City still miss decisive striker: Neil Humphreys
Guardiola's EPL champions don't turn possession into enough goals
Winter is coming to the Etihad. Manchester City saw plenty of snow last night, but whether they have a Jon Snow, a ruthless leader capable of slicing through all opposition, remains doubtful.
They won the game. Retaining the throne is another matter altogether.
City's 2-1 victory against West Ham United was the latest example of dominant possession being rewarded with dithering penetration. There were enough completed passes to win a couple of games and yet, the Hammers still pressed until the very end.
As the contest drifted, the Etihad crowd demanded more. "Come on City," was the most popular chant, urging the hosts to do justice to their supreme control.
They tried. But the personnel was lacking.
|MAN CITY||WEST HAM|
|(Ilkay Guendogan 33, Fernandinho 90 )||(Manuel Lanzini 90+4)|
Before kick-off, Pep Guardiola referenced his injury list - a popular refrain - and insisted that he had only 14 outfield players (listen carefully for those tiny violins). But his selection problems are not necessarily in midfield.
Kevin de Bruyne, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish were significant absentees, but City fashioned enough opportunities against increasingly weary opposition. Putting them away was - and remains - the overriding concern.
The Hammers should've been put to bed by half-time. They spent much of a torrid first half struggling to see the ball, suffering from a collective blurred vision that was only partially down to the blizzard.
Make no mistake, the snow fell faster than on a Netflix Christmas movie with an equally predictable storyline.
As the pitch markings vanished beneath a snowy blanket, Guardiola's men took off on a sleigh ride in the 33rd minute, gliding across the terrain before Joao Cancelo smashed a crossfield pass to Riyad Mahrez on the right flank.
His mishit shot turned into a perfect pass for Ilkay Guendogan and an easy tap-in.
The goal arrived at an opportune moment for the hosts. West Ham conceded possession in the early exchanges, but not the initiative. David Moyes' regimented 4-5-1 even managed the odd counter-attack and largely coped with City's striker-less attack.
But the momentum shifted once the heavens really opened. City's quick, intuitive passing game adapted quickly to the heavy conditions as the muscular Hammers occasionally looked like hippos on roller blades.
A smart save from Lukasz Fabianski and a spectacular goal-line clearance from Ben Johnson kept the scoreline respectable, but City had previously won all eight English Premier League games after going ahead first. They were never likely to be blown away in a blizzard.
The half-time interval was extended to allow Etihad ground staff to wage war against the treacherous conditions, giving the dizzy Hammers time to clear their heads and take stock.
They were fortunate to only be a goal down, thanks, in large part, to City's strange fragility up front. Throughout the game, Guardiola rotated his attacking trio, effectively asking Mahrez, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling to play tag with each other.
Of the three, Jesus was arguably the most potent through the middle, with Mahrez on the right. The Algerian set up City's opener from that position.
But too many other openings were squandered, a familiar theme this season. Aaron Cresswell matched Johnson's heroics, clattering into a post after making another terrific goal-line clearance. But in both instances, a ruthless No. 9 might have found the net rather than the outstretched legs of desperate defenders.
Guardiola got away with this shortcoming last season, in unique circumstances. A pandemic, empty stadiums and jittery boardrooms affected City's title rivals more than the glittering squad already assembled at the Etihad.
And he got away with it against West Ham. Just. Substitute Fernandinho added a little gloss to the scoreline, slotting home a low strike in stoppage time before Manuel Lanzini smashed in a lovely consolation in the 94th minute. But City held on.
Their midfielders continue to mind the gap up front. Guardiola must hope they can repeat the trick in the coming weeks to avoid a bleak mid-winter.