Manchester City have stepped up their defence of the FA Cup with a convincing 1-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday in the fifth round.
The scoreline will tell you that this was a close contest, but the visitors were simply dominant, boasting 80 per cent possession and not allowing their opponents a single shot on target. Garry Monk’s men defended valiantly and frustrated City for large spells, but Sergio Aguero would eventually come up with the goods, finding the back of the net in the 53rd minute, and from there, it was a procession as Pep Guardiola’s side hogged the ball for the rest of the half.
It was an entertaining evening at Hillsborough, but what did we learn?
1. Guardiola reverts to type after trailblazing week
The enigmatic tactician raised eyebrows and bewildered the Bernabeu with his system in Madrid last week, but there was no confusion in South Yorkshire tonight. This was business as usual for the defending champions. Similar line-up, similar personnel, similar outcome: a routine win for the Manchester titans.
There were one or two notable omissions for Guardiola, including Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling, but this was not a weakened City XI by any stretch of the imagination, illustrating the rich pool of talent available to the Catalonian.
Indeed, even on the grandest stage — a cup final — over the weekend against Aston Villa, Guardiola tinkered with his usual system and deployed Phil Foden in an unnatural position on the wing. And the result? A tactical masterclass similar to the one conjured up against Real, as the precocious teenager flourished on the flank and City lifted yet another League Cup crown.
Two games, two eye-catching tweaks. One could only ponder which revolutionary system this multifaceted manager would come up with tonight. And yet, despite Guardiola showcasing his versatility and pragmatism this past week, he reverted back to his tried and tested formula, with round pegs in round holes: a trademark 4-3-3, with a trademark XI and a trademark result.
Such a strong line-up suggests Guardiola is a man on a mission. He has already wrapped up the League Cup and firmly has his sights on defending his crown in this competition, while also conquering his final frontier in the Champions League. Guardiola wants another treble.
2. Aguero doing Aguero things
Name a better partnership than Aguero and the back of the net. The Argentine was at it again tonight, conforming to stereotype by breaking the deadlock just at a time when Guardiola’s frustration was becoming all the more palpable and his animated demeanour was threatening to reach Diego Simeone levels.
Sheff Wed simply had one gameplan: defend. And who can blame them? They’ve been in horrendous form since the turn of the year, and City showed no sympathy an hour before kickoff when they announced their star-studded lineup. But, the hosts acquitted themselves admirably against the siege and assault of Guardiola’s juggernaut.
20 – Since he joined Manchester City in 2011, Sergio Agüero has netted 20 FA Cup goals in just 22 games in the competition; the most of any player in this period. Guarantee. pic.twitter.com/Q03FS7BvIF
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 4, 2020
The possession stats will paint a pretty transparent picture of how this game panned out. But, City were — at times — left scratching their heads in the final third as the Wednesday bulwark suffocated their efforts.
And so, when City were crying out for a bit of individual brilliance to shine through, Aguero came to the rescue once again, following up from his strike at Wembley on Sunday. He had a little help from Joe Wildsmith, but this was an important goal in the context of City’s season, and Aguero’s 20th in 22 FA Cup games. Radiant by hair colour, radiant by scoring nature.
3. Mendy finding his footing
The importance of all-action full-backs to Guardiola’s system should never be downplayed. So, the fact he’s had to make do with a makeshift left-back for the majority of his City tenure only adds to his genius as a coach.
But, could we be about to see Benjamin Mendy come to the fore, remain injury-free and hold down a consistent starting berth in his natural position? For Guardiola’s sake, he would certainly hope so.
The Frenchman has been plagued by injury problems since relocating from Monaco in 2017, amassing just 44 appearances in two-and-a-half seasons. But, he’s played the full 90 minutes in the past two Premier League matches against West Ham and Leicester City — keeping two cleans sheets in that timeframe — and featured for the entirety of the Real match.
Tonight was his latest test, and he passed it with flying colours. Offering zeal and zest on the touchline, while providing his fourth assist of the campaign, teeing up Aguero who bagged the all-important goal. With key fixtures coming up, Mendy’s longevity on the pitch will be crucial.
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4. Misfiring Mahrez
Man City failed to register a single shot on target in the first half. Let that sink in for a minute. Of course, the dynamic changed after the restart with Wednesday coming out of their shell a little and City duly capitalising with fresh impetus.
They ended the match having thrown everything, including the kitchen sink, at Wildsmith between the sticks. And yet, the result heavily flattered the hosts, with City winning by just the single goal — and that, in part, was down to Mahrez being unable to take his chances.
The Algerian was as slick as ever, shimmying this way and that, but he certainly left his shooting boots in the dressing room as his six efforts — a record high in the game — failed to breach the net. The blame should not lie solely at Mahrez’s boots, mind. Raheem Sterling squandered a late one-v-one, while both Mendy and Otamendi rattled the woodwork.
In the next four games City face Man Utd, Arsenal and Real Madrid. Guardiola will be hoping this was just a one-off blip and his players rediscover their clinical edge.
5. Barry Bannan offers reminder of what could have been
Is there any greater sight in football than a perfectly-executed nutmeg? As it turns out, yes there is. A perfectly-executed nutmeg complete with a fancy pass. With the talent on offer at Hillsborough, you’d be forgiven for thinking Silva — take your pick — or Mahrez pulled off that ethereal skill, and not Barry Bannan.
— The Emirates FA Cup (@EmiratesFACup) March 4, 2020
The diminutive Scot has always possessed that little bit of genius in his repertoire of skills; an ability to come up with the unexpected and specular in the blink of an eye. He showcased that at both Crystal Palace and Aston Villa on occasion. So, why at 30 does a man once likened to Xavi and Andres Iniesta by a certain Gerard Houllier, find himself in the second-tier?
The problem for Bannan has always been one of consistency. His poor showing against Derby over the weekend will attest to that. But, there can be no denying his quality: 75 chances created in the Championship this season and seven assists are more than any other Sheff Wed player.
The quality is there and if the Owls are to stop the current rot they find themselves in, then Bannan will be key to that quest. But, for now let us just marvel at the brilliance of this ridiculous piece of skill. It would sit proudly in any ‘oddly satisfying’ montage.