An important win for resurgent Manchester City, a performance on which to build for Brighton and further evidence of the slow yet steady increase of Phil Foden’s influence at the Etihad.
On the face of it, a night with plenty of positives. But really – and this is no criticism of any player on either side – this was a pretty drab game in a paradox of a Premier League season: the weariness of every team is producing a thrilling title race out of a lot of piss-poor football matches.
That’s maybe harsh on City. They were truly excellent against Chelsea and no-one can turn it on every week, but they still look some way short of their best week in, week out. Old-fashioned an idea it may be, they still look like a side in need of an actual striker. They have, though, now at least developed the knack of Getting Things Done. That’s six wins and two draws in the last eight league games. This season more than ever, it is the way it must be. Play well as often as you can; win as often as you can when you don’t.
City weren’t doing that earlier in the season, and now they are. That’s good news for them, isn’t it? The three points aside, Foden was the other obvious massive positive. He’s still just short of what you’d call a regular in this City side, but there is little doubt about his increasing importance to Pep Guardiola. His goal tonight was a crafty one, giving the keeper the eyes from the edge of the box and rolling the ball into the bottom corner with his swinger. It’s his eighth goal in all competitions and, thanks to Raheem Sterling summing up much of the 90 minutes that had preceded it by slapping a late penalty high over the bar, makes Foden City’s top-scorer this season. Less surprisingly, Kevin De Bruyne got the assist.
Darren Fletcher and Steve McManaman suggested on commentary for BT that reports of City’s demise had been premature and they had never really gone away. It’s an understandable point, but it doesn’t quite hold. Even now, they are not – consistently at least – the side we know they can be, but the performances are bringing greater points reward. This still didn’t look like the performance of champions, but if we apply that criteria then this season will have no champion. City now have as good a chance as anyone and could for the first time be considered favourites. Which is good news for anyone who said they definitely wouldn’t win it after a dour Manchester Derby against a United team who will also said definitely wouldn’t win it. It’s become clear that recalibration is needed. What we’re not seeing this season is a team that looks like it will get 90 points. But what that obviously means is that we don’t need one; 80-odd might win it this year, and there are at least three or four sides capable of scrambling to that. And two of them are in Manchester.
But that’s not to say City’s early-season struggles were overplayed. They had 12 points after eight games and had already lost twice. They’ve taken 20 points from the next eight without necessarily playing much better. This season is going to be like that. Results will always trump performances but this year that’s more true than ever.
Watching this game, though, as two exhausted sides dragged themselves through 90 minutes, it was impossible not to wonder just what kind of spectacle we’ll be watching by April if there isn’t an enforced break.
Another paradox: the Premier League has never been more visible than this season, and this season the more we see of it the worse it looks.