Manchester City making big strides under Pep Guardiola already
Few football teams go to Stoke City's Bet365 Stadium and survive for 90 minutes without finding themselves under pressure. Although the Potters don't play with a rough-and-tumble style quite like they used to, they remain formidably strong at home and certainly are not shy of a strong tackle or two.
In Saturday's 4-1 win, Manchester City not only dealt with the home side's approach but also never let the hostile atmosphere get on top of them when it threatened to early in the second half. It's no secret that the Stoke crowd can influence matches and intimidate visiting players.
The first period belonged to Pep Guardiola's side thanks to a mixture of some excellent, well-controlled attacking play and a bout of poor defending from the hosts. When the visitors got the ball, they used it well; they kept it moving to drag defenders out of position, and the forwards stayed mobile to create more space. It meant they were in full control of the match with a 2-0 lead at the break.
Four minutes after half-time is when the old City would have fallen apart. Although many say that both of the penalty kicks awarded to Stoke were correct under the clamping down of bad behaviour in the box, Raheem Sterling could have felt a little aggrieved that he was penalised -- he didn't impede Ryan Shawcross in the same way the Stoke man had dragged back Nicolas Otamendi.
Under previous managers, the visitors would more than likely have lost their cool, sulking in the belief that the referee had done them wrong. They would have wilted under the Stoke pressure that followed Bojan Krkic's successful spot-kick.
Despite a brilliant debut campaign under Manuel Pellegrini in 2013-14, City were always seen as a soft touch under the Chilean's stewardship. Over the course of his three years in charge, most prominently in his final 18 months, it was clear that if the opposition made life uncomfortable for his players and really got in their faces, it would be halfway to winning the match.
When the going got tough, City made their excuses and lost. All of the teams that won at the Etihad in 2015-16 did it by putting the home side under pressure, where they then made mistake after mistake.
On Saturday, there were spells of the second half when it felt like Guardiola's men were ready to concede the equaliser.
Willy Caballero couldn't find any of his back four with his kicking, instead lofting it out of play on a number of occasions, while the slick passing from the back seemed to be a half-second from the wheels falling off and possession being gifted to the home side.
But, crucially, it never happened. The players continued to trust they could do it, and they never went hiding. It may be very early in the Catalan's reign, but perhaps his biggest achievement isn't the change in tactics that's seeing his team dominate matches. After all, City saw lots of the ball and created chances under his predecessors, though nothing like to the scale they are doing at the moment.
Instead, maybe Guardiola's most striking change is the new sense of confidence he's given the players. They're following his instructions despite some misgivings -- many fans would prefer defenders to clear the danger when they're under pressure, and City's philosophy to pass their way out of trouble could be leaving some supporters feeling quite nervous. However, the rewards are there to be seen.
Saturday's match was still in the balance until Nolito added the visitors' third in the 86th minute. Last season, the likes of Otamendi, Aleksandar Kolarov or Pablo Zabaleta would have been hoofing the ball into touch in a desperate bid to keep the waves and waves of Stoke attacks at bay.
Not this season -- they remained calm and continued to look for teammates with short passes, while several home players desperately chased the ball down. It was that style that allowed City to keep control and go on to add two extra goals to the score line late on, adding the gloss to a fine display.
Much is going to be made about City's style over the coming months as the new manager nails down his tactics and his best personnel. The first huge improvement he's made at the club, however, is to give the players their swagger back.
That's what should be exciting the fans right now. It's been a long while since City felt like they had their opponents intimidated at kickoff. That seems to have returned, big-time.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney