Back to back wins is exactly what was needed after a calamitous result before the international break, and City have delivered with aplomb. If the 2-0 win against Crystal Palace was a clinic in dominating a game efficiently, then this was them at their somewhat chaotic best.
Chance after chance was created throughout the game, with Atalanta having their share, and it made for an enthralling watch as the lethality of Raheem Sterling ultimately paved the way for a resounding win that puts City within touching distance of qualification for the last sixteen.
Sterling is a Gamechanger
The opening fifteen minutes of the game was, quite frankly, a mess and despite stabilising slightly the sloppy start culminated in Atalanta taking an unlikely lead through a stonewall penalty. Enter Raheem Sterling. From that moment onwards, the game revolved entirely around him as he single-handedly tore apart the Atalanta backline from the left wing.
He provided an assist for the first goal, won the penalty for the second and then showed sublime decision making and finishing to complete an eleven minute hat-trick to put the game to bed in the second half. It isn't the first time he has grabbed a game by the scruff of the neck like this for City in recent seasons and I’m certain it won’t be the last. Last minute goals in the centurion season laid the foundations for how he has evolved as a player - he is now someone who can be depended on to provide the spark the team needs when it is in trouble.
A new tactical wrinkle backfired
As we all know, Pep is never one to shy away from trying something new. Much like the Crystal Palace game, Tuesday night was no different. The team started in the standard 4-3-3 shape we have all become accustomed too, but when City had the ball Rodri would step up into midfield whilst Walker and Mendy dropped back to create what was essentially a 3-2-4-1 shape in possession.
The idea itself is nothing unfamiliar as City often take up this shape with the ball when Zinchenko plays and he drifts into midfield, but this new variation didn’t operate anywhere near as smoothly. Maybe it was too many moving pieces but it seemed as if there was mass confusion amongst the back four during defensive transitions as Atalanta ran riot in the space afforded to them. The plan was swiftly abandoned after fifteen minutes and things began to slowly tighten up as the half ran on, but don’t think the early scare will dissuade Pep from future experimentation.
Phil Foden is ready to start in the Premier League
Red card aside, Foden was absolutely electric tonight and his performance had a bit of everything. Hard work and intensity in his pressing, excellent combination play in tight spaces, good ball retention and even an assist. After putting in a performance like this in a Champions League game surely it is only a matter of time before he is rewarded with game time in the Premier League.
With David Silva being a bit more prone to bad runs of form, along with Gündogan being much more at home as a holding midfielder, Pep is fast running out of reasons to keep him sheltered on the bench. More performances like tonight and he will surely be unable to refuse him.
The injury curse is a live and well
It seems as if injuries are going to be an ever present theme this season, as City just cannot catch a break. Yet another key player is now going to be sidelined as Rodri picked up what appears to be a hamstring injury during the first half. It is an especially disappointing turn of events given how well he has performed since his arrival from Atletico Madrid in the summer, playing so well that he has managed to keep Fernandinho out of his preferred position in midfield.
The only silver lining is that City have adequate cover for him in midfield, coupled with the return of both John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi who both gained valuable minutes in the search for fitness during the game. I’m not sure what ladder Pep walked under or how many black cats have crossed his path but the bad luck with injuries needs to subside soon before it begins to seriously derail the season.
The high press is beginning to falter
This is not an issue that is relevant to this game only, but it was particularly apparent throughout and I feel it is appropriate to address it here. There has been consistent issues with our ability to press our opponents into surrendering the ball, with seemingly all of them finding a way to play through our pressing attempts. The fault appears to lie with the second wave of pressing: the midfield.
Too often tonight, and in many games this season, the second wave of players in the press are too slow to follow up Aguero/Jesus and De Bruyne/Silva, meaning that the opposition midfielders are able to play their way out under minimal pressure. Instead of pinning their opponents and defending proactively, City are finding themselves having to react to passes and play a half second behind which is creating issues in defensive transition and placing great stress on the defenders.
It is at times like this that City miss having Fernandinho in midfield as his reading of the game is absolutely pivotal to trapping the opposition and starving them of options to progress the ball. Perhaps with the injury to Rodri he may reprise that role and City can finally regain a sense of security when defending.
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