There has been a slight end of empire feel about Manchester City and Pep Guardiola this season, but appearances can deceive. Without ever being quite at their best, City comfortably did enough to ensure they headed back across the Pennines having silenced those who interpreted the sight of Guardiola sitting alone in the dugout well before kick off, staring moodily at the empty stands, as confirmation of a manager in crisis.
Instead, that mantle passes to Chris Wilder. His side have one point from seven games and after taking the top tier by storm last term appear to have developed full-blown second-season syndrome. The electronic signs warning visitors entering Sheffield to maintain “very high alert” relate to coronavirus levels, but they could apply equally to the danger confronting the Blades.
Guardiola decided it was time to quell the fears of City fans suspecting he was close to defecting. “My period as a manager in Barcelona is over,” he said, dismissing speculation linking him with a return to his former club. “I’m here, I’m incredibly happy here, I still have the desire to do well.”
He knows City can improve but was content enough with a win more straightforward than the score suggests. “Sheffield United had one chance in 90 minutes,” Guardiola said. “But although we played really well in the first half and created a lot of chances we struggled to score. We are not clinical enough in the final third.”
With Wilder’s obdurate back five retreating ever deeper, it was not easy. City constructed increasingly geometrically ambitious passing manoeuvres and as heavy rain fell in contrastingly straight lines it seemed a minor miracle that Aaron Ramsdale did not pick the ball out of his net until the 28th minute.
The goal involved the immutable law of the ex as Kyle Walker scored against his home-town club at the ground where he began his career. As good as the full-back’s drive from outside the area was, he could not have done it without assistance from Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne.
Sterling shone throughout and was already tormenting George Baldock and Chris Basham. Appropriately enough it was his counterattacking dribble that prefaced De Bruyne’s perfectly calibrated, goal-creating, cross-field pass, the fallout of which would leave Walker responding in suitably muted fashion. “My mum and dad still live in Sheffield,” he said. “I’d have got so much stick if I’d celebrated.”
While Ferran Torres’s sharpness allowed the young Spaniard to have a glancing header palmed away by Ramsdale and a first-time volley blocked, Sheffield United’s Rhian Brewster lacked a similarly supportive attacking framework to showcase his own finishing skills.
Significantly, the principal contribution of his attacking partner, Oli McBurnie, was an early, clattering, shoulder charge on Rúben Dias that left the defender briefly crumpled in agony.
Relations between Wilder and John Lundstram, so important last season, appear to have deteriorated following the midfielder’s rejection of a new contract, but the manager finally liberated him from the bench and his side improved a little.
Despite the increasingly influential De Bruyne dragging a shot inches wide and Ramsdale getting a hand to Riyad Mahrez’s free-kick, City’s earlier dynamism had faded slightly. Although Ederson remained embarrassingly underworked, Sheffield United were no longer ceding almost 80% of possession.
Recognising the danger, Guardiola prowled his technical area in agitated mode, almost imploding when Sander Berge nutmegged Cancelo before cutting back superbly for Lundstram to undo everything by lashing the most inviting of openings off target.
By now a weak winter sun had replaced the rain but only Guardiola detected a rainbow. “City moved us around the pitch,” said Wilder. “I’m disappointed we didn’t do more to put them on the back foot, but you have to show you deserve to play at this level.”