After a much needed win at Burnley and an encouraging performance and result at Leicester in midweek, the horror show at Watford is thankfully beginning to be pushed towards the back of our minds. After a run of 4 consecutive away fixtures in all competitions, a return to Villa Park and home comforts is a welcome relief. Nevertheless with defending champions Manchester City in town, it’s not the straightforward welcome home we could perhaps have wanted.
In advance of another huge clash for Villa in our current relegation battle, we sought the City perspective on the tie from Richard Dugdale (@ignoblewretch) from Man City Xtra (@City_Xtra). Here’s what he had to say.
After the last 2 sensational league seasons for Man City, this season hasn’t gone quite to plan. What do you think are the main reasons behind this?
There were a few hiccups early in the season which combined to make a real issue for City. The tactics felt a little stale, the players drive to grind out a win seemed to have dipped, and most importantly we lost too many players to injury. You can get past the first two problems with rotation to shake things up, but with key players sidelined it meant that Pep had to rely on players and a system and that weren’t working. He seems to have resolved that now but obviously too late to get back in the title race.
2. With the title seemingly Liverpool’s, what would you say now constitutes a successful season for City and is the league now about finishing as strongly as possible?
There was a point when I thought City were going to struggle to stay in the top four. Fortunately Chelsea’s form dropped off and City have improved in the last month, so getting second place and reducing the points gap to Liverpool is realistically what the club should be aiming for. If we manage to bag a few trips to Wembley along the way and seriously progress in the Champions League, most fans would consider that a success.
3. With Kompany leaving last summer and David Silva going this Summer, is it feeling like something of a transition/changing of the guard period for City?
Yeah, but it feels like the right time. City like to give players a nice ride off into the sunset. In the last few years we’ve had it with Pablo Zabaleta, Yaya Touré, Vincent Kompany, and now David Silva. They each get the chance to be the centre of attention and have their own career swan-song at the end of each season. The same will probably happen with Fernandinho next year and then Agüero after that – it’s a steady transition.
4. What are the main weaknesses in City’s side that Villa could seek to exploit?
Despite Guardiola’s change in tactics everybody can see that City are still capable of leaking goals. If Villa can find a way to hit City on the counter-attack, or target a defender having a poor game (Otamendi or Mendy are usually good for that), there’s a good chance of getting some points. Our defence is short on pace so exploiting the space behind our high line is the best way to get through on goal. We’ve seen a lot of teams utilise long balls into the space between Ederson and Fernandinho recently. The trick to winning will be keeping our attacking line quiet at the other end.
5. City obviously hold a myriad of attacking threats, but what areas in particular do you think you’ll most seek to attack against Villa?
I’d expect Villa to line up similarly to most teams against City; many behind the ball forming a low-block, which City will have to find a way to break down on the day. We tend to do this by maintaining possession in the oppositions half, with probing passes every now and then to find a weak spot. A lot of our play happens down the left especially if Mendy and Sterling start, so I’d expect Konsa and Elmohamady to have their hands full.
6. How do you think City will set up on Sunday formation wise and given Guardiola likes to rotate somewhat, who do you think will start?
We should see City’s recent formation of a 4231 with the full-backs overlapping and the defensive midfielders dropping back, but nothing’s certain with Pep. My shout would be a team of Ederson, Cancelo, Fernandinho, Stones, Mendy, Rodri, Bernardo, De Bruyne, Silva, Sterling, Agüero. But you shouldn’t bet your Fantasy Team on it.
7. Finally, how do you see the match going?
I reckon it’ll be a cagey match with City struggling to break Villa down for much of it leading to the second half livening up with both teams gunning for the win. It could be a feisty one. I’m going to guess a 1-2 win for the boys in blue. Though as we’ve seen at Norwich, Newcastle, and Wolves; nothing’s guaranteed this season
Man City may not be at their imperious best of the past two title winning campaigns, but it’s not as if they aren’t still a fantastic team, capable of tearing teams apart, so this was still always going be an exceptionally difficult fixture. A few weeks ago, we looked like a team dwindling rapidly in confidence, capable of losing to anyone and at risk of slumping drastically, but a new year has been rung in and a ‘new us’ has begun to appear somewhat.
A switch in formation, from 4-3-3 to a more fluid 3-4-3, coupled with the return of the influential presence of Tyrone Mings, and we suddenly seem rejuvenated – despite the unfortunate long term losses of Wesley and Heaton. It’s still a bit early to say a corner has been turned, but with our new structure in place, we certainly look to be a much more solid outfit. At the very least we look harder to break down and beat, which may well prove to be the crucial aspect coming into a game we are comfortably favourites to lose.
Man City have multiple threats available to attack us, and just considering the attacking list available to Guardiola both on the pitch and from the bench is enough to cause cold sweats. But we’ve been here before against the team with the financial backing of a small nation – the crucial 1-0 win in 2010 against Roberto Mancini’s all stars, featuring the debut Darren Bent goal, or the 3-2 victory over Manuel Pellegrini’s side in 2013. They were both unlikely, backs to the wall victories against better sides on paper and both of those performances can certainly serve as motivation for what we can do as underdogs in front of our own fans.
Our spirited – albeit fruitless – performance against runaway leaders Liverpool in November is also evidence that we can make games hard for the best sides, but we’ll have to work exceptionally hard and concentrate for every second if we want to even consider a point from this game, such are Man City’s strengths and the myriad ways they can beat teams.
If we can be resolute in our defensive duties, and every member of the team contributes equal work ethic, then we can make it hard for City. If we’re patient, there’s always scope for us to spring the counter against their aggressive high line, even if we do somewhat lack the kind of pace other teams have utilised against them. Newcastle and Norwich have both been able to upset them at home this season and Wolves managed the double over them, so there are examples for us to study in how to damage City, but we’ll still have to execute them perfectly though.
All in all, I’m more hopeful than I was after the majority of December’s performances, especially now that we seem to have settled on a formation that will hopefully serve us well going forwards into the rest of the season. I’m hoping for, more than expecting, a positive result, but I mainly hope we can put in a committed high level performance for the entire 90 minutes to give ourselves a chance of that positive result. Ultimately, anything is a bonus against such a top side, so let’s get behind the team and roar them on. We can be the difference in giving them the added belief and confidence to go out and perform.
By Jamie Yapp