Joe Butterfield traces through the ashes of a disastrous week for a team that aspired towards perfection.
Football Manager is an incredibly infuriating game. I’ll put together a team which is unbeatable, a team which cuts through all opposition in the league like a hot knife to butter. 4-0 victory after 4-0 victory, I run away with the league title, easing through my Champions League group and going deep into the domestic cups.
Then comes a tough two or three consecutive games late in the season, two of which are important Champions League knockout games. ‘No problem,’ I think, ‘I’ve beaten tougher teams. I’ve beat this lot before.’ I prepare my teams, I set up my tactics, sit back and relax. Then my team inexplicably puts together a run of straight losses and what could have been an unbelievable season is suddenly soured. My experience goes from all smiles and sunshine to inconceivable rage, my mind absolutely blown by just how much my players have decided to bottle it at the most important point of the season.
Knowing that this is how I react to video game disappointment, I really ought to spare a thought for Pep Guardiola after the last week or so, as Manchester City suffered their own Football Manager mini-meltdown. A squad of players which has spent the last 8 months blowing the rest of the Premier League away and walking through the Champions League, winning a League Cup along the way, has suddenly suffered three hugely important defeats.
The first defeat, which came against Liverpool at Anfield, was not hugely unexpected. For all the pontificating and blustering about ‘Anfield’s famous European nights’ and ‘the famous Kop atmosphere’ (much of which was disputed by myself), you’d have to go back to 2003, long before Sheikh Mansour had any idea who Manchester City were, to find City’s last victory at Anfield. A narrow defeat would be acceptable in the scheme of a two-legged tie in the Champions League. Unfortunately, such a defeat is not what The Blues got, instead finding themselves slumping to a comprehensive 3-0 battering after completely capitulating in the first 45 minutes, failing to test Loris Karius even once in the whole ninety minutes.
There was a lot to talk about from that first leg. First was the outright criminal damage caused by Liverpool fans to the visiting team coach as the Anfield mob did their best to “scare ‘em back to Mancland”, throwing bottles, cans and flares at the coach as it made its way into the stadium. All assisted and accommodated by Merseyside Police, who haven’t taken anywhere near enough flak from the media for effectively advertising the precise route the coach was planned to take, allowing for optimal planning from the Liverpool faithful, whilst also making suspiciously few attempts to quell any of the objects being thrown at the coach.
Of course, it’s on the pitch where Manchester City failed and fail they did. In quite spectacular fashion, they found themselves three goals behind within half an hour. Pep Guardiola went with a head-scratching starting eleven, understandably opting to leave out Raheem Sterling for a game in a stadium in which he’s never truly shone but then somewhat less understandably replacing him with Ilkay Gündoğan rather than the more naturally wide Bernardo Silva. Guardiola attempted to justify this after the game, saying he wanted to control the ball more and leave as little chance for Liverpool to counter-attack as possible, but with Bernardo also being an incredibly talented dribbler of the ball and a brilliant passer it made very little sense to put Gündoğan out wide, ultimately leaving Leroy Sané as the only true attacking threat.
Yet despite this shambolic first-half collapse and ultimate inability to get the away goal, the game could still have been so much different had refereeing decisions gone City’s way. Replays revealed that Mohamed Salah was actually marginally offside in the build-up to the first goal of the game, whilst Leroy Sané was incorrectly judged to be offside before setting up Gabriel Jesus for a goal in the second half, whilst Raheem Sterling was denied a penalty late on (the search for a referee who will give Raheem Sterling a penalty against Liverpool goes on). Both offside calls were incredibly marginal and so somewhat understandable in real time but it is these margins which can make or break knockout competitions.
The phrase “marginal refereeing decisions” was even more apt in the second leg than the first. Referee Antonio Lahoz, a man who was once referred to as “the Spanish Mike Dean”, is no stranger to Guardiola and Manchester City, having refereed one of the games against Monaco last season, during which he opted not to give Pep’s team a pretty clear penalty. As recently as after the 3-0 defeat to Liverpool in the first leg, Guardiola had expressed his frustration with Lahoz’s decision-making during that Monaco tie. Naturally, UEFA saw this as a perfect opportunity to provide that same referee with another chance to referee a crunch game for Manchester City and Pep Guardiola.
City started the game perfectly, getting a goal in the second minute of the game through Gabriel Jesus, however it became quickly apparently that Lahoz had absolutely no control of the game whatsoever. Before a ball had even been kicked he was spotted winking into the camera, clearly revelling in the idea of the eyes of the world being on him and he was keen to stay in the spotlight as the game wore on.
