Barcelona have offered Man City player Bernardo Silva key squad status in an attempt to bring him to the Nou Camp.

According to The Telegraph, Barca are keen to sign the Portuguese playmaker and have given him the chance to become an important first team player.

The offer would make Silva, along with Lionel Messi, one of the most integral players at the club.


FEATURE: Five players Manchester City must build around


Silva has been in fine form this season and is expected to play in the Champions League quarter-final against Lyon next weekend.

However, his status in the Man City lineup is under threat from emerging talent Phil Foden.

The England wonderkid is poised to break into the first team following repeated compliments from manager Peo Guardiola.

Barcelona are aware of this and are reportedly trying to tempt Silva away from the Etihad.

The coronavirus pandemic means the La Liga giants don’t have the funds to buy the player outright, so they’re looking at more creative ways of signing him.

One method that could be explored is a player exchange.

Barca right-back Nelson Semedo has commonly been linked with a move to Man City and could become part of an exchange deal.

Miralem Pjanic has already moved to Barca this summer after he was involved in a swap deal with Juventus for Athur Melo.

One stumbling block for Club President Josep Bartomeu will be the offer of trophies.

If Barca fail to win the Champions League, it will result in their first trophy-less season in years. Real Madrid won the league, while Valencia were crowned Copa Del Ray champions.

Meanwhile, Silva will be on the hunt for the Premier League next season after finishing second to dominant champions Liverpool.

And given the fact that they’re still in with a shout of winning the Champions League, it may take a huge offer to convince Silva to move.

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

The odds are stacked heavily in Manchester City’s favour ahead of this Sunday’s derby at Old Trafford, yet the form guide and recent meetings suggest this will be a much tighter game than the bookies anticipate.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a habit of getting his players fired up for games like these, while Pep Guardiola tends to overthink things. Predicting the tactical battle and the outcome for this one depends on which Manchester derby from this season you focus on. Both clubs have frequently switched formation and personnel; both clubs have produced brilliant performances. It could go either way.

Here are five tactical questions ahead of Man Utd v Man City:

1) Will City again lack the width to break through United’s defence?
We’ve seen Guardiola play the Norwegian enough times to know that the pattern of this match will be City possession and United counters, with the hosts managing to assert some territorial dominance of their own only if City play the badge and not the players. But when the two sides last met in the league in December, ending in a 2-1 win for United, Man City were surprisingly poor at breaking down the stubbornly deep defensive shell deployed by Solskjaer.

Guardiola’s main problem was a lack of penetrating width, with Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka comfortably keeping Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling quiet.

Without Leroy Sane, with Sterling out of form, and with Benjamin Mendy looking increasingly unlikely to ever come good in a City shirt, their left flank is significantly weakened. This is the area City most often target as a way to break down solid defensive blockades. They drag the game over to the right, then suddenly switch the play and look to slide the left winger in behind. The ease with which United have held them at arm’s length this season – twice keeping clean sheets – suggests Wan-Bissaka can once again hold firm.

 

2) Or will Guardiola bring back the striker-less 4-4-2 to overwhelm the hosts?
Then again, Guardiola’s problems against Man Utd led him to deploy an unusual striker-less 4-4-2 formation the last time City went to Old Trafford, winning 3-1 in the League Cup semi-final first leg. That system – last seen beating Real Madrid 2-1 at the Bernabeu – could be used again on Sunday to overwhelm the Man Utd midfield and pull their defence into all sorts of uncomfortable positions.

The Man Utd centre-backs had no idea what to do without strikers to mark, hesitating badly as a flurry of City bodies sprinted towards them, and indeed the main advantage of the system proved to be diminishing the value of strength and increasing those of movement and pace.

It meant little that Victor Lindelof and Phil Jones could outmuscle City’s lithe attackers since they couldn’t get tight to anyone, whereas their sluggishness on the turn allowed the likes of Riyad Mahrez to make late runs in behind the defence – as he did to score City’s second.

What’s more, having four central midfielders during periods of possession left United badly outnumbered in the middle, leading to a chaotic scramble for defensive cover. Guardiola’s best chance on Sunday is to bring the formation back.

 

 

3) Does upgrading Lingard to Fernandes increase United’s chances?
It’s never wise to bank on Guardiola doing the obvious, mind, and in fact for the second leg he went for a maddening and ineffective 3-4-1-2. Should City return to something more conventional, then Man Utd’s biggest asset will be Bruno Fernandes – a notable upgrade on Jesse Lingard, who played a crucial role along with Fred in a dominant first-half display when the sides met in December.

Fernandinho will once again be in central defence, meaning the Man City midfield should be left exposed to counter-attacks as long as United can evade the first wave of the counter-press. That’s precisely what they did at the Etihad in the league, with Fred’s agility in possession – wriggling expertly away from danger – and Lingard’s weaving movement in the number ten space outmanoeuvring Guardiola’s side.

Fernandes has enjoyed a very good start to his United career. His ability to seek out little pockets of space between the lines is already making the team’s possession more assertive, and more vertical; he could be the most important player on the pitch this weekend.

