Man City players need protecting from tough tackling opponents
Manchester City have had the answer to nearly everything thrown at them this season. Their impressive displays in the Premier League has led to suggestions that this could be one of the standout campaigns in the competition's history, stacking up against Arsenal's unbeaten 2003-04 and Chelsea's immense 95-point haul in 2004-05. That, of course, remains to be seen -- though certainly the signs are very good so far.
Since August, their opponents have tried a number of methods to get the better of them. However only Everton and Crystal Palace have managed to avoid defeat, taking a point each, and no team has managed to come up with a solid plan for victory.
Of course, Shakhtar Donetsk managed it, winning 2-1 in Ukraine, but that comes with the caveat of being, for City at least, a meaningless group game ahead of the Manchester Derby -- and City had the carrot of an 11-point lead at the top of the Premier League being dangled in front of them. Take out those mitigating circumstances, and nobody has come close to sending Pep Guardiola's side home empty handed.
However, beyond sitting deep or pressing high -- or any of the other styles of play that opponents have tried in an attempt to stop City playing -- a new method has been gaining prominence recently and has been left unpunished by the officials.
Old-school rough-and-tumble teams would often talk of "welcome to the game" challenges, tackles that were intentionally hard and perhaps a little bit late just to put more creative players off in the early stages. Some teams would have "a reducer," a player adept at leaving his boot in where it could cause a little bit of pain, again to dissuade those with the flicks and tricks from trying anything clever.
While City have been up against those sort of teams over the Christmas period, their opposition have been borrowing from the "let them know you're there" manual. Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Jacob Murphy and Jason Puncheon all managed to escape red cards for challenges that were, at best, late and reckless, or at worst, malicious and vicious.
The tackles each left City players in a heap. Kane scythed his studs into Raheem Sterling's leg, while Alli took out his frustrations in the game by going studs-first over the top of the ball onto Kevin De Bruyne's shin -- both in City's 4-1 win over Tottenham in December. In the 1-0 win at Newcastle, Murphy was late into the ankle of Ilkay Gundogan, long after he'd played a pass. Puncheon hoofed De Bruyne in the air so hard in the 0-0 draw at Selhurst Park that both players had to be carried off and the Crystal Palace man ruled himself out for the season.
None of the four saw a red card; three of them saw yellow.
Guardiola is correct to call on the officials to do more to protect all players when challenges have gone pretty much unpunished. It puts the more creative stars at risk of serious injury, and it's lucky for Guardiola that none of the players that have been on the receiving end of such brutal challenges have ended up getting seriously hurt.
In fact, it's been admirable that City have just knuckled down and got on with the job. Against Spurs, both of the wronged men would later find themselves scoring the crucial goals to decide the match. Moments after being hacked at by Alli, De Bruyne made it 2-0 -- before Sterling, having shook off the impact of Kane's studs on the back of his leg, netted goals three and four.
At Newcastle, Guardiola's side were able to keep passing their way to victory and although the winning streak came to an end at Selhurst Park, De Bruyne was back and running the show two days later with the 3-1 success over Watford at the Etihad.
The response shows just how much the manager has got his team believing in his methods. In the face of some robust challenges, City's players have kept he ball on the floor and continued to pass, work openings and create chances the way they've been doing all season.
Of course, City aren't without their players who can pull off tactical fouls, as Jose Mourinho put it, but there has always felt something a little fairer about the way they've done it. It's been done without malice to stop a dangerous breakaway, rather than to leave one on an opponent.
The warnings have been there in recent weeks with the nature of the challenges City players have faced. It's now time for officials to up their game and make sure that nobody else gets away with the sort of brutality that's been missed over the festive period before somebody suffers a really serious injury.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney