It says a lot for the journey under Dean Smith that there is a feeling of mild disappointment after a draw against Crystal Palace. Barely six weeks ago, a draw could barely be contemplated – to suggest three league wins on the bounce would have been ridiculed, yet that’s where City were for much of the evening.
Smith reverted to the 4-4-2 formation. There is something that feels intrinsically right about a City side containing two speedy wingers feeding a big man/small man striker combo. On 38 seconds, we saw why.
Milot Rashica picked up the ball and left the full-back Joel Ward trailing. His ball into the box was beautifully cushioned by Adam Idah for Teemu Pukki to hit a bouncing shot in off the post. The fastest Premier League goal of the season.
It could have got better. Pierre Lees-Melou played a sumptuous diagonal pass to Rashica, this time he cut back and played a great ball for what looked a certain second for Pukki before Mitchell somehow nicked in front and headed wide for a corner.
Then once again the ball came to Idah, who played in Rashica. He squared to Pukki for what seemed a certain tap in but the Finn took a touch which enabled Mitchell once again to get a foot in.
City looked like a side with purpose – it was like the reverse of a Farke era game, Palace slow in possession allowing City time to get defenders back to stifle any attacks. City dangerous on the break and looking capable of scoring at any time. Every City player seemed to know his role and played it effectively, restricting Palace to a handful of half-chances.
Lees-Melou was playing as a deep sitting playmaker, pinging some delightful balls to all corners of the ground, whilst Kenny Mclean concentrated on the defensive side, notably helping Brandon Williams cope with Olise and Gallagher down the Palace right.
On 42 minutes, Palace scored, only to have it ruled out for a clear offside – it took a VAR check to confirm what was clear to the naked eye.
It couldn’t last. It didn’t.
Palace came out for the second half having clearly been on the end of Patrick Viera’s hairdryer. They moved the ball far more quickly and aggressively, doubled up on Rashica and in doing so, stifled much of City’s attacking intent – for all his pace, Placheta was nowhere near as effective on the opposite flank.
City were falling deeper and deeper under successive attacks. They created overloads down one flank before quickly switching the ball to the opposite side into the wide-open spaces.
Only Rashica offered a threat, cutting inside across the width of the pitch before unleashing a powerful shot that was deflected wide.
On 53 minutes, Palace finally tested Gunn. Schlupp’s strike from the edge of the area was met with a strong hand from the diving City keeper. City couldn’t get the ball clear though – everything was falling to a Palace shirt.
Mclean tried to take matters into his own hands, running the ball out of defence, only to run straight into a group of four Palace players. It seemed inevitable that Palace would score.
When they did, it was a great goal. The ball was played out to Zaha on the Palace left in acres of space. He cut inside Placheta and hit a fantastic curling shot across the goal that gave Angus Gunn no chance as it bent inside the far post.
Moments later, it seemed that all the hard work from the first half was being undone. Zaha played in Mitchell who tangled with Max Aarons, the City defender seemingly unaware of his presence. Referee Tierney had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
It seemed an age before Zaha got to take the kick and as he did, his left foot slipped and he spooned his shot horribly wide.
Smith needed to act and he responded by replacing Przemysław Placheta with Billy Gilmour, Idah moving wide right as City switched to a 4-3-3. The statistic on TV gave possession at this point in the second half as 82% in favour of Palace. Palace continued to pour forward but after the penalty miss, the attacks seemed less potent.
On the counter though, City were considerably less effective with both Pukki and Rashica appearing to tire as the hale went on.
After 74 minutes, Mathias Normann replaced the excellent Lees-Melou, and showed his value almost immediately. He not only won a crunching tackle in the midfield but followed it with a fantastic ball wide to Idah, who held the ball up well before winning a corner. From this, Pukki headed the ball goalwards only for Gallagher to deflect it wide.
Still there was defensive work to do, with Gunn making more good saves. The game seemed to lose it’s edge as the half wore on – even the replacement of Idah with Rowe couldn’t inject any real threat down the right and the game eventually drew to a close with honours even.
So we remain in the bottom three. The performance was superb throughout the first half, but in the second City ceded too much ground and advantage to the rejuvenated Palace. By the time they reacted, it was too late. The changes bought more stability, but at the sacrifice of some attacking thrust.
Whisper it, but Josh Sargent could have made a real difference tonight. Placheta was well marshalled and unable to make an attacking impact, although he performed his defensive duties diligently. The defence were once again looking solid and it took a real ‘worldy’ from Zaha to breach them.
In all likelihood, City’s unbeaten run will end at the weekend and most probably they will get little from the next two fixtures. The key for Smith now will be to retain the confidence this little run has bought, and be ready for when the ‘lesser’ teams face City.