 

4) Can Martial replace Rashford and beat Walker?
Should United successfully side-step the City press the pitch will open up dramatically, and not just because without Fernandinho, Rodri and Ikay Gundogan are too flat to stamp out danger. A knock-on effect of their midfield issues sees Kyle Walker play an inverted role at right-back, tucking into the middle to help out during sustained periods of City pressure.

Ordinarily it’s Marcus Rashford who would make the most of this, peeling out to the left flank to get a good ten-yard head start on Walker before his England teammate can scramble back out wide. However, Rashford’s injury means this task will be up to Anthony Martial, scorer of three goals in his last four starts in all competitions.

There is no reason why Martial cannot find similar joy against Walker, or rather in Walker-less spaces, and from here much will depend on how adventurous Shaw is willing to be. If he overlaps regularly then United can win. Riyad Mahrez certainly won’t track him.

 

5) Will De Bruyne dominate, whether against a diamond 4-4-2 or 3-5-2?
But perhaps this is to overthink the tactical battle. Kevin de Bruyne seems more like his old self during this mini-surge of good form at City, and it is likely the Belgian will be able to dominate the right-centre space – if fit – no matter what shape United deploy.

If it’s a diamond 4-4-2, like the one used at Everton, then Solskjaer’s side will surely leave too much room on the outside of the midfield for De Bruyne – and Mahrez joining him – to flourish in. If it’s the 3-5-2 United last lined up in against Man City, then as the wing-backs get pinned by Sterling and Mahrez the same spaces should open up.

As a false nine, number ten, or deeper midfielder, De Bruyne will inevitably pop up in the right half-space. He always does. When that happens, United’s ability to stop him will be as much about sheer luck as Solskjaer’s tactical decision-making.

Alex Keble is on Twitter

 

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has warned his players not to expect an easy ride when they host relegation-threatened West Ham on Monday night after being impressed by their efforts in defeat at Manchester City.

David Moyes’ Hammers lost 2-0 to City at the Etihad in their rearranged fixture on Wednesday night, but though the hosts dominated possession and piled up efforts on goal, they found West Ham well organised in defence and stubborn opponents to break down.

“They didn’t have (Felipe) Anderson on the pitch and they didn’t have (Sebastien) Haller, I know both and I like them a lot,” Klopp said. “(Manuel) Lanzini was on the bench too so you see the quality they have.

“I watched the game on Wednesday and with all the brilliance we know of Man City, the first goal was a set-piece and the second goal, yes it was a super situation from Kevin De Bruyne but in the end it was a little bit scrappy.

“Bernardo Silva is in the box and then (De Bruyne) takes over the ball, it was kind of a one-two in the box, it was a super goal but they were not outplayed like you would expect when City are on the pitch.

“They fought really hard and defended the box with all they had. I didn’t hear what David said after the game but they took some positives out of the game and they will try it again so we have to be ready for that.”

Klopp’s side are in the rare position of coming off a defeat after Tuesday’s 1-0 Champions League loss to Atletico Madrid, but having dropped only two points in the league all season the biggest thing they still have to guard against is complacency as they seek an 18th consecutive Premier League win.

And Klopp believes that is a message which needs to go to the fans as well.

“It’s a night match and we need a really good atmosphere,” he said. “Not this perception that it will be 1-0 after seven minutes, 2-0 after 24 minutes and it will be easy. It will not be like this.

“West Ham need to fight. They don’t have time to waste points. I expect a really tough match, 100 per cent.”

 

For some bizarre reason, the F365 Show was not cancelled after the pilot episode. So we’ll be back every Thursday with more irreverent nonsense intriguing insight. Subscribe here.

 

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

1) “In other sports when you do what we’ve done – in basketball, tennis, golf – you win. That’s why football is fascinating. It’s frustrating to lose two points in that way but football is like this. It’s the only sport you can have 30 shots to the other team’s three and draw, and even lose.”

Pep Guardiola, speaking back in August, did at least acknowledge the possibility of domination resulting in defeat. It seemed as though history was bound to repeat itself from earlier in the season when Manchester City drew 2-2 against Tottenham after having the equivalent of a shot every three minutes and conceding from the only two on-target efforts they faced. Yet they somehow managed to raise the bar of incredulity here.

The visitors had 14 shots before the hosts had one. But while City were engaging in some awkward, fumbling foreplay, Tottenham skipped straight to penetration. Much like every couple, only one side will be anywhere close to satisfied with their evening.

 

2) It does bear repeating how ridiculous both their meetings have been this season. City have had 48 shots – 15 on target – scoring two goals. Tottenham have had six shots, with Harry Kane’s speculative attempt from the halfway line in August and Heung-min Son’s tame effort at 2-0 up here the only ones that did not beat Ederson.

Sometimes you just can’t account for that sort of disparity. Call it luck, fate, wastefulness, a combination of all three, or just Jose Mourinho expertly building on the foundations Mauricio Pochettino laid for this particular sh*thouse six months ago.

