After nine wins in a row in all competitions, an air of inevitability had grown around Manchester City’s relentless surge towards the summit of the Premier League.
The reigning domestic, European and world champions had not been top of the table since late November but knew a win against Everton today would take them back into first place, even if only for a couple of hours.
Nineteen points from a possible 21 stretching back to the middle of December had put them within striking distance of leaders Liverpool but for a long time on Saturday it looked like City would be frustrated. Sean Dyche’s side began the day in the relegation zone but were stubborn opponents and restricted City to very few clear chances.
When one did arrive, it fell to the perfect man.
A combination of a lengthy injury absence and a gradual return to fitness meant Erling Haaland had not scored since November 28, but he lashed in a loose ball at a corner with 19 minutes of the 90 remaining to break the visitors’ resistance. The Norwegian soon had a second, shrugging off Jarrad Branthwaite as City broke quickly and coolly slotting past Jordan Pickford.
City may not end the day top — Liverpool kick off shortly at home to second-bottom Burnley — but that is now 10 wins in a row in all competitions and, despite a below-par performance, the momentum continues to build.
Sam Lee assesses some of the key talking points from the game.
How important is Haaland’s goalscoring return?
Haaland does have more than one job in this City team — his pressing has to be good, his runs in-behind (and sheer presence) terrify opposition defenders and managers — but compared to his more multi-functional team-mates, the striker’s main contribution, by an absolute mile, is scoring goals. And given he did that so spectacularly last season, it really stands out when he is not so accurate.
He is still the league’s leading scorer this season, despite missing the best part of two months with a foot injury, so he is hardly doing too badly, but there has been less of a sense of inevitability about him this season, as was evident last Monday at Brentford when he was played through for a one on one but saw his effort saved.
He had a nightmare job here, with barely any service of note to work with, but he was there when needed, firing in a rare loose ball to give City the breakthrough that most people probably expected, but in truth did look unlikely given their lack of chances. His 71st-minute opener was, in fact, their first shot on target in the game.
And then the real ‘He’s back’ vibes kicked in when he was played through by Kevin De Bruyne on a counter-attack, bounced Branthwaite off him and circled around to get himself onto the usually reliable left foot, allowing himself the opportunity for a cool finish.
This was one of City’s toughest tests of the season, and one of their poorest performances, but their main man did his main thing.
Why did City struggle to make the breakthrough?
At kick-off, Everton had conceded the joint-fewest goals from open play this season, level with… Arsenal and Liverpool. So that goes some way to explaining it.
Far from the pre-conceived idea of how a Dyche side would play at the Etihad, Everton pressed high up the pitch and tried to make life difficult for City to move the ball through the lines. And they succeeded in large part, with City never really looking comfortable, even after bringing on Kevin De Bruyne and Kyle Walker (which was to move Phil Foden into the middle) with just over half an hour to go.
Those changes were needed because in the first half City had too many players who could not really deal with pinging the ball around under pressure. All City players are good on the ball but with Manuel Akanji, Matheus Nunes and Julian Alvarez trying to make things happen in a millisecond, there is a difference compared to when John Stones, Bernardo Silva and Foden are doing it.
City looked most threatening when switching the ball left to Jeremy Doku, but even when he beat his man it was difficult to pick out somebody else in space inside the area.
Did return of Champions-League-winning back four bring defensive improvements?
This was the first time Stones, Akanji, Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake had started together for City since the Champions League final. They were the four that did so much to get them to Istanbul, too, along with Walker, but it was not all plain sailing here.
With those names on the teamsheet, people began to wonder which of Stones and Akanji would make the step up into midfield, as well as who would start at right-back and who would be in the middle.
Pep Guardiola being Pep Guardiola, they both moved into midfield and Akanji started at left-back. That did not last too long, though, and as Everton’s high pressure caused City problems early on, a break in play allowed Guardiola time to get a message across to Stones to drop back slightly, moving Akanji to centre-back but still asking him to go into midfield.
Stones just seems far better equipped to deal with that role and the initial plan seemed like pretty muddled thinking. Even if there were perfectly logical reasons for it, it was one of the reasons City failed to get a grip on the match for the most part.
Guardiola is certain to use those four players again, but with their new setup and Walker’s introduction as an attacking full-back, it is yet another reminder that the City manager is never going to rely on what has worked in the past for too long.
What did Guardiola say?
We will bring you this after he has spoken at the post-match press conference.
What next for City?
Tuesday, February 13: FC Copenhagen (A), Premier League, 8pm GMT, 3pm ET
The holders’ attempt to win back-to-back Champions League titles resumes with a round of 16 first leg in Denmark. City met Copenhagen in the group stage last season, beating them 5-0 at the Etihad but were then held to a goalless draw in the reverse fixture a week later. Copenhagen are here in the knockout phase at Manchester United’s expense, having finished as group runners-up behind Bayern Munich after losing 1-0 at Old Trafford, then winning 4-3 in the return following a first-half red card for Marcus Rashford.
(Top photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)