The questions about Manchester City’s laboured start to the Premier League season keep coming. Why are they not able to dominate games and score goals like they used to? Why doesn’t Pep Guardiola seem to know what he wants from his players?
This 1-1 draw lifted City to sixth in the table, only five points behind Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool ahead of their meeting at Anfield on Wednesday, and they will still have a game in hand over most of their rivals once all is said and done in this midweek round of fixtures. The pre-season favourites are still very much in the race but they have a habit of playing like also-rans.
Ruben Dias’ own goal – the first time that City’s defence had been breached in seven games – earned West Bromwich a point that could prove crucial if Slaven Bilic’s side are to survive. It is one that others mired at the wrong end of the table would not have expected them to pick up. But if anything, this result and City’s performance should give only hope to those who are yet to visit the Etihad.
The catch? They will need a goalkeeper like Sam Johnstone. Two remarkable late saves by the one-time Manchester United goalkeeper from Ilkay Gundogan – who had beaten him earlier – and Raheem Sterling ensured that West Bromwich would take a share of the points. It was much deserved.
The hope was that two wingers playing on their natural sides would help to stretch stubborn opponents but if this was meant to have an immediate effect, it didn’t. City did not have a shot on Johnstone’s goal until the 20th minute. In fact, the best – and perhaps the only – chance of the first half hour fell to West Bromwich.
If Karlan Grant is to transfer his form in the Championship last season to the top flight this term, then he will need to finish better than he did when Conor Gallagher’s pass deflected off Joao Cancelo’s ankles and sent the ball his way inside City’s penalty area. It was a golden opportunity, one that had come out of nothing, but his shot was too close to Ederson, allowing the City goalkeeper to palm it away safely.
City slowly began to look more like their old selves and their breakthrough was a goal straight out of Guardiola’s 2017-19 playbook. Sterling’s one-two with Cancelo saw him break to the byline and almost carry the ball out for a goal kick. After just about keeping it on the right side of the white line, he steadied himself, lifted his head up and found Gundogan unmarked in the middle of the area, waiting to apply a simple but emphatic finish.
That really should have been that. A few minutes after Gundogan’s strike, City’s run in all competitions without conceding a goal passed the 10-hour mark. This is a more solid, more defensively sound City than in previous years and arguably the most conservative Guardiola side ever seen. And yet, they still have a mistake in them.
Dias is the cornerstone on which City’s recent run of clean sheets has been built but the record £64.3m signing from Benfica had two chances to clear the danger minutes before the break and ended up scoring an own goal.
His first clearance of Matt Phillips’ free-kick only went as far as Romaine Sawyers, who headed back into City’s penalty area. Dias then helped the ball on, nodding straight into the path of Semi Ajayi. The West Bromwich centre-half successfully held off his opposite number Nathan Ake to turn and shoot, his off-target strike deflecting off Dias’ leg and wrong-footing Ederson. It was a poor, poor goal to concede.
West Bromwich were delighted and, having regained a foothold in the contest, determined to hold onto what they have. City predictably dominated the second half, but even with Kevin De Bruyne desperately trying to have an impact, they could not beat the brilliant Johnstone.
Early in the second half, the former United youth product denied Sterling at the far post after his defenders failed to contend with a corner. De Bruyne was then frustrated midway through when Johnstone sprawled low to his right and got both hands to a free-kick. But he saved the best for the very last. Gundogan thought he had found a late winner from a searching De Bruyne cross, only for Johnstone to block. A carbon-copy chance fell to Sterling. Again, Johnstone beat it away.
Guardiola wanted more time – he was frantically grabbing at fourth official Anthony Taylor’s board as the additional four minutes went up – but City could have played all night and not scored. That is the story of their season so far. The questions about their indifferent start continue to mount and are becoming harder and harder to ignore.