Manchester City understands how to win the Premier League under Pep Guardiola and, on Saturday afternoon, his side reminded rivals Manchester United of just what is now required of a team with title aspirations.
Just four days after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side sustained a shock defeat at home to Sheffield United, City got the job done against the relegation zone boys with a solid if unspectacular 1-0 victory.
There was certainly little chance of a repeat of Wednesday night’s upset at Old Trafford once Gabriel Jesus had sorted his feet out to smash City into a ninth-minute lead at the Emirates.
The Blades worked hard to frustrate City and deny them too many opportunities of a second goal, but City worked just as hard to stop the visitors from grabbing an equaliser, particularly during the closing stages.
Manchester United’s defence was rightly criticised for the lazy way in which they failed to shut Oliver Burke for his deflected winner at Old Trafford, but Guardiola ensured his side weren’t similarly allppy.
When Sheffield United finished the game with three strikers chasing an equaliser, the Catalan motivated his players to throw themselves into challenges and blocks, to maintain City’s clean sheet.
Guardiola had warned his squad before the game about the threat posed by Chris Wilder’s side. He was expecting another testing game, also because City had scored just four goals in their past three meetings with the Blades.
“I woke up, I went out of my building and saw the wind and snowy conditions and I said straight away this will be one of the toughest games we play this season,” the City boss said.
“Sheffield United are right now at the bottom and that’s when you realise the Premier League is the hardest in the world.”
City, though, will be even prouder of their defensive efforts, given they haven’t conceded for 450 minutes. However, the impressive record is not purely down to the back four, with the front-six struggling so hard to win the ball back high up the pitch.
For example, when Burke had one slight glance of a break, it was Bernardo Silva who dashed back as almost the last man to intercept a through the ball with a sliding challenge.
City also demonstrated their squad strength in depth. With a packed fixture schedule, this game represented an opportunity to rotate players – despite already being without Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero.
Guardiola made five changes from the side that thrashed West Brom 5-0 on Tuesday night. Joao Cancelo, John Stones, Rodri, Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez were all rested, with the first four members of that quartet likely to start the huge game against reigning champions Liverpool at Anfield next week.
So, perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that City lacked their usual rhythm, resulting in the hosts gaining possession without establishing too many opportunities.
The early winner came from Ferran Torres’ perseverance rather than decisive quality, as he stumbled his way to a cross that was turned in by Jesus, for the Brazilian’s first Premier League goal since November.
City has now won 12 successive matches in all competitions for what would be a club record were they not to count a penalty shootout victory over Wolves in an 18-game winning streak during the 2017-18 campaign.
“We don’t have one player who tries to win for himself. Our top scorers are not in the first 10 or 12 in the league, so we have to do it as a team,” Guardiola added. “That’s how we will retain it.