Maybe Pep Guardiola is already delivering. For the first 45 minutes and last five minutes against visiting West Ham on Sunday, Manchester City did a surprisingly good imitation of Barcelona. For a long period in between, the home team was frozen with panic.
City won, 3-1. The course of the match had a lot to do with the way the opposition raised its game in the second half, but there were still grounds for both optimism and concern for the home team.
City toyed with West Ham in the first half. Raheem Sterling scored the first goal after seven minutes with a sweet finish after a pretty build up. Fernandinho headed a second from a set piece. City continued to carve West Ham open but could not add third until Sterling danced past Adrián and scored from a narrow angle in the dying seconds.
Sterling may sum up Pep’s task at City. He has a talent for creating dangerous situations and a bad habit of then squandering that threat with a panicky shot or sloppy pass. The problem might be confidence. Perhaps past failures weigh on him. That, on the evidence of the second half, is a problem for the whole of the City team.
Guardiola’s system is based on dominating possession and territory. When West Ham pushed back in the second half, City’s passing and poise evaporated.
In the final minutes, as West Ham threw players forward, City was able to re-establish control in the opposing half. When Sterling sealed the result with his cheeky second goal, Pep briefly punched the air and then slapped his head into his hands in frustration.
City’s victory meant it is top of the Premier League going into the international break. Play resumes in just under two weeks with the Manchester derby at Old Trafford. Sunday’s game will give Pep and his old enemy José Mourinho plenty to work on.
Clutching at shirts —The alleged clampdown on grabbing in the goalmouth has had two immediate and predictable results. Some referees are enforcing the policy more courageously than others and it is giving coaches another thing else to whine about. They are taking this new chance to demonstrate that managers say the stupidest things.
On Saturday, there was a penalty at Crystal Palace when Charlie Daniels of Bournemouth grabbed Christian Benteke's shirt in open play. There was also a penalty following a corner at Stoke as Phil Bardsley brought down Ashley Williams. Bardsley had a hand of the Everton player's back but it was an accidental clip on the heels that did the damage. It was the third penalty against Stoke this season.
There was no penalty at Leicester when Swansea defenders gang tackled Robert Huth. The German is such a muscular exponent of octopus defending that perhaps referee Roger East could not bring himself to punish others for manhandling the big center half.
There were no penalties at Tottenham either when Jan Vertonghen dragged JoëlMatip of Liverpool to the ground as they jostled before a corner or when Matip in open play blocked and grabbed Vincent Jansen to make a stop that would have brought a yellow flag for an NFL defensive lineman. Referee Bobby Madley did lecture Vertonghen for assaulting Matip.
Jürgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, complained. He failed to mention the penalty Madley did award his team, the Matip foul on Jansen or that Liverpool's best player, Sadio Mané, was lucky to still be on the field at half-time. Instead Klopp grumbled about Madley's decision to halt play just as Liverpool took its corner.
"He waits one second with the whistle its 100 percent penalty," Klopp told the BBC.
Why should Madley have waited? Just for Liverpool's convenience? The ball was dead when the foul took place, so no penalty. Klopp pretended not to know that when he told the interviewer to talk to Madley. "Ask him what the rules are," Klopp said. "I've no idea what is right."
What Klopp must have known is that the real problem was that his team drew 1-1 in a game it should have won in the first half an hour. If your players cannot take chances, don't ask the referee to keep handing you extra ones.
Mark Hughes of Stoke saw dark forces at work.
"I feared this at the start of the season that certain teams wouldn't get a fair crack of the whip and it seems that's happening to us unfortunately," Hughes told the BBC. "That's two dubious penalties against us."
Well that at least means he now accepts one of the penalties was just perhaps a public first for Hughes.
Why anyone should organize a conspiracy against Stoke is a mystery, but fans at clubs in the Premier League's envious middle classes tend to be paranoid and Hughes was playing to the gallery. His team is bottom of the table. He would prefer to push attention away from himself and his players.
Rashford decisions —When Marcus Rashford scored in added time on Saturday; he did more than give Manchester United a 1-0 victory and cruelly break Hull hearts. He became the first teenager to score a goal for José Mourinho in the Premier League ever.
Last season, Rashford was dazzling for a mediocre United team. At the Euros, he was one of England's few bright sparks at the Euros. Yet he had remained on the bench in United's first two games. On Saturday, he came on in the 79th minute and in just over 21 minutes showed precisely why Mourinho distrusts young players.
Rashford is 18. He plays with the optimism of youth. He believes that every time he has the ball he can transform the game. So he turns and surges forward. On Saturday, Rashford at once swerved at four defenders before forcing a diving save from Eldin Jakupović. Rashford is not just a head-down dribbler. Twice, having drawn defenders, he set up a teammate with a smart pass.
Mourinho likes plans and systems. Rashford has only one plan: attack! Now! That sort of mutinous irresponsibility is bad enough. Worse, Rashford is clearly not scared by anyone. What use to Mourinho is a player who cannot be cowed?
Moneybore —Tony Pulis says he wants to sign five more players by the transfer deadline. Perhaps the reason West Brom has left it so late is that Jeremy Peace, the chairman, is such a hardball negotiator.
Pulis is notorious for fielding dull teams. Even so the 0-0 home draw on Sunday was unspeakably dreary. Aitor Karanka, the Middlesbrough manager, must share some of the blame, but his team was away
Pulis is also a cunning tactician. Peace, if he was still awake, could not have missed the chorus of boos from the home fans at the end. Chairmen prefer to keep the customers happy. Perhaps now, Peace will open his wallet and buy Pulis the five huge defensive midfielders the manager probably wants.
Park Life —West Ham’s new home, the London Olympic Stadium, sits on the edge of Hackney Marshes a vast expanse of flat open space which, with more than 80 football fields, has long been a byword for weekend amateur soccer.
The team that played at Manchester City on Sunday seemed to be the product of a secret community outreach scheme to the myriad amateur clubs that scuffle in the shadow of West Ham’s palatial new home.
With Dimitri Payet missing and, Manuel Lanzini on the bench for the first hour, only Winston Reid and Mark Noble, ironically the one West Ham outfield player who would have kicked a ball on the Marshes growing up, looked like genuine Premier Leaguers.
James Collins has long impersonated the type of center back who strikes terror into entire Sunday leagues.
Gokhan Tore, chunky and prematurely balding, would fit naturally into one of one of the Turkish community leagues based on the Marshes.
The two wingbacks, Michail Antonio who on Sunday evening was picked for the England squad for the first time and Arthur Masuaka, both looked the part as they combined for the West Ham goal. Yet West Ham fans have long been frustrated by the way Antonio mixes brilliance with incompetence.
What separates the amateurs from the pros is not necessarily talent, but consistency, discipline, fitness and decision-making. One of the thrills of watching soccer on the Marshes is the edge-of-the-seats unpredictability. A dazzling piece of skill is followed by some inexplicable randomness. Masuaka is strong, fast and skillful, but his distribution and tackling are both incomprehensibly wild. Hackney wild.
Tore and Masuaka also show another familiar trait of park players. After 20-yard sprint forward, they have to take a rest before jogging back into defense.
Like any good park team, West Ham knows anything can happen. It did not give up. In the end though it was outclassed.