Lahoz dished out six yellow cards in total, each with as little consistency as the last. Sadio Mané went into a slide tackle with Otamendi and tried to pull out of the challenge, ultimately (albeit accidentally) going in on Otamendi with his studs up and causing quite a lot of pain, if Otamendi’s exaggerated reaction is to be believed. Ederson suddenly started to have Vietnam flashbacks to a time when his face was on the receiving end of Sadio Mané’s foot and went into a blind rage, pushing Mané, who showed an admirable level of restraint, four times in an attempt to berate and/or antagonise him. Lahoz dished out yellow cards to both, though many would argue that Ederson was lucky to escape with just a yellow. Ten minutes later, Bernardo Silva hit the ball into a Liverpool player’s arm and dared to ask for a free kick. He also found himself on the receiving end of a yellow card for such a dangerous act.
Firmino made a pretty smart tactical foul as Manchester City broke free, having got away with a couple beforehand, earning a fair yellow card for his troubles. He then made an almost identical challenge not long afterwards, cynically bringing down Kevin De Bruyne when City threatened to counter in almost identical circumstances. No yellow card this time.
The ridiculous officiating peaked late on in the first half, however, when Loris Karius punched the ball down from a looping ball into the box from De Bruyne. The ball was punched as far as James Milner, who temporarily forgot that he’d strung Manchester City along for the entirety of the final year of his contract, continually changing his demands (which the club met at every turn) until ultimately deciding to leave the club anyway for absolutely nothing, and put his boring foot through the ball and into the back of Liverpool’s net, with a little help from Sané along the way. The linesman also appeared to forget that James Milner is in fact a Liverpool player and his flag was quickly raised and the goal was ruled out.
As somebody who was stood on the other side of the pitch behind the opposite goal, this decision didn’t seem particularly controversial. In the mad scramble and sheer number of bodies, I didn’t have a good angle to view the decision from. It’s only when I watched the incident after hearing the incredulity surrounding the decision that the sheer ridiculousness of the incident was brought into sharp focus. Leroy Sané wasn’t offside from De Bruyne’s initial pass into the box, the last point in the attack where a City player touches the ball. It is therefore impossible for Sané to be offside at any point after this, yet a man who is professionally paid to make this decision, a man who will be doing so at the World Cup no less, could not see how completely and utterly wrong this decision was.
The half ended at 1-0 to Manchester City, a completely different scoreline, both literally and psychologically, to the 2-0 it should have been. A few City players, Fernandinho the chief among them, quickly approached Lahoz to point out just how bad a decision his linesman had made. Guardiola quickly intervened, pulling his players away, before turning around and finishing in the job. Pep claimed after the game he simply politely told him that the goal should have stood, as Milner touched the ball, yet the wild gesticulating and shushing gestures aimed at Lahoz would suggest it probably wasn’t as polite as he claimed. Pep was sent to the stands, City lost the game 2-1 and were knocked out of the Champions League.
This was a painful, embittering and frustrating experience, though this was still only a fraction of the pain, bitterness and frustration which followed the Manchester derby in between the two legs. For months, fans and media were marking this date in their calendars, hoping that results would fall the right way in the run-up to the game, allowing City to potentially clinch the title at the Etihad by defeating their local rivals. The stars aligned and City were given their chance to make history. This was a chance to give City fans another 2012 moment, another chance to rub a title win in the face of Manchester United. The previous derby at Old Trafford, during which a well-documented altercation took place in the changing rooms after the game as United complained of particularly loud celebrations coming from City’s changing room, only served to increase the desire to get one over on Jose Mourinho’s Stoke-in-disguise.
The first half of the game was the best half of football I’ve seen from Manchester City, who’ve had some damn good halves of football, this season. To cut through the defence of the second-placed team in the league as casually and easily as David Silva and Raheem Sterling did in that first forty-five minutes is something special. It was up there with the famous 6-1 levels of dominance, though with one crucial difference – the team which went to Old Trafford and ruthlessly put them to the sword knew how to put their chances away.
Vincent Kompany put The Blues ahead with a towering header. A goal as big as the man who scored it, there was nobody on that pitch more deserving of that moment than him. The Etihad erupted and the fans were lifted. The atmosphere kicked up a notch to one like I’ve never experienced first-hand before. The second goal shortly followed as Gündoğan took Nemanja Matic dancing and spun him right round, baby right round, poking home perfectly into the bottom corner. The floodgates had opened. Manchester United were there for the taking.