 

3) Mourinho needed this. It should not be underestimated how damaging a defeat would have been for his entire reputation. The Portuguese had failed to win any of his last eight Premier League games against Big Six sides, including losing each of his first three in charge of Tottenham. And while the very concept of ‘Big Six’ sides has been shattered this season, it does add an entirely different element to these matches.

Nor should it be forgotten just how crucial Mourinho’s reputation was in persuading Tottenham to divert managerial courses so suddenly and drastically. Mourinho was the proven winner Pochettino was not. He was born for this kind of game, moulded by these challenges.

So this was a necessary victory, one he can finally use as evidence of the potential of his reign. It was a performance that was far from perfect and relied heavily on fortune and a profligate opponent, yet a result that points to something more than vague platitudes about an irrelevant history of winning trophies and being a bit of a dick.

 

4) It also feels for the first time perhaps this season that Tottenham are looking up with optimism as opposed to down with trepidation. Fourth-placed Chelsea’s lead over the chasing pack has never looked quite as precarious as it has this weekend.

Tottenham have missed enough opportunities to close that gap. A run of one win in five before Sunday had severely stunted any early Mourinho optimism. But now the only clubs to have earned more Premier League points than Tottenham (23) since his appointment are Liverpool (39) and City themselves (26). For the only sides that have scored more goals in that time, add Leicester; for the only sides that have conceded fewer, remove the Foxes from the equation and replace them with Sheffield United and Crystal Palace. Things are slowly clicking together.

 

5) For Guardiola, that perennial struggle to establish any sort of consistency continues. City’s longest winning run this league season remains three games, with this curtailing their best unbeaten run at five matches. Two steps forward have been followed by at least a couple of strides back since even the summer transfer window.

To labour the point further, games between the established Big Six bring with them an inherent pressure and searing spotlight. Every selection is analysed, every tactical switch debated, every substitution scrutinised. And Guardiola has lost as many times to any of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham by January this season than he did in both of the past two campaigns combined (3). In a table comprised only of results between those teams and City, the reigning champions are behind United, level on points with Chelsea and one ahead of Arsenal. That is verging on embarrassing.

 

6) Yet it is difficult to know what he needs to change. Guardiola cannot control Ilkay Gundogan’s penalty – although he can let Ederson have a go. The manager should not be held accountable for Sergio Aguero failing to score with six shots. And Tottenham’s first goal was wondrously unstoppable, with their second a result of yet another defensive mistake.

But it is Guardiola, not Nicolas Otamendi, who persists with a midfield containing Rodri and Gundogan when it clearly doesn’t work, who refuses to allow Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva to share the same pitch, and who replaced his most effective goalscorer with a right-back immediately after conceding.

As Thierry Henry recalled from his time at Barcelona: “He used to say: ‘My job is to bring you to the last third; your job is to finish it.’” But there comes a point when the journey should be checked if the destination is always out of reach. For the first time in Guardiola’s reign, City have failed to score in successive games. That’s on both the manager and the players.

 

7) Tottenham, for example, deserve praise for blocking eight of City’s 18 shots. Davinson Sanchez thwarted Aguero twice within seconds in the first half, Toby Alderweireld got a slight touch on the Argentinean’s shot soon after, with Hugo Lloris pulling off a sensational save, and even Eric Dier managed to get in the way of a Bernardo shot in his ten minutes or so as a substitute.

But six City players having efforts blocked begs the question as to whether they’re actually taking up the right positions and choosing the correct moments, as well as whether that is a result of coaching or individualism. Either way, it does not reflect a particularly cohesive attack.

 

8) Sterling was as guilty as anyone, his only shot being diverted away by Alderweireld in the first half. He arguably should not have even been on the pitch at that point.

The debate will rage on, fuelled by VAR rather than starved of oxygen at the source, as was the initial plan. But while Sterling might not have intended to step on Alli’s ankle with his studs up, it was undeniably ‘a tackle or challenge that endangers the safety of an opponent,’ as per FA rules on what constitutes a red card.

It was an honest tackle, a simple 50-50. But intent is irrelevant. The punishment of a yellow card did not seem to fit the crime of a dangerous challenge.

 

9) Many cited the case of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was dismissed for a similar tackle on Crystal Palace’s Max Meyer last month. Referee Paul Tierney initially gave the striker a booking for the challenge but it was upgraded to a red after a check by VAR Craig Pawson.

That was the specific example used as part of last month’s new directive to encourage referees to view the pitchside monitor to help inform their decisions.

“What the referees have been told was a reminder on the areas where they should use a pitchside monitor, primarily for red card incidents,” an unnamed source told The Times. “If an incident similar to the Aubameyang one were to happen this week the referee would be expected to use the pitchside monitor to assist with that decision. It will be only when the VAR recommends upgrading or downgrading it, because there is an element of subjectivity and it would be better if the referee should have the final say in a potentially match-changing incident.”

This was no different. The VAR check was long enough to suggest a semblance of doubt, so why was Mike Dean not advised to review it himself? He would hardly have minded the attention.

