There has been a slight “end of empire” feel about Manchester City and Pep Guardiola this season but appearances can deceive.
Without ever being quite at their very best the visitors did enough to ensure they headed back across the Pennines having silenced those who interpreted the sight of Guardiola sitting alone in the dug-out well before kick off, staring moodily at the empty stands, as confirmation of a manager in crisis.
Instead that mantle passes to Chris Wilder whose side have one only point from seven games and, after taking the top tier by storm last term, appear to have developed full blown “second season syndrome”. The electronic signs warning visitors entering the Steel City to maintain “very high alert” relate to coronavirus levels but they could apply equally to the danger confronting Sheffield United.
As Wilder’s supposed back three morphed increasingly into a deep-sitting back five, City quickly realised their passing really needed to be delivered with eye-of-the-needle precision. Fortunately for Guardiola, his players possess the necessary vision and technique to construct the most geometrically ambitious attacking patterns and, almost imperceptibly, they eroded United’s initially obdurate resistance.
Indeed, the complexity of City’s manoeuvres contrasted so markedly with the heavy rain as it fell in lines as apparently straight as the markings on the pitch that it seemed a minor miracle that Aaron Ramsdale did not pick his ball out of his net until the 28th minute.
The goal involved football’s “immutable law of the ex”; in other words, Kyle Walker scored against his hometown club at the ground where he began his career. Yet good as the full-back’s crisply arrowed drive from outside the area was, Walker could not have done it without a little help from Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne.
Sterling was arguably the best player on the pitch and had spent a large part of the afternoon teasing and tormenting George Baldock and Chris Basham. Appropriately enough, it was his counter-attacking dribble which prefaced De Bruyne’s perfectly calibrated, goal creating, crossfield pass the fallout of which would leave Walker celebrating in suitably muted fashion.
While Ferran Torres’s penalty area sharpness had seen the young Spaniard have a glancing header palmed away by Ramsdale and a first-time volley blocked, Rhian Brewster lacked a similarly supportive attacking framework within which to showcase his own finishing skills.
Admittedly United’s sole realistic first-half scoring chance fell to the former Liverpool forward but, although Brewster expertly dodged his marker to connect with Sander Berge’s cross, that delivery was a little high for him and he could not quite make the most of it.
Brewster left Anfield for regular first team football but he appears to have been thrown in the deep end in a side which here sometimes ceded almost 80% of possession to City. Considering that in the preamble to kick-off Alan Shearer said he thought he would have struggled to score regularly in Wilder’s side, Brewster’s apparent lack of impact needs to be judged in context.
Meanwhile his attacking partner Oli McBurnie’s principal contribution was the early, clattering, shoulder charge on Rúben Dias which left the City defender briefly crumpled in agony.
Wilder required change and duly implemented it as he replaced Ben Osborn with John Lundstram. So important in midfield for the Blades last season, Lundstram has recently rejected a new contract and his initial benching was perhaps a case of managerial point making.
As the ever more influential De Bruyne dragged a shot inches wide, Ramsdale diverted a Torres curler and then got a goal-preventing hand to Riyad Mahrez’s wall-confounding free-kick, City looked set fair to collect all three points.
Not that Guardiola was smiling; at least not yet. The City manager’s already agitated technical area prowling grew slightly manic as a little of his side’s earlier dynamism faded as the minutes passed.
Guardiola knew that Wilder’s players sensed opportunity and they very nearly exploited it when Berge nutmegged João Cancelo before cutting the ball back superbly for Lundstram only to see the substitute lash the most inviting of openings off target. Yet although Ederson had previously reacted with alacrity to smother the danger from a menacing Berge cross, City’s goalkeeper remained so underworked he must have been mightily relieved when a weak November sun replaced the bone-chilling rain.