Football Features

“Sterling is challenging De Bruyne” – Five things learned as Man City see off Aston Villa

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 15:01, 26 October 2019

In an interesting afternoon of football, Manchester City beat Aston Villa 3-0 at Etihad.

After a well-matched first-half, City blew Villa away in the second period to move within three points of Liverpool at the top of the Premier League table. What did we learn?

1. Sterling Ascendant

Raheem Sterling is good. This isn’t really news, per se, but Raheem Sterling is really good. Again, it’s hard to describe just how good Sterling is because in all honesty bar a three-year run at the turn of the century when Michael Owen was at his peak, there hasn’t been an Englishman to be this good in attack.

Obviously Harry Kane is a supreme striker but Sterling is operating on a whole ‘nother level. It’s not just the goals, obviously many have scored more, it’s the manner of the goals. It’s the performances that back up the goals. Sterling is so calm and assured in everything that he does that even when he makes a mistake you know it won’t really affect him.

Sterling is already England’s best player and is fast challenging Kevin de Bruyne for the mantle of Manchester City’s best player. By virtue of that, he’s also in contention to be the Premier League’s best player. And given he’s in that conversation, if he keeps this kind of ridiculous form up you’ll have to consider him (if you don’t already) one of the best players in the world.

Against Villa, Sterling was completely in control. Even in a goalless first-half he was always threatening Villa with his runs, movement and shots. He was taking players on with a sense that he had already beaten them before he even dribbled the ball. Then of course he scored the opening goal with two wonderfully simple touches at the start of the second half, finishing confidently with his weak foot under the goalkeeper. That gave the Sky Blues the lead and made it 31 goals in his last 36 City games for Sterling. A phenomenon who is only improving.

2. An inferior VAR

VAR at the World Cup and VAR in La Liga and even the Champions League is absolutely fantastic. VAR in the Premier League is not. The difference in the way England’s top flight uses the technology seems to be done in an effort to speed proceedings up, but all it does is reduce VAR to an annoying interference even if the interference is shorter than it is elsewhere.

Why? Because the referees stays in the middle of the pitch with his finger to his ear. It’s not even the referee’s decision on whether or not a decision should be changed. The VAR crew make all the calls, and we can’t see them. In other places the VAR crew make a suggestion and we get the delightful drama of the referee jogging to the sidelines to look at the monitor and make a decision for himself. And having the on-pitch referee ultimately be responsible for the calls and the focus of attention makes it so good.

Today we had to wait a good three minutes or so as the VAR crew looked at the second goal over and over and over again. Did David Silva touch it? We still don’t really know even after the massive delay where a referee was standing there, hand in ear like a really rubbish Captain America waiting for portals to appear instead of stuck under a hood looking at a screen like an old timey photographer.

Make VAR cool again, Premier League!

3. Villa are so, so close

At the end of the day, Aston Villa got absolutely splattered at the Etihad. They lost 3-0 and in the end City could have scored even more, but all the action came in the second half. Villa have conceded 13 of their 16 goals this season in the second halves of games, and this match was almost a parody of that.

Having defended so well in the first half, shutting down the passing lanes and frustrating their illustrious hosts with some incisive raids, they made a defensive blunder just 30 seconds into the second period to let City take the lead. Thereafter they got peppered with shots and failed to really trouble their hosts until it was 3-0 and City were down to 10 men.

But that first-half showed that Villa are not too far away from being a really serious side in the Premier League. They just need to work on their execution in transition and perhaps have some orange slices at half-time – because if they can start playing as well in the second half as they do in the first, things will get better.

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4. Fernandinho is no centre-back

Fernandinho didn’t have much to do against Aston Villa. Sure, the 35-year-old played well but only because he was rarely troubled. In the end he got sent off with a few minutes remaining for making one of his trademark cynical fouls.

When Fernandinho was in midfield, these fouls formed a core part of the Brazilian’s gameplay. He excelled at stopping opposing counters in their infancy with well-placed cynical fouls, often avoiding the booking that comes with it because referees tend to give tackling midfielders a wide berth to commit fouls instead of punishing every incident for what it was.

The thing is, now Fernandinho is playing as a centre-back, referees are treating him differently. Those fouls he made so freely as a midfielder will 100% get called if he makes them as a defender, as we saw against Villa when he got sent off or the slightest tug of a Villa shirt. It was so soft, really, but that’s the fine line centre-backs tread and it was yet another example among a long line of them that proves that he is no centre-back, and if City are seriously going to keep him there until Laporte returns and they sign someone, there’s trouble on the way.

5. City keeping the pressure on

When Manchester City lost to Wolves two weeks ago, Liverpool looked runaway Premier League leaders two weeks ago, an unstoppable force rampaging over every team in their way. Then they drew at Old Trafford which gave Manchester City a sliver of a chance to get back into things. And it’s a chance they appear intent on taking.

Since losing to Wolves, City have won three games in a row scoring 10 goals and conceding just one. They’ve lost Rodri to injury but shaken it off, they’ve gotten massive displays out of Ilkay Gundogan at the base of midfield. The German was sublime again today and the only worry has to be that Gundogan will be the next man to get injured.

City’s response has been emphatic and they have cut the gap to Liverpool down to just three points. If Spurs can finally topple the Reds on Sunday, then things will already be right back in the balance just a fortnight after it all looked lost. But even if Liverpool re-extend the lead to six points, the fact that City keep on forcing them to go again, to be perfect, speaks highly of Pep Guardiola’s men who haven’t really been chasers for an extended period of time.