 

10) His moment would come later on, of course. Another City onslaught would lead to the belated award of a penalty for Serge Aurier’s foul on his Pro Evolution Soccer counterpart, Aguero.

The time when that tackle was made was 35:57. It was not until 37:52 that Dean stopped the game to award the penalty, the ball having not been out of play in the interim. Lloris saved Gundogan’s effort on 39:25 and collided with Sterling in the aftermath seconds later, with VAR giving a goal kick on 40:25.

It was absolute madness. If Tottenham had scored in the two minutes from Aurier’s foul to the penalty award, the goal would have had to be disallowed. So too a red card for denying a goalscoring opportunity. Yet if City scored it would have stood and the penalty claim ignored. Games can and are being entirely rewritten in search of an unattainable perfection.

Lloris was also off his line when Gundogan’s kick was taken. And if his subsequent clash with Sterling was not another penalty, it was a dive and thus a second booking for the City winger; the ball did not divert course so Lloris clearly did not touch it. Yet a goal kick was given to the utter bemusement of everyone.

tl;dr:

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This is more knackered than officiating has ever been.

 

11) City were relatively undeterred. They ended the half in the ascendancy, with Aguero’s miss from a matter of yards out after wonderful work from Mahrez and Sterling summing up their half.

De Bruyne was a real problem. He did not create a single chance in a first half in which he struggled to impose himself despite City having the majority of possession. The Belgian relied too heavily on those trademark whipped crosses; they played into the hands of a tall, physical and well-organised defence that would have been drilled to expect it.

There was a slight improvement in the second half, with his pass into Aguero creating a chance that Gundogan contrived to leave, but Japhet Tanganga and Steven Bergwijn did not particularly struggle to contain him. And when De Bruyne’s input is limited, City struggle.

 

12) Mourinho’s most enduring, memorable Premier League game came at Anfield in April 2014. It included his Chelsea side capitalising on a hilariously poor corner to launch a counter-attack and make it 2-0 in second-half stoppage time.

Mahrez’s delivery was not quite the level of Iago Aspas’s almost six years ago, but it was certainly more transformative in terms of the game itself. Harry Winks intercepted a low ball that was intended for the edge of the area and he burst forward, approaching the halfway line before Oleksandr Zinchenko came across to check his run.

It was an obvious – and stupid – tactical foul, a second yellow card and a swing of the pendulum in Tottenham’s favour. They opened the scoring three minutes later from a corner of their own. That can sometimes happen when you retain possession from them.

 

13) And it is that sort of moment that Mourinho depends on in these games. He sets his teams up to break at pace and in groups of two or three, otherwise defending deep and restricting the opposition to long-range shots or low-percentage passes. He embraces the sort of chaos that can see his team save a penalty, clear a shot off the line, hit their own crossbar with a defensive header and have their keeper tip another effort onto the post, while scoring two goals from three shots after a red card changes everything.

The Liverpool game was exactly the same, it is just that the coin landed on heads instead of tails this time. There are legitimate questions to be asked about why a two-time European champion deems it necessary to make fortune such a key aspect of these games, but they can be saved for the next time the gamble doesn’t pay off.

 

14) That Bergwijn goal, though, was sensational.

Lucas Moura’s floated ball was surely intended for Son on the far left. If it was not, it was a wonderful and weirdly improvised pass to find Bergwijn in space. But there is no doubt as to the winger’s intent; he stooped to chest the ball down, somehow generated equal measures of power and precision before the ball bounced and, within an instant, found the bottom corner.

It was a completely unique goal in conception and action, the glorious consequence of two players making decisions that strayed from the norm. Another player in Lucas’s position might have shot, played it out wide or dinked it towards the penalty spot. As for Bergwijn, that was instinctive brilliance that can’t really be coached.

 

15) Tottenham were suddenly buoyant. And Mourinho deserves immense credit for riding the wave instead of submerging them in it. He made a double substitution in the 70th minute, with Bergwijn and Dele Alli making way for Erik Lamela and Tanguy Ndombele. How often would we have seen him make a defensive change to consolidate a lead in that situation?

The impact was instantaneous. Ndombele’s determination and drive carved out a chance for Son, who never seemed likely to miss. Say what you want about Mourinho’s methods in establishing a lead, but you cannot doubt how well he built on it.

 

16) Guardiola, by comparison brought Joao Cancelo on for Aguero, removed the influential Mahrez and gave Bernardo six minutes to make a difference. That midfield of Rodri and Gundogan was inexplicably kept intact as they chased down a two-goal deficit.

It will be intriguing to see what the manager does this summer. He is likely, unfortunately and unfairly right that his tenure will be judged a “failure” if he doesn’t win the Champions League. But his insistence that he will at least honour a contract that runs until summer 2021 looks less realistic with each setback.

The Spaniard’s longest managerial reign was four years at Barcelona, at the end of which he embarked on a 12-month sabbatical “to recharge my batteries”.

“The main reason why I have taken this decision is because four years is many years,” he said, calling his time at Barca an “eternity”. He will have been at City for just as long in May.

