Perhaps it was a dress rehearsal for Manchester City. Sergio Aguero may depart when his contract expires next summer, but with the Argentinian’s injuries ever more frequent, they have had a glimpse of the future and life without their record scorer has proved problematic.
It is safe to say Kyle Walker will not be the long-term answer, but he compensated for Aguero’s absence at Bramall Lane. City mustered 102 league goals last season, but the flood has become a trickle and Walker’s winner was just their fourth in as many matches now. He nevertheless brought up a century of his own – 100 league appearances for City – but in a manner to frustrate his first club. Sheffield United remain rooted on a solitary point for the season.
It always looked difficult to double their tally, despite the excellence of Aaron Ramsdale, but minus Aguero – and his injured understudy Gabriel Jesus – City’s superiority was not reflected in the scoreline. Perpetual possession and plenty of pressure brought a solitary strike.
One of the most potent teams in modern history have found goals hard to come by of late. Walker’s was at least taken in style. His goals are rarities but tend to be memorable for the execution as well as the simple fact he scored. That a man who had not found the net for 363 days was the scorer seemed to sum up United’s fortunes. Conceding to one of their own, a Sheffield native who joined the club at seven, seemed to add to a litany of misfortunes in this particular dose of second-season syndrome. With expert precision, Walker took aim and found the bottom corner from 25 yards.
Ahead of him, Guardiola experimented as he looked for a deputy for Aguero. The City manager was the scourge of the striker when he converted Lionel Messi into a false nine. Now it is circumstances rather than choice that means the spearhead of his side is not a centre-forward. And yet winger Ferran Torres had his moments when he resembled a No. 9. He met Bernardo Silva’s cross with a header that Ramsdale saved well. He made a poacher’s run into the six-yard box to get on the end of Raheem Sterling’s low cross. Ramsdale again excelled by saving. He pierced the offside trap, but could not chip the alert Ramsdale. Aided by bright movement, Torres’ deployment was a qualified success, even if he is still awaiting his first Premier League goal.
Others looked to contribute. Aymeric Laporte tried, drilling a half-volley just wide. Rodri produced a similarly sweet strike that Ramsdale tipped over, not entirely convincingly. Ramsdale held a De Bruyne free kick and did better to repel Mahrez’s set piece. The £18 million United paid to bring him back to Bramall Lane to replace Dean Henderson could be money well spent; assuming, that is, his team-mates score enough goals for his saves to be meaningful.
And that has been an issue. United have only three for the season, and just one in open play. That tally ought to have been doubled. Could rue the moment when John Lundstram cleared the bar with his shot after Sander Berge, the most threatening United player, found him in space in the box. It meant Walker had a clean sheet to go with his goal on a happy homecoming.
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