Manchester City vulnerability at the back exposed
Celebrations were halted at the Etihad Stadium immediately when Chris Smalling scored the goal that turned out to be the winner for Manchester United Saturday. That was after Paul Pogba had scored twice in two minutes to drag United back into Manchester Derby.
Pep Guardiola never envisaged Manchester United's second-half turnaround after his Sky Blues had raced into a two-goal lead at halftime. No one did. Manchester City were easily tearing United’s defence apart. But it did happen. Manchester City now need to win two matches, watch United lose two, or participate in some other combination of six points for them and against the Red Devils to hoist the Premier League trophy.
That isn't likely to happen next week, considering they visit Wembley to play fourth-place Tottenham on Saturday and United welcome cellar dwellers West Brom to Old Trafford on Sunday. Meanwhile, the club must concern itself with overturning a three-goal deficit to Liverpool in the Champions League.
If conceding six goals in two matches within four days is not a cause for concern, the manner in which Guardiola's side capitulated in those matches, especially against a United side they were bossing in the first half, should be. Both defeats have exposed Manchester City’s weakness. They confirm that his rearguard struggles to play out from the back under pressure.
The City boss has always maintained his philosophy that “attack is the best form of defence”, that possessing the ball helps keep the opposition on the back foot. But when the opposition refuses to go on the back foot, as Liverpool did from the off and United finally committed to in the second half, when they elect to be proactive and win the ball back immediately, what then? The complimentary answer is that Pep's squad are given a taste of their own medicine. Less complimentary is the observation they don't like the prescription.
From Barcelona to Bayern Munich to City, the Spanish manager has shown he can create fluidity in attack. No doubt, his tactical approach has brought him phenomenal success. But he is yet to find the answer for a side that turns his methods back on him.
City's attack has been aided by teams who prefer to sit back and soak up the pressure, rather than pressing them up the pitch. Of course, you must have the personnel to win the ball while your defence is exposed, then keep it. Few clubs do. Those who can halt Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, and Leroy Sane by sabotaging their supply line.
Against Liverpool in the Champions League, Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi were intimidated by red shirts pressing them while still others occupied passing lanes. Aymeric Laporte was too conservative on the left flank, concerned with staying between Mo Salah and the City goal, to offer a release valve. Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Salah were winning balls in advanced positions. Unable to escape their half and ill-suited to winning first and second balls when their keeper, Ederson, launched clearances into the Liverpool half, City failed to register a shot on target for the first time this campaign.
All looked right again when Manchester United allowed them to play. After 20 minutes they solved Mourinho's selective pressing, then unlocked his defence. City were on the ascent. If Raheem Sterling could have put his three shots on target, the Citizens would have been up 5-0. There was also Ilkay Gundogan's effort off David de Gea's post. City were profligate and gifted United an opportunity.
Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez were especially grateful for their opponents' generosity, one starting, the other finishing a pair of goals in less than two minutes to level terms. Then Sanchez set up Chris Smalling, who victimised Vincent Kompany in the same manner the Belgian had played him in the first half to open the scoring. Game over, title on hold.
The former heavyweight champion once said, "Everyone has a plan until they get hit." Pep Guardiola and City have been hit. Can they pick themselves up off the turf and get back in the Champions League or have they been exposed again as pretenders?