Manchester City continued their winning streak on Saturday afternoon with a 3-0 victory over Dean Smith’s Aston Villa at the Etihad Stadium.
Once again Raheem Sterling proved to make a huge difference in the game, while Ilkay Gundogan shone in a number six position following the absence of Rodrigo Hernandez. Here’s five things we learned from a relatively comfortable afternoon’s work in the North-West…
Sterling the Catalyst
I’m not saying we were bad in the first half, but it was still a long way from vintage City. The few chances we carved out were all squandered, some in more disappointing fashion than others, yet the balance of play was certainly tipped in the home side’s favour.
So what Guardiola’s men really needed was an early goal in the second half, and Raheem Sterling stepped up. But first let’s talk about the role of Gabriel Jesus, who did brilliantly to win the header against the imposing Tyrone Mings. Sterling then latched on, took a well-weighted touch and finished it superbly.
Raheem is the guy most likely to step up when the team really need a goal, and it’s been that way for years now: think back to his late winners against Huddersfield, Southampton and Feyenoord, and more recently his performances in both home Champions League games. That’s a key part of what makes the winger one of the best players in the world.
If Six Was Eight…
The difference a few yards makes to Ilkay Gundogan is quite unbelievable. When you contrast his performances as a creative midfielder with his showings in a deeper role, it is like night and day. Playing high up the pitch, alongside David Silva, the German can often look a little bit lost. That’s not all his fault; City fans are used to watching the inimitable Kevin de Bruyne in that position.
However, deploy him as a regista-esque no. 6 and there are few better in the world. Today was another fine example of Gundogan’s incredible quality as a deep-lying playmaker. Not only were there countless smart passes and flicks that even De Bruyne wouldn’t necessarily have spotted, but I’m not sure his defensive contribution has ever been better for us.
We anticipated that City would miss Rodri’s work shielding the back four (and said the same when Fernandinho was injured last season), but Gundogan is a surprisingly good replacement considering his physicality. And talk about a half-volley… it was a fantastic goal from Ilkay, and one that we’d be hearing much more about had it been scored by certain other players. For me he was City’s man of the match today.
We’ve seen enough of Joao Cancelo in a blue shirt now to know that he and Kyle Walker are very different players. In recent seasons, Walker has been utilised in a way that emphasises his physicality: strength, recovery pace and heading have been three of his most important attributes on the pitch.
Cancelo simply doesn’t have that physical prowess, but what he does have is some pretty outstanding technique. So when he’s in the backline, we see the Portuguese international pushing high up the pitch, often in some extremely central areas. Tactically, this offers an extra passing option for the midfielders and makes them even harder to mark. Today we saw plenty of this from Cancelo, and even an ambitious left-footed shot early on that nearly tricked Tom Heaton.
We haven’t watched Cancelo long enough to know how big the gap is between him and Walker defensively, but on the attack I think the new boy is a clear winner. We’ve heard he’s error-prone but let’s be honest – with the possible exception of Bacary Sagna, every full-back we’ve had this decade has been prone to the odd howler.
Keeping it Clean
Despite the media’s insistence on pointing out the issues in City’s defence at every opportunity – which has been partly fair criticism and partly exaggeration – today’s result means that City have kept more clean sheets than anyone else in the Premier League, with five (at the time of writing). At times it’s felt like a minor miracle given some of the chances that have been given away, and the man who deserves the most credit of all is Ederson.
This game was certainly not the busiest Ederson has been in recent weeks, but he was there in the dying seconds when I – midway through writing this paragraph – thought City were about to concede. The defence, minus the red-carded Fernandinho, was undone by a simple ball forward to Davis, but the Brazilian charged forwards to rescue his team. It was largely the luck side of things that meant John McGinn’s follow-up shot smashed the post and stayed out, but overall it felt that City earned their clean sheet the hard way.
Foden’s Encouraging Cameo (Again)
This can only be described as deja vu now. With City 3-0 up, Phil Foden came off the bench late in the match to make a big impression.
Apparently unfazed by his late red card in midweek, the youngster had two great chances to score among an appearance largely rooted in composure. When Foden comes on the pitch, he looks so perfectly in place. He looks like he belongs alongside Silva and Gundogan in the team. The striking thing about Foden’s recent development is his physicality – he no longer looks to shy away from challenges and instead relishes them, chasing the ball down like a terrier whenever a Villa player looked even slightly shaky in possession.
He must be looking forward to a chance to impress in front of the home crowd when he starts against Southampton on Tuesday night, where he’s likely to have Riyad Mahrez and Sergio Aguero to feed off.
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