Cox: Man City’s first half was magnificent, idealistic football – everything that Guardiola wants
WATFORD, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 04: Bernardo Silva of Manchester City celebrates after scoring their side's second goal during the Premier League match between Watford and Manchester City at Vicarage Road on December 04, 2021 in Watford, England. (Photo by Lynne Cameron/Manchester City)
By Michael Cox 7h ago 25
It’s easy to take performances like this for granted. Manchester City had very few problems against Watford, and rightly so. No Watford player would get in the City side and each of City’s players on the bench would get in the Watford starting XI, with the possible exception of Scott Carson — still admirably making the match-day squad at 36 as a third-choice goalkeeper.
This was the Champions League finalists against a promoted side, and therefore anything less than an away victory would have been a major failure.
But there are different ways to win, and different ways to batter inferior opponents. There have been other dominant sides who have relied on force and physicality, and others by relying heavily on one star who feels unstoppable. That’s not what City are about either, and before the interval at Vicarage Road, Pep Guardiola’s side produced among the most dominant 45-minute periods you will witness in the Premier League.
City are about combination play, particularly in wider areas. Raheem Sterling stayed wide-right and linked with Bernardo Silva who buzzed around in an inside-right position. Phil Foden was out on the left while Ilkay Gundogan burst forward in the inside-left channel. Jack Grealish, still finding his feet at City, was effectively deployed as a centre forward, and while he’s hardly a traditional No 9, you won’t find many other Premier League players so happy to receive the ball in positions where opposition defenders are snapping at his heels.
The defining thing about this City side, particularly with this combination of attackers, is that it feels egalitarian. Previous Guardiola sides have always been about combination play, of course, but there’s also been a hierarchy.
Guardiola’s Barcelona side was based around Lionel Messi, so others made runs and played passes to get him into favoured positions. His Bayern side were similar after the arrival of Robert Lewandowski. His best City sides were often about stretching the play to create space for Sergio Aguero up front, and Kevin De Bruyne in the inside-right channel.
But with Aguero gone and De Bruyne not 100 per cent fit this season (and omitted here), City’s effective front five all feel like they’re roughly as prominent as one another. Foden and Sterling stayed wide on their “natural” sides and stretched the play, but not solely for the benefit of others. The opener came when Foden chipped a cross to the far post, leaving Sterling free to nod home, having escaped the attentions of Danny Rose, who endured a difficult game.
Grealish was accustomed to being the main man at Villa but he is slowly learning to play for the team at City. Gundogan is the opposite: always highly effective but never plays like the star, even when he’s his team’s best performer.
Clearly, City’s best player on show here — and so far this season — was Silva, who has become the side’s most regular goalscorer but still feels primarily like a selfless footballer trying to tee up others.
City dominated in terms of possession and territory. In that first half, they recorded 81 per cent of possession and could have been out of sight, creating five major chances but only converting two.
Sometimes high possession figures suggest a side has been too cautious in possession, or are struggling for penetration, but not City here. They cut through Watford brilliantly throughout. One move started with two things that were once considered reckless: goalkeeper Ederson tempting pressure from Josh King inside his own six-yard box, then Americ Laporte hitting a square ball to Ruben Dias across his own box. Within eight seconds, Grealish was put through on goal by Foden, but couldn’t provide a finish.
City’s second goal, scored by Silva from a tight angle, was finished in a slightly scrappy manner but came from a similar attack, when City almost counter-attacked from having possession in a deep position, drawing their opponents towards them then darting past them.
City could and should have scored more than two before half-time, but they never looked in danger of conceding. Watford, often dangerous on the counter-attack, had one decent break courtesy of a Moussa Sissoko charge through the middle, and once pressed high to win possession from long range. But they didn’t attempt a shot from inside the box.
Watford had given Chelsea a serious game at Vicarage Road midweek, losing 2-1, so are hardly incapable of challenging title contenders. But City were just too good, and it wasn’t until the 42nd minute, when Aymeric Laporte overhit a ball intended for Grealish, that the visitors committed what could reasonably be considered an unforced error.
The second half was a slightly different display, for three reasons. First, because Silva’s outstanding curled effort into the far corner was primarily about individual brilliance than penetrative combination play, even if it came after a flowing passing move.
Second, because City introduced De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez (two players who have, in the past, won the PFA Player of the Year award) and then Gabriel Jesus, which almost feels like cheating.
And third, because City got a bit sloppy and allowed Watford back into the game, even if Cucho Hernandez’s consolation was more than the home side deserved. The scoreline of 3-1 wasn’t an adequate reflection of City’s dominance. Guardiola rued his side’s wastefulness in front of goal but also added that they’d reached the “highest standard” so far this season.
This was hardly a landmark result, but that first half was magnificent, idealistic football that demonstrated everything Guardiola wants from his side. Width in attack. Players between the lines. Constant possession. Quick counter-pressing. After five years of Guardiola’s City all this can feel routine, but this performance was, put simply, an absolute pleasure to watch.