Janusz Michallik credits Man City for staying true to their formula after they secured their 11th straight Premier League win.
Few could really argue that Manchester City weren’t the more deserving of victory against Huddersfield last Sunday. The 2-1 success at the John Smith’s Stadium was down to a stroke of luck, as Raheem Sterling was in the right place at the right time to accidentally loop the rebound of Gabriel Jesus’ initial effort over everybody and into the net.
It was a cruel twist of fate for the home side having kept Pep Guardiola’s juggernaut quiet for the majority of the match. However, just because Huddersfield had defended so stoutly for so long and restricted City to the odd chance it doesn’t make the win undeserved. It was lucky, sure, but it wasn’t without merit.
City are starting to get the breaks they weren’t getting in front of goal last season and it’s largely down to the style of play. Sterling, widely praised for his improvement this campaign, has been one of the key beneficiaries, as he’s continually got himself into scoring positions in the box and inevitably been on hand to poke the ball home.
His late winner in the 2-1 victory over Bournemouth, which saw him red-carded for his celebration, was a prime example. Despite having been on top of the match for spells, Guardiola’s team hadn’t forged too many great chances and had looked like they were going to stumble to a 1-1 draw on the south coast.
Some teams, desperate for the winning goal, would fall back on to what’s become “Plan B” — hit it high and long into the opponent’s penalty area and hope for a lucky bounce or knock-down to fall in the right place. In fact, Guardiola was heavily criticised last season for refusing to accept that as an option when chasing a game late on.
Nobody ever questions why a Tony Pulis side or Sam Allardyce side doesn’t have another option when 90 minutes of lumping it to the target man and getting a knock down hasn’t worked. Why are coaches who promote passing football often asked time and again why they won’t ditch their principles in favour of a more blood-and-thunder style?
City will continue to play their way and if it doesn’t work, they won’t get the result they were after. That’s been Guardiola’s method since day one at the Etihad and it’s beginning to bear fruit this season.
Huddersfield were great at frustrating City, but it was at the expense of their own interests in winning the game. They managed to edge in front more through luck than judgement. And with the way they approached the fixture, that was going to be the only way they’d get a positive result. It’s not often teams score more goals than they have shots on target, but the Terriers managed that on Sunday with some unexpected help from Nicolas Otamendi’s left shoulder.
This isn’t to say there is anything wrong with that approach, either. If Huddersfield’s defensive plan had worked, this would have been a piece about how City struggled to break down a packed defence and how David Wagner’s men had rode their luck to break Guardiola’s winning streak.
Manchester City bided their team in Sunday’s 2-1 victory at Huddersfield.
By sticking to his principles of passing, moving and exploiting space, it meant that Huddersfield had to be consistently alert to City’s movements. By lumping it long into the area, the defending team simply has to stand up to the aerial barrage to hold out — it doesn’t test tired legs and tired minds.
“Plan B” for Guardiola was to change the shape of the team. It was a risk to take out Vincent Kompany to put on another striker in Gabriel, but it was a calculated risk. After stealing in front, Huddersfield had barely tested Ederson beyond forcing him to sweep up behind his defenders a couple of times.
It was that extra body in the box that allowed Sterling to ghost into space. Of course, he was lucky the rebound smacked his thigh and sailed into the net, but it was a break that City had earned through 90 minutes of unrelenting pressure.
What’s been most impressive about City’s development this season is that they have proven themselves able to cope with a range of opposition tactics. Sit deep and snuff out the space? Press high and try to force City errors? A ball over the top to exploit the high line? All have been well dealt with by the league leaders.
In handing the initiative to City, Huddersfield took a huge gamble. Once their game plan failed they had very little left in the tank to change it and the visitors were in control of the match. It may have been good fortune that caused the ball to cross the line from Sterling, but there was nothing fortunate about City heading home with the points.
David Mooney is ESPN FC’s Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney