To stir soul, City must survive trial by fire

Gabriel Jesus of Manchester City celebrates after he scores his teams seventh goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg match between Manchester City v FC Schalke 04 at Etihad Stadium on March 12, 2019 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

For such a brilliant football team it is amazing how many boring football matches Manchester City are involved in. This, of course, is through no fault of their own (unless you think it is a fault to allegedly breach pesky football finance rules through the use of vast sovereign wealth in order to assemble a group of players much better than most of their domestic and European peers).

This trifling fact aside, that City are much better than most teams they play against is hardly something to hold against them. It is generally their opponents who make the decision, upon a quick glance at the array of flashing blades lined up against them, to not partake in any kind of game of football at all. At least Schalke on Tuesday night had the good grace to defend with the ferocity and attentiveness of Birmingham City stewards upon seeing a belligerent yob heading for Jack Grealish.

That allowed City one of those games where they slash through the opposition with merciless precision, condemning them to death, if not quite by a thousand cuts, then by vidiprinter-troubling numbers like 7 (seven). These sort of hammerings are out of keeping with Champions League knockout stage contests, which are generally supposed to be more like Tuesday’s other tie, the gripping, taut, electrifying second leg between Juventus and Atletico Madrid.

City’s 10-2 aggregate win over Schalke is normally the kind of thing you see in mismatched cup ties. Indeed, the Carabaoisation of the Champions League knockout stages would be a sad but inevitable result of the increasing financial imbalance between football’s superclubs and those even slightly outside the VIP circle. But at least Schalke, like Burton Albion and Rotherham, had the good grace to allow their inevitable defeat to be lit up by a fusillade of goals.

City’s goals in these matches don’t provide excitement, per se, but are rather greeted with appreciative applause in the way jazz audiences might acknowledge a particularly intricate trumpet solo. Many of City’s recent matches haven’t even had that purist value. Before Sergio Aguero’s 35th-minute penalty against Schalke, it had looked like City were heading for a fourth consecutive first half in which they had failed to score. Schalke’s defensive incompetence meant they couldn’t quite reach the milestone achieved by Chelsea, West Ham and Bournemouth. These sides succeeded in slowing City’s advance by employing the tactical equivalent of the Russian winter defence: simply bunkering in and hoping the gruelling passage of time would deliver ultimate victory.

Needless to say this scenario is not a great watch. City’s 1-0 victory over Bournemouth, achieved thanks to a scuffed Riyad Mahrez shot that trundled under the slowly descending belly of goalkeeper Artur Boruc, was one of the most tedious games imaginable. City had 82% possession, Bournemouth became the first Premier League home side not to have a shot since the collection of such stats began.

Bournemouth’s lack of interest in any kind of attacking play made the contest look like one of those videos of horrifically defensive Ulster Gaelic football matches that regularly do the rounds.

These clips are shared for their freak show value, an abomination to GAA nature; Bournemouth v Manchester was shown live in every country in the world to eager subscription-paying punters. Again, not City’s fault. The charge that Pep Guardiola’s favoured style of play (ball-hogging, shape-shifting geometrical patterns) is boring is not a new one. It achieved most currency, not with a Guardiola side, but with the all-conquering Spanish national team who, without Lionel Messi, took Barcelona’s tiki-taka to the absurd extreme of rarely bothering to score at all.

While it is the opposition’s failure to engage that makes many of Manchester City’s processional victories less-than-thrilling, the upshot is that this is a team which leaves one strangely cold despite their obvious virtuosity. This has nothing to do with the bad taste you might have about the source of their wealth, the alleged diddling of Financial Fair Play regulations or the coach and horses driven through English football’s established order. This is not about being liked. None of the big clubs are liked. Juventus, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Barcelona — they are all, or have been at their times of great pomp, rotters in some way. Juve with the stink of doping, match-fixing and mob-entanglement allegations; Real and Bayern with their bloated entitlement; United with Fergie-era bullying; Barca traded on being whiter than white, then hooked themselves up to the Qatari money-drip with an enthusiasm only exceeded in Paris.

But all these clubs stir fire in the soul. The waxing and waning of their fortunes causes great seismic shifts in football’s collective mood. They win with great glorious slabs of heroism and lose in tragi-comic, spiteful acrimony. Little that City have achieved so far — barring that extraordinary ‘Agueroooooo!’ moment of their first Premier League title — inspires much more than shrugging acceptance of a plan well executed. The entire construction of their modern iteration has been so well thought out and put together that it is hard to be gripped by any sense of struggle.

A club was custom-built for Guardiola and, fair play to him, he has made dazzling use of what he was given. Cue polite applause. It is now, with the latter stages of the Champions League upon us, that City may endure the trial by fire that gives a sense of substance to their style. They showed in their January victory over Liverpool an ability to scrap and fight, and they will surely face teams who know that the best way to deal with a shark attack is to punch it on the nose.

City fell short when their precision choreography was interrupted by Liverpool in last season’s quarter-finals; dealing with a similar elite-level face-slap this season will mean much more than a thousand Saturday afternoon strolls. How they react will be gripping to watch, and just reward for anyone who sat through that Bournemouth game.

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