The Manchester City machine ploughs on, untroubled, unchallenged, unassailable. Forget the scoreline – made presentable by Matt Phillips’s late consolation for West Bromwich – this was a victory for the league leaders that gave accurate definition to the term routine. Although not at their coruscating best, with their five-point advantage at the top of the table retained, already City look a team so superior to anything else in the Premier League and Arsenal’s record of heading through a season unbeaten must seem increasingly attainable. Not that their manager is getting carried away.
“Have you ever heard of the league being won in January?” Pep Guardiola said when asked if he acknowledged Jurgen Klopp’s belief City are so far ahead they will wrap the title up in the New Year. “Me neither.”
While City headed back up the M6 on a cloud of satisfaction, it was a result which will have done little to curb the stir of revolt around the Hawthorns. The large number of empty seats in the home sections was a telling indictment of Tony Pulis’s approach: Pulisball is slipping rapidly out of favour here.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 28, 2017
This may have been the most attractive footballing side in the country coming to visit, but Black Country expectations of any like-minded response from their own team are low indeed. And so it proved. Five defenders and three holding midfielders: Pulis was never going to respond to Pep Guardiola’s visit by going toe-to-toe in an attacking slug-out.
From the off West Brom, playing so deep they should collectively have been fitted with aqualungs, were immediately obliged to block and parry, to fling themselves at City shots. There is, however, only so often it is possible to curtail excellence. After nine minutes of dominance City, as is their wont, passed the ball deftly and patiently across the pitch until it arrived at the feet of Fernandinho, who pushed it wide to Leroy Sane. The German, who this week revealed he has a new tattoo on his back of him scoring against Monaco last season, was needle sharp in his delivery, bending a precise left-foot shot beyond Ben Foster.
But before gloom could totally envelope the stadium, West Brom responded. Four minutes after that opener, the old City hand Gareth Barry seized control of a bouncing ball ahead of David Silva, spun round to create some space, and seeing that his two forwards were out-manning John Stones, fired a delicious forward chip. With Salomon Rondon as his wingman, Jay Rodriguez out-muscled Stones and chipped the Manchester City keeper Ederson. Any thought the home side might long match their visitors however was seconds later dispelled. Sane returned the earlier favour and set up Fernandinho. His long range shot looked innocuous, but took sufficient deflection off Ahmed Hegazi’s ankle to leave Foster nonplussed.
If Manchester City were not at their spinning, buzzing best, if Kevin De Bruyne was finding himself out numbered too often (he even missed late on the kind of chance he normally buries before breakfast), still they were elegance itself in possession. And still the chances kept coming, Jonny Evans required constantly to step in to stop the visitors’ pinball interchanges.
The stunning third was peak City. Sane weaved in from the left, passed to De Bruyne who moved the ball quickly on to Silva. With the West Brom defence on its heels, he played in Kyle Walker whose lovely bending, arcing fizz of a cross was banged home, with his first touch of the ball, by the substitute Raheem Sterling. Sumptuous is the only description.
And while the late consolation from Phillips, again set free by Barry’s visionary delivery, set up a brief injury time flurry of hit and hope, the sad truth for local taste was it was way too little, way too late. Thus do City march on unassailable. They will soon be joined by the returning Phil Foden, the player of the tournament, who scored twice for England in the final of the U17 World Cup.