Manchester City’s hopes of making ground on the league leaders suffered a blow as a stubborn West Brom claimed a point at Etihad Stadium. Ilkay Gundogan had given City the lead, but an own goal by Ruben Dias two minutes before half time gave the Baggies a share of the points.
It was a frustrating night for Pep Guardiola’s side who faced a team that had lost all but one of their away games so far this season, and had also lost on each of their last nine visits to City, however given the way the results have gone this season, the blues are still just five points behind leaders Spurs with only 12 games played.
And such is the way the season is going, it wouldn’t be surprising if the title was decided between several teams, rather than just the usual two-horse race of recent years. Five points separate Spurs and 10th placed Wolves, a mix that also includes Everton, and surprise packages West Ham and Southampton also occupying places in the top seven.
But, as Guardiola stated, the blues need to be winning these matches to be in contention, and although City controlled the game from start to finish, there was no way through the Baggies resolute defence. And even when they did manage to breach the back line, visiting keeper Sam Johnstone decided this was the match where he looked more like Manuel Neuer than a keeper that conceded five at home to Crystal Palace a little over a week ago.
It all started so well for City, although they were given a wake-up call after just seven minutes on the clock. Karlan Grant, a £15m signing from Huddersfield, was allowed space in the City area, but his shot was parried by Ederson, which was one of the only things the City man had to do throughout the entire game.
City camped in the West Brom half after that scare, but the signs that the Baggies were setting up to defend were obvious. Time and again, City went forward, only to be forced to play the ball around after encountering wall after wall of red and yellow shirts.
But City did successfully breach the wall on 30 minutes. Raheem Sterling found himself free on the right of the penalty area and cut the ball back for Gundogan to stroke home. The visitors had a look of deflation after that goal and City hoped it would now open them up for more. Alas, they were very wrong.
In a rare foray forward, the Baggies took advantage of City failing to properly clear their lines and the ball fell Semi Ajayi. His turn and shot may have been going wide, but an intervention from the foot of Dias wrong-footed Ederson and the ball rolled into the back of the net to give the visitors the equalizer. It was a disappointing end to the half, but City would have more than enough chances to make up for it in the second half, but found Johnstone in inspired form.
The keeper blocked a Sterling shot, and made excellent saves late on to deny Gundogan and Sterling who both had chances to head City back in front. And before those chances, the visiting defence kept City out with block after block, each one becoming more desperate than the last as the Baggies held on for a precious point.
In recent years, City have more often than not found a way through, but recently they seem to have lost the ability to fully break teams down. They are still continuing to dominate possession, but look to have lost that creative spark that has seen them blow teams away.
Only on a couple of occasions last night did City’s football show a glimpse of that spark, but the creativity was continually snuffed out by a team that had set up to defend and frustrate. And you can’t blame West Brom for doing that; City used similar actions when visiting top teams and getting a point for their efforts.
This was the fear that the faithful had when the legend David Silva moved on at the end of last season. The Magician would make things tick in midfield, create that little bit of ingenuity that only he could do, and it is clear the blues are missing his inspiration. Phil Foden looks like he can fill that void, but the Stockport Iniesta is still maturing and it will take him longer than the games played so far for his potential to shine through.
The blues have also lost the killer instinct in front of goal. At this stage last season, City had already scored 35 Premier League goals compared to 18 this season, 36 the season before and 40 the season before that. Injury to Sergio Aguero has obviously played its part, but there is still an abundance of talent on the field that are more than capable of sticking the ball in the onion bag.
But despite the lack of goals and points, City are still in the mix. They have still only lost twice this season, with only Spurs and Liverpool having lost fewer, and they are well placed to challenge, but dropping more home points will not be the way to do it.