As the two teams at the top and bottom of the Premier League faced off, one goal proved to be the difference in Saturday’s hard-fought match. Gabriel Jesus’ ninth-minute finish secured all three points for City (14-5-2, 1st), despite a strong defensive performance by Sheffield (3-2-17, 20th).
The West Midlands side ended last season with a poor run of form, which has continued to haunt them this season. Although Sheffield lost their last three games of the season, manager Chris Wilder’s side finished in the top half of the table, narrowly missing out on European football. The Blades showed what they were capable of last Wednesday, upsetting City’s crosstown rivals Manchester United (13-5-4, 2nd), 2-1, who would’ve gone top of the league with a win. Sheffield used this new wave of confidence to put the pressure on title contender Manchester City.
Despite City’s 5-0 thrashing of West Brom (2-6-14, 19th) the previous game, manager Pep Guardiola stressed the difficulty of playing against Sheffield in interviews leading up to the game. During the Citizens’ current run of form, which has seen them set a club-record of 13 wins in a row in all competitions and go unbeaten for 20 games, they have had to battle with COVID-19 cases and multiple injuries. This has led players such as İlkay Gündoğan and Phil Foden to play an even more important role, not to mention City’s entire defense, which has conceded the least amount of goals in the league. Guardiola has also utilized City’s depth in recent games, making five changes to Saturday’s starting lineup from their game against West Brom.
City started the game off in typical Guardiola fashion, passing the ball quickly and switching play to break down the Blades’ defense. The home side’s high energy start proved effective, with Jesus finding the back of the net in the ninth minute.
A De Bruyne esque pass over the backline from Rúben Dias found the feet of Ferren Torres in the box. Torres still had a lot of work to do, as he out-muscled two defenders on the end line to set up Jesus, who settled the ball calmly and opened the scoring. Saturday’s goal for Jesus should do wonders for his confidence moving forward, while Jesus and Torres are the youngest players to combine for a league goal this season for City.
Sheffield struggled with City’s movement, in addition to the high press Pep’s side applied while on defense. In the 16th minute, City pressured Oliver Norwood into gifting Bernardo Silva a shot on goal, who could not get enough power behind his header to beat goalie Aaron Ramsdale. The Citizens continued to stretch the pitch with Phil Foden on the left flank and Torres on the right, while long balls from Dias and Aymeric Laporte opened up the match.
Yet, the Blades continued to absorb attack after attack and eventually started to find their footing in the game. With five minutes left in the half, an amazing recovery from Dias denied Oliver Burke a clear chance on goal.
Although City dominated possession in the first half, they did not really challenge Ramsdale’s net, managing only two shots on target. Wilder’s 5-3-2 formation absorbed City’s attack while providing multiple chances to counter, which they could not take advantage of. Unlike most games, Kyle Walker sat deeper on the pitch, instead of making runs down the wing, in order to protect the speedy Burke from breaking free. In the locker room, Pep would likely have directed his team to find a second goal and finish off the game. On the other hand, Chris Wilder would have told his side to stay close together and focused, hoping to find an equalizer later in the game.
The second half started similarly to the first half with City creating chances on goal. In the 50th minute, Oleksandr Zinchenko whipped in a brilliant ball to Torres at the back. Unfortunately, the young Spaniard could not find Jesus with his headed pass in front of the goal. A minute later, Foden and John Lundstram went down after a clash of heads. Fortunately, both players were able to get back to their feet and clear concussion exams on the field. Starting next weekend, if a Premier League is forced to make a substitution because of a possible concussion, they will be awarded an additional substitute. In addition to this, the opposing team will have the opportunity to make a free substitution at the same time if the player ends up being taken off.
In the 61st minute, the Blades made a double substitution, bringing on Billy Sharp for Oliver Burke in a like for like swap and striker Ollie McBurnie for defender Chris Basham. Manager Chris Wilder sacrificed his back five for a back four, switching to a 4-4-2, in an attempt to find a goal. With the Citizens lacking intensity in the middle of the half, Sheffield was able to hold onto the ball longer and push up the field.
One of the best moves of the match came in the 72nd minute for the home side. Dribbling down the wing, Silva cut in towards the box, playing a give-and-go with Gündoğan, before finding Zinchenko at the top of the box. The Ukraine international fired a shot towards the far post but Ramsdale was equal to the shot and pushed it wide. On the subsequent corner, Laporte headed the ball right at Ramsdale, who pushed the ball over the crossbar for another corner, which was eventually cleared by the Blades.
Hearts dropped for City fans in the 86th minute, when the West Midlands side nearly found the back of the net. Sharp fought off City defenders in the box to find John Fleck outside the box. The midfielder stood speechless as his strike whistled inches wide of the far post.
The Blades’ attacking threat urged Guardiola to make his only substitution of the game in the 90th minute. Torres, who assisted Jesus’ goal, came off for Rodri to protect City’s lead. Even though Sheffield created dangerous chances at the end of the game, City continued to play their style of football. Unlike many teams in their situation, City kept pushing forward, holding onto 92% of possession in the last 15 minutes of the game, which ended in Jesus’ curling effort being saved in the 94th minute.
