Sunday, 24 May 2015
Have Some Tea!
Manchester City 2-0 Southampton [Etihad Stadium, Premiership]
On May 9 there was fleeting sensation when the story broke that Pellegrini was set to be replaced in the hot seat at the Etihad. The Manchester Evening News, alighting on a stray bulletin from the Twitter feed of a Qatari sports channel, were among the first to go large with the bombshell, after which the nationals piled in like the in-laws at a wedding fight. “Guardiola agrees to coach Man City next season” blazed the headline, and for an hour or two there was amphetamine chitter-chatter across the cybersphere about the projected arrival in East Manchester of modern football’s Leonardo da Vinci.
You could see how the story germinated. Just a few days previously Guardiola had suffered an abashment in the Champions League after sending out his Bayern Munich side for a semi-final first leg encounter in Barcelona as if they were Garry Kasparov’s Dream Pieces: pulling all manner of tactical stunts, as though it were a practice game back at La Masia and not a season-defining clash with the form team on planet Earth. Delegating a three man defence to contain the most devastating attacking trident in the game was just one ploy which lead some to wonder if the great man needed his prodigious bump feeling; the decision to evolve his famed hard press into a ten-man man-marking system had the pundits sputtering like outraged colonels. It didn’t work, either, as Lionel Messi ultimately seized hold of the game and inspired Barca to a 3-0 public head-slapping of the great man’s pulsing dome. Evidently, the reversal led to an overheated circuit of speculation around the sports desks: what with the dark clouds swirling over the Pellegrini project, and City’s reputed long-term interest in the tiki-taka-maestro, and sporting director Txiki Begiristain’s historical links with the coveted Catalan, and the whiff of instability emanating from Bavaria at the foundering of the Guardiola’s latest schemes…well, true to type, the mighty fourth estate had once again done its reckoning on the back of an envelope, and inevitably made five from two and two. City were forced to rubbish the story, swiftly, and reaffirm their faith in the present incumbent. Within hours the rumour died back just as quickly as it had flamed.
It had been only the weekend before that Pellegrini had been forced to congratulate Chelsea on their title victory – something he did with not a little peppering of pique. It always seemed like the old man was incapable of showing side in the thick of the hurly-burly, and so when he did it always took you by surprise, as though it betrayed that gentle, grandfatherly mask of benign wisdom: the leathery laugh-lines like dry mountain streams pursed in mustardy clay; the Jagger hair grey as fag ash and abiding as desert scrub; the red-rimmed eyes bespeaking a man assailed by time, yet who sought to hold to his course with all the conviction of his experience, albeit ghosted with the fatigue of a man quite royally pissed off.
“Chelsea did exactly what we did last season,” he mumbled hispanically when Sky TV asked for his reaction to the outcome. “Winning the Premier League and the Capital One Cup…we did it by scoring more goals and playing in a different style. We scored 156 goals; 102 in the league. And we continue to be the top scorers…”
Sufficiently tetchy, then, to cut the congratulations with a tart reminder of the chasm to be found between his own instinct to entertain and Mourinho’s all-consuming desire to win at any cost. The speculation over the Chilean’s future had clearly penetrated, and when Geoff Shreeves summoned the front to ask him if he was the right man to take City forward into the coming season, he simply mumbled: “No…I don’t answer that question…” And off he stalked, Granddad in a huff, laugh-lines tensed.
In fact, Pellegrini’s season was to climax on a cresting wave, with a sequence of victories marked by such vigour as his squad held in promise. The Euro exit to Barca, back on March 18, had been followed initially by an indifferent run of results: a 3-0 win away at West Bromwich Albion three days later, followed by a lamentable 2-1 soup-spilling at Crystal Palace on April 6, when the manager yet again opted to play Toure in a midfield two and failed conspicuously to come away smiling. That was the last we were to see of the 4-4-2 for the rest of the campaign. The turning point seemed to come after the derby defeat on April 12, when United got up off the canvas to club the Blues repeatedly with an exuberant left cross: Ashley Young’s tormenting of Zabaleta, that day, was to become the definitive memory of the encounter; but the travails of Demichelis offered another sobering slant (robbed by Fellaini in the lead-up to Juan Mata’s goal; given the slip by Smalling in the execution of his). What with Kompany withdrawn at half time (the consequence of a muscle tear) the omens looked perilous for the rest of the season: four victories from fifteen since the turn of the year could be interpreted in no small measure as a galling loss of potency in the late hours.
It was then, though, that City seemed finally to get a grip: with three men in the middle (as part of a 4-2-3-1) and some key personnel stepping up to the plate.
