Manchester City Have Discovered Their Newest Version Of Total Dominance
Just after the 10-minute mark of the Manchester derby Carabao Cup Semi-Final, Kevin De Bruyne seared a curling pass out to Raheem Sterling on the right wing.
The pass was fired a second before you'd expect - before the mind, which has been trained to kind of feel and anticipate the way things are supposed to go on the pitch, was comfortable and ready.
The moment was quintessential De Bruyne, the Premier League's greatest combination of vision, decisiveness and impeccable technical execution.
Sterling fed the ball back to the brilliant Belgian, who duly, off a step, smacked a thumping bullet off the far post from outside the box. That sort of violence in shot-taking is what separates De Bruyne - a talisman in attacking positions, but also a vicious and willing finisher.The rest of Man City are starting to get back on De Bruyne's wavelength. City's first three months of the season were dull and only intermittently alive. This is a transition year - a transition year where they're still currently clear favourites to win the Premier League and second favourites to win the Champions League, but this is what struggle looks like for Pep Guardiola super teams.
Goals have not come as freely. It's taken City 15 matches in the Premier League to score 24 goals. Last season it took them six.
Often, in attack, they've looked like late-era Arsene Wenger's Arsenal - inoffensively passing the ball around the box, maintaining possession with pretty games of triangles that have no destination or bite.
They've lacked a striker's finishing moments. Sergio Aguero has made only four appearances in the Premier League - Gabriel Jesus just seven.
The defence, though, has been the league's best, by goals conceded and expected goals conceded.
In recent times, finding a reliable partner in central defence for Aymeric Laporte has been City's biggest issue. This season they've found a solution, which for now doesn't include the injured Frenchmen, with a revived John Stonespaired with the newly signed and excellent Ruben Dias.
Clearly, Guardiola has pivoted to more of a defensive focus. Fernandinho is no longer played at centre-back, instead back in his natural position in defensive midfield - with fellow holding midfielders Rodri and Ilkay Gundoganalso getting significant run, with two of the three regularly put in front of the back four.
The lagging attack has finally picked up and as the year has turned over, City look the most balanced and imposing side in England.
Four games in a row they've been excellent - destroying Arsenal, Newcastle and Chelsea before working United over. The pattering feet and incessant, weaponised wriggling of Raheem Sterling is threatening again, and like an inflatable, air-dancing tube man outside a car dealership, Phil Foden moves loosely and effortlessly, enlivening the surface.
The first 60 seconds of the United clash were vintage City - a string of passes and movements that looked like muscle memory, a piano player playing a complicated piece with their eyes closed.
City controlled the first half hour, dominating possession and creating chances in an entertaining game with end-to-end rhythm and pace, the antithesis of when these sides last played. United held firm enough, though, content to rely on dangerous slingshot counter attacks, before gradually working themselves into the possession game after the first half hour too. United threatened, but there was a sense of numbing convention about their play after watching City move so fluently - in comparison, United were talent without telepathy.
Ironically, after all of City's calculated, skilled and deliberate build-ups, the breakthrough goal resulted from a set-piece where their central defender walked into a ball he could barely see and pushed it into the net off his body. Fernandinho's low sizzler followed later and the tie was done.
An easy run of fixtures is up next, before February ticks over which will see City take on Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and the Champions League in quick succession. Then, maybe, we'll see for certain, what this new Pep Project can bring.
In a way, the defensive shift is depressing, an abandoning of fireworks and constant majesty for sensible solidity and order. Change, however, was inevitable, as an era of dominance was slowly waning, but which now appears to have found its next iteration.
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