Pep Guardiola likened new signing Gabriel Jesus to a watermelon after Manchester City’s emphatic 4-0 win against West Ham at the London Stadium on Wednesday, but the performance as a whole was as sweet as a nut.
It was a match which gave onlookers a clear insight into the future of the club. Guardiola has had little time to adjust the side to his own specifications, but the shape, personnel used and attacking intent of his team against West Ham begins to give us some pretty heavy hints as to what we can expect next season from his City side.
With Sergio Aguero sitting patiently on the bench for his turn — which did not materialise until the 70th minute when all the damage had been done — the Catalan focussed on the youthful exuberance of Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus to unhinge the Londoners. Backed by the massive experience of David Silva and Yaya Toure, the front four were irresistible in a display of the fine arts of attacking play.
In a pulverising first half, the home side — 5-0 and 4-0 losers to City this season — were absolutely helpless in the face of the onslaught. West Ham have managed a total of 15 goals in their new stadium in this season’s Premier League, whereas City have managed nine themselves in just two visits.
The fluidity of movement produced by Jesus and Sane in particular will have been noted by their manager, watching contentedly from the touchline. With Sterling persistent despite getting little-to-no protection from referee Kevin Friend and De Bruyne supplying a steady stream of immaculate through-balls for the runners to feast on, City carved out chance after chance.
This will have made slightly painful viewing for Aguero, the jewel in the club’s attacking crown, watching as his supposed understudies took West Ham’s overworked defence apart brick by brick. Although he was offered a late run-out, there could be no denying the creeping thought that the little Argentinean will have his work cut out to reclaim his place in this side, if this level of performance is maintained.
Many who have seen City up close during the last two seasons may go as far as to say that his place could be considered up for grabs. Undeniably one of world football’s deadliest finishers, the last 24 months have witnessed a gradual but marked slackening off in his contribution. The goals still go in from the acutest of angles, witness his unerring accuracy in the FA Cup match at West Ham, and 18 in all competitions so far is in nobody’s reckoning a poor return, but the number of missed chances is on the rise.
It is also plain to see that City’s best performances come when the tight, high press that was promised on Guardiola’s arrival but has not always materialised, is employed. Aguero can play this role perfectly well, but has frequently found himself marginalised on the flank or isolated in the attack. In short his contribution has not always been what it could be.
Certain players are — by dint of their reputations and their exalted achievements in the sport — prone to becoming exempt from criticism and City’s striker is a case in point. After all, if you are criticising Aguero, you must be in danger of losing perspective somewhere, surely? Gratitude for what he has achieved will always be there, respect for the incredible skill he brings to the goal scorer’s art will never be lacking, but it is time to admit that there are now serious arguments for starting with a front four of Sane-Sterling-Jesus-De Bruyne?
Elsewhere, the renaissance of Yaya Toure is gathering speed. Another wonderfully controlled midfield performance gave partner Silva the opportunity to forage forward with the others, resulting in a rare goal for the Spaniard, when Sane’s sumptuous approach work up the left presented him with an open goal.
At the back, it seemed almost irrelevant who was playing, so dominant were City going forward, but a steadiness has descended on the defence, which has not been seen in many months. Whether it had anything to do with Willy Caballero manning the posts is open to conjecture, but the Argentinean certainly commanded his area in a reassuringly positive manner.
All of this adds up to give Guardiola the nicest possible headache for the upcoming games. How does he lever star men Aguero, Fernandinho and Vincent Kompany into this lineup and which goalkeeper should he persevere with?
With FA Cup commitments at Huddersfield and a visit from free scoring Monaco in the Champions League coming up on top of a busy league schedule, there will be opportunities for all to shine. What is abundantly clear is that the competition for places has just become a degree more feverish and those currently in possession of the shirt will take some serious shifting.
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