It will become a familiar sight this season: Kevin de Bruyne picking up the ball in the middle of the pitch, raising his head and making a defender-busting pass for Erling Haaland to get away from his markers for a clinical finish. in front of a desperate goalkeeper.
Who said there is no place for a striker in a Pep Guardiola team? For Manchester City, early evidence suggests that the addition of a classic No.9 will not disrupt Guardiola’s passing machine. If anything the champions look even more dangerous with someone running at the back and if there is any consolation for West Ham after opening their campaign with a 2-0 defeat, it is that they will surely not be the last team to suffer. De Bruyne and Haaland.
There were 65 minutes on the clock when they finally clicked. First came the sight of De Bruyne, whose pass broke West Ham, then the death of Haaland. The Norwegian’s run was perfectly timed and, as he added to his first-half penalty by sliding the ball past Alphonse Areola, it was hard not to conclude that City’s star signing is already on the same length of ‘ona than his new colleagues.
For City, the focus over the summer was to maintain motivation. In a sense, Guardiola has followed Sir Alex Ferguson’s formula of renovating from a position of strength, selling Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, but the principles remain intact. This is about evolution rather than revolution and this was more or less the same City, albeit with one crucial difference: an attack led not by a flashy midfielder, but by a muscular man whose primary function is to score goals.
Eyes were instantly drawn to Haaland. There even seemed to be questions to answer for the 22-year-old after finishing with a nervous finish during City’s loss to Liverpool in the Community Shield. For example, would the physicality of English football be too much for him? And what did Guardiola have in store for the former Borussia Dortmund striker? A step as a left back? A tactical role on the right flank?
The answer, of course, was to put Haaland in the middle, with Phil Foden and Jack Grealish on the wings, De Bruyne floating ominously and Ilkay Gündoğan advancing from midfield to unsettle West Ham’s low blocking.
The effect was that City’s superiority was absolute. They started slowly, almost going behind when Michail Antonio took the lead, but soon took control. For West Ham, who appeared with Kurt Zouma as their only fit centre-half, there was no way out of their own half.
West Ham looked to hit City on the break, with Jarrod Bowen’s runs down the right worrying João Cancelo, but a lack of quality let them down. Manuel Lanzini and Pablo Fornals were quiet and, as Declan Rice tried to push his side forward, the West Ham captain was mostly forced back.
A City goal was coming. In the 21st minute, Foden cut in from the right and crossed for Haaland, who got away from Ben Johnson and grimaced after missing his header. It was a bad foul from Haaland, although he would eventually find his touch.
A crowd of 62,500 had roared David Moyes’ side on at the start, but the atmosphere quickly faded. At times there was even a sense that the Moyes project was growing a little stale.
With Antonio unable to hold onto the ball for a passive West Ham, the pressure was relentless. The match bent to Guardiola’s tactical will. Moyes sighed as he watched as City full-backs Kyle Walker and Cancelo constantly moved inside to support Rodri in defensive midfield. West Ham had not prepared for City to do so and Moyes cut a resigned figure after being asked if he could have done anything to alter the pattern of play. “I would have loved to have done that,” said the Scot. “Do you have an idea?”
West Ham midfield examiners Rice and Tomas Soucek had no control. The city always had men on top and the ruse eventually brought a reward. Gündoğan turned and played the pass, Haaland beat Johnson again and Areola, coming on for the injured Lukasz Fabianski, brought down the striker.
It was a clear penalty and there was no doubt about Haaland when he took the ball. The finish was foolproof, a left-footed strike arrowing into the bottom right corner, with Areola sent the wrong way.
West Ham, who started without any of their summer signings, needed a new approach. They improved in the second half and Moyes took a gamble, introducing his new £35.5m striker Gianluca Scamacca for Antonio.
There were brief flashes of West Ham. Saïd Benrahma, also a substitute, gave Ederson something to do. The rice shot up.
However, City always looked likely to score again. Gündoğan went close and the game was safe when De Bruyne took over. The pass was a thing of wonderful beauty and as Haaland dismantled the inside right channel and worked the ball onto his left foot, there wasn’t a single person who thought he was going to miss.
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