Man City sweep Arsenal aside to add pep to Guardiola step
Hungry City old guard of Kompany, Silva and Agüero nail thrilling victory into place
Sergio Aguero lobs David Ospina to put Manchester City 1-0 up during the Carabao Cup win over Arsenal at Wembley. Photo: Getty Images
On an icy, full-throated afternoon at Wembley Manchester City produced a kind of medley-triumph, a run-through of the greatest hits of the new age en route to the first trophy of the Pep Guardiola era.
Victory was achieved in that thrillingly frictionless style of this second-season Pep team. But it was nailed into place by the boys of 2011, a 30-something sky blue spine that has been in place ever since the summer that brought City’s first trophy of the new age, the FA Cup final victory on this ground against Stoke City.
Vincent Kompany, David Silva and the newbie Sergio Agüero did not just score City’s goals to take this game away from an underpowered Arsenal. They looked like grown-ups, a bunch of stately dads bossing the kickabout as City’s patterns and rhythms wound themselves with irresistible conviction around Wembley’s lime-green squares.
Kompany has had to be patient at times this season as the team has evolved round his extended absences. A day like this was his reward. With City 1-0 up and 55 minutes gone he could be seen jinking around on the right wing, throwing a dummy, swaying away from Nacho Monreal and winning a corner as the City fans on that side leapt to their feet in spontaneous raptures.
From the corner there was a moment of profound joy for City’s captain as Ilkay Gündogan’s shot was deflected into the Arsenal net off his toe, a goal to emboss his own long awaited but significant return to the heart of this team just as the slog of winter sharpens towards the season’s endgame.
Moments later Kompany could be seen haring through midfield with the ball at his feet like a joyfully gambolling tribute to that other missing Boy of 2011, Yaya Touré, back in the days when the gears would clank, those ballerina’s size 13s would start pumping and Premier League defences would part like a crumbling stud wall.
Either side of this City’s captain was thrillingly good defending one on one against Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, aided by Aubameyang’s oddly detached presence, a lack of sharpness that is no doubt related to his lack of matches.
The wider point here is that none of this exists in a vacuum. If City looked, by contrast with their opponents, a more carefully constructed entity, with energy and verve and relentless planning in every screw and bracket, then this is because they are.
Kompany has been at City for 10 years now, an agreeably cerebral defensive warrior-chief through the complete, industrial-scale transformation of this club. By contrast at Arsenal Aubameyang still looks like an afterthought, half an idea in a jam towards the end of things. It is not just un-Wenger-like to rope in the nearest disaffected bolt-on A-lister but an act of hope generally.
And so back to the oddly circular nature of this victory. It was in the summer after that 2011 Cup final that Agüero signed for City. Even at kick-off, on a bright, still freezing afternoon in north London, the kind of day when the sun scrapes you like a blunt razor blade, there was a lurking sense that Agüero might make the difference here, just as he always seems to against Arsenal, a punisher of slack defences, half-yards of space, moments of dawdling.
With 18 minutes gone Arsenal had begun to push City back, to snipe in and press the ball well in midfield, to push up on the flanks. At which point the day suddenly fell apart. This was a goal for direct-football City but born directly out of the yen for precarious keep-ball at the back. For all the sputtering, the why-oh-whying of the TV sofa pundits, the repeated urgings to put your foot through it, Guardiola remains utterly wedded to his risky defensive ping-pong football.
First, City’s entire game is predicated on not giving the opposition the ball. Second, it sucks opponents into uncomfortable positions, draws at times a high-press suicide. Here, with Arsenal players closing in, Claudio Bravo pinged a long pass straight down the centre of the pitch, a goal-kick that turned into an assist as Agüero simply stood his ground, allowed Shkodran Mustafi to bump off him the wrong side of the ball, then ran through unhindered on goal.
The finish was sublime, a dink on the run over David Ospina that was a goal from the moment it left Agüero’s toenail, allowing the Wembley crowd to gasp and rise and start a gathering cheer, enjoying with delicious delayed satisfaction the parabola of the ball as it curved through the Wembley gloaming in a luminous white arc and ruffled the corner of the goal.
It was Agüero’s 15th in his last 13 games, a haul that includes all kinds of goals, bangers, works of art, killer finishes, snaffles, wafts. Nobody in the league gets close when it comes to pure finishing, no matter what those curious teams of the year keep on saying.
Towards the end David Silva, naturally, added a third. And that was pretty much that for a team that can now begin to build momentum towards the season’s end, given not just steel but a kind of galvanising joy here by a wonderful performance from their captain.