It was all too easy for the pass-masters Manchester City as they tick-tocked their way to the Christmas number one slot. Where was the bullying Stoke City of old?
Two years ago this week Roberto Mancini arrived at Manchester City looking like an urbane hero from a Fellini flick. With his impeccably-knotted scarf, natty suits and an easy smile that belied a ruthless interior he set about galvanising a City side that appeared flaky around the edges with an exasperating habit of snatching draws from the mouths of victory. Such was Hughes’ legacy.
Used to the tactical chess of Serie A his immediate baptism to English football lay in the relentless hustle, bustle and bombast of Stoke City. Talk about a culture shock.
His initial approach to such physical challenges was to attempt to fight higher with higher and match up whichever giants were in City’s deep squad with Stoke’s own. It often proved a futile strategy; you simply don’t go toe-to-toe with Pulis’s men. It is akin to trying to out-pass Barcelona.
Mancini has learnt many things in the intervening twenty-four months – and has in turn taught City fans a great many things, not least the virtues of trust and patience – and last night’s routine dismissal of a former bogey side illustrated one such lesson.
When faced with muscular bullies you must play to your own strengths.
To that end Mancini packed his side with Lilliputian terrors in Silva, Nasri, Aguero and Johnson who preceded to flat-foot the bruising foes of old. Burly beasts who once struck terror – and will presumably do so again at the Brittania in March – were tamed and domesticated. If I were being harsh I’d even suggest they rolled over and allowed their belly to be rubbed.
Stoke had no shots on target throughout. City had sixteen. The possession stats vary enormously depending on which source you trust the most. The BBC claim 65%. ESPN state 78%. For the record it was 100% because even when the ball dared to disobey Yaya Toure’s assured touch or an Aguero flick went astray the Potters did nothing but keep it warm for the next stream of steady attacks. An astonishing 924 completed passes by City is the highest recorded by any Premier League side since 2003 and most of these were made by the sublime Ivorian Toure who is at times less a footballer and more a metronome, keeping things simple and calm, side to side like the pendulum in a grandfather clock.
It seems that when a team least needs it they are gifted three points rather like rich celebrities being given loads of free stuff.
Any threat that Stoke did possess was wearied down through the exhaustion of shadowing straightforward pass after straightforward pass in what amounted to a ninety minutes training exercise.
For years now it has riled me intensely how some teams head to Old Trafford beaten before a ball is even kicked. Now I have witnessed both Norwich and – surprisingly – Stoke do likewise with City. It seems that when a team least needs it they are gifted three points rather like rich celebrities being given loads of free stuff. Though I still find the custom exasperating the fact that City are now considered A-list will at least aid their title aspirations, or should I say at least puts them on an equal privileged footing with United.
The flip-side to that gripe – if you can call it a gripe….more of it please! – is that this was indeed a game Stoke had little hope of winning even if they’d thrown the Huth and kitchen sink at it. It is their misfortune that they seem forever fated to be City’s opponents on significant landmarks – Mancini’s first game in charge, the cup final, and now the last in a long line of vanquished sides leaving the Etihad empty-handed in 2011. An undefeated year at home is a record to be justifiably proud of but it’s what those succession of maximum points has brought that is far more important. City are now top over Christmas for the first time since 1929.
Stoke meanwhile had their own proud record to protect; four successive wins prior to last night was their best in the top flight for sixty years, but they won’t be too down-hearted about relinquishing it what with a kind festive fixture list meaning they should head into the new year in an elevated position.
It is a position they deserve for their robust commitment to remaining in the Premier League all sprinkled with no small amount of flair.
There was scant evidence of either at the Etihad.
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