Yet he surely cannot leave at the end of the season, thus becoming the coach who ran from Jurgen Klopp. Overhauling that Liverpool side is perhaps the greatest challenge he has ever faced. Does he have the energy?

Matt Stead

 

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

Manchester City forward Bernardo Silva should face action over a tweet directed at team-mate Benjamin Mendy, anti-discrimination group Kick It Out has said.

The Portugal international posted a message on the social media platform with a picture of a young Mendy alongside a separate image of the mascot of a Spanish confectionery brand.

Silva received immediate criticism for the post and later deleted it, with a follow-up message reading: “Can’t even joke with a friend these days… You guys…”

Kick It Out issued a statement on the subject on Monday morning which read: “We are extremely disappointed to see the tweet posted by Bernardo Silva, which has since been deleted.

“Racist stereotypes are never acceptable as ‘banter’, and we’re shocked that someone who is a role model to millions has failed to understand the discriminatory nature of his post.

“The FA have been notified and we believe that retrospective action should be taken, including mandatory education – which is vital to challenge offensive behaviour such as this.”

The Silva post comes after initial meetings were held between the Football Association, Premier League, the EFL and Twitter following a series of online abuse aimed at black players since the start of the season.

Manchester United’s Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford are among the players who have been targeted, along with Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham and Kurt Zouma.

The FA described the meeting as “productive and positive”.

 

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

1) If one of the main complaints surrounding the implementation of VAR is that it removes the basic human instinct of uninhibitedly celebrating a crucial goal, the sights and sounds in the Etihad Stadium at around 7.21pm disproved that theory completely. No Manchester City fan paused to contemplate whether Gabriel Jesus’s stoppage-time goal would be disallowed; no Tottenham supporter took solace in the fact it could be overturned. No manager, player or coach thought of anything other than how a 3-2 result would affect them.

Fate dictated that it was in this exact fixture where that argument was first put forward. When Raheem Sterling’s late winner in the Champions League quarter-final last season was disallowed for a marginal offside, there was outrage as to how fans could no longer celebrate for fear of being made to look rather silly. Everyone would have to temporarily suspend their reaction to a goal for a minute to ensure it would stand.

Not so. The case against VAR is strong enough without having to manufacture reasons to hate it. Fans in the stadium are inexplicably the most ignored when it comes to the new technology, but their ability to unashamedly celebrate a goal has not been impinged upon. Their ability to bask in it for a little longer than 30 seconds? Well…

 

2) As someone with no strong opinion for or against VAR – and such disenfranchised disillusionment is likely a problem in itself – it seems necessary to also defend it with regards to that handball call. Aymeric Laporte did not intend to handle the ball and seemingly did not even realise he had done so from a late corner before Jesus struck. But under the new laws, that no longer matters. Any instance of ball striking hand in the build-up to a goal will see it ruled out, intentional or otherwise.

Those laws have been set out by the International FA board and no-one else. VAR exists purely to implement that and many of the game’s other problematic rules. It has many legitimate teething issues – the amount of time taken to come to a decision and the alienation of fans in attendance among them – but anger needs to be directed to the right places and for the right reasons.

 

3) It just so happened that Tottenham benefited again, as they did in April. But Mauricio Pochettino will be under no illusions: they just lasted 12 rounds with Mike Tyson because he kept on tripping over his shoelaces, not because they came even close to out-punching him.

The most alarming thing for large swathes of this match is that the visitors had no tactical identity, no clear game plan. They stumbled through the first half before improving in the second, particularly in defence. But for much of the game City treated them like training ground dummies solely because they resembled them.

Yet this is a sensational draw against a team that had not dropped a single Premier League point since January 29. It is a mark of champions to secure a result when not playing well; it is something else altogether to do so against the champions when not playing well. They have found that mental strength and backbone Pochettino has so craved.

 

4) City will be disappointed, particularly having had victory snatched away so cruelly, but this was a freak result. They had ten times as many shots as their opponent, five times as many on target and more than six times the amount of corners. Even with such reckless levels of poor finishing, that would have been enough to overcome any ordinary side. The Champions League runners-up are anything but.

It will be of no consolation to Guardiola, who will not be accustomed to his side showing such human characteristics for anything more than a fleeting moment. Failing to beat top-six opposition at home in the league for only the second time since April 2017 presents the slightest of chinks in this previously unyielding armour.

 

5) Even from City’s first shot of 30, Tottenham should have realised how the hosts had planned to hurt them. After a quiet opening, Kyle Walker burst forward past Davinson Sanchez after Danny Rose was caught out of position on seven minutes. He stopped in his tracks, changed direction and quickly cut the ball back to Sterling, whose effort was blocked by Kyle Walker-Peters.

The 22-year-old was carrying a massive bullseye on his back as by far the most inexperienced player on the pitch, yet the champions would actually target Rose down the left for most of the match. Guardiola perhaps expected Christian Eriksen to offer less defensive support than Moussa Sissoko, but even he could not have predicted Tanguy Ndombele to be so passive as to let City overload on Rose at will. It is no coincidence both of City’s goals came down his flank – and the only reason it wasn’t more was because of profligate finishing rather than the gaping hole eventually being patched up.

