LONDON — Three thoughts from Manchester City’s 5-0 win at West Ham in the FA Cup third round on Friday.
1. Comfortable win for Man City
There’s been an air of tension around Manchester City for the past week, with manager Pep Guardiola expressing his frustration at their relatively poor form with some curious public statements, but that was washed away with a 5-0 win over West Ham in the third round of the FA Cup.
Yaya Toure, David Silva, Sergio Aguero and John Stones all scored to give City a comfortable victory that was wrapped up by half-time against a desperate West Ham side (there was also an own goal from Havard Nordtveit).
West Ham United
If there were questions about the City manager before the game, then afterward attention will turn to his opposite number. Slaven Bilic’s shoulders slouched as his team’s last chance of any success — beyond Premier League survival — disappeared. He’s not the only one to blame for such a miserable evening, but he cannot be sitting comfortably.
City, perhaps a little surprisingly, named a strong side; the only significant differences from a full-strength team being Willy Caballero in goal and Pablo Zabaleta as a holding midfielder, reprising an experiment Guardiola conducted against Celtic in the Champions League. West Ham rested Dimitri Payet, with Andy Carroll supported by Michail Antonio up front; an aerial bombardment seemed likely.
The opening half-hour managed to achieve the slightly curious feat of being a slow, not especially entertaining end-to-end contest. Both teams had presentable chances that probably should have been scored, but City eventually went ahead when they perhaps didn’t deserve to.
Zabaleta tumbled in the area, somewhere near West Ham’s Angelo Ogbonna, but despite contact appearing to be minimal at best, it was enough for referee Michael Oliver to give the penalty. Toure continued his recent revival by emphatically thumping the ball into the corner of the goal.
Almost immediately, West Ham should have equalised, but Sofiane Feghouli missed an open goal at the far post, crumpling into the net with apparent embarrassment. His woe was compounded a few minutes later when City got two in quick succession, first when Nordtveit turned a Bacary Sagna cross into his own net while under pressure from Raheem Sterling. Then Sterling set up David Silva for City’s third goal.
The playmaker’s temperament was as cool as the evening temperature as he controlled the ball on the edge of the 6-yard box and then sent goalkeeper Adrian sprawling before almost absent-mindedly slotting home. Plenty of home fans slunk out early rather than watch the last few minutes of a grim opening half.
Those who came back for the second period might have wished they hadn’t bothered when, six minutes into it, City got a fourth. Sterling produced some trickery to set up Toure, whose low and powerful shot was turned in by Aguero. The visiting players almost looked too embarrassed to celebrate.
At a rough estimate, a quarter of the home support cut their losses with 20 minutes remaining, preferring to brave the rain and the long trudge to the train station rather than watch their team. And really, nobody could blame them.
By the time Stones headed home the fifth, the stadium was barely half full, and the most entertainment the home fans had on a grim night came from two pitch invaders, one of whom was dressed as Spider-Man.
2. Sterling and Silva impress
In games like this, it’s often difficult to work out whether one team has been very good or the other catastrophically bad. This time, it was a combination of both, because as poor as West Ham’s spineless performance was, some of City’s most illustrious talents showed their worth, notably Sterling and Silva.
Sterling is an odd player, in that when he’s confident and thinking clearly, he’s a menace to any defence, a forward who mixes speed and ingenuity in a way that few can cope with. But when he isn’t either of those things, he can be a dithering liability, more likely to dribble the ball directly out of play than create anything of any worth.
In this game he showed both sides of his footballing personality, starting uncertainly; one chance in particular, when he cut inside onto his weaker left foot rather than take a free shot with his stronger right, displayed that his brain wasn’t quite where it could have been. But then, after pressuring Nordtveit into the own goal, Sterling was a threat again, his runs showing more purpose and his threat more evident.
Silva, on the other hand, shows his class more consistently, something that was evident here. He can still probe and nudge holes in defences with the best of them, and he arguably has the best control in the Premier League. The first touch before his goal was simply sublime, a delicate killing of the ball that turned a routine tap-in into a work of art.
City still aren’t as fluent as Guardiola would like, but if these two carry on like this, the squad might get there pretty soon.
3. An awful night for the hapless Hammers
Eyebrows were raised when the team news was announced before the game, not just by City playing such a strong side, but also because Payet and club captain Mark Noble had been left on the bench by Slaven Bilic.
Payet might not be enjoying a season as successful as his last, but the Frenchman is still West Ham’s most creative outlet. For West Ham to progress in a competition that represents their only chance for some sort of distraction and entertainment this term, his inclusion seemed a no-brainer.
Bilic withdrew Payet during the last game, a 2-0 defeat to Manchester United, on the basis that he was tired. As such, giving him some rest ahead of an important game such as Friday’s seemed sensible. Equally, Noble is often West Ham’s driving force, so he too would have seemed a logical selection for this game.
After City’s fourth goal went in, the selection didn’t look good, but Payet and Noble at least should have been given the entire game off, a rest before what could still be a relegation battle. Yet if the decision to leave them out from the start was mildly surprising, the one to introduce both at that stage was just surreal.
At 4-0 down, Bilic could only hope to salvage a little dignity, but there seemed little point in potentially risking his best players in the hope of consolation. If Payet was fit enough, he should have started; if he wasn’t, he should have played no part at all. West Ham’s manager chose the worst of both worlds.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.