A disappointingly tame tale of two Citys was not exactly Dickens in terms of plot or character. Stylistically, however, it was more pleasing than the Stoke of old and one of few conclusions to be drawn was that Staffordshire could come to appreciate the new approach under Mark Hughes. Another was that Manuel Pellegrini has much work to do if the story of Manchester City’s season is to be a happy one.
Comfortably the highest scorers from the opening three weeks of a low-scoring Premier League, they did not demand a serious save from Asmir Begovic as Pellegrini left Edin Dzeko in the dug-out throughout. The Chilean seemed to have the Champions’ League tie away to Viktoria Plzen on Tuesday in mind, and Hughes felt he “maybe prioritised the wrong game”. There was no sign either of Fernandinho, the most expensive of all the costly summer signings. England’s Jack Rodwell played in his place and was hugely disappointing.
Alvaro Negredo did at least put himself about, attracting the ire of Hughes for his physicality; Stefan Jovetic was given his debut, ahead of Sergio Aguero, and made little impression.
City’s travelling support can hardly have been impressed. The home crowd were happier and cheered their team off, appreciating the level of effort and new emphasis on passing the ball that suits players like the excellent central midfield pair Charlie Adam and Steven Nzonzi.
Stoke have started the season well under Hughes, hoping that he had put his period at Queens Park Rangers behind him. Conscious that signing too many new players too soon there was a mistake, he invested barely £5m on five players this summer and can be happy with the result to date.
Marko Arnautovic, the Austrian striker from Werder Bremen, looked lively after being introduced for the last 20 minutes with Stephen Ireland and had Jonathan Walters and Kenwyne Jones finished better, there would have been a third successive win for their side.
“Probably the only thing missing was the ability to convert a chance,” Hughes said. “I’m just really pleased that what we’re trying at the moment seems to be working and the team are buying into it.”
Pellegrini blamed having a dozen players away on international duty for his team’s poor performance. “We didn’t have many chances but when you play away if you can’t win you mustn’t lose,” he said. “We didn’t have the players this week very much, so it’s a good point.” Vincent Kompany, he added, could return on Tuesday, which ought to tighten up the defence.
It was undeniable the home side had the better opportunities. In the 13th minute, Adam was allowed the space he wanted on the right and trusted himself to cross with his right foot. Walters glanced wide a header that he should have put the other side of the post. After half an hour, Jones caught Sami Nasri dithering and was suddenly clear, although not at the easiest of angles; Joe Hart did well to block the shot.
City, with more of the possession, failed to make it count. Nasri and Jovetic produced weak shots at the goalkeeper and Negredo’s effort, curling over the bar, was their only other threatening moment before the interval. The game needed more than that and looked like taking off early in the second half when in the space of a minute, Walters could not touch in Ryan Cameron’s low cross and Jovetic volleyed over the bar.
As close as anything, however, was a bit of old-style Stoke: a long, deep cross from Adam from which Jones climbed above Javier Garcia and headed just over the bar. Later Jones limped away and Arnautovic with almost his first touch crossed from the by-line, almost forcing an own goal from Garcia, with Hart saving the day and a point that the visitors did not deserve.
Stoke City (4-5-1): Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Pieters; Walters, Nzonzi, Adam (Arnautovic, 70), Wilson, Etherington (Ireland, 70); Jones (Crouch, 77).
Manchester City (4-4-2): Hart; Zabaleta, Garcia, Nastasic, Kolarov; Milner, Rodwell, Touré, Nasri (Navas, 73); Negredo, Jovetic (Aguero, 63)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg.
Man of the match: Nzonzi (Stoke)
Match rating: 6/10