Manchester City became the ninth team to top the Premier League this season but while Pep Guardiola claimed the table is the last thing he will look at, his team appear set to stay significantly involved in this title race. The numbers behind this victory are staggering but barely do justice to how superior Guardiola’s team were to humbled West Brom.
Ilkay Gündogan continued his hot streak by scoring twice as his manager paid tribute to his neighbour. “He’s an exceptional human being to start with,” Guardiola said, “and an exceptional player.” City made light of the absence of Kevin De Bruyne to record an 11th successive wins in all competitions for the first time since 2017.
It seems hard to conceive West Brom managed to draw 1-1 at the Etihad Stadium last month, especially as that was the game in which they traded Slaven Bilic for Sam Allardyce as manager. They have now conceded 29 goals in their 10 Premier League games at The Hawthorns this season and sit six points adrift of safety, with the worst goal difference in the division. They are the first team since Chelsea in 1978 to concede at least three goals in five successive top flight home games. That derby win at Wolves a fortnight ago seems a mirage.
City have the best goal difference and, while they will be overtaken if Manchester United beat Sheffield United on Wednesday, they are seven points clear of the ailing champions Liverpool. With Sheffield United and Burnley next for City before a visit to Anfield, Guardiola’s third title at the Etihad looks within his hands.
“The last thing I’m thinking about is the league table,” he said. “Now I want to get home safely, have a few days off, then Sheffield United. What’s important is to be calm, like when we were 12th.” This City certainly are, even if they were aided by Albion’s meekness. Never mind assistant referee Sian Massey-Ellis raising a misguided flag for City’s second goal, the home team appeared to be waving a white flag as they were four down by half-time.
The loss of De Bruyne to a hamstring injury last week could have been a glimmer of vulnerability but Gündogan is finding the form of his life in a more advanced role. He has now scored seven times in eight league games as City adapt to life without a regulation centre forward by getting the midfielders to score instead.
Yet City had looked rattled inside two minutes when Ederson saved from Semi Ajayi at close range as Darnell Furlong hurled in a succession of long throw-ins. City responded and, after Sam Johnstone tipped Phil Foden’s shot on to a post, Gündogan took a neat touch to his right on the D before lofting a neat shot into the far corner in the sixth minute.
In a tight match, Massey’s indecisive flag for the second goal might have been controversial. Only after Riyad Mahrez had received João Cancelo’s pass out wide and started dribbling back did she signal for offside. When the ball came back for Cancelo to take control and shoot into the far top corner, left-footed, it was unclear whether the West Brom defence had stopped for the flag or not. At the moment, it is difficult to tell the difference.
VAR showed Mahrez had been played onside by Furlong and the offside decision was overturned. “You can’t tell me about all that play to the whistle stuff,” Allardyce said. “That’s nonsense. The assistant referee made a mistake but that was just one mistake. We made lots more than that.” Callum Robinson shot just wide from a good chance for West Brom before Gündogan made it 3-0. Karlan Grant nodded the ball back towards Romaine Sawyers but Gündogan picked it off his opponent and shot home left-footed from 20 yards.
Mahrez scored just before half-time in trademark style as he cut inside after collecting Raheem Sterling’s crossfield pass and swerved home a left-footed shot.
West Brom signalled their bid for damage limitation at half-time by replacing their centre-forward Callum Robinson with a third centre-half in Kyle Bartley; City replaced Foden and Gündogan. It was like a tacit agreement to go easy for more realistic challenges ahead.
Rodri shot against the top of the crossbar as City remained so encamped deep in West Brom territory their holding midfielder fancied his chances of a goal.
Then he sand-wedged a delightfully angled ball for Mahrez to run on to and, delicate as you like, half-volley a square pass across goal for Sterling to tap in his ninth goal in all competitions this season. Who needs strikers?