Among the flying limbs of Manchester City’s away end stood Cole Palmer, throwing himself around in celebration as team-mate Phil Foden slid toward them and cupped his ear with swagger.
Joao Cancelo looked so pumped, eyes bulging while grabbing the club’s badge, that he seemed ready to jump in alongside injured academy star Palmer. Saturday night was not pretty City.
This was the 82nd minute of an arduous evening, Foden the fox to Michael Keane’s chicken inside a nesting box that Everton had guarded so diligently.
Manchester City’s 1-0 win away at Everton could prove crucial in the Premier League title race
The exaltation in one corner of Goodison Park told the story of this being no routine victory, but one that might feel hugely significant come the end of May.
The scenes continued when referee Paul Tierney blew his whistle and Everton’s bench blew their top after VAR Chris Kavanagh’s controversial decision not to award a late penalty.
Pep Guardiola, meanwhile, headed straight for the travelling supporters, blowing kisses and whipping them up. ‘I would love to hug them all every single game,’ said Guardiola.
‘I don’t go much to thank them because wherever we go, they are far, far away. Our away fans are extraordinary.’
There was controversy as Rodri was not penalised for what looked like a handball in the box
Frank Lampard set Everton up to defend deep to try to frustrate City throughout the game
Guardiola’s two public displays of affection have both come on Merseyside this season, the first following October’s pulsating 2-2 draw at Anfield. Coincidence, perhaps. Or perhaps he acknowledges the effort required to leave with points from this part of the world.
City were good at Liverpool, though, while across Stanley Park they were not. In fact, this was not the first recent occasion when the champions have dipped way below their natural level.
Poor against Tottenham last week, victory over Brentford similarly hard work and even the five-goal rout of Sporting Lisbon drew criticism from their coach.
Locks are not being picked with the same freedom or flourish; the low blocks are becoming ever more compact and stubborn.
Guardiola believes this could be a laborious stagger to the finish line as those facing them employ the same tactics every week.
Phil Foden scored the winner at Goodison Park as he capitalised on sloppy Everton defending
‘They defend with probably 10 players in the box; the strikers defend on our holding midfielder,’ he said. ‘There is no space. We need the creativity, the talent for our players to break the games, and be patient.’
Everton perfected that, especially in the first half. Allan twice turned over Kevin De Bruyne in midfield, they broke menacingly as City toiled.
‘The games with big margins of goals have finished,’ Guardiola warned. ‘Everyone is playing for something, every game will be a battle like Everton.’
For City, the theme of teams defending deep and in huge numbers is nothing new, but are they retreating further and further back with each passing season?
‘Yeah,’ Guardiola replied. ‘Most of them except Liverpool I would say, Brighton, Arsenal in some moments.
‘Maybe I’m forgetting someone. Aston Villa, we played there a little bit too. Leeds as well. But as a principle, when we make a good build-up, they sit. But, honestly, I’m not saying anything’s wrong. Every manager, every team can do whatever they want, absolutely. It’s in our hands how to break them.’
Pep Guardiola described Manchester City’s away fans as ‘extraordinary’ after beating Everton
It should be noted that Leeds were walloped for seven at the Etihad and defending narrow is the way to truly challenge City’s attacking prowess.
It was interesting, too, that Chelsea and Manchester United were omitted from Guardiola’s list. United are up next in the Premier League on Sunday. Expect attack versus defence.
‘Everton wasn’t our best game but we showed great heart and courage,’ said Foden. Hearing similar words on derby day would be no great surprise.