In this week’s Opposition Focus, Matt Wiggins spoke to David Mooney from the Blue Moon Podcast to get a Manchester City perspective ahead of tonight’s clash at Craven Cottage…
In the reverse fixture, it finished 2-0 to City at the Etihad. What is your reflection on the match?
It came in a run where City were very much still feeling their way into the season, so it was a good result but one that wasn’t particularly memorable (I’ve just had to watch the highlights back to even remember the goals). That part of the season has all blended into one for me because City generally weren’t playing particularly well – before that game it was two wins in five and they were seemingly struggling to match Liverpool’s early pace. It was a formative game for the season, where they were starting to put together their good defensive run and starting to score a few chances, and about a month later they started to put in the excellent performances that have been seen fairly regularly since.
Manchester City are top and 11 points clear of second placed Manchester United. It’s obviously been a great season so far. How would you describe it?
It’s really been Jekyll and Hyde. As I alluded to in that first answer, City didn’t really start the season well at all and plenty of us were thinking they’d be in a battle for the Champions League positions. Fast forward to Christmas and things were looking better – they could defend and keep clean sheets, but it was still a struggle to watch at times as they created very, very little. But by the end of January, they were in winning-machine mode and racking up points game after game, getting themselves into a position where it’s surely only a matter of time before they take the title back from Anfield. I won’t say it’s been an incredible watch all the way through, but I’m really pleased for Guardiola that he’s been able to reinvent the team and answer critics who suggested that it was just petering out at the end of last season.
This season has seen the likes of John Stones rediscover his best form despite a lot of criticism in the past. What do you think has contributed to his recent performances?
It’s probably too flippant to say that the arrival of Ruben Dias has been the single factor because it undersells the work Stones has done. Stones is, reportedly, in a much better place mentally now than he had been previously. He went through a break-up with his long-term partner and had a court hearing about his child at the same time as having to battle a string of small injuries – largely pulled muscles – and it really upset his rhythm. It was also reported that Guardiola had concerns about Stones’s ability to bounce back from making a mistake in-game, but he was able to turn that around in the League Cup Final win over Aston Villa last year and has since been almost perfect in games that he’s played since. With Dias, he’s found someone who understands him as a defensive partner – and that’s even carried on through to when he’s played with Aymeric Laporte and the two of them are reading each other’s game better than before, too.
With talk of Sergio Aguero leaving at the end of the season rife, will City need to buy a top quality striker at the end of the season or should Gabriel Jesus be seen as the number 1 striker at the club?
Gabriel Jesus will never be Sergio Aguero’s replacement, for me. I like Jesus, but he’s really not clinical enough to be the number one striker. City have ‘got away with it’ a bit this season with Guardiola setting up often without a striker and having Jesus play from the left wing at times because all of the good work Jesus does can be done there. He’s phenomenal at his positional understanding and where to move to or when to press – but put him in front of goal and he will often fluff his lines, much in the same way that finishing is one of the weaker areas of Raheem Sterling’s game. The question then becomes – what does Jesus want? City won’t find a better option as a back-up to a main striker who can also play in other roles across the front three, but if he wants to be the number one striker there are definitely clubs he would excel at in that role. But for City – he just misses too many good opportunities and gets caught offside too often.
Who has been the standout player for City so far this season?
If I was picking player of the season right now, I’d probably go for John Stones – marginally ahead of Ruben Dias. But I’ve spoken about them two already, so for the sake of variety, I’ll use this question to talk about Ilkay Gundogan. He’s been pushed slightly further forward in the second half of this season and that’s meant he’s seen a lot more of the ball in dangerous areas. He probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his intelligence on the ball as he knows when to hold or play it to get it through to teammates and, now being higher up the pitch, he’s arriving into the box more to get goals. He’s always done his job well, but now his job is a lot more involved in the attack, he’s finally getting some plaudits from fans who would previously have been able to take or leave his name being on the teamsheet.
Who’s one Fulham player you feel can threaten Man City at Craven Cottage on Saturday?
Given how City have defended this season, it was the right decision to let him go, but it was criminal how cheaply you’ve got Tosin Adarbioyo for. He played really well at the Etihad earlier in the season and has done every time I’ve seen Fulham this season. If he – and Fulham’s back four – have a good game and Guardiola decides to go with his inverted wingers system, it might be a frustrating watch. I’m always nervous of Ademola Lookman on the break, too.
Previously you gave us your predictions of a top 4 of Man City, Liverpool, Spurs and Chelsea and a bottom 3 of Fulham, Sheffield United & West Brom. Are there any changes you’d make to these predictions as we’re further into the season?
Yeah, I really think Fulham might do it and I think both Newcastle and Brighton are in real trouble. Brighton are one of the unluckiest teams around – they seem to keep losing games they should have won – but that doesn’t count for much in the final tallies. Fulham have been defending really well (looking from the outside) recently and it’s clean sheets that keep teams up, not scoring lots of goals as many pundits seem to think. Sheffield United and West Brom are surely gone, but I think Fulham may just stay up at Newcastle’s expense. As for the top four, I don’t think Liverpool and Spurs are making it now – and I’d love it to be West Ham and Leicester for the sake of variety, but I can see it being Chelsea with their recent form.
Finally, how do you see the game panning out and what is your score prediction for the match?
I feel like City have slipped back into the ‘maybe not that entertaining to watch, but need to get the job done’ clinical mode they were in the last time the sides met. That’s probably been enhanced by the 0-2 loss to United at the weekend, too. I think Guardiola will go with his inverted wingers and hold on to the ball. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a narrow City win, say 2-0.