Football

Molineux the stage for night of drama with plot twist for Guardiola | Jonathan Liew


“It’s not football any more,” the Wolves fans sang at one point during this bizarre festive vaudeville. On this point, at least, they were wrong. This was, in many ways, modern Premier League football in its purest distillation: from the stark verticality to the puce-tinged rage, from the video-inspired plot twists to the freezing Molineux mist, from the humming madness of its start to the electrifying anarchy of its finish.

At the end of which: an instant classic, and probably a fair result, albeit by wildly circuitous means. For all the outrageous swings in fortune, for all the operatic fury of those opening 25 minutes, the narrative thread of this game was one in which Manchester City were mastered as they have rarely been in the Pep Guardiola era: 62-38 in possession, 20-7 in shots, beaten in the press and beaten in the tackle.

And yet to reduce this game to numbers risks ignoring the fact to which City were ultimately defeated by – time. The relentless ticking of a marvellous Wolves side who waited for their openings and methodically wore down their depleted opponents until they gave way. To focus on individual errors is to understate the extent those errors were forced. And to point the finger at individuals like Nicolás Otamendi or Claudio Bravo or Benjamin Mendy is to overlook the broader collective failure: one in which City’s 10 men tried to control a game that from its very earliest twitches defied all attempts to pacify it.

Molineux was a hive of discontentment at half-time. Grown men flooded the urinals with warm piss and steaming rage. The target of their chagrin, predictably enough, was the video technology: that algorithmic agent of chaos, which had not once but twice allowed Raheem Sterling to take his chances from the spot. And from the moment Ederson had seen red early on, this felt like one of those games destined to be ruled by a thrilling caprice: the sort that English football may not quite have invented but in its current incarnation has done more than any other to package up and perfect.

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No player encapsulates this whimsical, juddering jeopardy like Adama Traoré. And as he advanced from the halfway line 10 minutes into the second half, perhaps the most surprising element of this utterly deranged game was that Traoré had played such a scant role in its derangement. He is, after all, the very embodiment of disarray: that enormous squirming frame, the ball spinning from foot to foot like a neutron in fission, the overlaps that confound physics, the crosses that confound geometry. In a game of systems and tactics, Traoré is a one-man system, a tactic in his own right, a barrelling bedlam that in many ways is the very antithesis of Guardiola’s City, a project based on sanity, gravity, control.

This, of course, we knew already. It has been partly by accident and partly by design that wherever Traoré has gone, he seems to bring his chaos with him. One of his very first games for Barcelona B culminated in a series of dizzying dribbles, some clever link play, a penalty given away, a red card and a 3-0 defeat. His year at Aston Villa saw him playing under five managers. And until this year long-suffering Traoré observers had grown used to his foibles: plenty of sparkle, plenty of stepovers, but precious little substance.

This season, however, something has changed. The pace and the wizardry are still there but in the meantime he has developed a pleasing knack for the decisive. It was not just his spectacular solo goal, in hindsight the turning point in Wolves’s stirring comeback. Nor the concussive body slam on Mendy that won the ball near the right byline in the build-up to Raúl Jiménez’s equaliser. It was the way he disrupted City’s meticulously calibrated patterns and rhythms, drew their blue shirts into his vortex of menace, warped the atmosphere of the game every time he picked up the ball.

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And indeed, to fixate on Traoré’s immense physical gifts is to miss the wider picture: a player who has made the leap from flighty winger to attacking pivot. He plays more centrally these days, giving him even more options on the ball, and defenders even fewer. And for all the libidinous laudation of his barge on Mendy, by far the more impressive play was his precise cross through the legs of Fernandinho to set up Jiménez on a plate. There is guile as well as muscle there, and you get the feeling teams are only now beginning to cotton on to that fact.

And this, in many ways, encapsulates the fundamental failing of City’s title defence. After a record-breaking season, clearly Guardiola needed to change things up a little. But while Liverpool turned their madness up to 11, City responded by striving for an ever more perfect control. They broke their transfer record on Rodri: a fine midfielder, but hardly their most pressing area of concern.

And it is on nights like this, and against players like Traoré, that their extreme logic is most painfully exposed. Every now and again, there comes along a game that simply defies reason. And on those occasions, sometimes the worst thing you can do is try making sense.



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