Coming up against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, very few considered the possibility that Town could cause an upset.
And yet Town challenged City to the point that when I left the ground, I was left with the surreal feeling of: ‘what might have been’.
Beneath the lights and in front of a vociferous sell-out crowd, 166 countries and ourselves witnessed one of Town’s best performances of the season so far, against one of the very best sides in world football.
The First Half
As mentioned in my previous piece, the first hurdle that Town had to overcome was a mental one. With much of the pre-match coverage discussing City’s invincible chances, the limelight was very much on Pep Guardiola and his side.
Despite this, Town could’ve easily been overawed by the occasion or by the level of their opposition. Instead, they more than held their own.
Having survived the first fifteen minutes of the match relatively unscathed, it became increasingly apparent that David Wagner had a carefully constructed game plan and it was falling into place.
There was the reversion to the three-man midfield of Aaron Mooy, Danny Williams and Jonathan Hogg. The trio shared the responsibility of shielding Town’s back-four.
This was part of a much-expected and much-needed broader defensive shape as David Wagner elected to set up a low block.
This low block purposefully allowed Manchester City to dominate possession and hold the territory in Town’s half. However, the suffocation of central space forced Manchester City to play wide and try intricate passing moves on the peripheries of the pitch to get in behind Town’s defence.
Whilst this did happen on a few occasions, the back-tracking midfield trio worked tirelessly to cut off the passing lanes between the lines which restricted Manchester City to numerous half-chances.
In the other direction, Town’s forays forward were sporadic and extremely limited to the point that when a chance did arise, Town had to take it.
On the very stroke of half-time, the chance did come. A corner fired into the near post was met emphatically by Christopher Schindler and Nicholas Otamendi could do nothing more but deflect it into his own net.
As Town went into half-time leading Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side, they were forty-five minutes from history and up until then, David Wagner’s side had executed their game plan to perfection.
The Second Half
Heading into the second half, Town had forty-five minutes to negotiate and a lead to cling onto but David Wagner would’ve stressed the importance of the ten minute period at the beginning of the second half.
As soon as the second half started, there was a notable difference in the intensity and purpose of Manchester City’s play which will no doubt have been instilled by Pep Guardiola’s half-time team talk.
In the 47th minute, just one minute and fifty four seconds after Town took the lead at the end of the first half, Manchester City were level. Scott Malone was adjudged to have fouled Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero calmly slotted away the penalty.
In spite of that early blow in the second half, the next thirty minutes or so confirmed that ‘what might have been’ feeling.
In the face of a blusterous Manchester City storm at the beginning of the second half, Town stood resolute. They were still level with the already declared champions-elect and comfortably dealing with the threat that Manchester City posed.
Despite a plethora of world class talent including Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, Manchester City seemed to be running out of ideas.
However, unlike the first half, Town were unable to offer a counter-attacking threat to push Town further up the field. This would’ve allowed Manchester City to dominate possession in the much less dangerous middle third of the pitch.
Instead, Town were pushed deeper and deeper to the point that they were camped inside their own eighteen yard box. This meant that any turnover of possession by Town was lost in a dangerous area.
This was particularly the case after Pep Guardiola made the brave decision to bring on Gabriel Jesus for Vincent Kompany.
Finally, the breakthrough did come for Manchester City in the 84th minute when Gabriel Jesus’ effort at goal was deflected back to Raheem Sterling which looped agonisingly in.
Even though that would go on to be the final act of an enthralling match, the standing ovation that Town received was well-deserved as it really was a performance to be proud of.
In the aftermath of this game, I’ve seen many reactions to the result and the performance. Some declare it a victory for football and that Town played ‘anti-football’ which I find particularly ludicrous.
Instead, what we witnessed was David Wagner’s side pushing one of the greatest managers and sides in world football to the very brink.
They executed a game plan particularly in the first half which quelled the threat that Manchester City offered and they were forty-five minutes away from causing one of the biggest upsets in Premier League history.