The run of six straight wins with which Pellegrini’s men closed out second place, culminating in today’s 2-0 victory over Southampton, may not have seen them quite back to their prinking best, but served nevertheless as a reminder that, when they girded their talents, they were a match for almost anyone on their day. It was the doughty old spine which seemed to carry them through, though: Hart chipping in with four clean sheets and an extended acrobatic soliloquy between the sticks; Aguero stumbling onto his shooting boots again after evidently mixing them up with his wellies back in February; Silva dreaming up those fantasy balls while at the same time stepping up his pressing game; even Toure – yes, Toure – the supposed villain of the piece, evidently refusing to be put in the stocks over the lack of defensive cover he offered his centre-backs…the Ivorian applied himself now like an overlooked step-child, shuttling into enemy territory with the ball at his feet, making the net curtsy every now and then with those fearsome long strikes from the edge of the area, reminding anyone who cared to observe it that there was no one better at fulfilling the role in the English game.
With Kompany out the centre-back roles fell to Mangala and Demichelis: they rode their luck at times, the Frenchman particularly, maintaining the provocatively high defensive line which Pellegrini favoured, and mostly getting away with it. They were like mismatched buddy-cops, those two, in the final act of a TV pilot – Mangala the raw rookie with the rough edges yet to be knocked off him; Demichelis the seasoned pro who’d been around the block once too often – thrown together through happenstance but somehow contriving to bond amidst the scrapes. The high line was vulnerable to the late-run from deeper positions, but as City pressed a little more keenly, effected swifter transitions, moved the ball quickly, and relied on Hart to save their bacon every now and then…well, that just served to remind that they had the means to show the edge all over the pitch.
So the results began to come. A 2-0 win at home to West Ham United on April 19 set the ball rolling: Mangala was a revelation, that day; a rock with a brain, and indeed a mission to quell the flashbacks of his nightmare at Upton Park back in October; while the dominant Toure, moved up to the No.10 position, upended the prevailing narrative by providing the key intercept that led to Aguero’s breakaway goal. Was this the way forward for the intractable Ivorian? To play behind the striker, sit on the sitter, and let the midfielders stationed behind him take up the defensive strain? Or was he better deployed further back, in that berth in front of the defence, where he could come on to the ball and bring it forward from deeper positions?
The sense was that Pellegini favoured the latter option, in the main: his giant battering ram of a midfield carrier was undeniably deft but lacked the cuteness of a Zola or a Bergkamp when receiving the ball on the half-turn, irrespective of the goal threat he posed from the edge of the penalty area. For the following game, a 3-2 home victory over Aston Villa on April 25, Toure was billeted back to his familiar posting: in front of the defence, with the play in front of him, and with license to venture. The signs were that in spite of the stampey-footeys from Gary Neville & Co., the manager was keeping faith with his man, and to hell with the naysayers. “Pellegrini reserves the energy of his best players so they can explode in the final third,” observed another former defensive midfielder of his, the Spaniard Josico, who had played under the Chilean at Villareal. So there you had it. Victory over Villa was narrowly earned, and owed in part to a slapstick third minute meltdown on the part of their goalkeeper, Brad Guzan, who gifted Aguero the simplest of conversions with an instant clip-show classic of a clowned clearance. Fernandinho’s bicycled finish, a minute from time, snatched the points in a match which saw Lampard returned to the Number 10 role, a position he held down until the end of the season: extra dynamism for the cause in the tailwind of the finishing straight.
On May 3 a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur showcased the Pellegrini revival in full aspect: Hart’s synaptic saves were worthy of the points alone. The goal, though, was a classic City strike. As Zabaleta dragged Lamela away from the danger, Silva split the back line with one of those sighted-by-Rutherford, weighted-by-Dalton through balls, and Aguero was on to it like a man with a grudge: a signature strike unleashed typically with the kind of direction (near post) and elevation (finding the roof of the net from close range) that comes on to a ‘keeper like the last word of a spitting argument; a text-book finish designed to crest the dipping shoulder as the ‘keeper set himself to dive across his line; yet another of those brutal, chopsocky blows the Argentine specialised in, that made you feel like you yourself had just lamped someone who had it coming to them when you saw it. He was like Bruce Lee when he finished with a viper-lash like that, dishing out smacky-face to a man unwise enough to have offended the Shaolin Temple. No messin’. Have some tea!
Aguero was juiced, now; the hat-trick which followed on May 10, during an unanswered six goal rubberhosing of Queens Park Rangers, bore the look of a promise made good. He seemed a charmed spirit, now: the ball coming back to him when he mislaid it as he tore through the Hoops’ defence to open the scoring, a move he consummated with atypical subtlety by pitching the ball languidly over the body of the diving ‘keeper, Rob Green, and followed up with a second tucked away with similar sleepy cool. A second half penalty was blasted home with more familiar macho brio in case anyone had begun to doubt his manhood. Against Swansea City seven days later it was Toure’s turn to sling the shells, twice flame-trailing the hands of Lukasz Fabianski in a match most memorable for a rousing move finished by Milner: Lampard setting Aguero free down the left with a masterfully back-spinned volley which held up perfectly into the forward’s stride upon contact with the turf; when the ball came in Milner’s step inside was as deft as a tailor’s cut, and the strike as timed and inevitable as the punchline to a music hall joke.
