Verdict: Manchester City 2 Stoke City 0
Goals: Petrov 28, Tevez 45 for City.
The Roberto Mancini regime got off to a winning start with two goals and, more significantly, the first clean sheet at home since August.
This victory was all the more impressive given the list of absentees through injury. Adebayor, Santa Cruz, Lescott, Bridge, Onuoha and Wright-Phillips would all have been in contention for a starting place. Added to that was the inability of Bellamy to play twice in three days, making it the logical decision to save his knees for the away fixture on Monday.
However, the biggest change was in the tactics. City were compact, disciplined and competitive in both midfield and defence. Gone were the frequent long balls forward and stretched play. Mancini had been busy with double sessions of training last week and the results were clear to see.
With the emphasis on tightening up at the back, the game didn’t make for the most thrilling spectacle. Stoke are also a well organised side, and their pressing high up the pitch meant we weren’t able to play from the back as easily as Mancini would have liked. The high pressing game is something he will have to get used to as defenders don’t get the same amount of time on the ball in this country.
The City line-up initially looked surprising, but made sense once it was confirmed Santa Cruz was injured and Bellamy was being saved for Wolves.
Kompany played alongside Toure in central defence and both dealt excellently with the high balls of Stoke. With Richards having spent the week recovering from injury, Zabaleta started at right-back and Sylvinho held on to the left-back spot.
De Jong returned alongside Barry to anchor the midfield. The England international had been one of Hughes’ biggest supporters and afterwards admitted it had been a tough week. If this display is anything to go by, then Barry could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Mancini’s arrival.
On a bad day under Hughes he looked one paced. Under the new compact style that put an emphasis on technique and intelligent play, he was dominant. Breaking up play, making neat passes, providing defensive cover, and to cap it all, getting forward unnoticed to provide a headed assist for Tevez’s goal.
This was the Barry who plays for Fabio Capello’s England. If he has any doubts about how our managerial change might affect his international prospects, then a quick read of today’s match reports should put his mind at rest.
With the enforced absence of Santa Cruz and Adebayor, Tevez was asked to perform as a lone striker. It may not be his preferred role but, typically, he gave his all for the team. He may not be the tallest, but is deceptively strong at holding off defenders to retain possession.
Sometimes he plays a telling pass, other times it’s head down and blast a shot way off target. There was to much of the latter against Stoke, but enough good stuff to enable him to be forgiven.
The recall of Martin Petrov and our measured style of play brought memories of the Sven era flooding back. Thankfully it was the good memories as we used our superior technique to telling effect and the Bulgarian scored the first goal.
A recall for Robinho was always on the cards, while Ireland got the nod for the final starting place. Initially we lined up with Petrov on the left, Ireland on the right and Robinho playing as second striker.
Credit to Mancini for switching this to allow Ireland and Robinho to play in their preferred roles. Petrov probably wasn’t overjoyed at spending most of the match on the right wing, but at least had the benefit of being in the right place to score the vital opening goal.
He nearly bagged another shortly after, but two goals from his right foot was to much to ask.
The constant instructions being given from Mancini to his players was a stark contrast to memories of Mark Hughes’ ‘chewing a wasp’ look, which would normally accompany any passage of poor play.
Players were continually being moved back into position and told to keep it steady whenever the game threatened to get stretched in the second half. The players themselves looked a little unsure of the new tactics and were often looking to the bench for instruction.
“We know we can play better but we have trained only four days with the new manager. I think we will get better. We were all a little bit nervous because everybody wanted to show him what they can do.”
Perhaps more of a surprise than the active role of Mancini, was that of Brian Kidd. It’s taken a long time for Kiddo to get into City’s managerial dugout, and he wasn’t letting the occasion pass quietly. (He nearly became manager when Francis Lee was chairman, but opted to remain as Fergie’s assistant). At one point Mancini beckoned him to calm down and take a seat.
I hope Kidd retains the role of token Englishman in the coaching set-up as he and Mancini could be quite a double act.
For all City’s tidy play at the start of the match, Stoke had the first clear-cut opportunity. Fortunately, Given was able to block Tuncay’s shot, and City took the lead soon afterwards. From then on we looked more comfortable and confident.
After scoring the second on half-time, there was a distinct feeling of game-over as we wouldn’t throw away a two goal lead under Mancini – and so it proved.
Our best move of the second half came straight from the kick-off. Tevez and Ireland linked up to play Robinho in. A poor first touch from the Brazilian enabled a Stoke defender to make the tackle. Petrov struck a decent first time shot, but Sorenson managed to scramble the ball to safety.
From then on, there was the slightly surreal sense of a Manchester City side giving a display of catenaccio to close the game out. The Serie A feel was completed at the end with a classic time-wasting substitution that saw us reacquainted with Javier Garrido at the expense of Carlos Tevez.
We played a zonal system when defending corners with everyone back and packing the six yard box. Given the huge height difference between the sides (Kompany was our only outfield player over 6 foot tall), this made sense and was effective apart from one Robert Huth header.
Mancini also won plaudits for a tactically astute substitution. Tony Pulis had thrown on Beattie and Fuller, and a tiring Sylvinho was being given a more physical test. Richards came on at right-back, and Zabaleta switched to the left, where he has been used to good effect in emergency before.
City sat a bit deep in the final quarter of the game and Stoke were able to fashion a couple of chances. Given saved the day, but Mancini noted we ‘tired’ and that there was ‘room for improvement’.
“Shay Given made some great saves today and I rate him so highly.
“Shay gives everyone around him a sense of confidence and he can be pleased with his afternoon.”
Critics may see this as an umipressive victory over a poor Stoke side. However the point is that making sides look poor and beating them is precisely what we were failing to do before, and is the reason why Mark Hughes no longer has a job.
The emphasis for Mancini was clearly on getting the win and improving the defending. Job done.