Manchester City put together a fairly comprehensive victory against Everton at the Etihad on Saturday, returning them to the top of the table, at least temporarily. The Toffees are a tough side, more than capable of taking points off the big clubs as evidenced by their draw against Chelsea and what-should-have-been a draw at Anfield if not for the unfortunate late mistake by keeper Jordan Pickford. This was a match that Pep Guardiola’s team would have to play well in, and I mean good for their standards, to come away with the three points. Fortunately, the Blues did come prepared to play and got a major contribution from Gabriel Jesus, who finally found his finishing boots after a long drought.
Before yesterday, Jesus had only scored one Premier League goal all season, and that had come way back in August against Huddersfield. There was ample concern with his lack of goal scoring because, to state the obvious, that is literally the primary purpose for him being out there. Many, including myself, still had faith in him through most of these struggles simply due to the fact that his contribution to the attack was there despite the lack of goals. His work rate was always high and linked up well with the midfield, it all seemed like an unlucky streak of finishing or lack of confidence. But I must admit, I did realize that City wouldn’t be able to reach their ceiling of being the best club in the world if Jesus’ problems persisted. The Blues were very successful during this stretch but numbers could have looked so much more gaudy had Jesus been the guy we saw last season.
All those concerns can be put to rest for the time being, because Jesus just got himself two goals against Everton and was arguably the best player on the pitch. From a positioning or tactical perspective, it didn’t look as if he was doing much differently than what he had been. But from the start, there just looked to be an extra bite to his game.
The first sign of Jesus taking control of his problems and punting them 30 rows into the stands came in the 10th minute. He received a ball from Fabian Delph on the edge of the box with Michael Keane on his back. Jesus made a great turn, playing the ball through his own legs with the instep and bypassing Keane. Unfortunately, his touch was 20% too heavy and Zouma had momentum to recover before Jesus could reach it to take a shot. It wasn’t groundbreaking but still, you could see the gears start turning again.
There he was again in the 21st minute, dropping into the midfield to receive and lay off a pass from Leroy Sane, something he does very well. Jesus got into the box immediately afterward, attacking the vacant space in between the stretched center backs (Michael Keane and Yerry Mina). He didn’t get a shot off but his movement was dangerous in its own right, and almost caused a Keane own goal if not for a good save by Pickford.
Gabriel Jesus got on the score sheet soon after. City’s press had been hounding the Everton center backs all match, and in the 22nd minute, Yerry Mina panicked under that pressure. He just booted the ball aimlessly into the midfield, directly to Ilkay Gundogan all by his lonesome. The mistake was compounded by the fact that manager Marco Silva was sending his wingbacks, Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne, well up field when Everton had possession. With these wide areas undefended, Gundogan played the ball up to Sane up found Jesus making a run inside of Kurt Zouma before slightly turning out towards the wing. The Brazilian took it first touch with his left foot, and slotted it past Pickford perfectly. This was a shot that, given his recent form, you’d expect Jesus to hit into the side netting or directly at the keeper. To his credit though, whether the problem being a lack of luck or confidence, he battled through it and found the goal he so desperately needed.
Jesus wasn’t done quite yet though, scoring again in the 50th minute off a play that didn’t look all that dangerous in the buildup. A cleared Kyle Walker cross worked itself around to Leroy Sane on the left wing. Gabriel Jesus was in the box and settled himself into a nice pocket of space between defenders. Sane picked him out with a lofted cross in and Jesus put a strong header past Pickford. All of those other aspects he contributes to the attack were still there as well. He was so active in the midfield that Jesus actually had a deeper average position than both Riyad Mahrez and Leroy Sane.
With Gundogan and Bernardo Silva pushed so wide in their midfield positions, he had a big responsibilities to have a presence in that central midfield area ahead of the center backs. This was especially important because much of City’s success came from wide players attacking off the wing in between the lines, and having a passing option centrally is crucial in creating those one-two combinations. Jesus’ heat map below also illustrates his movement, as his 52 touches came all over the pitch. And this isn’t unusual for Jesus, his heat map usually describes a player incredibly involved in the match, functioning very well in the interchange-heavy scheme Guardiola implements.
It was far from a perfect game for City, however. If you believe in the expected goal (xG) statistics, this game was actually closer than the eye test would indicate. City finished with 1.80 xG compared to 1.68 xG for Everton, according to UnderStat. Though I don’t think these numbers truly reflect the nature of this match, the Toffees did create a few high quality chances that just needed refined finishing. And Marco Silva’s tactical adjustments did contribute to this. Everton opened up in 5-4-1 with Dominic Calvert-Lewin up top. Richarlison defended as the outside right midfielder but would cut inside on the attack to let Seamus Coleman overlap. They had limited success on the front foot in the first half with this set up, with the lone memorable chance coming on a cross to a wide open Richarlison. The Brazilian should have done better, he sent it well into the stands.
The start of the second half brought along some tweaking from Silva, switching Richarlison to the left side and sending Bernard to the right. This made little difference and after City’s second goal, big changes were needed. Silva brought on Theo Walcott and Ademola Lookman, shifting Richarlison up top and into a 4-4-2. Guardiola countered this by shifting Fabian Delph into the inverted defensive midfield position after spending the entire game leading up to that as a more traditional left back, looking to squeeze some of that width Everton was looking to create.
But those 15 minutes that followed were Everton’s best of the match even despite conceding the third City goal. Having the width be provided from attack minded players instead of the wingbacks unlocked something in the City defense. Lookman was particularly impressive, exploiting space and picking out runners into the box. Richarlison and Walcott both missed really good chances in front of goal off Lookman passes in fact. Calvert-Lewin was the goalscorer and took advantage of Nicolas Otamendi being caught out when his clearance didn’t make it out of the danger area. The Englishman found a pocket centrally while Aymeric Laporte was focused on Gylfi Sigurðsson and placed the header past Ederson.
Some of these defensive lapses were not enough to overshadow what was a really strong performance from Manchester City. The attack looked fluid and not only did Gabriel Jesus get back on track, but Kevin De Bruyne returned as well. Though he looked like a version of himself that hasn’t played in some time, both of these things are reasons to expect improvement from an already-great team. City shift their focus to the League Cup match against Leicester City on Tuesday. Now that we are in the quarterfinals, the first potential trophy of year gets down to the final stages.