“That is the best I can offer or what I would like to give to my players, more than tactical issues.”
Pep Guardiola has spoken openly about his primary task at City: to make his players believe they can compete with the Premier League’s and the continent’s biggest hitters. The victory at Watford might not have represented a tangible leap forward, but the manner of that victory should certainly help instil the confidence the manager feels is lacking.
The midweek stroll in Feyenoord appeared simple enough, but as Guardiola pointed out, simply winning away in Europe offered progress from last season, when they managed not a single victory away from the Etihad. Indeed, defeats in Barcelona and Monaco were especially damaging for different reasons, but already this term, it is almost unthinkable to even consider the possibility of such embarrassment repeating itself.
At Vicarage Road, where they have scored 11 goals in two visits under Guardiola, City were expected to win, but this thrashing was far more impressive than last season’s 5-0 triumph on the final day, simpky because of the challenge offered by the hosts. Watford have started the season in highly impressive form, not conceding a goal since the opening-day draw with Liverpool. Indeed, Marco Silva’s side could have gone top of the league with a surprise victory today. The prospect never looked likely once City eased into their groove from the first whistle.
Playing against a lone striker, Guardiola opted for what appeared to be a back two. Watford looked long to lone striker Andre Grey whenever they had the opportunity, but City had the Hornets’ summer signing boxed in by John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho, who anchored the midfield seemingly while wearing slippers.
For all the plaudits their attacking play has deservedly received, Stones and Fernandinho deserve similar credit. For too long, City’s defence has been too-obviously weakened by Vincent Kompany’s regular absences but Stones is now stepping up. The 23-year-old has taken command of a defence that rarely presents itself in the same shape on consecutive occasions and demonstrated the kind of composure and leadership that it was thought only Kompany could provide. In three games this week, Stones has made 315 passes, recording a 97 per cent accuracy rate in each match. But most pleasing for Guardiola will be the ease with which Stones marshalled the defence to three clean sheets.
Stones is undoubtedly helped by Fernandinho’s presence and City seem strangely relaxed about the looming prospect of the Brazilian’s free agency. Yaya Toure was tied down to another year, and despite Guardiola insisting on Friday that the Ivorian remained ‘so important’ to City’s cause, the fact he has not been involved in the last three squads suggests the manager was merely fluffing the veteran’s ego. Ilkay Gundogan made his return off the bench at Watford, but Fernandinho will take some shifting from City’s XI. He will certainly require more support in shielding the defence against stronger opposition, but the way he has knitted Guardiola’s units together so far this season suggests new terms will be on the table very soon.
Ahead of Fernandinho, City were as relentless as we have come to expect. Watford, one of the tightest defensive units in the division, were swamped, with the hosts going in at half-time like a punch-drunk boxer retires to his corner. Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva pulled City’s strings in the deeper pockets that they have operated in this term, allowing Raheem Sterling to drive forward alongside Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero. When the central route was shut off, City always had Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker steaming up the sides, with Walker enjoying more touches on the ball than anyone else on the pitch.
Aguero and Jesus have certainly got their acts together since the opening two games of the season, when Guardiola admitted he was “concerned” about their partnership. Indeed, it was broken up for the Bournemouth trip last month, when Aguero watched from the bench with a face like a slapped backside. Reunited against Liverpool, it seemed a pivotal moment when Aguero passed up an opportunity to score himself, instead teeing up his strike partner to net City’s third. The pair’s numbers suggest Guardiola was worrying about nothing: Jesus has been directly involved in 15 goals in 15 Premier League appearances in 2017, while no one in the league has been involved in more goals this term than Aguero, whose hat-trick took him to six goals, in addition to two assists.
Of course, Watford away and even Liverpool with 10 men are not the challenges that Guardiola worries about. But, with 15 goals just this week, City are not only building up a head of steam, they are gaining the belief they need to go toe-to-toe with their biggest rivals. The coming month presents ample opportunity to bank yet more of the confidence Guardiola wants to instil, with five of their next six Premier League and Champions League matches at home. The trip to Chelsea in a fortnight will be the next chance for Guardiola to gauge City’s mindset, but having been “so good” again in their manager’s eyes today, there is absolutely no reason the Blues should not overcome whatever inferiority complex hampered them last term.