Manchester City have a swagger about them that their rivals will be wary of. They pulled three points clear at the top via a 13th consecutive victory achieved with minimal effort against a Burnley side who had no answer.
Pep Guardiola’s team also have a game in hand over Manchester United, who are second, and appear in prime control of their destiny despite the absence of their record goalscorer, Sergio Agüero, and finest player, Kevin De Bruyne.
City go to Liverpool next for what will be a fascinating clash between the current champions and those of the two previous seasons. If they leave Merseyside on Sunday with victory it may prove a significant blow in this year’s title race.
Guardiola said: “Now is the time to enjoy this and tomorrow we start to think about that. They are a contender to be champion but it’s only three points.”
The manager pointed to how Burnley completes a sequence of victories over similar opponents that has also included Brighton, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, West Brom, and Sheffield United. “We’ve won six games in a row against teams in low positions and we know how tough it was to win these – we had to do our best,” Guardiola said. “Now we have different teams, who have different type of play: Liverpool, Tottenham, West Ham, Manchester United and the Champions League [restarting]. A tough group of games but we enjoy this [win] have some good food, and start to think about Liverpool.”
Burnley were rocked almost instantly after kick-off. Raheem Sterling received the ball and relayed it to Bernardo Silva, who advanced and shot. Nick Pope’s parry was weak, and the ball popped up at head height for Gabriel Jesus to nod home.
“Sometimes you get caught in two minds as a keeper whether to parry or not,” Sean Dyche said of Pope’s error. “But we could’ve stopped the ball before then.”
This was a second goal in two games for Jesus, to the delight of his manager. “Strikers need goals for their confidence,” Guardiola said. “Gabriel Jesus played really good.”
From here it was a stroll for City. Yet of interest was how Guardiola arranged his team. João Cancelo, supposedly a defender, was part of a four-man midfield, the Portuguese operating ahead and to the right of the holding player, Rodri, with Ilkay Gündogan the central playmaker.
City are masters of possession, able to go from relaxed to breathless pace in an instant. One Sterling run in behind that panicked Pope was an illustration. The keeper rushed out and barely cleared his lines. The more measured stuff came when Sterling, Aymeric Laporte, Rodri, and Rúben Dias knocked the ball between them. And when this broke down Cancelo rushed over to tackle Jay Rodriguez: here was the embodiment of Guardiola’s dictum that his players have to “run and run” when losing possession.
Burnley – surprisingly – hardly made life awkward for City. Sterling was allowed to wander infield and tap to Jesus in space in the area: his effort took a deflection off Ben Mee that Pope gathered in what was a warning. If this was as close as the visitors had come to doubling the lead they had Burnley precisely where they wished: chasing the ball around the pitch.
A Rodri chip towards Mahrez was diverted for a corner, this was worked to Cancelo, and his in-swinger was clutched by Pope.
Now, City struck again. Riyad Mahrez pinged the ball to Gündogan who had popped up on the right wing. His cross zipped over the surface, Pope was helpless, and Sterling’s was a sniffer’s finish. Moments later Cancelo shot straight at Pope – again from close range – as City continued to operate like a superior five-a-side team whose ambition is to accumulate goals by walking the ball in.
They began the second half with a flowing move that went from Dias to Ederson to Silva who moved the ball to Sterling. From here play switched to Cancelo and his 20-yard shot was goal-bound but for a block. Gündogan followed this up by firing off a shot from distance a few seconds later: it went wide but then the same player sent Sterling racing on to a delightful ball and the England forward should have scored a second. Instead he dallied and Burnley escaped.
Describing Dyche’s men as becalmed was an understatement. As the contest passed the hour mark they had yet to register a shot until Matej Vydra chest-controlled then blasted wide, but City continued to squeeze their opponents. Burnley enjoyed more territory closer to the visitors’ goal though this was relative.
The truth is this was a canter for those in white shirts. If it seems unlikely Sunday’s game will be the same, Guardiola struck an ominous note. “We lost simple balls and I’m concerned and talked with them – we can do a lot better.”