It was an unchanged side, then, that Pellegrini sent out for today’s final match of the season: a 4-2-3-1 with Toure partnering Fernandinho in front of the defence; Kompany kept off the beat by the form of the buddy-cops; the back four comprising Zabaleta, Demichelis, Mangala and Kolarov; with Milner, Lampard and Silva supporting Aguero up top. Hart continued in goal en route to claiming this year’s Golden Gloves award with fourteen clean sheets over the course of the campaign.
Southampton were no pushovers, as we knew. Having earlier in the year flirted with the Champions League places they had since settled back to a respectable seventh place, earning widespread admiration for their manager, Ronald Koeman, in his first term at the club. In Graziano Pelle, the striker who had followed him from Feyenoord, the Dutchman had a giant, 6’4’’, English-style centre-forward of Italian provenance whose sixteen goals this season had proved a key factor in maintaining the south coasters’ form. They were no clodhoppers, though, the Hampshire club; and with a clutch of cut-price pearls among their ranks, who had acquitted themselves way beyond expectation over the past nine months, you wondered if, yet again, the predators would come swooping come the summer-time: centre-back Toby Alderweireld had shown the chops not just to defend but to develop the ball intelligently, since arriving on loan from Atletico Madrid back in September; right-back Nathaniel Clyne had reached the fringes of the England team on account of his pace going forward and ability to stick to incoming wide men like a dose of the shingles, irrespective of grand reputations; defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama had achieved continent-wide acclaim while at Celtic in 2012, when as the architect of a 2-1 defeat of Barcelona he had attracted a host of Premiership suitors, alerted to his strength and cultured management of the ball; Senegalese winger Sadio Mane, meanwhile, had only seven days previously scored the fastest hat trick in Premier League history, erasing Robbie Fowler’s name from the record books in the space of a piddling 176 seconds, to underline his credentials as a lightning-quick wide man with goals in him who could operate on either flank.
Pick of the bunch was star midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin, who didn’t play today, and was considered to be of such class that Manchester United were said to be come-hithering him as a long term replacement for Michael Carrick. A keen, cultivated holding player, he typified the whole: Southampton played a sturdy 4-2-3-1, pressed doggedly, forced opponents to pass neurotically, won the ball back quickly and attacked effectively down the wings. It took a technically gifted side to overcome them.
As far as the cameras were concerned, of course, today was all about Frank Lampard, who took his bow from English football after a career which saw him win every prize in the game and cement his status as one of the all-time great attacking midfielders. At thirty-six years of age this was his 609th Premiership appearance – only Ryan Giggs had made more – during which time he had lifted the trophy for Chelsea on three occasions, along with the FA Cup (four occasions), the Football League Cup (twice) and the Champions League and Europa League pots (once apiece). In the course of his 106 England appearances he had scored 29 goals and been named the Football Writers’ Player of the Year (2005), though never the Players’ Player. Significantly, he held the Chelsea goal-scoring record with 211 in all competitions – a staggering total for a midfielder – and today added one last strike to his overall tally to bring the final sum to 259 goals from 882 games. Set alongside the 102 assists he had contributed in the division, it represented a towering achievement for a man who as a youth had wrestled with the rondures of puppy fat, unblessed with divine natural talent, yet who had risen to become a legend due to graft on the training ground and an incomparable positive mental attitude.
The inevitable strike came in the 31st minute after Silva found Milner in verdure on the right and the Yorkshireman’s cut-across fell perfectly into the path of Lampard’s typical, late-arriving run: a shallow feint, a tack inside and a sudden halt to deceive the back-tracking Alderweireld, and a pocket of space opened up like a garden for his personal use. When the delivery reached him his side-foot finish was characteristically strident – how he loved to drive home the point when he scored! – slamming into the net from the underside of the crossbar despite being centrally placed. His glance to the heavens – a nod to his Mum? – was the stuff of flagrant footballing melodrama, of course; the cameras ate it all up in earnest, as though vaselined expressly for the occasion.
