In a tense evening of football, Manchester City beat Sheffield United 2-0 at the Etihad.
On the face of it, yeah, it makes sense that Manchester City beat Sheffield United at home. They’re a better team with the bigger budget and so this result makes sense.
But if you watched the game you will have seen a match where Sheffield United basically matched their hosts in terms of attacking impact. In terms of the battle between Pep Guardiola and Chris Wilder, you couldn’t say the Catalan had come out a clear winner.
Obviously Pep was a winner in the literal sense, but Wilder showed here that his system of play is no less coherent and complete. That his team don’t just play in the typical promoted side’s manner, all scrap and pluck, but are in fact as cultured and measured as Man City.
Moreso, if we’re being honest. Three years of high intensity coaching and particularly two years of winning basically everything under the sun (domestically) has left Man City looking a little bewildered at times. Going forward they are still an excellent side, but in trying to marry the attacking qualities of Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling, Man City seem to have forgotten how to defend counters.
They had done this previously through Fernandinho’s excellence at covering space and his mastery of the dark arts. But their lack of defensive reinforcements has seen the Brazilian drawn into the back four, meaning the midfield has often had Rodri or Ilkay Gundogan at the base. And those two are supreme passers but lack the athleticism and skill to defend like Fernandinho.
Fewest games needed to reach 100 wins in the Premier League:
🇪🇸 Pep Guardiola
🇵🇹 José Mourinho
🇩🇪 Jürgen Klopp
🏴 Sir Alex Ferguson
Pep tops a list of greats. pic.twitter.com/K5w68rB51w
— Coral (@Coral) December 29, 2019
So Man City don’t have anything like the same kind of solidity they’ve had in previous years, which is why they’ve dropped so many points already this season and why Sheffield United were able to go toe-to-toe with them at the Etihad.
Wilder‘s men matched Man City and were it not for a couple of awful VAR decisions (one ruling out Lys Mousset’s goal for another nonsense precision offside, and the other allowing Sergio Aguero’s goal to stand even though the referee accidentally helped Man City win the ball back) they could have even won.
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And when you look at Sheffield United and their team of misfits and cast-offs, the fact that only nonsensical refereeing stopped them from winning against the defending Premier League champions in their own back yard is remarkable.
Sheffield United really are something to behold, their overlapping centre-backs seem quaint but it genuinely allows them to overwhelm opponents in key zones of the pitch and their ability to go back-to-front is so important as it destabilises opponents.
John Fleck’s pass to Mousset was so good it appeared to bend space and time but at its core it followed the Sheffield United pattern in that it was a forward pass that broke lines quickly. Man City couldn’t adjust and Mousset finished calmly, only for VAR to rule it out.
Wilder‘s system even has Sheffield United passing out of the back, although this is how Man City scored their opening goal. It didn’t come from any Guardiola counter-pressing but referee Chris Kavanaugh leaping in front of a Sheffield United player.
See, the goal starts as Oleksandr Zinchenko tries to thread a pass into the heart of the defence but John Egan cuts it out. The ball then falls to Oliver Norwood who takes a touch to draw pressure before passing it to Fleck so that the Sheffield United counter could begin in earnest. After all, the next pass in the chain was an obvious one in to Mousset and the visitors would be away.
But no, Kavanaugh loped in front of Fleck like a clueless antelope and so Fleck, now off-balance, miscontrolled the ball and it fell to De Bruyne. The Belgian took a couple touches then slid in Aguero, who duly slammed it home. So, 1-0 Man City because the referee wasn’t looking where he was going and broke up what was a perfectly fine Sheffield United counter-attack in a way that would make Fernandinho jealous.
Now, the rule is that if a referee touches the ball causing a turnover of possession, then the game must be restarted with a drop-ball. Of course as Kavanaugh didn’t touch the ball, VAR technically had nothing to rule on. But that’s clearly nonsense, as Kavanaugh caused the turnover of possession and if he didn’t have the guts to call it back, VAR certainly should have done.
All that was heartbreaking and essentially condemned Sheffield United to defeat. Man City scored a second late on the break and Sheffield United hit the post with a header. It just wasn’t meant to be and the result will appear to confirm the ability level of both sides, but the performance itself was a testament to Wilder‘s managerial brilliance.
He took his ‘lowly’ Sheffield United side to the home of the champions and had them playing with more confidence and coherence than Guardiola‘s Man City. And when you can pull that off, then you have to be a serious shout for Manager of the Year.