MANCHESTER, England — Three thoughts from Manchester City’s 2-1 win against Burnley at the Etihad.
1. Manchester City win with plenty of thunder
Pep Guardiola punched the air in relief at the end of the game, and it was not a surprise: The scoreline, which confirms a 2-1 victory for Manchester City against Burnley, doesn’t scratch the surface of a game that saw one red card, plenty of blood and thunder and little of the classy play for which Guardiola is famous.
Fernandinho was sent off in the first half for City, much to the chagrin of Guardiola and the crowd, but after the break Gael Clichy and substitute Sergio Aguero scored the goals that gave their team a much-needed victory, despite a consolation goal scrambled home by Ben Mee.
Guardiola sprung something of a surprise with his selection, reacting to the defeat at Liverpool by dropping Aguero and David Silva to the bench. Given that game was only two days ago it might not be a shock that he would choose to rest key players, but Aguero had missed the previous four games through suspension. It was a risky call, and, in the first half at least, it didn’t look like a risk that had paid off.
Twice in the opening 20 minutes City breached the Burnley defence and were clean through on Tom Heaton’s goal, but twice they prevaricated. First, Raheem Sterling tried to go around the keeper instead of shooting when presented with a perfect chance by Yaya Toure. Then, Sterling set Jesus Navas on his way, but the Spaniard also attempted to skip past the keeper rather than striking with his weaker left foot. Both were good saves, and if either had managed to escape Heaton then it would not have been an issue, but their failure to grasp the chance and shoot decisively hinted at a lack of confidence in the City ranks. Their timidity was concerning.
City continued to be frustrated, plenty of their wasted chances coming as Navas trotted out his usual routine of sprinting down the right and firing a low cross into the shin pads of the first defender. Then, both the fans and the pacing Guardiola pointed their ire in another direction after Fernandinho was sent off just past the half-hour mark. The Brazilian left the ground as he went to challenge Johann Gudmundsson, and brought his boots together as he took a chunk of both the ball and his opponents’ ankles. Guardiola threw off his jacket in fury and made his case to a slightly baffled Burnley right-back Matt Lowton, who simply shrugged. You could see why he was upset — Fernandinho came away with the ball — but a look at a replay might show why the red card was issued: any two-footed tackle that the offender leaps into is asking for trouble.
At half-time, Guardiola brought out the big guns, calling Aguero and Silva from the bench, and immediately City looked like a more dangerous proposition. Still, the opening goal was a surprise in both source and execution: Gael Clichy, whose last league goal came in Nov. 2014, took a speculative right-footed shot from the edge of the area. It skipped low through a thicket of legs and crept into the bottom corner.
A few minutes later it was two; Sterling burst through but fell over his own feet before he had the chance to shoot. Aguero swooped in to collect the loose ball and shoot from a tight angle and the ball kissed the post before crossing the line, despite two defenders standing on the line. Standing was the operative word; Lowton and Michael Keane technically covered their keeper but stood stock still, proving no use at all, and on the sidelines Burnley manager Sean Dyche rasped in exasperated fashion.
City looked better with 10 men than with their full XI, but while their outfield players were doing a decent job, Claudio Bravo had another rough afternoon. His attempted punch from a corner didn’t, shall we say, go to plan, and an almighty scramble ensued before Mee poked the ball over the line, via the bar. City claimed a foul on their keeper, but after a brief debate the goal stood.
Bravo redeemed himself to an extent with a late tip over the bar to keep Burnley at bay and there were a few hairy moments as City held on, but they managed it. Chalk up another win in a season that isn’t panning out as Guardiola may have expected.
2. Disciplinary issues hurting City’s chances
The red card was Fernandinho’s third of the season, and if you include the retrospective red card and suspension for Sergio Aguero’s elbow on West Ham’s Winston Reid, it was City’s seventh.
With the other red cards (Fernandinho, Aguero, Nolito and Bravo) issued to City players in all competitions this season, and with the four-game ban coming to Fernandinho after this offence, they have lost 19 matches to suspension this term.
That’s bad enough, but when coupled with the injuries to key players like Vincent Kompany and Ilkay Gundogan, it’s even worse. Given Chelsea’s form and Liverpool’s continuing excellence, plus the other major challengers at the top of the table, winning the Premier League is a tough enough task, even if you have every player available for the whole season. You could ask questions about the composition of City’s squad at full strength, but with those absences it’s probably not a surprise that they’re further back than most expected them to be.
There could be any number of reasons for these disciplinary issues — attempting to play at a different pace, the nerves that seem to be present in the City side at the moment, plain bad luck — but whatever it is, Guardiola needs to do something about it in order to give City the best chance of winning the league this year.
3. Burnley take admirable attacking approach
The big pregame surprises may have come with the City team news, but eyebrows were raised at Burnley’s XI too. Steven Defour was on the bench, meaning that their midfield took on a very attacking shape with the forward-minded Scott Arfield and Jeff Hendrick as a central two.
When you consider that’s in the unfashionable 4-4-2 system, with two specialist strikers, it’s tough not to admire Dyche for taking such a positive approach to a game at one of the Premier League’s biggest clubs.
Perhaps Dyche was simply being pragmatic and considering the state of his opponents a couple of days after a defeat that was damaging to both their psyche and fitness. Perhaps he thought Burnley had a chance to strike at a wounded animal, to take advantage of their psychological and physical fatigue. Perhaps he just didn’t want to alter the way his side played, just because they were facing a big opponent.
They will still be disappointed to lose to a side with 10 men, in poor form and who didn’t play especially well. Ultimately, of course, it didn’t work, but it was an admirable approach.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.