Manchester City’s biggest enemy in this title race is not the yips but ennui
West Ham were stubborn and Manchester City were a little lethargic, but City are the current kings of creating the moments that win matches.
Well, it was fun while it lasted. For just about one day following Arsenal’s evisceration of whatever on earth Chelsea are supposed to be at the moment, there was a slender possibility that the race might have life left in it.
It may yet do, but there were few signs of serious stuttering from Manchester City as they moved past West Ham United in the Premier League, even though their performance at times was a little shaky and West Ham put up a bigger challenge to Manchester City than the final 3-0 scoreline would suggest.
Both teams came into the match with slightly unusual line-ups, West Ham through the bad luck of an outbreak of illness and Manchester City through Pep Guardiola’s essential Pepness.
Knocked back off the top of the league by a confident performance from Arsenal? Rest the goalkeeper. Five games to go in a title race was certainly a bold time of the season to give Stefan Ortega his first Premier League start, but Ortega finished the night with a clean sheet, so perhaps it wasn’t as strange as it had originally seemed. Elsewhere, Bernardo Silva and Nathan Ake replaced Ilkay Gundogan and Manuel Akanji, while West Ham were missing Tomas Soucek, Declan Rice and Nayef Aguerd, three players they could ill-afford to be without.
There was little of the intensity of another step in the title race inside The Etihad Stadium. Empty seats were clearly visible, and the crowd was somewhat lethargic. This is unsurprising. After all, it is the fifth time in six years that they’ve been here and the Champions League is the silverware in the distance that is shining the brightest.
But the feeling of mild lethargy seemed to spread to the pitch where, after a bright opening, Manchester City started to get a little sloppy, allowing West Ham a couple of sustained periods of possession. The crowd started to lift itself. “Come on City! Come on City!” Within seconds, Julian Alvarez broke on the left and it took a sliding block from Aaron Cresswell to prevent the cross reaching an unmarked Erling Haaland. Bar a couple of speculative efforts from distance, this was as much as Manchester City managed in the first 20 minutes.
When a team wins as consistently and effortlessly as Manchester City have over the last few years, it becomes easy to forget that human emotions are involved at this time of the season. But on this occasion, something just didn’t quite feel right. The ball was mis-controlled. Passing went astray. Bad decisions were made in half-promising positions. They dominated possession, but to little effect.
No-one can be perfect all the time, but that’s the main thing that has differentiated Manchester City from every other team in the Premier League this season.
Football matches are defined by moments, and their team is stuffed with players who can provide them. If it’s not Haaland, it’ll be De Bruyne. If it’s not De Bruyne, it’ll be Grealish. If it’s not Grealish, it’ll be Mahrez. Even when they’re not fully firing, the doubt will still be there in the back of the opposition’s mind that one of these masters of their craft only needs the slightest glimpse and one iota of a second to turn everything on its heels. It’s the most smothering form of relentlessness.
Perhaps this is where we find the potential Achilles heel of Manchester City. It’s not the yips. If anything, it’s close to the opposite. It’s disaffection. It’s ennui. They woke up in fits and starts. Rodri hit the inside of the post after some midfield movement that came about as if by muscle memory alone.
But it was, throughout much of the first half, difficult to shake the feeling that nobody present really wanted to be there. West Ham, to their credit, got in their way and made their lives difficult. They had few opportunities of their own, but they largely limited City to half-chances throughout the first half, and with it looking likely that 37 or 38 points will be enough to keep a team up, David Moyes could be forgiven for playing for the point, with his team on 35.
If that was his policy, it lasted until four minutes into the second half. Alvarez swung a free-kick from the left and Nathan Ake appeared at the far post to head in as the West Ham defensive line about them. If it’s not Mahrez, it’ll be Ake. But West Ham dealt with the early goal reasonably well. They didn’t lose their shape and kept doing what they’d been doing reasonably successfully throughout the first 45 minutes. Manchester City again had the better of the possession, but West Ham stayed in the game and soon the Etihad Stadium started to quieten again, the passes started to go astray again, and West Ham even managed to force a couple of corners, though they couldn’t make anything of them.
But it’s all about moments, and nobody has produced more of them for Manchester City this season than Erling Haaland.
Midway through the second half he did it again, that one chance taken with a chip past Fabianski after being put through by Grealish to set a new Premier League record of 35 goals in one season, and with five games left to play. Foden added a third after being brought on as a substitute, a little icing for that cake.
They may not have particularly shone on this occasion, but they did enough to ensure that Arsenal’s return to the top of the Premier League lasted precisely 24 hours and they still have a game in hand. From that perspective, this was another job done, another step on the route to that fifth title in six years.
But this will all surely have been enough to give Pep Guardiola food for thought. In less than a week, Manchester City will be taking on Real Madrid in the semi-finals of the Champions League, and for his team’s performance to be taking a slight dip before this match may concern him. We shall have to wait and see, whether this results in him keeping his nerve or dramatically overthinking it all and replacing Haaland with Ederson up front.
If there is a cloud on the horizon of that looming treble, it’s surely this semi-final. The old masters of European club football are one of the most likely to have a plan for Haaland. Whether they’ll be able to make it work may be an altogether different matter, because Manchester City have made quite a habit of giving him the service he needs to be devastatingly effective this season. It’s the sort of option that allows for a little leeway, when the overall team performance hasn’t exactly been stellar.
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