Manchester City show the signs to prove they have what it to slog it out with Liverpool in Premier League title race

The way City dug in and found a way past Everton suggests that they are ready to dig in like no Pep Guardiola side has done before

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Thursday 07 February 2019 08:27
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Pep Guardiola: Manchester City have learned not to give up

As complete as Pep Guardiola’s trophy haul has been, and for all his achievements that have genuinely represented landmarks in the history of the game, there are some feats conspicuously missing from his career so far. They foster the one remaining question about his current Manchester City team.

His previous sides have never had to really grind out a title. They’ve never come from behind in the new year to win.

Six of his seven titles have been won by streaking away, with the comfort of huge leads. The 2009/10 title with Barcelona was his only league victory where a challenger - Manuel Pellegrini’s Real Madrid - pushed them close, but Guardiola’s side were then so good that they were always in front and always on such a sublime level.

They never had to dig in in the way we're really talking about, in the way this run-in is starting to require.

It has led to this as yet unanswered question as to whether Guardiola needs his teams be ahead to win the league, whether they can sufficiently react to things not going their way.

It is a suspicion that ties in with those games when a lot of things suddenly go wrong in a few minutes, leading to bizarrely - if rare - comprehensive defeats.

This last week, and this performance at Goodison Park, are evidence that suspicion is misplaced.

City have reacted to adversity well, and while showing an encouragingly different quality.

They dug in, and certainly ground out a win against Everton.

A match that was not on television in England was conspicuously not an easy watch, nor any way an easy game.

Marco Silva’s side gave a much better account of themselves than in recent matches, as the Portuguese insisted after this 2-0 defeat. Guardiola meanwhile emphasised how difficult this stadium has been for City, referencing the 4-0 humiliation two years ago.

“Goodison Park is always tough for us,” the Catalan said. “It’s not an easy place to win, everyone can recognise that. But we didn’t concede one shot on target. It’s not usual here in Goodison Park.”

It was also unusual in that City’s performance - even allowing for a recent drop-off in that slump around Christmas and then last week’s defeat by Newcastle United - was very far from dazzling. There were very few moments of the usual Guardiola finesse. This was a hugely scrappy game.

Pep Guardiola's Manchester City saw off Everton 2-0 to move to the top of the Premier League table

Only Kevin De Bruyne’s late through ball for the second goal really stood out, but it was actually befitting of the performance that the move was disrupted, and ultimately ended by some instinct from Gabriel Jesus rather than intricacy.

Before that, the opening goal was from something as rudimentary as a set-piece, even if it was an exceptionally executed one.

That was the moment that really decided the game, but one of the qualities that decided it was something even deeper in that regard. Something much baser, if not without real calculation.

It was the defensive play of Fernandinho. He was - again - supreme, but also highly cynical. It wasn’t just how often he won the ball with his interceptions and challenges, it was how often he broke up attacks with his fouls.

Fernandinho's tactical use of fouls helped to protect City

There were ironic cheers, and caustic comments, when he was finally booked for one of them.

Such play is of course nothing new for a Guardiola side - with Sergio Busquets the prime example at Barcelona - but what felt different was just how often they leaned on it in a context like this, and how it got them through.

They showed fight, and grit, and that willingness to dig in. That will be more important going forward than the psychological effect from going top after this win, especially given the proper slog this schedule is becoming.

That’s the consequence of still competing in four trophies, as Guardiola acknowledged. It’s also the demand.

“It is what it is, normal when you play in four competitions,” the Catalan said. “Every game is tough… I used to listen when managers like Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benitez used to complain about the schedule, and nothing changes.

“We go wherever.

“In the right time, in the right moment, we play the game.”

And, maybe, play the right game for that time.

This win over Everton was evidence of that.

It was evidence that a Guardiola side - for what would be the first time in his career - can grind it out.

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