Phil Foden winner at Brentford takes Manchester City eight points clear at top
The destiny of the Premier League title may well have been decided in the same week as the Ashes. After Liverpool faltered at Leicester on Tuesday and Chelsea were depth‑charged by Danny Welbeck elsewhere in west London on Wednesday, Manchester City enter 2022 with a fourth title in five years firmly within their grasp.
Victory at Brentford opened the gap to eight on Chelsea and nine on Liverpool. Their chasers face each other at the weekend. With Brentford troublesome, disciplined opposition, City could not close out 2021 with a display of the glorious pyrotechnics that won the title last season and had rattled in 17 goals in their last three matches. Phil Foden’s early goal, coming from Kevin De Bruyne’s assist, gave them what they came for, a 10th successive Premier League win, a pace with which their rivals cannot live. As Pep Guardiola remarked: “The reason they [Chelsea and Liverpool] drop points is that we won 10 games in a row.”
On a ground where Arsenal lost, Liverpool drew 3-3 and Chelsea squeaked a 1-0 win, Guardiola did not underestimate Brentford. The restoration to the starting lineup of Foden and Jack Grealish after being benched because of a pre-Christmas drinks session reflected the strength of City’s options, and paid dividends in Foden’s match-winning contribution.
Grealish, as his drinking partner showed off his superior capability within City’s freeform attacking, continues to be a disappointment. The devil-may-care attacker of Aston Villa yore is yet to evidence himself, though in mitigation Bernardo Silva was similarly quiet in this game.
Facing all that talent, and someone Thomas Frank had called the “greatest manager of the modern era”, was a Brentford team ravaged by injury rather than illness. Only one player, Vitaly Janelt, is currently on the Covid absentee list, though it appears whoever Frank picks will give their all for the cause.
Guardiola offered plenty of credit to Brentford for his team’s problems in finding a way through. “You cannot make more chances when they play 10 players in such a space,” Guardiola said. “The space is always impossible. In that situation you have to be patient.”
Despite space being so squeezed, the champions dominated possession from the start. A heavy surface – with suspiciously long grass – at the Community Stadium also curbed the usual City flow. Gabriel Jesus’s 10th‑minute miscontrol was by no means the only slip.
Brentford were never completely restricted to their own half and the City goal came just as the home team created their best sequence of chances. Frank Onyeka and Mads Sørenson took early potshots before Ederson was forced into a reaction save after Yoane Wissa had crashed the ball off Rúben Dias’s face. It then took a timely Nathan Aké intervention to clear danger when Ivan Toney threatened.
Within seconds of that flurry, Foden had the ball in the net. De Bruyne crossed from the right in a style David Beckham once patented and Foden, onside by millimetres, slotted past Álvaro Fernández. VAR offered no mercy. “I wasn’t too confident,” Foden said of the lengthy delay that followed his strike. “I thought I went a little too early.”
Foden, in a false-nine position he clearly relished, was often the City player furthest forward . “He likes it, this position,” Guardiola said, sidestepping questions of the discipline he had meted out to his young England stars. “[Foden] does not have anything to prove to me.”
Brentford, urged on by Frank’s squawking presence from the touchline, were often reduced to last-ditch tackles. Dominic Thompson, on Jesus, delivered the pick of them. It got tetchy, too. Just before the break Toney and Fernandinho fought out a running battle. Both fell theatrically but neither engaged the attention of officialdom.
The second half began with De Bruyne again teeing up Foden, this time for a header wide. The Belgian then struck the foot of the left-hand post. Foden did net a header, only to be ruled offside. Brentford were retreating ever more, pressed into mistakes on the rare occasions they did regain possession.
“We met City in their highest form, and we gave one chance away in 45 minutes, so the first half is fantastic,” Frank said. “Unfortunately we lacked the cutting edge in attack and on the counter. But I’m fully proud and disappointed we didn’t take a point.”
The lack of a second City goal opened the door on a later Brentford counter nicking a point and halting City’s winning run at nine matches but the home team were too exhausted to try it, with Thompson, only one previous Premier League game to his name, pulling up with cramp.
Guardiola, meanwhile, could leave Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling on the bench. They will come in handy for Arsenal on Saturday, a chance to put further distance on City’s increasingly desperate chasers.