Manchester City are intent on making their title defence a procession. Their lead is now 12 points and though Liverpool can cut it back to nine with a game in hand by beating Leicester on Thursday, Pep Guardiola’s team have a relentlessness that may propel them far into the distance.
The manager often speaks of the significance of how his side “arrive” in February, when the business phase of the campaign begins. On this evidence City are hitting their best rhythms with the spring months beckoning: precisely as he wishes.
Riyad Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne were the game-winners, but it was another impressive all-round effort that enthused Guardiola, the master team-builder. This is City’s supreme strength: no single player is ever relied upon, as is underlined by the lack of a traditional No 9 being made a non-issue by Mahrez, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling all contributing seven league goals. De Bruyne is next highest with six.
The display had the Brentford manager, Thomas Frank, characterising City as the “best team in the world”, though Guardiola denied this. “Chelsea are – they won the Champions League – and Palmeiras [the Copa Libertadores winners],” he said. “It is important at this stage to have 60 points. Liverpool have two games in hand, after they play, we will see the gap. There’s 14 games to play with tough games like today. Look at what can happen, Tottenham lost at home to Southampton.”
Guardiola’s style is to talk up every opponent in quasi-awed terms, as if his team of A-list talents may struggle against them. This is often the precursor to them going out and giving them a schooling. So it was for Brentford, who were made unwilling ball-chasers pushed to near their area by City’s yo-yo-like ball retention.
John Stones, stepping forward from right-back, prompted one move that involved Rodri, Sterling, and Mahrez before a corner was claimed. Sterling next won a free-kick which resulted in another corner taken by the Algerian. Once again Brentford scrambled it clear only for Mahrez, moments later, to deliver another. All of this had David Raya’s goal resembling a dam City might burst imminently. Yet at the other end Mathias Jensen threatened the hosts, as a rare foray ended with a snap-shot that nearly beat Ederson.
Sterling and Stones had replaced Jack Grealish and Kyle Walker, each of whom, according to Guardiola, had been “perfect” on the night out on Sunday, a video clip of which had gone viral and caused the manager to defend them. Mahrez, also present then, had been included in a team that was arguably full strength apart from the missing right-back and the former Aston Villa man.
To reach the half-hour here and not concede is an achievement, though Brentford could be thankful that João Cancelo blasted over from close range after Raya had parried a Mahrez cross-shot. This was followed by Phil Foden chipping a ball over traffic for Sterling, who missed narrowly with an acrobatic volley. De Bruyne’s free-kick then found Rúben Dias, who teed up Aymeric Laporte. The centre-back’s chest-down-and-shot was only marginally off-target.
Dias’s next act was to give Ederson a scolding for not claiming the ball when rushing out: City’s captain hoofed clear, and the goalkeeper was informed that next time he should be given a shout. This was instantly forgotten, though, as City took the lead.
A chief plank of Guardiola’s attack-play is a run along an inside channel of the area. Sterling utilised the ploy, Mads Roerslev fouled him, and Darren England awarded a spot-kick. It was the 23rd Premier League penalty Sterling had won, a record. Mahrez followed Saturday’s conversion against Fulham with an eighth consecutive success from the spot since missing against Liverpool four years ago.
City, though, might have entered the dressing room with the scores level after a Stones slip had Rico Henry drawing a sharp save from Ederson. Brentford were still in the contest but City’s 74.5% first-half possession told the story. And when Henry tapped the ball out for a corner, after which Cancelo let fly from 25 yards, it seemed the pattern would continue. The Portuguese’s effort drew Guardiola applause. A surge from Stones that evaded Brentford defenders, before he looked to slip in Mahrez, was also deserving of praise.
City continued to purr, a whirl of movement in sky blue. Positions were interchanged, the ball swapped between them as if Brentford were training ground mannequins. Yet a slender lead holds no guarantee and suddenly Roerslev was teeing up Frank Onyeka. Only the powder-puff nature of his attempt prevented there being an equaliser.
But disaster struck for Brentford when Raya steered a pass out straight to Sterling. The latter took aim and though the goalkeeper saved, De Bruyne made no mistake. Guardiola did a jig of delight – this, surely, was the win secured.
He spent the remainder of the contest ensuring there was no complacency from his men. That may be the only way City fail to retain their crown. But Guardiola has them so well drilled it seems unlikely.