 

6) “Where VAR has been implemented successfully in other competitions it’s been a very high bar,” said Mike Riley, general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited, in July. “We don’t want VAR to come in and try to re-referee the game. We actually want it to protect the referees from making serious errors, the ones where everybody goes: ‘Well, actually, that’s wrong.’”

The above line goes someway to explaining why Erik Lamela’s apparent foul on Rodri from a 12th-minute corner went unpunished by both Michael Oliver and his VAR overlords. As the delivery came in, Lamela’s arm was wrapped around the midfielder’s neck and he was applying enough pressure to send both to the ground. Play went on as the stadium waited for an intervention that never came.

The football layman has heard the phrase “clear and obvious error” repeated ad infinitum, but just as important here was the advent of “minimum interference for maximum benefit”, and the desire not to “re-referee the game”. The threshold that must be cleared to change an official’s decision – or advise them to do so, at least – is considerably higher than that to support it. Had Oliver given the penalty, VAR would likely have judged it to be the right call. It was an incident riddled with grey areas and opinions, thus it would have been difficult to claim that the official made a “clear and obvious error” either way.

“If we keep to that really high bar there is more chance of keeping the flow of the game, the intensity of the game and people enjoying the spectacle of it rather than constantly referring to the video screen for changing decisions,” Dean added last month. Therein lies the explanation for City not being awarded a penalty: the importance of the “flow of the game” justifiably outweighed the need to interrupt it to mull further over a debatable decision.

 

7) Undeterred, City would soon find their breakthrough. It felt like only a matter of time before one of their waves of attack carried Tottenham away, particularly as Pochettino’s side were happily floating along instead of fighting the tide.

The move started and finished with Sterling, but not in the traditional sense. The winger was faced with a wall of resistance on the left-hand side and so played the ball back to Oleksandr Zinchenko, then Aymeric Laporte and finally Nicolas Otamendi. City, a matter of yards from the opposition penalty area, were back at the halfway line.

Within the course of a few passes, one sensational cross and one excellent header, they were in front. Otamendi quickly played it out to the right-hand side where Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva were parked, and after the pair combined to create space, De Bruyne destroyed the defence with a cross from deep. Sterling ghosted in behind Walker-Peters at the back post to guide his header beyond Hugo Lloris.

It was a perfect summary of City: a team who will gladly approach any obstacle from a different angle if it seems impenetrable at first. The computer had frozen, so Sterling simply turned it off at the back to reset it, waited patiently and soon logged back in.

 

8) And it was a mightily fine finish, one that should not be underplayed. De Bruyne’s cross was brilliant but bending and fiercely hit. Sterling had to time his run and, even then, had the smallest of spaces of the goal to aim at from such a wide position. He duly obliged.

After the opening-day hat-trick, those familiar questions over his finishing are no longer relevant. Guardiola has coaxed an elite-level forward out of a clearly talented but frustrating winger.

The only question now is how long he will remain at the Etihad. Sterling has become a two-time Premier League winner and one-time FWA Footballer of the Year in four seasons, yet it feels as though his City cycle could be coming to an end. For a player who once professed that his childhood “dream” to “play abroad somewhere” was fuelled by a quaint desire “to finish training and go home and sit in your garden and eat some dinner,” money is clearly not his main ambition (be quiet, Liverpool fans). The power of a kid’s ambitions should not be underplayed.

This is already the 24-year-old’s ninth season dining at the Premier League table; it will only be so long until he decides to expand his footballing diet and broaden his European horizons. Who can blame him?

 

9) Tottenham had 28% possession and zero shots to City’s seven from the first minute to the 20th, then 59.8% possession and zero shots to City’s seven from the 25th minute to half-time. An almost crippling inertia became an unfathomable level of control against such an overbearing side, yet they had nothing to show for their efforts.

Save for those five bizarre minutes during which they barely misplaced a pass, started to press and harry and equalised Sterling’s opener within 203 seconds, of course. Erik Lamela’s effort from outside the box seemed so out of place from what came before it and stunned the Etihad into silence.

The pass that preceded it from Ndombele seemed simple but it achieved what Spurs had struggled to before then. He received the ball in space from Winks and immediately looked up, found Lamela in a small space between Sterling and Ilkay Gundogan, and played a short, sharp pass to the Argentine.

Not only did it break the lines, but it almost goaded Lamela to press forward instead of taking stock to play it sideways or backwards. Ndombele’s pass was ever so slightly ahead of him and encouraged Lamela to attack. He dribbled ten or so yards before a curled finish.

If the intricacies in Ndombele’s pass were by design, you can see why Pochettino was so desperate to sign him. It might have been a happy accident, but there is something special about a player who can conjure such moments even during otherwise average performances.

 

10) Not that it should have ever got that far. Lamela was under no pressure when receiving the pass and faced a further lack of opposition as he sprinted forward with the ball. Guardiola was incensed as his midfielders and defenders simply stood off.

