In Manuel Pellegrini’s comparatively brief reign, Manchester City have scored one goal against Stoke and 160 times against everyone else. They average 0.33 goals per game against the Potters and almost three against other opponents. If it is a moot point which statistic is more startling, a first defeat of the campaign also invited questions about whether the champions will suffer for their success.
It is overly simplistic to say a failsafe formula has been found to stop City, but Pellegrini does expect others to ape Stoke’s defensively sound approach to frustrate his normally free-scoring side. “Maybe they will play the same way,” he conceded before adding: “But I am sure that our team will not play the same way.”
Nevertheless, if it was the once-a-season blip Pellegrini deemed it, it was ill-timed. The danger is that Manchester City are condemned to play catch-up for a second successive campaign. After the international break, they face a defining period in their year, eight days when their domestic and European ambitions will be tested by Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Chelsea.
It is hard to imagine Arsène Wenger, ever unwilling to configure his team with the opposition in mind, borrowing Mark Hughes’s blueprint, but the chances are that José Mourinho will not so much review it as reclaim it. The only other time City have failed to score in 71 league games at the Etihad Stadium came when Chelsea triumphed in February.
As Phil Bardsley was reinvented as the Branislav Ivanovic of the Potteries, the sense was that Hughes had studied the DVD. Stoke, too, defended deep and narrow, stationing two holding midfielders in front of the back four to patrol the zones where David Silva and Samir Nasri prefer to exert an influence. They proved rather more streetwise than Liverpool, beaten at the Etihad Stadium on Monday after they left room either side of a rather immobile anchorman, Steven Gerrard. Allow City to play their way and they can look unstoppable, but Stoke were unwavering in their obduracy.
“The key is that you don’t get their quality players in between the lines too often,” Hughes said. “You have to keep them away from getting into situations where there are two-v-ones. They are really creative around the box and you have to be really resolute and defend in the correct manner. You have to be strong and you have to be strong-willed.” Stoke illustrated their physical and mental strength.
Perhaps Pellegrini played into their hands, too. His team tried to pick holes in the most crowded of rearguards. “Thinking about the way Stoke defend, I thought it was important to have the most technical players – [Sergio] Agüero, [Stevan] Jovetic, Silva, Nasri,” he said. His side were overloaded with diminutive technicians when their tallest striker, Edin Dzeko, and only out-and-out winger, Jesús Navas, began on the bench. One overlapping full-back, Pablo Zabaleta, was an unused substitute; the other, Aleksandar Kolarov, an underused attacking outlet. They neither took the aerial route nor outflanked their unyielding visitors. “When you lose in the way we lost, I want to change all the things: the 11 starters, the substitutes,” Pellegrini admitted.
But as the Chilean said: “Stoke defended very well.” It was a collective effort, with even the striker Peter Crouch retreating far into his own half, but Hughes selected his quickest players to lead high-speed counterattacks. “When the manager asks you to do something, that is part of the game plan,” said Victor Moses, a man borrowed from Stamford Bridge adding to the Chelsea comparisons.
His role was reminiscent of those played by Eden Hazard and Ramires six months earlier. For Willian, a direct runner selected in place of a creator as a No10, read the goalscorer Mame Biram Diouf.
The Senegalese belatedly recorded Stoke’s first league goal at the Etihad Stadium after an 80-yard sprint. There has long been a theory that Pellegrini’s side commit so many men forward they can be vulnerable to counterattack. Perhaps it was no coincidence they conceded after Fernando, their new midfield sentry, departed injured, even if the immediate cause was a corner Stoke cleared.
“We came here with a good game plan and executed it to perfection,” said the goalkeeper, Asmir Begovic; that this victory owed much to strategic thinking and training-ground preparation was illustrated by the frequent mentions of the game plan. Stoke’s was trialled a year ago, a stalemate at the Britannia beginning their resistance against the richer City.
“That’s a feather in our cap because usually they just roll over teams and you are talking two, three or four [goals] in most games,” said Hughes. When he was Manchester City manager, high-scoring draws were the Welshman’s undoing; now he is constructing more solid foundations with cheaper components. A reject has become a role model, offering others an example of how to halt the champions.
Man of the match Mame Biram Diouf (Stoke City)