As the final whistle blew, the majority of Brighton’s supporters stood and applauded their side, which to some extent was a curious sight given they had just lost 4-1. But this was a hammering in which the losing team deserved praise having shown character and quality in the second half, dominating possession and territory and securing the goal their efforts deserved. Yet as the home fans cheered so did those in the away end having not just seen a win by Manchester City but another statement of intent.
Four days after dismantling Club Brugge in the Champions League, City were at it again, this time getting the job done in the first half, scoring three times, through Ilkay Gündogan and Phil Foden, twice, during a devastating 18-minute spell. Their approach play was typically quick, slick and accurate and, having secured a fourth goal via Riyad Mahrez’s stoppage-time strike, they climb to second. City will drop back a place should Liverpool beat Manchester United on Sunday but what the champions made abundantly clear here is that when it comes to this season’s title race, they are not going away.
This was a collective show of strength by City but one player in their ranks undeniably stood out. Having again been deployed as a false No 9, Foden was again outstanding, displaying intelligence with his movement and excellent technical quality in possession. And then there were his goals. Neither were beautiful – the first a looping, close-range finish on 28 minutes after he had collected Jack Grealish’s pass at the end of a sweeping City counterattack; the second a deflection of Gabriel Jesus’s strike on 31 minutes after the visitors again poured forward having seized possession in midfield – but the fact he was there on both occasions to score was encouraging for City, illustrating this most talented midfielder’s ability to be a poacher for the team.
Pep Guardiola bristled when asked if Foden’s display had persuaded him that, actually, he does not need a striker after all. “One day we’ll lose and you’ll ask me, ‘Do you need a striker?’ I don’t buy this question,” said the manager, but he was nevertheless effusive in his praise of the 21-year-old. “There are players who play positions and there are players who play football – Phil is one of these players,” said Guardiola. “I would like him to play everywhere to be honest because he understands the game so well and he will only improve.”
Graham Potter was also full of praise for Foden, as he was of City in general, describing them as “top opponents who deserved to win”. Yet the Brighton manager also expressed grievance with how his side went behind on 13 minutes. There was certainly initially an element of controversy to Gündogan’s goal, with the German tapping Bernado Silva’s hooked cross into an empty net after Robert Sánchez, Brighton’s goalkeeper, had failed to properly catch the ball as it looped in the air via a Foden strike. Sánchez insisted to the referee, Kevin Friend, that he been fouled by Jesus in the build-up, and while there was no doubt the Brazilian had put Sánchez off by backing into him as the ball came his way, replays showed he had not fouled him, something confirmed by a VAR check.
From there City went into overdrive, with Silva an especially excellent presence in midfield. Brighton were being ripped apart, partly through their own sloppiness in possession, and come half-time there was no escaping the sense that the hosts were in serious trouble. A first defeat in six games felt inevitable and a second 7-0 scoreline of the day was not out of the question.
It was to their immense credit, then, that Brighton responded so well after the break. Having changed his side’s formation from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 at the start of the game, Potter changed the system again, this time to 4-3-1-2, and it formed the basis for a far more aggressive and assured display by the hosts. Pascal Gross and Leandro Trossard both forced Ederson into saves before the Brazilian was beaten on 81 minutes via a penalty he gave away after fouling Enock Mwepu, who impressed having come on as a 58th-minute substitute. Alexis Mac Allister, another substitute, converted the spot kick.
“The team were amazing [in the second half],” said Potter. “I was impressed with everyone.”
Having been understandably subdued during the first half, the home spectators were now in raucous mood, clearly sensing their side could strike again. And there was another goal, but it belonged to City after Mahrez scored for a seventh time this season via a lashed close-range finish. The man who played him in with a clever pass? Foden.