Nothing stops this winning train! And if something were to stop it, it obviously wouldn’t be Stoke City, as this game showed. Manchester City worked the Potters away from home solidifying their grasp on the title as well as their opponent’s grasp on relegation. City were not at their best on Monday night, but not at their best is still really, really good for Pep Guardiola and his boys.
The start of the game was marked by City’s asymmetric formation. The full-back position is often the most dynamic one within the squad and continued to be in this match. Kyle Walker opened the game in a very advanced position, sitting to the outside of Raheem Sterling on the right. His counterpart Oleksandr Zinchenko, on the other hand, pinched into midfield and generated the attack from the middle as opposed to supporting it down the wing.
City’s flow naturally gravitated down the right side given this overload with Walker down that wing. With Stoke expected to park the bus (which they did), Pep clearly wanted Walker’s pace as an additional weapon while also freeing Sterling up to make a variety of runs without sacrificing width.
The opening goal of the game originated quickly with Kyle Walker passing out of the back down to the right flank. City’s quick ball movement once again tore through the defense as Stoke were not able to close the ball down as fast as the Blues were able to pass it. Walker found Sterling at around the halfway line, who immediately found Fernandinho in the center.
The Brazilian then found his national team counterpart Gabriel Jesus who held up play well on the edge of the attacking third. Jesus occupied both center-backs while doing so and gave Sterling enough time to sneak around the outside of the defense.
Jesus made a great pass down the line and Sterling provided a perfect cross into the box for David Silva to bury. Silva was so open in the box because of poor positioning among the Stoke backline. Both center-backs stepped to Jesus to no avail and right-back Moritz Bauer was way too far toward the sideline to recover in time.
Leroy Sané deserves partial credit for Bauer’s bad positioning as he maintained his position on the touchline even with the play all the way on the opposite side of the field. Sané’s width held up Bauer for just long enough for Silva to expose the space this stretching caused.
With the first goal in the bag just 10 minutes after kickoff, the game felt over already. Pep Guardiola changed his tactics immediately and reset his full-backs. Both Zinchenko and Walker stayed back and acted as defensive midfielders during City possession with the pressure now on Stoke.
Stoke’s game plan was to isolate winger Xherdan Shaqiri on the right wing with Zinchenko, who is still new to the position despite his success there and would be challenged to match Shaqiri for strength and pace. Though Shaqiri did give the young Ukrainian troubles, the Stoke attack as a whole had difficulty materializing into a coherent buildup. It seemed as if most of the danger they created came from individual mistakes or poor passing from City. As a whole though, the Blues’ defense was strong and squashed any chances Stoke came close to have.
City also did a good job of inverting their wingers and attacking midfielders, allowing Kevin De Bruyne to David Silva to get outside in space to distribute. When the wingers would come inside they often pulled the full-backs with them, but the overlapping runs came from the midfielders instead of the full-backs as it normally would. Pep’s team certainly could have scored more goals but were set back by bouts of sloppiness in possession and a center forward (Jesus) still trying to find his goal-scoring streak as he returns from injury.
Jesus was great in his hold-up play and distribution (he assisted on the second goal too, also to David Silva who was amazing per usual) but seemed just a bit off on attacking that final ball played into him. The one play that sticks out in my mind more than any other was on a set piece that was played inch perfect into the box from De Bruyne: Jesus looked like the target and was unmarked inside the six-yard box. It would seem that any touch on the ball at all would have directed into the back of the net but Jesus just missed it. This is nitpicking on an otherwise strong game and I have no doubts Gabriel Jesus will find his scoring touch sooner rather than later.
Another dominant performance leaves City on track to clinch the league at home against Manchester United if all goes well. And I have to say, nothing would make me happier than that.