Manchester City can misfire and still claim maximum points. There was a jarring to the usual smooth gears Pep Guardiola’s champions so often show when rolling over an opponent, yet by the final whistle they did not care. As the manager said: “After the international break it’s always a little bit difficult to come to a rhythm and I know how good Burnley are.”
City’s aggregate over the Clarets is now 32-1 in the last nine meetings and with the previous three league fixtures here ending 5-0, Sean Dyche saw the reduced margin of defeat as a positive. “It was definitely a better performance than we’ve given here in recent times,” he said.
Guardiola decided Raheem Sterling’s admission that he was open to leaving was a non-issue regarding starting the 26-year-old, who led the line and was joined in the XI by John Stones, granted his first action for City two months into the season. Of the pair their manager said: “Both played really well. My players always play good because they give everything. I am so satisfied with the game we played and the victory we got.”
Burnley, who lined up 4-4-1-1, were initially on the wrong end of percussive passing as João Cancelo, Riyad Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne were joined in attack by Aymeric Laporte – Stones’s central defensive partner – and Nathan Aké, the left-back.
So it was City breached their visitors. The ball was thudded from Cancelo to the excellent Bernardo Silva, who turned it across the area for Phil Foden. His shot was disguised, aiming to the left of Nick Pope, and when the No 1 parried, the lurking Silva smashed home.
Guardiola said: “Bernardo is at the same level he played in the season we won the title with 98 points [2018-19], when he was out of this world.”
The Portuguese’s strike came 12 minutes in. Last season’s 5-0 rout was only six minutes old when Mahrez struck the first and at this juncture City appeared as rampant. Dyche’s body language suggested he feared for his team in what remained of the game. He perked up, though, when Maxwel Cornet raced on to Dwight McNeil’s threaded pass but Burnley’s second striker hit straight at Zac Steffen, City’s goalkeeper.
Dyche, to his credit, tried a tactical switch that moved Cornet left and the former Lyon man’s quick feet allowed him to hit in a cross that posed Laporte a problem. City’s early high gear had been lowered and would remain there.
Rodri scooped a ball on to Mahrez’s right boot but the Algerian fluffed the volley. Guardiola met this with disbelief that was repeated when the same player booted the ball wildly high moments later.
City entered the break appearing predictable, hoping to work the same wide angles via Mahrez. Guardiola may have had a firm word with his charges as they were becalmed, the second half beginning with Foden swapping positions with Sterling.
Mahrez, again, was profligate, clipping the bar from close range and the thought, not for a first time this season, was that the specialist centre-forward City do not possess might have had them two or three clear by this stage. Better was a slick Sterling-Foden combination that had Pope diving at the new “ghost” No 9’s feet. At the other end there was a scare for City when Ashley Barnes might have equalised, but his attempt was powder-puff.
Next up to miss from close in was Laporte before, at the other end, Matthew Lowton skidded over a delivery that had Dyche bemoaning the lack of finish. But then De Bruyne, relatively muted thus far, showed how when his cross first hit Ashley Westwood, the ball rolled back to the Belgian, and his left foot executed a thunderbolt for City’s second.
Towards the end Guardiola eschewed bringing on the maverick talent of Jack Grealish for the shut-the-shop aficionado Fernandinho, who replaced De Bruyne. That said much about how City had been of lower quality.