Yesterday’s victory in the north-east was an anomaly for Manchester City.
There was pragmatism in the team selection that saw a belated resting of Kevin de Bruyne and greater protection for the defence, while the overall performance was functional rather than fantastical.
Much of this was due to the opposition, with City only requiring to pick at the bones of a Sunderland XI whose vitals flat-lined a good while back: why exert excellence on a side that has given up the ghost when there is Monaco, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea on the horizon? Instead flashes of superiority were sufficient to secure a straightforward three points.
Throw in the not-insignificant fact that this was City’s fifth consecutive clean sheet away from home and it may be tempting then to believe that Pep Guardiola has succumbed to conservatism since their jolting 4-0 defeat at Everton in mid-January: that, deafened by criticism he compromised on his pure and beautiful beliefs and erected a sensible structure atop of ground zero that was Goodison. If you’ve been fortunate enough to witness any City display in the past six weeks you’ll know the truth is anything but.
Yes there has been a stripping back to basics. It’s just that Pep’s idea of prudence is vastly different to us mere mortals.
We can sadly only surmise what went through the Spaniard’s head on the evening of Sunday, January 15th, but it’s safe to assume it was a dark night of the soul.
Four defeats in eight games – two of which were a comprehensive dismantling of a woefully exposed rear-guard courtesy of teams not known for their goal-scoring prowess – meant his grand project lay in serious peril of failure. Pundits and papers alike condemned him. Social media mocked him. The knives were out and the Blues’ early blistering form at the season’s opening suddenly seemed an awfully long time ago.
I would hazard a guess there was no small degree of exasperation mixed in with the self-doubt that night as he replayed the sorrowful ninety minutes and dissected its many shortcomings. For Guardiola had already scaled back his ambitious aspiration to mould a perfect, multi-functional side capable of exhibiting perfect, multi-functional football.
He’d ceded to a back-four on a weekly basis. He’d levelled out the learning curve for his players to better assimilate. He stopped making wholesale changes to the line-up. Yet here he was, a coach of a team that had twice been ruthlessly wedgied and dangled from a nearby locker. What more could he do? Resort to conventional means and grind out results until the storm passed? Employ two midfield holders? Disregard a lifetime’s thinking and park the bloody bus?
That he instead doubled-down on his philosophy at the very nadir of his career is why Manchester, English football, and this little planet spinning in its infinite universe is so very lucky to have him.
His side are unquestionably a work in progress right now with flaws that can only be properly rectified in the summer. Until then City will attack with relentless relish and score more goals than you. Until a reliable goalkeeper is sourced and until their defensive structure is perceptive enough to withstand the onerous requirements of Pep-ball City will bombard, bamboozle and create, with broad child-like grins on their faces, in the process reducing your previously painful breakaway strike to a consolation.
Unless you’re very, very good, such as Monaco, in which case let’s turn the game into basketball and see who comes out on top.
For the short-term at least City have transformed themselves into Keegan’s Newcastle; the great entertainers, and with 33 goals in the 12 games since Kevin Mirallas was allowed to look world class, and with Sterling and Sane tearing into spaces, unleashed and unstoppable, it is little short of a joy to watch.
This, you feel, can only be a temporary solution. No team, no matter how chock-a-block with talent, has ever won a meaningful trophy with the sole mandate to out-score their adversaries. Only the title of ‘People’s Champion’ awaits should it continue.
For now though, it’s a sticking plaster that has reinvigorated the club out of crisis and breathed fresh life into a season that erred towards collapse.
When Pep Guardiola endured a dark night of the soul that saw his fundamental beliefs questioned and belittled by all and sundry, he re-emerged even more determined to entertain and attack. That is the mark of the man and coach perhaps even more so than the many medals that have glistened around his neck.