SUNDERLAND, England — Three quick thoughts from Manchester City’s 2-0 Premier League win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on Sunday.
1. Aguero, Sane quality sinks Sunderland
Manchester City won comfortably here to climb to third in the Premier League, but without playing anywhere near their best. The quality came in their goals, two slices of elite-level quality from Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane that gave sorry Sunderland no hope of pulling off a surprise.
There might have been a different story had Sunderland taken one of a couple of decent early chances. Pep Guardiola’s team will always give their opposition a glance at goal, and in the 20th minute Jermain Defoe’s rasping long-range shot crashed off the crossbar and Fabio Borini headed the rebound wide with City goalkeeper Willy Caballero stranded. Even before that, Defoe had made a hash of a good cross by Adnan Januzaj, the on-loan Manchester United winger previously having shown off his talents with a mazy dribble through City’s midfield.
For the most part, however, the first half was a session of attack vs. defence with Sunderland huddled at the edge of the penalty area as City attempted to thread passes through the eye of a needle. There was regular employment of the last-ditch tackle and timely block from the home team, playing for their Premier League lives, having begun the day six points from Crystal Palace in 17th place. They were unable to haul themselves any closer.
Before Aguero’s goal, City actually found chances hard to come by, though they did blow a golden chance when Sane, previously peripheral, found space on the left to hit the byline. His cross was overhit, and David Silva’s lunge was ill-timed, though that duo would later make up for that breakdown in communication in glorious style.
From the opposite flank, two minutes before the break, City’s first (and crucial) goal came.
Raheem Sterling escaped Bryan Oviedo, and this time the pass was weighted perfectly. Aguero gobbled up his first real opportunity with a sharp, precise finish at the near post, caressing the ball where Jordan Pickford in Sunderland’s goal had no chance to stop it. The resistance was broken, and so was manager David Moyes’ strategy.
Then came Sane’s chance to shine. With Sunderland unable to force their way back in, and suffering the frustration of a series of offsides — Defoe had the ball in the net late on from such a position — City made use of the extra space they had been granted.
Silva, creator supreme, found room in the inside-left channel, and galloped on. His pass was faded into the path of a speeding Sane, who did not break stride in first controlling and then finishing, the goal given added aesthetics by crashing off the post and into the back of the net. The German, with six goals in his past 10 matches, and three in three, is quickly becoming a leading light.
2. Aguero on target again
A fit, motivated Aguero is almost unmatchable in Premier League terms, with the sincerest of apologies to Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku, both on the scoresheet during Sunday’s earlier game, when Tottenham beat Everton 3-2.
The threat of Gabriel Jesus, extinguished for the moment with the Brazilian out with a foot injury, looks to have galvanised the Argentinian, and he is now thriving off the speedy delivery service that Sterling and Sane provide from the flanks. Even though Sunderland were camped in defensive droves, the twin fliers found the way to seize three points.
Aguero’s goal was his first in the Premier League since Jan. 2, though doubles against both Monaco and Huddersfield must be taken into account. These days, it is not just goals that he is judged upon by his manager, and the Argentine stuck to the task of pressing Sunderland’s defenders into mistakes so that City could win back the ball and dominate possession as Guardiola prescribes.
3. More misery for Moyes
When a game falls beyond Sunderland’s reach, the Stadium of Light will begin to empty en masse, as fans peel for the exits, heading for car parks or the local Metro service. This time, the exodus began at the 60-minute stage, just as Sane’s shot was nestling in the back of the net. By full-time, the place was no more than one-fifth full. Hope is close to being abandoned.
Moyes has been dealt a bad hand on Wearside, with the club in the middle of a cost-cutting exercise, his transfer budget slashed to the bone while off-field staff face redundancies.
It all offers little grounds for buoyancy. In a relegation battle that has swung dramatically all season, with clubs like Swansea and Leicester dipping down only to rise back up again, Sunderland have been in the drop zone since September.
They had, however, put up some decent showings against high-level opposition in recent weeks.
Draws with Liverpool and Tottenham stand out like beacons among a run of just a single league victory in 2017. Until Aguero’s goal, there was the chance of a repeat. Once it was scored, then fans could begin to plan their exit strategy.
Once behind, Moyes had little or nothing to change things from the bench. Winger Wahbi Khazri did well for predecessor Sam Allardyce, but he has been given just four starts all season, while the only other possible attacking sub was George Honeyman, 22, with just one career start to his name.
Times are hard at Sunderland, and relegation will make them yet harder.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.