Man City's power down the wings proves crucial in big win at West Ham
LONDON -- Three thoughts from London Stadium as Man City wrapped up a comprehensive 4-1 victory over West Ham.
1. Man City win big to match Chelsea's record
Manchester City were simply too good on Sunday for West Ham as they hit another milestone in their stunning Premier League campaign and matched another with a 4-1 win. Not only did they become the fourth team to break the 100-goal mark for the season (the record is 103) but they pulled level with Chelsea on 30 league victories. With three games remaining, odds are that they'll break both records before the race is run.
Pep Guardiola's Barcelona side were renowned for their superiority in the centre, and his Bayern side were particularly adept at using the flanks. Guardiola's Manchester City side, meanwhile, are somewhere in between: they're at their most dangerous when getting players into the right-hand channel and working overloads.
City's outstanding player this season has been Kevin De Bruyne, who dominates this side from a peculiar position that doesn't quite fit into any established role. From a right-centre midfield position, De Bruyne drops deep and wide into a zone somewhere between central midfield, right-midfield and right-back. Opponents never entirely know how to cope with him or who should be picking him up. His devilish crosses and excellent cross-field passes for Leroy Sane from that zone have been the defining features of this City side.
On Sunday, City's two first-half goals were both scored in slightly comical fashion, but both involved them working an overload down the right flank. The first didn't involve De Bruyne directly, but with him lingering in an inside-right position and troubling West Ham's left-sided players, plus Kyle Walker speeding forward on the overlap, Sane (briefly having switched with Raheem Sterling) had space to cut inside onto his favoured left foot, unleashing a shot that deflected off Patrice Evra, wrong-footed Adrian and bounced into the far corner.
City's second goal was even worse, with Adrian's save bouncing off both Declan Rice and Pablo Zabaleta before bouncing home. But again it came from an overload down the right, featuring De Bruyne and Sterling combining to great effect.
The third also came from that flank. Gabriel Jesus dropped into a deep position and played a lovely ball into the path of Sterling, on the right, who slowed down the play, waited for support, and then played a lovely square pass into the path of Jesus, who poked home. The fourth? Same story. Sterling was released down the right, played a square pass, and this time Fernandinho provided the finish.
On the day City passed 100 league goals for the season, today was a perfect summary of their defining feature: how they frequently cut teams open with combination play in those inside-right positions.
2. Ederson shows why he has been such a huge upgrade for City
This was Manchester City's 30th victory of the Premier League campaign, equalling the record set by Chelsea last season, when City achieved only 23.
Arguably the single biggest difference between last season and this season for City is in goal, where the hapless Claudio Bravo has been replaced with the more confident and composed Ederson. This was an eventful, if not entirely assured, performance from the Brazil international.
There was a fine example of Ederson's "sweeper-keeper" abilities midway through the first half. West Ham attempted to find their lone centre-forward Marko Arnautovic with a long ball over the top of City's high line, which prompted Ederson to sprint forward out of his area. He beat Arnautovic to the airborne ball by a yard and nodded a calm, headed pass to a teammate. It was remarkably slick and showed Ederson's bravery considering he was seriously injured in a similar incident by Liverpool's Sadio Mane earlier in the season.
Ederson's distribution is also a major part of his game, although generally with long, accurate punts downfield rather than neater stuff under pressure. On Sunday, his passing wasn't impressive. He knocked a pass out of play on the right flank under little pressure and was hugely fortunate that when he attempted to dribble past Arnautovic and was tackled by the Austria international, who rolled the ball into an empty net, referee Neil Swarbrick harshly generously decided that Ederson had been fouled.
This brought a nervous edge to City's passing in deep positions and West Ham's goal indirectly came from a mistake when City had been playing out of the back. They lost the ball in the left-back zone, and Ilkay Gundogan was forced into fouling Edimilson Fernandes. The offence was probably inside the box, meaning City had again been fortunate with a refereeing decision, but Aaron Cresswell curled the ball home anyway past Ederson, who perhaps should have done better. Over the course of the season there's no doubt City's passing from deep has paid dividends, but at London Stadium they often played themselves into trouble.
3. West Ham need to upgrade on the flanks
David Moyes has performed a decent job at West Ham this season, guiding the Hammers into a position where they are seemingly safe from relegation. But it remains to be seen how Moyes attempts to freshen up this squad and build for the long-term: the first two goals they conceded served to illustrate two players in particular who surely need to be replaced.
Hammers fans must have been terrified about the prospect of veterans Zabaleta and Evra playing on the flanks against the speed of Sterling and Sane. In practice, the pair actually played different roles: Zabaleta was a wing-back on the right while Evra tucked inside into a left-sided centre-back role to allow Cresswell to play on the wing.
Neither were entirely embarrassed, to be fair, and were unfortunate to be the fall guys for the opening goals. But equally, they simply didn't have the necessary speed to cope against City's sheer speed -- Evra in particular -- and realistically these players are no longer suitable for Premier League football for a club with top-half ambitions. West Ham must show more ambition and more intelligence in the transfer market this summer, rather than signing players who peaked five years ago.
In fairness, there have been some promising signs over the second half of the 2017-18 season. Arthur Masuaku, surprisingly omitted on Sunday, has performed well when fielded on the left and Declan Rice, despite a mistake last weekend, has shown great potential at centre-back.
West Ham have traditionally prided themselves on having faith in youth, and whether through academy prospects or recruitment of up-and-coming talent, that should be the focus rather than more ageing veterans.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.