Manchester City 3 Sunderland 1: Some Thoughts
So there it is – a domestic treble completed in three years, another trophy that would have seemed so unlikely just a few years ago. City did not excel but showed two moments of such quality that we won’t forget the match for a long time. A first League Cup win in my years of supporting the team but defeat for Sunderland in their first Wembley visit in 16 years and first final in 22 years. At half-time it seemed like another no-show was on the cards, another day where the underdog triumphed and the City of old returned, another miserable journey home followed by a week of recriminations, but in the end individual quality prevailed.
This blog is mostly not about football but instead I thought I would focus on trains. Boarding the first train of the day to London, the driver soon informed us of a one-hour delay due to engineering works overrunning. My long run of good luck on trains had run out and it wasn’t the best start to the day, especially with the bar soon running out of alcohol.
But as expected, once in London it was nice to have a stress-free day with little fear of trouble. Thank the lord for David De Gea’s late fumble in the other semi-final.
City fans have been spoilt in recent years and will continue to be, but the walk down Wembley Way never fails to stir this ageing heart, even if it resembles a war-zone. Everyone in red and blue was in good spirits, as it should be.
As for the team, the good news was that Sergio Aguero was passed fit and started, though doubts would remain over just how match-fit he would be. Kolarov got the nod over Clichy, and Demichelis unsurprisingly started alongside Kompany.
And then of course there was Joe Hart benched. We’ll all have our own opinions on this, but I believe there is little room for sentiment when picking a cup-final team and the manager should play his strongest side. If he is picking a specific Capital One Cup side then why not pick Lescott?
So how big an occasion was this? Big enough. When United were hoovering up trophies, I always pithily dismissed a League Cup trophy as nothing to get upset about as it wasn’t the biggest of trophies and they were competing for bigger prizes so this was nothing to get het up about. I will now contradict myself by saying this was not the case for City. In fifteen years’ time it may be, but for now it held significant importance for me for a number of reasons. Firstly, it would be a first trophy for Pellegrini, at the earliest opportunity, putting to rest the argument that he has never won anything (apart from those times that he did win stuff, but as we all know if it is not in Europe then it is irrelevant). Secondly, a trophy takes a small amount of pressure off the players as they compete for the other bigger prizes – this will not be a trophy-less season and thus is already an improvement on last season. Finally, City are not at the stage to be disregarding trophies, but are at the stage where trophies need to be accumulated – only then can we claim to have a history, eh?
As for the game, it was the most exciting spectacle I have seen yet at Wembley with plenty of goal-mouth action, at least compared to previous tight affairs. But depressingly City once more struggled against a team that packed the midfield and crowded central areas. Pellegrini picked a narrow team himself when width was needed, with two wide players in Silva and Nasri who naturally will drift infield and crowd things further. Now few managers would have the nerve to drop either Nasri and Silva to accommodate the opposition, but it played into Sunderland’s hands, who countered dangerously and soon reaped the rewards. Pellegrini realised this eventually but reacted too late, though again it is a brave manager who makes a tactical substitution in the first half of a cup final (or any game for that matter).
You could also argue of course that the formation was toothless because in addition to the above problems, City’s full-backs couldn’t get forward enough to provide that width.
What didn’t help was endless aimless punts upfield from Pantilimon that lost us possession time after time rather than the better option of us playing the ball out of defence. My argument is undermined somewhat by the punt upfield that led to City’s second goal.
As for Sunderland’s goal, it provided a handy occasion to criticise City’s resident scapegoats, namely Martin Demichelis and Costel Pantilimon. I am amazed Pantilimon has had some criticism on forums considering he did nothing wrong, his positioning not particularly out. Sometime you just have to acknowledge a great finish, which it undoubtedly was. Demichelis is always going to be a scapegoat and we just have to accept it now, not that he had a great game, but then he wasn’t alone in that respect and did plenty of good things during the match (especially clearing headers) that will receive scant coverage in many areas. He was outpaced by Borini and could have had the forethought to cover behind Kompany, but the captain must surely take the blame for the goal, his decision to try and clear the ball rather than shepherd Borini proving to be disastrous.
