All right, they’re not invincible after all, but Manchester City are still the best thing that English football has produced for a good few years – say a decade, when Manchester United were top dogs. And for the first time this season you don’t need a subscription to see them play live.
The FA Cup gives everyone a chance to see what all the fuss is about. And if the season so far is a decent guide, it’ll be an afternoon to savour, so let’s hope City manager Pep Guardiola doesn’t go all canny on us and pick too many reserves in his starting 11. This is a special occasion, Pep – try to remember that.
Manchester City are all about possession, passing, accuracy, skill and speed. That’s always been Guardiola’s notion of football. He learnt it at Barcelona, where he first played. He took on the traditions established by Johan Cruyff, and when he became manager he put them into action – and produced what might have been the finest football team of all time. Now he’s trying to do the same in Manchester.
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In football there is an eternal confusion between effectiveness and beauty. There are no marks for artistic impression, but teams that please the eye are traditionally rated more highly than those that grind out results.
This season Manchester City have combined style with substance. It’s not all flashiness and tricks, and never mind the boring old defence; the team has been solid, organised and resilient. Time and again they come through to win in the last ten minutes.
Even their first defeat of the season was not without redeeming qualities. Liverpool had them rattled and took a 4–1 lead, but City came back to 4–3 and were pushing for a late equaliser when the game ended. This is not a team of fancy dans.
But the fact remains that they are also an aesthetic delight. There are times when their passing is so intricate you’d swear their opponents were co-operating with them in tightly choreographed, long-rehearsed, sequences of movement.
Not that the unbelievable sequences of pass-and-move are put together for the sake of it – there’s always a purpose about this side. They are never self-indulgent. Even with an unassailable lead, they seek the next goal, and then the next.
People complain that they are too good – that by taking a double-figure lead in the table before the new year they had spoilt the season for every one else. What? Is excellence boring? Here is a team of brilliance: it’s for others to catch up, if they can, and it’s for City to strive for excellence still greater and, with that excellence, trophies.
The team has top-quality players in every position, but no superstar who dominates all, as Lionel Messi did at Guardiola’s Barcelona. City’s standout player is probably Kevin De Bruyne, an attacking midfielder who combines a talent for the killer pass with an unstoppable finish. It seems as if defenders back off in terror at his approach, but that’s just an illusion that comes from the surging nature of his play.
Pep Guardiola believes that if you seek the biggest prizes of all, you have no option but bravery. For Manchester City the greatest risk of all is not to take risks. And that makes for something worth watching.