If there’s one skill that separates really good footballers from people who merely play football, it’s probably the facility to use the outside of the boot. Sometimes one sees phenomenal skills with the ‘unnatural’ side of the foot from players that they make look easy, then any attempt to replicate it on the playing fields or back gardens of ordinary life usually ends up in a slice, a mishit or an air shot.
Nikica Jelavić clearly has no problem with using the outside of his boot. He scored the second and clinching goal of what was an oddly inconsistent game with the outside of his right foot, prompting those with a half-full glass to rave about the confidence and technique involved, and the rest to whinge that his left foot was clearly not much cop.
It matters not. It was a fine finish at a stage when an enterprising but not especially talented Crystal Palace side were chasing the game, and it gave City a first Premier League win since the opening day. A thoroughly welcome victory too, given recent issues with undermanned defences, overstretched midfields and potty-mouthed owners.
Steve Bruce swallowed his pride and reverted to the tried and trusted. The overdue return to 3-5-2 on an afternoon peppered with squally showers read Harper; Chester, Dawson, Davies; Elmohamady, Diamé, Huddlestone, Livermore, Robertson; Hernández, Jelavić.
Steve Harper’s creaking bones were preferred to Eldin Jakupović’s kamikaze tendencies in goal, and James Chester was restored to the defensive role he should never have lost. It looked a fine team indeed.
Palace had former City defender Damien Delaney in the centre of defence who, given he gave six years of service to City during which he earned two and a half promotions without ever being a moment’s bother, goes strangely unheralded by the Tiger Nation whenever he returns to the Circle; and striker Fraizer Campbell, who by contrast is never left alone by the City fans when he comes back with six years of alleged hurt over him preferring Tottenham and then Sunderland to us still seems to be a cause for a hate campaign. Long on memory, short on wit.
The 3-5-2 formation has been the centrepiece of Bruce’s whole tenure at the KC. He was given perhaps over-egged credit for introducing it in the Championship, as if he’d conjured up some kind of arithmetical trick with 11 footballers that nobody had ever considered before. Then, upon promotion, it was declared by anyone with an A Licence that 3-5-2 couldn’t possibly work in the Premier League unless you had someone who could really, truly spray the ball about and at least one wing back who could back as well as he could wing. Bruce bought Tom Huddlestone and showcased Ahmed Elmohamady, and not only proved the doubters wrong but impelled other gaffers to adopt the same policy. Now, after a busy summer window, Bruce had decided that a more standard, less gaudy playing style was necessary but in doing so, marginalised City’s best ballplaying defender and made his midfield look devoid of protection. The goals leaked in. Leads were relinquished. Bruce remained defiant – until last week.
The 3-5-2 just suits the City players. It fits them like a glove. Chester will learn from having Dawson beside him, but even a grizzled pro like Dawson will gain much from seeing a cool, phlegmatic younger centre back beside him as he continues to learn about his new surroundings. And in midfield, not only does Huddlestone get the time he needs when four colleagues are around him, but it also works for Jake Livermore, who has had a poor start to the season and can at least partially claim the exposure to danger forced upon him by a 4-4-2 has contributed to that. And, well, Elmohamady just needs to be allowed to fly, all the time. He can’t do that from right back.
City looked much more composed with this return to type and were creating early chances. Huddlestone swept a delightful ball from deep to Elmohamady on the right and the Egyptian proceeded to ignore Joel Ward before crossing with typically accurate venom onto the head of Jelavić, but the ball went just over. Elmohamady then darted down the flank again and this time pulled a low one back for Huddlestone to give the hammer, and it deflected wide off defender Scott Dann who bizarrely suffered serious ligament damage through the simple act of blocking a shot, and had to be stretchered away.
In between, Palace won a free kick when Chester checked Campbell around the edge of the box, but Mile Jedinak flicked his shot just over the bar. Largely, however, the visitors were on the back foot in the opening phase of the game, and the continually impressive Andy Robertson nearly scored a screamer of a first goal for City when, charging to the corner of the box via a narrow overlap, he took Jelavić’s tee-up and hit a first time howitzer inches past the far post.
The young Scot was similarly positioned a few minutes later but this time got caught between rock and hard place as his first time kick of the football proved neither close enough to goal to be a shot nor near enough a team-mate to be a cross. Mohamed Diamé then shot across goal from a narrow angle after a sumptuous turn and one-two with Jelavić.
