The moral of the story for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, when they’re clicking, is that for as bad as their defense is - really, really bad - their attack can be all the better.
Sergio Aguero on his day can look like the best forward in the world. Raheem Sterling has the raw pace to spring a threat at any given moment. Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane, silky smooth and making the ball dance. David Silva, poking and probing as expertly and reliably as ever.
It can all be so sweet, so validating of Pep Guardiola, when it works like this.
Which is a good thing, because if it didn’t, the story of this game would have been City’s woefully inadequate defense. It still well may be.
A comedy of errors gave Monaco three goals on Tuesday in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with City in Manchester. Aguero’s doggedness with a sprinkling of some of the best qualities from City’s other, younger shining lights gave them five. It’s an equation that saved Guardiola’s side, for now, from a near-certain course of exit in Europe, and somehow has them second in England.
The Spanish titleholder of Best Manager In The World has taken a bit of a drubbing this year as City’s defense has too many times proved laughably incapable of holding up its end of the bargain for Guardiola’s possession-based, push-the-line, attack out of the back philosophy.
Nicolas Otamendi, I’m pretty sure, is neither slow nor physically weak, and yet confoundingly almost always plays slowly and weakly. John Stones, remarkably, usually appears to lack a sense both of defensive timing and positioning. Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta, Aleksandar Kolarov, Vincent Kompany - all limited either in effectiveness or health, all on the wrong side of 30. Fernandinho is not a left-back (although, hey, he actually didn’t do half-bad there today and yet was somehow the first guy subbed off.)
It was insane Guardiola rode this glaringly insufficient defensive corps into the season, and it’s insane the January window has come and gone and it’s still all City have to offer.
This will probably be the great tension of the Guardiola era at City. He is who he is, style will be prioritized over pragmatism, and it either will work or it won’t. Otamendi scored six goals a couple years ago for Valencia and plays the occasional nice cross. Stones can push forward and, heck, to his credit he even scored on Tuesday.
Pep is committed to seeing the virtues in these traits of his men rather than the deficiencies in their actual defending. Miraculously, it will not cost City a deeper run in the Champions League, at least on this day.
City had their backs against the wall, down 3-2 in the second half, thanks to: Stones being utterly oblivious to Falcao’s run smack dab down the middle of the box on the first goal; Otamendi offering all the resistance of a soft wind as Kylian Mbappe cruised by him to fire in the second goal; and then Stones impeding Falcao like a training cone as the Colombian scored the third.
(If not for Willy Caballero’s heroics between the posts, there would have been more.)
And yet, Aguero skillfully picked an equalizer out of thin air on a Silva corner, then De Bruyne laced in another corner that bounced from the skull of Yaya Toure, perfect in his leap and positioning, to a waiting Stones, and City went ahead. Sane, who had been impressive all contest, rolled in the exclamation point on 82 minutes after Silva and Aguero broke down the Monaco defense; 2-3 became 5-3.
Between talents like Sane, De Bruyne and Sterling, including the wonderful potential of the temporarily sidelined Gabriel Jesus (and maybe Kelechi Iheanacho, whom I love but who appears out of favor), Guardiola might indeed have himself a Barcelona-esque attack in a couple seasons. It could be the envy of the world.
It seems inevitable that he’s going to need it.