There was an inevitability about it all. Despite Everton’s dogged resistance, Manchester City not managing a shot on target andErling Haaland barely making an impact, the outcome was still predictable.
A frustrating 0-0 quickly turned into a comfortable 2-0 for Pep Guardiola’s team and normal service resumed. The manner in which Haaland took both of his goals were more reminiscent of the clinical striker that wracked up 52 of them last term as City won the Treble.
Although the Norwegian international is again at the top of the Premier League goalscoring charts this season — despite him missing five matches through injury — he has not reached the lofty standards that he set last season.
Haaland is on par with his expected goals (xG) number (16 to 15.7), which is good enough for most strikers, but the whole thing about this clinical finisher is that he normally drastically outperforms his xG — and all expectations.
Those watching on at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday will have seen a Haaland they recognised. His first goal in the 71st minute was an example of startling efficiency. Anticipating the dropping ball from a corner Everton failed to clear, the 22-year-old steadied himself and thrashed it home with his weaker foot.
Fourteen minutes later it was peak Haaland. His run through on goal, barging a 6ft 5in Jarrad Branthwaiteout of the way, before slotting pastJordan Pickford presented all the hallmarks of an unstoppable force. Kevin De Bruyne assisting was also a return of old.
This cameo will not only have boosted the mood amongst City supporters — whose team are keeping Liverpool honest at the top of the table — but also Haaland himself. These were his first goals since November, and although he has been absent for almost two months, it will have been good to get back in the scoring rhythm.
Did City miss their talismanic striker during his injury lay-off? It is hard to say. Guardiola’s team are on a 10-game winning run that started during Haaland’s absence. Phil Fodenand Julian Alvarez are two players who stepped up and collectively managed 15 goals and eight assists between Haaland’s last goal and those this weekend.
Whether Haaland would have improved City’s performances a great deal is questionable but it is his reliability in front of goal that can propel City above the rest. When the two are in tandem — Haaland scoring and City winning, just like this weekend — they are a force to be reckoned with.
There have been times during the past 18 months — early last season being one — when Haaland was scoring goals at an incredible rate but City were no better off for them because of structural issues that Guardiola fixed by deploying John Stones in the hybrid role between central defence and midfield.
City haven’t looked back since; and having gone into first place in the table for the first time in over three months on the back of this victory — albeit only for a few hours — they know that win their game in hand against Brentford later this month and they will be in command.
Making moves at this time of the season is a City ritual; and the sight of Haaland scoring and De Bruyne back and assisting after a long lay-off because of surgery certainly appears ominous for their challengers.
City have momentum, Everton don’t
Guardiola’s team have momentum, which is why the win over Everton — although it came late — always felt likely. Sean Dyche’s team are the opposite. This was their seventh league outing without a victory.
City can turn good teams into mere mortals and their toolbox is far more extravagant than the one at Dyche’s disposal. The sight of first Kyle Walker and De Bruyne coming off the bench, thenBernardo Silvafollowed by Jack Grealishonly underlined their strength in depth.
It was clear these two opponents were not equals and games such as these are not what will define Everton’s campaign. Instead, it will be how they fare in their two Profit and Sustainability Rules (PSR) hearings and crucial fixtures like the one against Crystal Palace on Monday week that will decide their fate.
Yet as the game unfolded, with Branthwaite and James Tarkowski under ever-increasing pressure, it was difficult not to think the visitors needed a Plan B to alleviate some duress. It is probably no coincidence that Everton have been without Abdoulaye Doucoure for all but one game since they last won in the league.
The midfielder brings some unpredictability to Dyche’s team, which is something they have missed and is also a reason why they have scored just four goals in eight games.
Dyche will still take plenty from the character and work ethic his players exhibited on Saturday, but they will need to show a little more to return to winning ways.