Campbell, meanwhile, was starting to get on everyone’s wick. He had committed two fouls and been serenaded unflatteringly by the City fans, so when he took a stud-led swipe at Curtis Davies after the City skipper beat him to a through ball to pass back to Harper, he was given the inevitable yellow card by referee Mike Dean. He moaned, of course, but it was a futile complaint. This would be the only notable statistic against his name as, for the second season in a row, the striker seemed more concerned with being the panto villain than making a viable contribution to his team’s cause. Daft lad.
Jelavić headed a Huddlestone corner wide and then the quieter Hernández clipped a chance inches past the post after Huddlestone and Diamé had combined intricately to allow Robertson the chance to cross. Goalless at half time, but City were much the better side.
Assem Allam was on Football Focus earlier. The interview lasted an hour, the BBC screened about a minute and afterwards Mark Lawrenson chucked away his plans in one sentence. Good. Now back to the football, as egotism is more edifying when displayed on the pitch than it is in the boardroom.
Momentarily Palace came back when Yannick Bolasie headed a Jason Puncheon free kick over the bar, and for a spell they used Puncheon’s pace and considerable left-footedness to great effect on the right flank, but they weren’t creating a lot. City began to stamp fresh authority on the match after Delaney nearly scored a freakish own goal when his deflection on an Elmohamady cross beat Julian Speroni but landed just past the far post as Jelavić slid in.
Davies, up after a corner, blootered one over the bar when Elmohamady pulled a grounded ball back to him on the edge of the box but the deadlock wasn’t far off being broken. The hour mark had just ticked through when Huddlestone and Diamé again tried to work something with short passes in the box towards Jelavić, but when the final ball struck a Palace knee and found its way to Robertson, he aimed a scrumptious cross on to Diamé’s head, and Speroni hadn’t a prayer. Mohamed Diamé is here to stay, Mohamed Diamé is on his way.
Campbell was subbed afterwards, and even this author who doesn’t go with the long-term barracking of someone who was a proper hero when with us on loan was pleased to see him go, just because he’d become negative and irritating on the pitch. He served no purpose whatsoever. Shortly after shuffling around, Palace fashioned the only chance that would test Harper all afternoon when Bolasie cracked one at goal that had swerve and dip therein, and the ageing Geordie was agile enough to get to the top corner of his net and palm it over. Good save, albeit one that he would have been expected to make.
City got nervous in the last 15 minutes and Bruce made substitutions designed to introduce some tranquility to the team; certainly Gastón Ramírez is one renowned for simple, collected passing and movement as he replaced countryman Hernández, then Liam Rosenior replaced Robertson, whose only flaw so far seems to be a tendency to run out of steam. The nerves became more prevalent through Huddlestone’s sudden unwillingness to venture anywhere except sideways with the ball, inducing some ludicrous criticism from some supporters, but luckily Palace weren’t good enough or cute enough to exploit the jitters.
Then City wrapped it up. Livermore, who was still prone to howling but had enjoyed a better afternoon generally, broke from a Palace attack and fed Jelavić’s run. The counter attack worked a treat as the Croat cut inside Delaney and, with a left-footed shot the obvious ending, gallingly swerved a backfooter with his right around Speroni and into the net. Scoring a goal or playing a stunning pass with the outside of the boot will never cease to trigger whoops of delight, admiration and envy from mere mortals who struggled to get into the school team. It was a sublime finish.
The pressure was off so Elmohamady, who had been in the wars all afternoon, was able to go off gingerly in the last moments of the game, to be replaced by Alex Bruce, and Delaney nearly scored in injury time with a header from a Puncheon corner that Rosenior prodded off the line. As the fourth and final added minute ticked to its end, Huddlestone had a good chance blocked but 2-0 was more than sufficient and, given recent results and Palace’s own considerable hold over City, it was a win as crucial as it was workmanlike.
City are up to eighth and have neutralised the goal difference, with yet another brace in a Premier League game proving that scoring isn’t going to be an issue this term. If the 3-5-2, with Chester assured of his place, remains as it should then once again, luck with injury aside, we should be able to make progress as a team up the table. There will be greater challenges ahead than Palace at home, not least the trips to Arsenal and Liverpool that follow the international break, but more performances and results like this will be at the forefront of Bruce’s mind in the shortlist of ‘winnable’ games he pins up on his fridge each season. He can put a big red tick next to this one now, open the door and grab himself a cold beer.