football

Pep Guardiola and City have eased back to take a huge leap forward | Jonathan Wilson


It is a measure of how well West Ham played at Manchester City that for a time it felt like a contest. City won in the end – of course they did – to take their run of successive victories to 20, but there were perhaps 10 minutes before half-time when they were unsettled. But by the end, the only question was how this run can ever be stopped: City at the moment feel relentless.

The Premier League title is as good as done, they’re 2-0 up after the away leg of their Champions League last-16 tie, they’re in the quarter-final of the FA Cup and the final of the Carabao Cup: a quadruple suddenly looks distinctly possible. And it is sudden: it is only 74 days since City drew at home against West Brom, a game they had kicked off while ninth in the table. The suggestion then was that this might be the weakest side Pep Guardiola has ever managed.

How quickly things change. Of course it helps, enormously so, that City have the resources they do – and nobody should ever allow themselves to forget the source of that wealth – but none of this was inevitable. Back then, their squad looked flat and their recruitment looked questionable. Guardiola’s attempts to modify the approach seemed only to be causing hesitancy.

That they have been able to implement that change is testament to his abilities as a coach. That they could beat the side fourth in the Premier League relatively comfortably without ever getting out of second gear and having made seven changes to the side that dismissed Gladbach on Wednesday suggests just how hard it will be for anybody to stop them this season.

Michail Antonio’s equaliser, late in the first half, was the first goal City had conceded at home since that West Brom game. In the 20-game winning run they have conceded only six times. In part that is down to the combination of Rúben Dias and John Stones, which was at least to an extent a chance discovery, but it has also been about the change of approach.

The intensity of the press is something notoriously difficult to measure statistically because there are so many variables, but looking at the proportion of pressures a side makes that take place in the opposition’s final third is perhaps as useful as any: where are they looking to win the ball back? For the previous three seasons City and Liverpool vied with each other at the top of that chart, but this season Liverpool are way out in front while City are fifth. They have eased back and, now that the initial teething problems that were exploited most obviously by Leicester are past, no longer appear so vulnerable to the ball played in behind them.

Pep Guardiola directs his City side against West Ham
Pep Guardiola directs his City side against West Ham. Photograph: Matt McNulty/Manchester City FC/Getty Images

Perhaps the chances West Ham did create offer opponents some hope. City can be caught out by balls behind the full-back, especially perhaps when Oleksandr Zinchenko rather than João Cancelo plays on the left: it was that route that brought both the chance Antonio struck against the post and his goal. Decent crosses, such as the one that led to the late Issa Diop header, can catch out any side. And Ederson was oddly skittish with his kicking.

At the other end, with Sergio Agüero making his first start since October, there was perhaps a slight lack of creativity. In previous seasons, the inclusion of both Fernandinho and Ilkay Gündogan in midfield was always a cause for concern, often meaning too much ball retention and not enough penetration; with both starting, City’s win percentage dropped from 79% to 63%. But this was the sixth out of six City have won this campaign with both together: a small sample size, but a suggestion both of how they have taken to the slightly more conservative approach and Gündogan’s superlative form.

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And it helps, of course, when you have centre-backs who can score goals. Dias’s was a classic centre-back’s header, but Stones took his superbly, dropping off to create space before stroking in the finish. And that itself is great validation of the Guardiola method, of his ideal of a midfielder in every position: it is not quite true to say Stones is a midfielder who can defend, but he is a defender with a midfielder’s touch.



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