After all the talk about Liverpool and their free-flowing football, it was Manchester City that became the first team to score 100 goals in this season’s Premier League.
They achieved the feat conceding 12 goals fewer than the Reds as well. After watching Manuel Pellegrini’s side score four second-half goals to put away Aston Villa and move towards a second title in three years, the conclusion is clear – City just have too many weapons with which to hurt their opponents.
Star striker Sergio Aguero was unavailable for Wednesday night’s game through injury. But then the brilliant Argentine has not completed 90 minutes for his club in five months now. It hasn’t stopped City yet, although Aston Villa did prove to be surprisingly stubborn opponents at the Etihad Stadium.
If anyone was expecting Villa to play with a sense of freedom now that survival had been assured, they were in for quite the shock. Paul Lambert set his team up to make things difficult for the home side with a 5-3-2 formation that looked rather more like a 6-3-1-0 when the visitors didn’t have the ball… which was plenty of the time.
Without Gabriel Agbonlahor and Christian Benteke, it was a viable tactic for a squad short on quality and high on resilience. They certainly made themselves tough to play through and City managed just one shot on target in the first half, when Pablo Zabaleta supplied Yaya Toure only for the midfielder to see his effort blocked near the line.
The City full-backs played as auxiliary wingers camped inside the Villa half and with Lambert’s men remaining compact in the middle, the flanks looked like the best bet. Samir Nasri to Aleksandar Kolarov and James Milner to Zabaleta were the most common pass combinations before the break – 15 and 14 respectively – and it’s a tactic City have used to good effect this season with their full-backs producing more assists than any other defenders in the Premier League.
|Premier League assists - Defenders|
|Aleksandar Kolarov||Man City||7|
|Pablo Zabaleta||Man City||6|
The problem against Villa was getting players on the end of their crosses. “There are times when they do really well to get behind the Villa defence but then there aren’t enough bodies in the middle,” said Niall Quinn in the Sky Sports studio. That changed when Pellegrini made an attacking switch, taking off Milner for Stevan Jovetic on the hour mark and asking the Montenegrin to play up alongside Edin Dzeko in attack. The reward came swiftly.
An alert run from Zabaleta allowed him to get beyond the defence and – perhaps enjoying the greater freedom that came with Jovetic’s presence in the box – Dzeko found himself up against Ron Vlaar and was able to get ahead of the Villa skipper to force the ball between the legs of Brad Guzan from close range. The relief in the stadium was palpable.
Shortly afterwards came a second goal from the same source. Once again Zabaleta found space down the right, this time finding Nasri in the box. The Frenchman’s effort was blocked but fell conveniently for Dzeko to bundle the ball in and settle any remaining nerves. It was Dzeko’s fifth goal in three games – delivering just when required after watching his fellow strikers take the plaudits earlier in the campaign.
While Zabaleta provided the supply from the flank, it is worth noting that the penetration came from David Silva. The City playmaker has that ability to unlock a congested defence and the weight of pass on his delivery behind the Villa back-line for Zabaleta to race onto was perfect. He has so often been the architect for his side and it is revealing that City’s points-per-game record is 2.00 without him this season but 2.36 when Silva starts.
But he requires runners and that’s what Zabaleta gave him throughout. “Dzeko will get the headlines but Zabaleta, it’s been a really powerful display from him tonight,” said Gary Neville on co-commentary. “He’s provided the assist for both goals and constantly got up and down that touchline.” It was enough to earn the man-of-the-match award with Neville adding: “He’s been a constant threat all night with those big powerful runs from right-back.”
Once Silva was substituted there was still time for two more goals and, in particular, another of City’s heavyweight performers to emphasise the various threats that the team can pose. Enter Yaya Toure. With a minute remaining, he came to the fore, jinking one way and then the other in the Villa box – bewitching his marker – before shifting the ball to his left for Jovetic to stroke past Guzan.
“He had a quiet game tonight,” said Quinn afterwards. “He gave the ball away a lot. He didn’t seem to be bursting into the box.” In a sense, it was true. Indeed, Toure made the fewest number of high-intensity runs of any outfield starter on either side. He produced one in injury time though. He almost had to be coaxed into it too, glancing left and right before the realisation came that he should take it on himself – storming beyond the Villa defence to blast home a fourth.
It was a superb goal that took Toure to the 20 mark for the Premier League season and made it a century of goals for his team. It is only the 11th day of the campaign that City find themselves top of the table, but it now seems inevitable that they’ll be there when the final whistle blows on Sunday…After all, Manchester City have just got too many different ways to hurt teams.