It wasn’t just the Londoner who sparkled in the May sun, however. Toure was a man possessed, today, at one point embarking on a steaming sixty yard charge, begun with a feint so cute no man of his size should have had any right to throw it, continued with a handing-off of Wanyama in the manner of an embattled mother absent-mindedly fending away an infant while counting her pennies in the queue at Safeways, and then proceeding like an escaped bull crashing through the Southampton lines like the furnishings of a rustic landscape: across the field, through the fence, over the stream, past the barn, into the campsite and through the tent to emerge with a plus-size brassiere hooked on his horn. Then there was Milner, the eternal utility player, the rugged handyman who could turn himself to almost anything, much beloved within the squad but rumoured to be leaving in search of game time: as he pitched sublimely into the area with a sweetness that would grace the Nou Camp, you were led to reflect what an underpraised supporting actor he had been in his time at the Etihad. Fernandinho, alive to everything, seizing possession to break with zeal; Demichelis pitchforking the ball just as Shane Long threatened to strike; even Mangala, with newfound composure, could be seen breaking up attacks like a blaster picking off space invaders as they worked their way down.
Saints were not for going down without a wingding, however, with Mane unloosed on the right and Long in particular causing problems down the other flank: dancing past Zabaleta to fire low to Hart’s left after the Argentine allowed the ball to wriggle under his foot; cocking his boot to pounce on Duricic’s threaded pass before Pelle sliced the intercepted ball high, wide and handsome. If the Italian had cooled his jets in the second half then Southampton might have sprung the high line; as it was the linesman’s flag spared the Blues their blushes on several occasions. In the end, it took until two minutes from time for City to kill off the contest, when Aguero meloned home the simplest of chances at the back post after Mangala had headed across. That was nine in the last seven games for the Argentine, to cap his most prolific campaign yet in the City shirt: 26 goals in 33 appearances was enough to land him the Golden Boot award by a massive 5 clear strikes, yet still he went un-recognised in the PFA Player of the Year nominations. What gave?
At the Brittania Stadium, Stoke, some forty-seven miles to the south, another box-to-box icon was taking his leave from the domestic game: in Steven Gerrard’s case, however, the parade was somewhat pissed-upon as a consequence of the Harrovian arse-thwacking his Liverpool side were subjected to by Mark Hughes’s ninth-placed Potters. Doubtless, the thrashing meted out hurt Stoke more than it hurt Liverpool. A slide rule strike was the Scouse hero’s sole consolation on his final day at the office as the home side put six past hapless ‘keeper, Simon Mignolet. Gerrard, a Whiston-born son of the city, who had supported the club as a boy and whose ten-year-old cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, had perished in the Hillsborough tragedy, had gone on to make 504 Premiership appearances for Liverpool, notching 120 goals and contributing 92 assists over the course of a blockbuster career. The highlight, undoubtedly, was the 2005 Champions League trophy he inspired his side to claim in barnstorming Boys’ Own fashion, though the Premiership title had remained beyond the means of his club.
To some older heads, Gerrard had embodied the closest approximation to the skill and dynamism of Colin Bell that could be found in the modern game. He and Lampard had posed the central conundrum of the so-called ‘Golden Generation’: the extraordinary crop of talent which had bloomed in English football at the dawn of the new century, of whom so much had been expected in remaking the fortunes of the national team. The debate would burn on like hot rocks as to why the two great players could seemingly not be paired in the same side under the stewardship, in particular, of Sven Goran Eriksson. Too similar to deploy together in a 4-4-2 with the need for one to stay while the other advanced? Perhaps. Surely there ought to have been a way around the problem? A different formation? A better understanding? An alternative approach? Yet the problem seemed to encroach on that pool of talents to such a dispiriting extent that the efforts to solve it served only to destabilised the whole. Sending Paul Scholes out wide to accommodate them both seemed only to export the problem further; the Golden Generation came to nothing, having promised so much.
A season of disappointments on the whole, then, for the Blues; marked by Pellegrini’s proclivity to impose not one but two strikers on opposing centre-backs, whenever possible, and his willingness to sacrifice a body in midfield in order to do it. If nothing else, you had to acknowledge the old man’s commitment to enterprise and attacking zeal in continuing to rub against the prevailing tactical grain.
In the circumstances, Toure’s lack of love for defensive chores had come to be seen as representative of an underperforming, under-replenished, lavishly-talented, slightly ageing squad, who didn’t work hard enough, if indeed they had the legs. After the team went down with a post-Christmas pox, and the folly of 4-4-2 against breathtaking Barca resulted in a chastening exit from Europe, the accusation of naivety was added to the charge list to be levelled at the manager.
In the Premiership: second best, then; and Pellegrini’s title taken from him…
1. Chelsea P38 W26 D9 L3 F73 A32 Pts 87
2. Manchester City P38 W24 D7 L7 F83 A38 Pts 79
3. Arsenal P38 W22 D9 L7 F71 A36 Pts 75
4. Manchester United P38 W20 D10 L8 F62 A37 Pts 70
…those red-rimmed eyes and leathery creases, the stoic hair and the mustardy skin…it would take more than a lick and a promise to turn things around, now.
Fresh ideas and schemes…new players…the vision thing…was he the one to see it through?
Or was he warming the seat for Guardiola, all along?