Three points from the Etihad as Man City beat West Ham 3-1 to remain perfect in the Premier League this season.
1. Man City keep up their perfect start
Five games, five wins. Pep Guardiola has enjoyed a perfect August, at least as far as results are concerned. Manchester City have booked their place in the Champions League and now return to the top of the embryonic Premier League table just a day after they were displaced. They join Manchester United and Chelsea on nine points and even though it is far too early to say the title race will be contested from start to finish by three teams and no more, each has begun with sufficient speed that they have already distanced themselves from Arsenal, Leicester, Liverpool and Tottenham.
It also tees up September’s Manchester derby beautifully. At least one team will lose their 100 percent record.
West Ham United
City were rewarded for starting superbly against West Ham on Sunday. A cleverly worked opener involving David Silva and Nolito was converted by Raheem Sterling. A second soon followed. Kevin de Bruyne is illustrating that he is one of the division’s premier set-pieces. Just as he did at Stoke last week, when Sergio Aguero applied a finishing touch to his free kick, he earned an assist from a dead-ball situation. Fernandinho was the scorer this time, with the most forceful of headers.
City’s control of the first half was absolute yet there were worrying moments, as there have been in each of Guardiola’s league games so far. When Michail Antonio headed in Arthur Masuaku’s deep cross, West Ham then threatened an equaliser. Instead, Sterling added his second goal of the game after Silva had hit the post. Victory could have been clinched sooner. Samir Nasri, who made an unexpected first appearance of the season, was denied when Sam Byram backheeled his shot off the line.
Another West Ham defender made a different sort of impression. There was a concern for City and England alike when the excellent John Stones came off after a challenge from Masuaku. The left-back, who had already been booked, might have been fortunate to escape a second yellow card but another unpunished offence may yet assume a greater importance. Aguero seemed to elbow Winston Reid and if the FA takes action, City’s top scorer is in danger of a ban that would result in him missing the derby.
2. Sterling’s renaissance continues
The first finish was smooth, sidefooted into the back of Adrian’s net with such smoothness that it came as a surprise to realise it was just his third of 2016, with the first two coming against Aston Villa last season. The second was rolled in coolly from an acute angle. Sterling may only score against teams in claret and blue but each goal was a sign of how he looks reborn under Guardiola.
Simply put, Sterling is a prime example of how players can benefit from regime change. Manuel Pellegrini lost faith in the most expensive Englishman ever. Sterling arrived at Euro 2016 short of confidence and left it as the chosen scapegoat for many. Yet Guardiola phoned him to reassure Sterling he would play a part in his plans and he has been true to his word.
Sterling has started each of the meaningful matches under the Catalan, being rested only for the formality of the second leg against Steaua Bucharest, and he has made a significant contribution in each. He won penalties in the first two games, set up Nolito for the late fourth at Stoke and then added goals to bookend the game against West Ham. Significantly, too, many have been early impacts. These are decisive involvements.
His opener was an illustration of what Guardiola wants from his wingers. Their starting position tends to be wide, stretching the play to create more room for Silva and De Bruyne in the inside-forward positions. But when Nolito used that width to find space behind Antonio, whose defensive deficiencies were exposed again, Sterling had vacated the flank to arrive near the penalty spot. He was able to ghost in unnoticed perhaps because, in Aguero, Silva, De Bruyne and Nolito, opponents have enough other attackers to worry about. The creative burden is shared.
Sterling looks buoyant again under Guardiola and it’s especially notable how willing he is to show for the ball. He seems receptive to the new ideas at the Etihad. Perhaps he is a player who benefits from micro-management, whether Brendan Rodgers’ close attention at Liverpool in 2013-14 or Guardiola’s hands-on coaching now. Sterling’s station on the right wing meant he was the closest player to the manager to the first half.
3. A damaging few days for the Hammers
It is safe to say West Ham have had better starts to the season. Even with the sense that the move to the London Stadium could herald a giant leap forward and the pleasure of a first win at their new home, they have departed Europe ignominiously — to Astra Giurgiu, their tiny Romanian bogey team — and despite a spirited second half, they were in effect beaten yesterday with 70 minutes remaining.
West Ham recorded a magnificent, memorable win at the Etihad Stadium last season but any chances of a sequel were destroyed swiftly after kick off. Injuries are a mitigating factor, though, for a team deprived of nearly all of their major attacking threats. Dimitri Payet, who played a quarter of the game at Chelsea 13 days earlier and was named in the France squad, was nonetheless absent, leaving West Ham deprived of inspiration. Simone Zaza’s loan move from Juventus was not finalised in time for him to be available and so the line was led by the callow Ashley Fletcher, 20 years old, who was on Manchester United’s books until recently and was making his maiden top-flight start.
It is harsh to blame him for what went wrong, especially as there was a lopsided look to a team overloaded with defenders. Centre-back is one of the few positions where Slaven Bilic’s premier performers are all fully fit. It underpinned the logic of selecting three of them. Yet a policy of safety in numbers, as he opted for 5-4-1 in a damage-limitation exercise, felt outdated within 20 minutes. In any case, it always felt a risk to start Antonio at wing-back, which afforded Nolito more room.
The half-time introduction of Byram, a more natural defender, felt like acknowledgment that Bilic had made a mistake from the start. Antonio is more effective further forward, as he showed when heading his second goal in as many league games. Perhaps had he begun in a more advanced role, West Ham would have put up more of a fight in the first half.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.