Minutes later, Raheem Sterling went through on goal in a one-on-one but he fluffed his lines, an awkward bobble just before hitting it sending the ball looping over the net. No problem, the chances will come. Not long after that, Sterling found himself with another chance to score. Yet again, the ball found itself in the crowd rather than the back of the net, as he hit it over a second time, securing his place every single non-City fan’s (and some City fan’s) minds as somebody who can’t finish a packet of crisps. A goal is coming, you can feel it. Gündoğan found himself with a free header on the edge of the six-yard box, hitting it tamely into the hands of De Gea. City really need to start making these chances count.
City went in at half time with a 2-0 lead, one which really flattered United. The talk at half-time from United fans was of complete embarrassment and dejection, ashamed to see their team taking such a beating from those across the road from them. City fans were jubilant. The title was one half of football away.
Then the second half happened. Manchester City no longer looked like the sharp, fast, relentless attacking force they were in the first half. Instead, they looked like they wanted to conserve energy, aware that an important Champions League game lay ahead mid-week. They had a two-goal lead against a Manchester United team which had done virtually nothing in terms of attacking so far. United saw this complacency and quickly exposed it, playing a neat set of passes and getting a goal back. Roughly ninety seconds later, they’d equalised as Pogba was given all the room in the world to wander into City’s area and easily pick his spot to head it past Ederson. Not long later, Mourinho found himself celebrating a lead against City for the first time this season as Smalling put them in front.
City pushed and pushed but ultimately found themselves with too much to do. With a one goal lead, United could do what Mourinho does best – sit back and defend. An equaliser looked more unlikely as the game went on, a winner was absolutely not on the cards. You don’t get the QPR moment twice.
And just like that, City’s perfect afternoon quickly turned into a shambolic, pitiful, embarrassing anti-climax. What could have been a perfect end to a season, a perfect morale boost ahead of a Quarter Final second leg in which they had a deficit to turn around, quickly became assurance that the diamond which is Manchester City’s season is not a perfect one.
Much has been made of these three defeats. Many Manchester City fans suddenly came over all Gary Neville, over-analysing Pep Guardiola’s decision-making over the last few games and deciding that he’s not just imperfect, he’s actually very questionable. Why did he play Gündoğan against Liverpool? Why didn’t he make a substitution against United before they scored their first goal, despite the fact that the team he had on the pitch had carved open United’s back four at will for the majority of the game? Why didn’t Pep show a level of restraint which absolutely no fan was capable of at half-time and avoid getting himself sent to the stands? Why is he fallible?
This over-reaction was nothing to that which followed from non-City fans. Thousands upon thousands of people who spent the entirety of last season claiming Pep Guardiola had no hope in the Premier League, telling themselves that it’s impossible to play out from the back in England (a tactic which is now used by virtually every team in the Premier League), finally had a stick to beat Guardiola with. “He’s not even going to win the Champions League!” they cried, “He’s not even going to win the League on 7th April! What a bald fraud!”
One stat about Manchester City’s number of home defeats in 2018 alone matching the number of home defeats Mourinho has accrued at United in his entire two seasons started flying around social media, which United fans latched onto as they took on a level of schadenfreude reminiscent of that which Manchester City fans derived from United’s failures when The Blues were mid-table. This is, of course, ignoring the fact that Mourinho has guided United to a higher number of draws, ignoring the absolute dross which Mourinho has served up on many occasions, ignoring the half-time comments which filled United fans’ Twitter during the derby and ignoring the general unrest which Manchester United fans have found themselves in during Mourinho’s tenure.
Pep Guardiola may be human, he may be prone to errors, yet he still remains unrivalled in this country. For all the “Football banter” Twitter accounts and people who have profile pictures of Paul Pogba who may laugh at the fact that Guardiola got City knocked out of the Champions League in the Quarter Finals, rather than the Round of 16 against far inferior opposition, Guardiola will dominate the Premier League as long as he remains here. His squad is young, his squad is learning and there is a clear plan in place at the club. He’s only had one year with a squad which truly resembles one of his own (even then there are additions to be made) and he’s already smashed numerous Premier League records and could have the league wrapped up with four or five games to spare.
Pep is running the risk of turning the Premier League into a game of Football Manager, sweeping aside the competition with ease whilst nobody else can come close. The next step for this Manchester City team is an invincible season with deeper progression into the Champions League, as well as making a much stronger push for the FA Cup. Opposition fans will have to enjoy the opportunity to mock Guardiola’s failings while they have the chance, because those chances will become fewer and fewer in time to come.
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