagued by so much disappointment. This face-off between arguably the Premier League’s two most entertaining teams, with their breathless attacking football and at times hopeless defending, promised goals, goals and more goals. When the final whistle blew at Anfield, we were left reflecting on an almighty letdown.
Perhaps the most compelling duel in this underwhelming encounter was between City past and present. With the ball stuck to our defence, Pep Guardiola bellowed his orders to Raheem Sterling, screaming at him to take on his man and get the team up the pitch. But it’s difficult when that man is James Milner, a player so irritatingly good at everything, so niggly and so smug in his success. A once glowing reputation among City fans has deteriorated fast. Milner is now seen as a snaky character and so perhaps we should be amused by the fact that a player who left the Etihad in 2015 to play in central midfield for Liverpool is now operating as a left back. What sours things a little is that he’s doing it very well and in a team that genuinely resemble title contenders. If only we still had him in our ranks.
Sterling, doing time for joining a club better equipped to win trophies in the summer of 2015, played to a chorus of boos but was City’s brightest player in the game. It was tough, but Sterling persevered, scampering down both touchlines, flicking his feet and trying so desperately to shut a whining Anfield up. Himself and David Silva were the bright sparks in a 15 minute period at the start of the second half where City could have got themselves an equaliser, but Silva could only fire just wide of the post with our best chance of the game.
It was Sergio Agüero who registered our first shot on target in the 52nd minute but his return from suspension was uneventful. We can point to a lack of service, but we can also point to him not doing enough to get himself into the game. It’s become a running theme for Sergio in big games recently and one of the reasons Brazilian wonderkid Gabriel Jesus will soon join up with the team. Soon, Sergio could occupy a place on the bench alongside the out-of-favour Kelechi Iheanacho who may be nudging his manager for a loan move away this month.
But amid the disappointment there are still positives to take, lessons to learn. Liverpool are a great example of what can happen with time under a fantastic coach. After finishing 6th in his first season as manager, Jürgen Klopp’s side are now the outfit best equipped to challenge Chelsea for the title. There’s a lot you can do and change in a year, not so much in four months after just one transfer window and with an ageing, injury prone squad left for you to work with. Liverpool are much further along in their development than we are, but we’ll get there.
In the meantime, though, as millions vow not to bite their nails or drink alcohol for a whole year, Manchester City must commit to their own New Year’s resolution, and that has to involve finally addressing the full-back situation as soon as possible.