I know the overwhelming preference is to read something about Raheem Sterling’s impact/performance for his new side, but after re-watching Monday’s superb opening-season victory away to West Brom, City’s new boy on the block will be forced to take a back seat to some of City’s older faces. Top marks go to David Silva, Yaya Toure, and – this is not a typo – Aleks Kolarov (who, if very recent reports are to be believed, might himself have to take a back seat to Alex Sandro).
After a summer of change that saw Sterling (along with Fabian Delph and a couple of other talented young players) join after an obnoxiously long and eventually predictable transfer "saga," City fans were finally treated to the 2015-16 opening act. And what an act it was. There were little surprises to City’s starting XI, as Pellegrini fielded the same one-striker formation he used all preseason. In light of heavy criticism, Pellegrini remained steadfast in his selection of Vincent Kompany, who partnered Mangala in the center of defense; Kolarov and Sagna completed the back four. In midfield, Fernandinho and Yaya formed a midfield two, with David Silva in a free role in front of them. Wilfried Bony was treated to a rare start, flanked on either side by Raheem Sterling and Jesus Navas. Joe Hart was, of course, in goal.
On the opposite side, Tony Pulis fielded a 4-4-2 with Saido Berahino and Rickie Lambert assuming a very traditional two-striker partnership. The first bank of four saw James McClean and Craig Gardner playing as wide midfielders on either side of Darren Fletcher and James Morrison. Behind them, from left to right, were Chris Brunt, Joleon Lescott, Craig Dawson, and James Chester; playing behind them was Boaz Myhill.
Speaking of West Brom, Tony Pulis nobly – appropriately? – took responsibility for the loss saying afterwards "the pivotal moment was when I decided to play the two up front instead of an extra man in midfield." It’s hard to argue with that, too. To suggest that Fletcher and Morrison were outnumbered, overrun or even outclassed doesn’t do it justice: two days on and I’m still unsure they were even playing the same game.
While heatmaps and charts and touches don’t always tell the story, they can often serve to highlight the primary reasons for any given result. Consider the difference between Yaya Toure and the combined efforts of Fletcher and Morrison.
It’s not unreasonable by any stretch to suggest that Yaya nearly equaled the output of West Brom’s two central midfielders. Having been criticized – some fairly and some perhaps less fairly – for most of last season, Yaya began this campaign in the form that carried City to the 2013-14 Premier League title. He controlled the game from the very beginning, dictating the tempo and positions that City attacked in while simultaneously supporting Fernandinho positionally in defence. When Yaya plays like that, not only does he allow Silva the time and space for him to control the final third, he’s arguably the greatest controlling midfielder in the history of the Premier League.
And now finally, David Silva: 111 touches, 101 passes, an official assist and an
unofficial official goal. With only nine of his 101 passes completed inside City’s half, Silva’s influence came almost exclusively in the attacking half and final third. Since arriving in England in 2011, Silva’s seemingly oscillated between the occasional genius who can float in and out of games to the best player to wear City’s shirt and on Monday, he made the former seem as far from reality as City are from a relegation scrap. With Toure making light work of Fletcher and Morrison, Bony continually occupying West Brom’s centre-backs, and Sterling and Navas stretching both sides of the pitch, Silva found space wherever and whenever he looked for it – and once in that space, he found himself directly in the center of interconnected passing webs that would make Shelob herself blush. And seriously, his through-ball to play Kolarov into the penalty area in the 43rd minute wouldn’t have looked out of place in Xavi’s best of compilation – City’s Spaniard is really that good.
On the left, Kolarov looked the player many thought we’d consistently see following the Serbian’s move from Lazio in the same summer that Silva arrived. On Monday, enthused at the chance of a first-team start, he racked up an astonishing 101 touches including one glorious nutmeg on Saido Berahino. He was defensively solid while offering the consistent and reliable outlet on the left that City fans have to come to expect. And almost most importantly, he developed a working relationship with Sterling that bodes well for City’s short-term success.
Kolarov and Sterling completed 23 passes to each other, but more than that, they appeared to understand each other better than I had expected. When Sterling moved inside to play as a second striker, Kolarov would fill the space on his left – and the order of those movements is important. Kolarov didn’t force Sterling inside; it was a natural movement from City’s new forward that was followed by a natural movement from Kolarov to assume that abandoned space. And likewise, when Sterling stayed out wide, Kolarov stayed deeper and moved closer to Mangala – a defensively secure position for a fullback.
With Chelsea coming to the Etihad on Sunday, City fans who saw Jefferson Montero rip Ivanovic apart from Swansea’s left side must simply be salivating at the prospect of Kolarov and Sterling picking up where they left off – and if Aguero finds a way to win his fitness race by Sunday, City could be well positioned after matchday two.