But Ederson was the main culprit. His positioning was lackadaisical and his reactions too slow to compensate as a fairly central shot flew past him. It was the first of two on-target shots he would concede over 90 minutes to cap a disappointing evening. You know you’ve f**ked it as a goalkeeper if David Preece digs you out.

 

11) Lloris was as impactful as Ederson was ineffective. The Frenchman still induces a couple of heart palpitations throughout any given match with his kicking and distribution, which was tested to its absolute limit by a ferocious City press. Yet this was a man-of-the-match performance to remember.

Bernardo Silva was denied from close range. Laporte was kept out. Zinchenko saw his rasping effort stopped. And that was just in the first half; Zinchenko, Silva, Sterling and, most acrobatically of all, Rodri were thwarted in the second.

Even when it seemed certain he would be beaten after Silva hooked a corner onto his crossbar as Otamendi waited to finish the rebound, Lloris predicted the flight of the ball and, facing his own goal with the City centre-half behind him, pounced to avert danger. Were the two keepers to have swapped sides and replicated their displays it would have been a decisive home victory.

 

12) Parity would be restored for no longer than 12 minutes. As Tottenham started to grow into the game City reminded them and the viewing public what makes them so dangerous: a predictable but unpreventable attack.

Walker, De Bruyne, Silva, De Bruyne, Aguero, goal. It looks simple because it is simple, yet there is no simple way to stop it. Do teams just fall into a default tactic of putting a defender in front of the six-yard box and a midfielder on the penalty spot when they sense City slipping into their mechanical mode? Would that even be enough?

Not with the quality of De Bruyne’s delivery. The way City manufactured space by pulling Rose out of position for the Belgian to find space down the right was magnificent, and his low, driven cross was masterful. Aguero’s movement baffled the centre-halves and he could hardly miss.

Jurgen Klopp can put forward Adam Lallana as “a new signing” if he so wishes, but the greatest buy City made this summer was that of time for De Bruyne to recover and regain full fitness. He really could be the difference.

 

13) From then on, the question was again how Pochettino actually wanted to approach this game. His line-up was industrious and, for want of a better phrase, trained in the art of sh*thousery. Lamela, Sissoko and Ndombele in the same side promises a few bruises and bloodied noses. But they were down 11-9 on tackles at half-time, with no suggestion that they could create another goal out of nothing.

Did this game call for the experience of Jan Vertonghen instead of Sanchez? Might Juan Foyth have offered a little more solidity than Walker-Peters? Was the balance of Giovani Lo Celso required? Was it possible not to leave Kane so isolated up front?

Yet perhaps Pochettino’s biggest call, starting Lamela ahead of Lucas Moura, doubly paid off. The former opened the scoring and the latter closed it within seconds of his introduction. For a manager who once struggled to alter the course of games with his changes, he has clearly learned. Having such talent on the bench helps, mind.

 

14) Moura’s looping, front-post header was excellent – although Ederson should have done better. Walker will be equally dissatisfied at being beaten in the air so definitively.

There was a delicious contrast in Lamela’s corner being converted after finding the first man and Eriksen’s generally failing to reach that point. The Dane was integral in helping Tottenham beat Villa last week, but could do worse than asking his teammate for set-piece tips.

 

15) That, in the 56th minute, was to be Tottenham’s penultimate shot. Their last arrived via the feet of Kane two minutes later, but did not find the target.

The final half an hour therefore saw City having 11 efforts without reply. It gave Sanchez and, to a lesser extent, Alderweireld an opportunity to atone for their earlier mistakes. It provided Ndombele, Winks and Sissoko the platform to prove that their collective first-half defensive aberration was the outlier. It offered Tottenham a reprieve as a side more famed for their goalscoring ability was allowed to show another dimension to their game.

They did not hold City at arm’s length, nor did they cling on by their fingertips. It was a performance riddled with mistakes but typified by a killer instinct at the right end. September is a fortnight away and Tottenham are already battle-hardened by a comeback victory and a smash-and-grab point away at the champions.

 

16) Sterling (6), Silva (5) and De Bruyne (4) all had more shots than Tottenham (3), as did Jesus (4) in 25 substitute minutes. Left-back Zinchenko, who seemed to pick up an injury at one point, matched them for efforts on target (2).

VAR will be blamed, but this was more of a mortal failure than a technological one. Perhaps City should have had a first-half penalty and a stoppage-time winner, but had they taken just one more of their many chances they would not be mourning either. VAR is undeniably imperfect but, on this rarest of occasions, City were even more so.

Matt Stead

 

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Nicolas Pepe looks set to become the latest player to move from Ligue 1 to the top end of the Premier League. Here, we rank the last 10 stars to cross the Channel for the Big Six…

 

10) Tiemoue Bakayoko – Chelsea
The Paris-born midfielder, who joined Chelsea from Monaco for £40million – their second most expensive signing at the time – had somewhat rebuilt his reputation during a season-long loan at AC Milan after a ropey start at the San Siro, but Bakayoko has reportedly failed to impress Frank Lampard any more than he managed with Antonio Conte.

