There were moments in this game that a young Pep Guardiola may have scribbled down in his notebook and dreamt about as a budding coach, and others he would have scowled at. What was clear from City’s 3-1 win over West Ham United on Sunday is that we’re still in the rudimentary stages of our development under Guardiola, but the players are learning quickly, and what began as a floundering Magikarp will soon be roaring like a Gyarados.
City were quite brilliant in the first half to the point where the players seemed to be enjoying the spectacle as much as the fans. Nolito in particular wore a permanent grin on his face, a grin that could only be dislodged by the sound of the half-time whistle. Hurrying down the byline with the expression of a Labrador charging after a tennis ball, the 29-year-old Spaniard appeared to be furious when Andre Marriner sounded for the break. He wanted more. Everyone bar West Ham wanted more.
Providing the entertainment were David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne; no longer just three glamorous names shoved onto a football field and expected to produce magic, but a trio assembled into an efficient system that makes sorcery in the final third inevitable. In this setup Silva is the chief prober – give the ball to him, make your run and he will ask questions of the opposition’s defence. De Bruyne’s approach is far more direct, he does not have the controlling powers that Silva has but with that wand of a right foot he will either test the keeper or put the ball into an area that’s crying out for the final touch of a head or a foot. Sterling, a player unlocked rather than rejuvenated by his manager, is the little shit who’ll skip past you, watch and grin as you try to bury him, and then burst past you again until you’re forced to admit, reluctantly, that he’s actually pretty bloody good. Raheem’s got that boyish, kid-in-the-playground confidence back now and he’s one of the main reasons City have been so fun to watch so far this season.
All Sterling needed to complete what has been a perfect start to the campaign was a goal and he got it 8 minutes into this fixture. It was a fantastic move, too, with Silva sliding Nolito in, Nolito cutting back and Sterling placing into the bottom corner – the archetypal Guardiola goal, if you like. It was two just ten minutes later when De Bruyne’s fizzing whip into the box was headed in by Fernandinho. We play excellent football on the floor, but we’ve also proven that we can use dead-ball situations to our advantage.
It was West Ham who spoiled the party last term when they came to the Etihad and smudged a perfect run of five straight victories, but this one looked a foregone conclusion at the break. It was anything but. Pushing the dangerous Michail Antonio up the pitch, the visitors now had the luxury of one of the league’s most potent aerial threats when pumping the ball into the box. And when John Stones was forced off with what looked to be a knock to the eye, we lost much of our composure and also our tallest defender. The goal that got the Hammers back into the game was always going to be an Antonio header.
But City stuck with their plan. Samir Nasri was given his first bit of action of the season and impressed as City looked to see the game off once and for all. In fact, this cameo was enough for Guardiola to declare after the game that “Samir Nasri can stay. His quality is another level. It depends on him. If he wants to help us and stay to be part of something.” The Frenchman had an effort saved by Adrian, played in Silva who watched his effort crash off the post and was instrumental in the goal that secured the win as he switched to Silva who released Sterling down the byline in the dying seconds. The rest was phenomenal – the most cocksure of finishes from the lad who almost certainly would’ve squandered this chance a few months ago.
The perfectionist in Pep wont agree, but this, in terms of points, has been a perfect start for Guardiola. His toughest task so far, however, lurks after the international break. The Manchester Derby, a reunion with his favourite enemy and a huge match between the two sides who are at the top of the table and will expect to be at the top of the table in nine months time. With Sergio Agüero set to be absent when the FA eventually see his foolish elbow on Winston Reid and Kelechi Iheanacho recovering from an injury, it’s a game Guardiola may have to win without a recognised striker.