Manchester City picked up vital three points against Watford on Wednesday, keeping the team alive in the Premier League title race and giving fans some encouraging signs. Here's a few takeaways from what we saw at the Etihad:
1 - A determined midfield gets the win
When asked why the defense has struggled, Pep Guardiola pointed to the midfield. Even when he reflected on the lackluster string of performances in October and November by saying that “the team has to be stronger in both boxes.”.
Instead of blaming his back four [against Leicester City], he said that the midfield did not defend well enough. He even claims that he would like to simply stock the pitch with eleven midfielders.
With unrest bubbling around the Etihad, City’s front four (for the day) performed with clear determination on both sides of the pitch. Late in the second half, Nolito and Kevin De Bruyne arrived with crucial interruptions of Watford’s efforts to tie the game.
The Sky Blues' lack of conversion in a month-long series of low scoring, tense matches was a point of focus on Wednesday. Although Watford presented the same staunch defensive front that many teams have used to counter City this season, Raheem Sterling, David Silva and De Bruyne’s blend of sparkle and assists had an extra edge on Wednesday.
While there were a number of key chances missed, the 2-0 result provides an opportunity to relax and gain strength before welcoming Arsenal. We have seen again that when City play with grit and persistence, they can earn points against any opponent.
2. Pep’s infamous rotation of 2016 could pay off sooner than later.
Between injuries, suspensions, and an incessant schedule, Guardiola’s astounding rotation of the starting XI might be more sensible than pundits allow.
While 55 changes in 16 games could be a point of contention as to why City have failed to get the results they needed as of late, the long term benefits might already be apparent.
A number of players who have popped into the lineup to deliver for City have proven that it is not pure experimentation governing Pep’s approach to the line up.
Yaya Touré emerged after months of waiting for the green light to play and basically won the game on his first night out in 2016.
Leroy Sané has come from a long stretch of getting “dropped” from the lineup to surprise opponents with his strength and speed. Sterling was unbelievable after a decent period of recovery from the injury he received at Burnley.
With Ilkay Gundogan injured and Fernandinho serving the last game of his suspension against Arsenal, the fact that so many men have seen playing time will help to relieve the stress of replacing crucial players.
3 - Controlling headers, second balls, and tackles is crucial
After an awkward post-game press conference in Leicester, in which Guardiola sought to relieve pressure from his players by saying that he’s not concerned about dismal tackle/1v1 statistics, City fans might have wondered about the Catalan’s sanity.
Even during the Watford clash, there were moments when wingers slipped past Pablo Zabaleta and Gaël Clichy, Aleksandar Kolarov left space open for attackers, Fernando was a step short of a tackle, etc. The visitors arrived in City’s box late in the game and barely missed two clear opportunities, so the quest to lock down the boxes continues.
However, in decisive moments, a stubbornness to stop Watford and gain possession paid off. Both goals for the Citizens came from tight challenges and were converted by opening up the field rapidly.
In many ways, Nicolas Otamendi and Zabaleta helped stabilize the defense during intermittent Watford challenges. De Bruyne, Silva, and Nolito tracked back at crucial moments to disturb the visitors' time on the ball. As a whole, Guardiola’s side looked more prepared for Watford’s threats.
There was a more potent focus on Wednesday that gave the Etihad faithful relief from another 90 minutes of doubt and frustration. When Arsenal arrive on Sunday, the squad will have to play with even more resolve.