Teams used to turn up at Manchester City and were beaten before they had even stepped onto the Etihad Stadium pitch. Not anymore.
On Sunday, Sheffield United were the latest club to arrive at the home of the Premier League champions with real belief.
City ultimately got the job done, winning 2-0 against a side that hadn’t lost an away game since securing their return to the Premier League last season. But it was yet another hard slog for Pep Guardiola’s side.
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They failed to have a shot on target in the first half and only managed four in the second. Thankfully, two of them went in.
Go back to October and City were creating 26 chances against Aston Villa in what was a more typical victory – and performance – from the titleholders.
Since that dominant 3-0 triumph, though, wins at the Etihad have become tougher to come by. There is no longer any such thing as a home banker for City.
Indeed, City conceded the opening goal in the four home games that followed the win over Villa, fighting back to win three of them, with the desperately disappointing derby defeat to Manchester United the one exception.
It looked like they would have to try to come from behind again on Sunday when Lys Mousset smashed the ball past Claudio Bravo in the first half only for the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) to rule out the goal for a marginal offside.
It was one of those classic counterattacks that City have been struggling to stop of late and has, therefore, become the go-to tactic for visitors to the Etihad.
The template was set when City suffered a shock defeat to Wolves in October, with Adama Traore’s speed and power allowing him to race past a sedate defence not just once, but twice.
N’Golo Kante did the same for Chelsea with his clever runs in behind the backline, while United’s pacy forwards ran riot in the opening half of the derby before Leicester’s Jamie Vardy showed why he is the master of running onto long balls with a trademark goal at the Etihad.
Guardiola won’t change his philosophy, of course, but neither will his opponents while it offers a real chance of success at a venue that was previously such a daunting place to visit.
The former Barcelona boss insists on defending with a high line, with a large space behind, but with a lack of pace among his defenders, it gives opponents every chance of snatching a victory if they manage to repel City’s attacks.
Indeed, it is worth noting that Mousset had another golden chance after his goal was chalked off but hit a shot tamely into the side-netting.
There was at least some extenuating circumstances for Sunday’s lacklustre and lethargic performance. It came fewer than 48 hours after the tough trip to Molineux, where they battled for majority of the game with 10 men before falling to a late Wolves sucker-punch.
Surprisingly, Guardiola only made three changes from that 3-2 defeat, including goalkeeper Claudio Bravo replacing the suspended Ederson. The other two alterations came in defence and City looked both physically and mentally exhausted as they tried to pull apart the well-organised Blades.
As a result, it was once again left to Kevin De Bruyne to make the difference, with the Belgian teeing up Sergio Aguero for the opener before netting the killer second goal himself.
The attacking midfielder has now been directly involved in 19 goals in the Premier League this season, with 12 assists already.
City did at least hang on to a clean sheet – a first at home in seven attempts in all competitions and that should renew some confidence in Guardiola’s high-risk tactics, which he is not about to ditch.
After all, Sunday’s win was Guardiola’s 100th in just his 134th Premier League game – making him the fastest manager ever to reach such a prestigious landmark tally.
“What we’ve done in three seasons is incredible,” Guardiola said of the record. “Especially in the Premier League you have to be consistent. We are all delighted with this achievement.”
Guardiola’s win record is undeniably amazing, but as Sheffield United showed, it’s getting tougher to maintain.
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