The mere mention of his name transports Chelsea fans straight back to Vicarage Road where the 24-year-old was sent off for two bookings before the half-hour in a 4-1 defeat in February last year. Milan may take him off their hands permanently but Chelsea will have to take a big hit on the once-capped France midfielder.

 

9) Michy Batshuayi – Chelsea
It seems Chelsea still don’t know what to do with Batshuayi. Presumably he would be away if they could sign replacements but circumstances could give the 25-year-old an opportunity to nail down a place in Lampard’s squad following three loan moves in the last 18 months during which he has scored 18 goals for Borussia Dortmund, Valencia and Crystal Palace.

Whatever they decide, it certainly wasn’t the plan when Chelsea paid Marseille £33million for the Belgium centre-forward three years ago.

 

8) Benjamin Mendy – Man City
Injuries have restricted the £52million signing to 17 Premier League appearances in two seasons but knee problems haven’t stopped the former Monaco man from playing the clown. Pep Guardiola would rather have a left-back than a globetrotting cheerleader, which presumably forced City to buy back Angelino. Who was ‘absolutely awful’ last week…

7) Serge Aurier – Spurs
The Ivory Coast defender showed signs of improvement last season – among some trouser-dirtying moments for Spurs fans too – but he managed only six starts in the Premier League as fitness concerns linger.

With Mauricio Pochettino having sold Kieran Trippier to Atletico Madrid, Aurier needs to get his act together in this, his third season in English football. Unless the Spurs boss has indeed decided to play Juan Foyth as his starting right-back.

 

6) David Luiz – Chelsea
The Brazilian’s £34million move from PSG in 2016 was his second stab at a Chelsea career after he was sold to the French champions for £50million two years previously and though he has largely made a better fist of it than the first attempt, most Blues would probably just have shrugged at the sight of the 32-year-old walking away upon the expiry of his contract last season.

As it is, because Chelsea can’t sign anyone else, they have given Luiz two more years to get them through a transfer ban and to give the likes of Kurt Zouma, Andreas Christensen and Ethan Ampadu time to blossom into centre-backs worthy of phasing him out.

 

5) Fabinho – Liverpool
Liverpool’s £40million capture of the Brazilian was kept weirdly quiet until it was announced shortly after their 2018 Champions League final defeat and the start of his Anfield career was equally bizarre. Jurgen Klopp appeared petrified of using the former Monaco midfielder amid the hustle and bustle of the Premier League and the Liverpool boss was reportedly considering sending Fabinho away at the first opportunity in January.

But the patient approach paid off. Fabinho was eased in and grew over the course of the season which he ended as first choice in Klopp’s midfield. The 25-year-old also proved his versatility by slotting in a right-back and centre-back.

 

4) Lucas Moura – Spurs
It didn’t seem to matter what Moura did last season – if everyone was fit, the Brazilian was usually out. Even after scoring the incredible hat-trick which took Spurs to the Champions League final, he was benched for the Madrid meeting with Liverpool.

It speaks well of his form since arriving from PSG in January 2018 that many felt Moura was Spurs’ best chance of troubling Virgil van Dijk. But Pochettino opted for a half-fit Kane and Van Dijk pocketed the Spurs centre-forward and a winner’s medal leaving the Brazilian understandably miffed.

3) Alexandre Lacazette – Arsenal
The £46million signing carried the goalscoring burden for Arsenal before his mate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang showed up six months later to share the load. Together they have forged one of the Premier League’s best strike partnerships and emerged as just about the only good thing about Arsenal last season.

Aubameyang took a share of the Premier League Golden Boot with 22 goals but Lacazette weighed in 13 while laying on another 10. Unai Emery will be expecting 20 plus in all competitions this season, especially if Nicolas Pepe is providing the ammunition.

 

2) Zlatan Ibrahimovic – Man Utd
We shouldn’t forget how good Zlatan was in his first season at United, which turned out to be his only full campaign in the Premier League and even that was ended prematurely by a knee injury. He notched 28 goals in all competitions and was nominated for the PFA Player of the Season for helping United to win the League Cup – he scored twice in the final – and Europa League.

Ibrahimovic didn’t hit the same heights upon re-signing for United after his knee injury but allowing him to join LA Galaxy might still be seen as a mistake given the influence he had upon the dressing room at Old Trafford. When Zlatan went, the mentality shifted, leaving Jose Mourinho to fight a losing battle.

 

1) Bernardo Silva – Man City
“For me, to drop Bernardo Silva right now is almost impossible. Right now it is Bernardo and 10 more players,” said Pep Guardiola as City geared up in February for the sprint to the Premier League finish line. “I don’t know what this guy has done this season. Playing in the middle and outside, every single game he played perfect.”

Pep likes to talk his players up but Bernardo’s contribution spoke for itself. The Portuguese schemer, a £43million signing from Monaco two years ago, was City’s best player in a Treble-winning season, combining creativity with endless graft.

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