After 35 minutes Manchester City let West Ham have a shot. It was their first of the new season and, to be brutally honest, it was a bit of a non-event. In fact the only reason for mentioning the moment when Sébastien Haller briefly stirred Ederson with a tame overhead kick is that West Ham would not be allowed another sight of goal until deep into the second half, by which point City were cruising towards yet another romp at the London Stadium.
Unfortunately this has become the norm when mid-table hopefuls come up against opponents as classy and streetwise as the reigning champions. Did West Ham play well in that curiously low-key first half? They did have their flashes. Their high press forced a couple of sloppy errors from City. Haller, Manuel Pellegrini’s new £45m striker, had some cute touches and brought teammates into play. Felipe Anderson left Oleksandr Zinchenko on his backside at one point. Manuel Lanzini appealed for a penalty after tumbling in City’s area. There were moments.
“I think we stuck to the plan quite well in the first half,” Jack Wilshere said. “We were unlucky to go in 1-0 down. I wouldn’t say we created a lot of chances but we were comfortable.”
And there was the rub. West Ham might have felt comfortable during the opening period but they trailed after an instinctive strike from Gabriel Jesus in the 25th minute and barely landed a meaningful blow on City in the final third. This is what the champions do to the also-rans. For all the focus on the creativity and flair, there is an edge to them out of possession, a structure that makes it hard to get at their defence and a willingness to let eager opponents tire themselves out.
City’s back four welcomed the pressure from West Ham’s forwards. The more it happened the more Rodri, a brawny but elegant presence in defensive midfield, dropped back to take the ball. Ederson in goal was capable of starting moves from his six-yard box. Slowly but surely West Ham were pulled into the trap and space opened up for Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Riyad Mahrez, while Michail Antonio’s failure to protect Aaron Cresswell allowed Kyle Walker to raid down the right and create the opener for Jesus.
West Ham tried to persist with their plan. Yet they had no counter to City’s cynical ability to prevent their moves from developing with tugs of the shirt. As José Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjær noted last season, Guardiola teams are experts at the tactical foul and referees rarely punish a seemingly innocuous ruse.
“That’s football,” Wilshere said. “When you play against experienced players who understand the game it’s going to happen. You can’t get frustrated. They’re clever players. A team like us who like to attack could learn from that. They do that counter press. They lose the ball and bang, they go straight away. They’re going to make fouls. If you do get out of it, it happens so quickly and they bring you down.”
Wilshere went off with a dead leg after receiving some rough treatment from Rodri, who made an assured competitive debut after his move from Atlético Madrid. “He seems to know what the Premier League is about already,” the West Ham midfielder said.
City, who delivered the perfect riposte to Liverpool’s 4-1 win over Norwich City on Friday night, feel they have found a long-term replacement for Fernandinho. Yet it is a collective effort. They have all been drilled to hunt the ball with ferocious intensity. “You can see that from the way Pep is on the sidelines,” Wilshere said. “He’s animated and you can tell when you’re lining up against them in the tunnel that they’re up for it. They’re the best in the league at keeping the ball but they also know you have to put your foot in.”
It was a masterclass in earning the right to play from City, who spent the second half embarrassing West Ham’s lightweight midfield. De Bruyne charged through the middle to make Raheem Sterling’s first goal and the England forward opened the campaign with a hat-trick after two more delightful finishes. “He’s a nightmare to play against,” Wilshere said. “You don’t know if he’s going to come inside and he’s so sharp off the mark. He’s playing in a great team but he’s arguably their key player. He’s probably the first name on the teamsheet for Pep.”
Sterling’s indispensable status speaks volumes given that Sergio Agüero came off the bench to underline City’s strength in depth with a late penalty. It is difficult to pinpoint flaws in this side, which might come as some consolation for West Ham. They will not be the last to end up wondering if they were ever in the game against Guardiola’s genius workaholics.