Manchester City drive on so imperiously and inexorably that it is impossible not to fear for the competitive balance of this Premier League season.
The inevitability of losing to them is becoming so great that defeatism lurks. Liverpool are unbeaten, just like City, yet every point they drop now has grave consequences.
The usual narrative about the league leaders’ supreme technical merit applies. The third goal was the high point: a drilled, 20-yard diagonal from Fernandinho, cushioned on the volley by Raheem Sterling into Leroy Sane, who ‘sat down’ Fabian Balbuena and clipped past Lukasz Fabianski. It was divine, football in art form and a privilege to watch.
But the Premier League needs infinitely more mettle than West Ham showed if there is to be any hope for some dramatic tension in the six months ahead.
It’s never promising when a manager is arguing the merits of a draw against Huddersfield Town in his programme notes but Manuel Pellegrini’s modus operandi against his old side beggared belief. To beat this City you require muscle, cussedness, physical intent. Yet Pellegrini left his captain Mark Noble on the bench.
You require tactical purpose. Yet Pellegrini ripped up the midfield structure he seems to have settled on and went into the match with full backs who were palpably inadequate. The struggle of left back Arthur Masuaku to get anywhere near Sterling or Sergio Aguero was painful to behold. Aaron Cresswell, confined to the bench, would surely have done better, though it was half-time before Pellegrini realised this, by which time the game had gone. It was an ambitious line-up and West Ham’s players looked for opportunities on the counter-attack. They did create some.
Felipe Anderson’s occasional touch and vision made life uncomfortable for Fabian Delph and he floated a first-half cross which Pedro Obiang could not connect with. But defensively, there was paralysis and even Pellegrini, who insisted his side had not been ‘intimidated’, made no pretence about this. ‘We were very weak in defending the first three goals,’ he said. It was all pretty desperate for a club who have spent £100 million on players and were expecting Pellegrini to deliver a little of the City factor when he walked through the door this summer. City have actually travelled a long way from the place where Pellegrini left them two and a half years ago. Their relentless intensity is borne of players’ fear that once out of the team, they may not get back in a hurry.
They had scored 11 goals here in three previous visits and needed only 10 minutes to improve the tally.
Sterling was the provider. His cross, after fastening onto Kyle Walker’s driving pass down the right, was deflected into the path of David Silva. No defender moved to prevent his clever flick past the advancing Fabianski.
The script was painfully similar when Sane whipped comfortably past Pablo Zabaleta to set up the second eight minutes later, laying a square cross for Sterling who was in the six-yard box to tap in, courtesy of Issa Diop’s lamentable failure to offer a challenge.
It was no surprise that Fernandinho was the architect of the third. Of all the players Guardiola inherited from Pellegrini, the Brazilian is the one who has grown most.
The stadium began to empty out as the afternoon wore on because it was obviously all over.
Marko Arnautovic’s light has gone out since the departure of David Moyes, the one manager who knew how to handle him.
He sent a header high. Balbuena put another one wide. Michail Antonio hit the post after substitute Javier Hernandez sent him through in the second half.
The challenge to City and what they represent comes from beyond the field of play. For 10 years, the Abu Dhabi ownership of this club has burnished the Gulf state’s image. But the shocking life imprisonment of British PhD candidate Matthew Hedges last week has brought Abu Dhabi’s dubious human rights record into sharp focus. While their football team was going about its business yesterday, two more British universities cut ties with the UAE.
The timing is unfortunate, after recent allegations surrounding City’s efforts to pass UEFA’s Financial Fair Play.
Their football team accelerates on, with the final nail hammered home when a cross from substitute Gabriel Jesus found Sane with space to control and shoot past Cresswell.
The same cannot be said of West Ham. They were promoting the news before kick-off that the London Stadium capacity is to be raised to 60,000 and eventually, 66,000 — making this the second biggest ground in the Premier League. ‘Even more of you guys can be in here every match,’ the assembled fans were told. The masses may take some convincing.