With Saturday’s 1-0 victory, City continued their winning ways and maintained their spot at the top of the table. Their win put the pressure on second-place Manchester United, who played out a scoreless draw against Arsenal (9-4-9, 10th) Saturday afternoon, as City increased their lead in the league to three points. City has also won all 9 of their matches in all competitions this month, the most by a team in the top four tiers of English football in a single month since the formation of the Football League in 1888.
After the game, Jesus emphasized the importance of staying top of the table and getting all three points. Even though he ended a nine-game goal drought in the league, he was critical of his finish, especially his miss in stoppage time.
City showed “incredible commitment and [were very focused] on second balls and long balls,” said Guardiola. “We lacked a little bit of [creativity] because it is so difficult [when] they defend with 10 men [and] force you outside. And after that, they know exactly what to do with the ball.” In Pep’s eye, “this shows how difficult the Premier League is,” when the team in last place puts up a performance like this.
Four days later the Citizens traveled to Burnley (6-4-11, 17th) for a midweek clash at Turf Moor. Despite City winning 5-0 in the reverse fixture, Pep emphasized his opponent’s ability in pregame interviews. The City manager highlighted Burnley ending the defending champions, Liverpool’s (11-7-4, 4th), home unbeaten run, beating Aston Villa (10-2-7, 7th), and knocking Fulham (2-8-11, 17th) out of the FA Cup in three of their previous four games. The Clarets played similarly to Sheffield, sitting deep and hoping to score on the counter-attack. This did not faze the Sky Blues who breezed past Burnley with two first-half goals.
City flew out of the gates, punishing the Clarets with their creativity. It only took three minutes for the Sky Blues to take a 1-0, thanks to a stooping header from Jesus.
In a similar fashion to Dias’ pass to Torres against Sheffield, Laporte linked up with Raheem Sterling on the left flank with a long ball over the top. The Kingston born winger had time to chest down Laporte’s and turn quickly to find Silva just outside of the box, who took one touch before firing the ball at goalkeeper Nick Pope. The power on the shot was too much for Pope, who parried the ball into Jesus’ path. The Brazilian made no mistakes, scoring his second game-winning goal in as many games.
Manager Sean Dyche’s side played stubbornly after the opening goal, but a second City goal never looked far away. City’s fluid passing continued to break down Burnley, eventually adding to their lead just before halftime.
In the 39th minute, Gündoğan slipped behind the Clarets’ backline, playing a perfect pass between the backline and Pope. Waiting patiently in the middle of the penalty area, Sterling pounced on the teasing pass and scored what would be the final goal of the game.
The second half was played similarly to the first, with City hogging possession and creating chances in what looked like a training ground exercise. Unlike the first 45 minutes, the away-side could not find the back of the net, seeing a shot from Sterling saved in the 50th minute and an effort from Riyad Mahrez ruled offside by the smallest of margins after a VAR check. The Citizens were also denied a penalty claim, which saw defender James Tarkowski bring Jesus down in the box.
City secured all three points against Burnley with first-half goals from Jesus and Sterling. Dyche’s side could not complain about Wednesday’s result, missing key strikers Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood. This would have not made a huge difference to the Clarets, who have scored the fewest goals in the league this season and only had 25 percent of possession against City.
“Manchester City were very good. They’re on a good run of form” said Sean Dyche in a postgame interview. “They are really sharp in transition in defense and attack.”
Even though Pep was satisfied with his team’s performance, he believed they “had chances to score more goals” and that they “can do better. In general, [he doesn’t] have regrets.” However, he “want[s] them to do the simple things well” such as not “los[ing] more simple balls than usual” like they did on Wednesday.
On Sunday, City head to Anfield to play defending Champions Liverpool in what may be a season-defining game. Anfield has been City’s Achilles heel, with the Sky Blues failing to win there in the Premier League since 2003. With Liverpool’s current run of form, lack of an experienced center-back pairing, and absence of fans, Sunday’s game may be City’s chance to get an overdue win at Anfield.
After going on a 68-game unbeaten run at home in the league since their 2-1 loss to Crystal Palace in April 2017, Liverpool has lost back-to-back home games against Burnley and Brighton (5-9-8, 15th). The reigning champions have not scored at home in over 315 minutes but this does not mean things will be a walk in the park for City. Liverpool’s high energy attack will put the pressure on City’s defense, who has not had much work to do recently.
If City wants to win on Sunday and send a message to the league, they need to play until their tanks are empty. City’s attack needs to step up and convert chances at a higher rate, while the defense needs to stay focused and together to shut down golden boot front runner, Mohamed Salah, and the rest of the Reds’ attacking threats. The key to victory is to take advantage of Liverpool’s rotating and shaky backline, which will be the main task of City’s attackers.
Liverpool’s League Form: L/W/W/L/D
City’s League Form: W/W/W/W/W
Prediction: 2-1 City