For connoisseurs of learning five things from football matches, Sunday was a mixed bag. While the only lesson to learn from West Brom’s goalless draw against Middlesbrough in the day’s early kick-off was that football can be an effective method of torture, the Etihad Stadium played the role of classroom for 90 intriguing minutes afterwards. One only hopes Slaven Bilic brought a notepad.
A familiar scene had been set. In one corner was a Manchester City side who had won each of their games so far, generally in a comfortable fashion. In the other, a West Ham team who were struggling to maintain early-season momentum, and who were paying a visit to the title contenders as an undoubted underdog.
It was almost a year ago that West Ham exposed the glaring chink in Manchester City’s armour. Manuel Pellegrini had guided his side to five victories from their opening five league games of last season without conceding a single goal. A 2-1 defeat to the Hammers was the first nadir of a frustrating campaign, one which would cost the Chilean his job.
Eleven months later, and those same opponents would cause similar problems. City cruised into a deserved lead on Sunday, partly due to their own irresistible excellence, partly due to the sheer ineptitude of their opponents. In the second half, West Ham threatened an unlikely comeback, but could not find a crucial breakthrough.
This was a fifth straight victory for Pep Guardiola since becoming manager; this was yet another intensely exasperating performance from his counterpart. Bilic has been a delightful addition to the Premier League since taking the reins in East London, but the Croatian continues to showcase his ability to infuriate and entertain in equal measure.
If any one player encapsulates said trait, it is Michail Antonio. A floundering defender struggling to cope with Nolito and David Silva in the first half, the 26-year-old was his club’s most effective offensive outlet in the second. Who could have known that a right-winger would be most functional on the right wing?
The latest decision to start Antonio at right wing-back was Bilic’s first mistake of many on Sunday. The Englishman was overwhelmed and caught out of position countless times by a flowing City attack, with the three central defenders alongside him offering scant protection. City sliced through at will in the opening 45 minutes, and often down the right-hand side.
Antonio, of course, was not the only culprit. Mark Noble was wasteful; Cheikhou Kouyate was anonymous; Gokhan Tore was awful.
As he had on many an occasion last season, Bilic remedied the issue. Antonio was moved forward into a more advanced position, no longer exposing his understandable frailties as a defender. Sam Byram was introduced – a right-back playing at right-back. The space in the midfield was closed, and City’s previously free-flowing style was cut off. It was men against boys in the first half; the visitors were far more mature in the second.
But it was too little too late, and the damage was done. Even the introduction of Manuel Lanzini could not rescue his side. The Argentinean added some craft to a Hammers team missing their key playmakers. It is telling that in the 13 Premier League games he has not started since joining, West Ham have now won only three. The club’s record from the start of last season without Dimtri Payet in the starting line-up now reads: Played 9 Won 1 Drawn 5 Lost 3. They have scored seven times in that sequence. Bilic must find a way to create a team when his stellar individuals are missing.
As ineffective as West Ham were in the first half, they were instigators in the second. Ponderous became purposeful; stale became stimulating; fretting became threatening. Both of their shots on target were registered in the final 45 minutes.
Guardiola and City will teach many a team many a lesson this season; West Ham must hope that Bilic has finally learned his.