Which brings me to the excellent Michael Cox of Zonal Marking and Guardian podcast fame. Michael is a rare beast in that I don’t know which football team he supports because he always comments without any bias or prejudice and has a superb tactical awareness of the sport. What he says goes for me. He thought Poyet won the game tactically, which is a fair point as City won the game through two moments of sublime skill rather than through their overall performance. One other thing of note though was a twitter discussion I and others had with him today in which he commented on how he thinks Vincent Kompany is overrated as a defender and makes a glaring mistake at least once a game and is pretty poor positionally. I disagreed strongly (thus doubting him for the first time ever perhaps). It is true that a lot of Kompany’s status in the game and for City comes not through just how well he may play but through leadership qualities and his effect on the team – he is undoubtedly a driving force for the team, a team that lacks something when he is not there. He is not perfect however, but I argued on Twitter that he needs a consistent partner beside him as a settled defence is a godsend, and City’s defence has chopped and changed week after week for a variety of reasons. Defenders don’t get away with mistakes like attacking players do and Kompany and the other defenders suffer somewhat due to Pellegrini’s attacking ideals, which can leave them exposed especially if there is no Garcia on the pitch. If Kompany was playing under a defensive manager (or an Italian!) there would probably be no discussion to have. No defender is perfect anyway.
But back to the match and there can be few better feelings than that minute or two of football that saw City go from losing to leading the match. Not only was there the joy of turning the match around, but also in the wonder of witnessing two of the greatest strikes of the ball you could ever wish to see. Both goals were simply magnificent. As Toure hit the ball I shouted out in exasperation at what he was doing before the ball hit the back of the net. As Navas wrapped up the game I had just spent two seconds screaming at Toure for not passing to his left. What do I know, eh? Toure is an amazing footballer, one who can be terrible in defensive areas as seen by him not tracking Fletcher late on as he messed up a good opportunity, but we all know he is at his best going forward and is wasted somewhat in a deeper role. In the first half he was average at best once more as he was shackled and he cannot prosper in a packed midfield.
So having got it initially wrong with team selection (in my opinion and with hindsight, a wonderful tool not available to managers) Pellegrini at least did react during the match by bringing on Navas for width and Garcia to secure the game as Sunderland reacted well to going behind.
City held on after Sunderland came back strongly, and the third goal helped settle the nerves and saved us counting down the four minutes of injury time and whistling frantically at the referee.
Yaya Toure certainly likes that goal at Wembley. With three goals scored in it, does he now get to keep the net?
Dzeko was beyond awful and I am officially giving up on him (until next week). He had a run of great form over the New Year, but has regressed spectacularly since then. He is not good enough, but that is an argument that depends on where you place him in City’s pecking order. Players like him and Demichelis have had far more time on the pitch than may have been originally intended when the season kicked off. I still maintain that Demichelis, bought cheaply on low wages, is more than good enough as a backup defender, but nothing more. Likewise, Dzeko as a fourth choice striker would be one of the best backups going, but I would prefer a rising star in that position rather than him. Eventually he will leave City and score a bucketful of goals for another team.
PARANOIA KLAXZON. You know what is coming. The narrative was clear, from Martin Tyler, to John Dillon’s Express opinion piece to numerous other reports – money won the day. We all know of course that money brings success, we all know that it did before City come along, we all know this. What continues to exasperate, though I should rise above it, is that no other team gets this treatment. If Chelsea has beaten Sunderland yesterday, there would have been no mention of the disparity in team costs and we all know that Manchester United’s team cost has never been mentioned by any commentator or in any match report. Chelsea spent big before City came along and yet it is City that fascinates the envious out there, perhaps because we are conceived as having been transformed by money more than Chelsea, but we finished in the top half of the table before the takeover and Chelsea were close to going bust before Abramovich came along (as were City). There is little difference. As Arsenal slowly start splashing the cash in a desperate attempt to win a trophy, any trophy, then their boorish fans’ arguments will slowly become even more desperate than now. As for United, organic growth is of course fine, even if the way the club helped create a closed shop is more odious than a rich owner spending his own money and removing debt from a club.
But enough of the moaning. What a wonderful day, what a wonderful atmosphere, and the Sunderland fans did themselves proud. Drink it all in, you could be back there twice in the next couple of months, along with City.
Oh hang on, more moaning. The trains back were “dry”, causing much consternation. I will take the alternative view however and state that I can understand the reasoning, even if as usual the sensible, well-behaved majority are punished for the actions of a vocal and drunk minority. I am clearly getting old by choosing to comment on such matters, but all train journeys (and those of friends elsewhere yesterday) back from Wembley and other parts have been uncomfortable affairs due to the actions of a few morons who act a certain way under the influence. We can hardly be surprised therefore that train companies don’t want their vehicles trashed or treated with contempt. Banning alcohol just creates more tension though, but as I said, it might be wrong, but I can understand why it happens. Having said that, we all know that football fans are considered as the scum of society much of the time, when people acting inappropriately after drinking is common in all walks of life, not just on a football train. God I’m getting old.
My decision to take the Monday off rates up there as one of my best.
I bet Nasri still bitterly regrets leaving Arsenal.