City looking invincible but Pep plays down the gap
The Manchester City machine smoothes on, untroubled, unchallenged, unassailable. Forget the scoreline, made presentable by Matt Phillips’s late consolation for West Bromwich. This was a victory for the league leaders that gave accurate definition to the term routine. Although not at their coruscating best, with their five-point advantage at the top of the table retained, already City look a team so superior to anything else in the Premier League, Arsenal’s record of heading through a season unbeaten must seem increasingly attainable. Not that their manager is getting carried away.
“Have you ever heard of the league being won in January?” Pep Guardiola said when asked if he acknowledged Jurgen Klopp’s belief that City are so far ahead they will wrap the title up in the new year. “Me neither.”
While City headed back up the M6 on a cloud of satisfaction, it was a result which will have done little to curb the stir of revolt around the Hawthorns. The large number of empty seats in the home sections was a telling indictment of Tony Pulis’s approach: Pulisball is slipping rapidly out of favour here. This may have been the most attractive footballing side in the country coming to visit, but Black Country expectations of any like-minded response from their own team are low indeed.
And so it proved. Five defenders and three holding midfielders: Pulis was never going to respond to Pep Guardiola’s visit by going toe-to-toe in an attacking slug-out.
From the off, West Brom, playing so deep they should have been collectively fitted with aqualungs, were immediately obliged to block and parry, to fling themselves at City shots. There is, however, only so often it is possible to curtail excellence. After nine minutes of dominance City, as is their wont, passed the ball deftly and patiently across the pitch until it arrived at the feet of Fernandinho, who pushed it wide to Leroy Sane. The German, who this week revealed he has a new tattoo on his back of him scoring against Monaco last season, was needle sharp in his delivery, bending a precise left foot shot beyond Ben Foster.
But before gloom could totally envelop the stadium, West Brom responded. Four minutes after that opener, the old City hand Gareth Barry seized control of a bouncing ball ahead of David Silva, spun round to create some space and, seeing that his two forwards were outmanning John Stones, fired a delicious forward chip. With Salomon Rondon as his wingman, Jay Rodriguez outmuscled Stones and chipped the City keeper, Ederson.
Any thought the home side might long match their visitors was seconds later dispelled, however. Sane returned the earlier favour and set up Fernandinho. His long-range shot looked innocuous, but took a deflection off Ahmed Hegazi’s ankle sufficient to leave Foster nonplussed.
If City were not at their spinning, buzzing best, if Kevin De Bruyne was finding himself outnumbered too often (late on he even missed the kind of chance he normally buries before breakfast), they were still elegance it- self in possession. And still the chances kept coming, Jonny Evans required constantly to step in to stop the visitors’ pinball interchanges.
Penned back by the waves of purpleshirted attacks, the out ball for Albion was – amazing to report – long. It obliged Rondon to spend much of his time wrestling with Stones and Nicolas Otamendi for possession. As a tactical approach damage limitation is unlikely to stir the soul. It was not long before the pointed chant came from the home sections: “Tony Pulis: your football is s---.” But the blanket smother did at least ensure that free-scoring City were only a goal ahead at the break. It was how to respond that Albion were unsure. When Kieran Gibbs found himself on the edge of the City area after Rodriguez’s deft lay-off header, he ran out of ideas, space and possession. The problem was, the longer the home side remained passive and defensive, fearful of the counter, the more likely City were to score again.
So it proved. The stunning third was peak City. Sane wove in from the left, passed to De Bruyne, who moved the ball quickly on to David Silva. With the West Brom defence on its heels, he played in Kyle Walker, whose lovely bending, arcing fizz of a cross was banged home with his first touch of the ball by the substitute, Raheem Sterling. And while the late consolation from Phillips, again set free by Barry’s visionary delivery, set up an injury-time flurry of hit and hope, the sad truth for local taste was that it was way too little, way too late. Thus do City march on unassailable. They will soon be joined by Phil Foden, the player of the tournament, who scored twice for England in the final of the U-17s World Cup.
“In which position did he score for them? Because when he comes back I will play him in that position,” smiled Guardiola of his young starlet. With every passing week, the future looks increasingly to be in City hands.
Rapid response: Raheem Sterling celebrates scoring Manchester City’s third goal with his first touch after coming off the bench