After waiting so long to usher in Pep Guardiola, with his reputation for bewitching football and a masterplan based on worldwide domination, it is probably fair to say Manchester City may have expected more from his first game. They won, courtesy of an 87th-minute own goal, but the revolution is clearly going to need time and it was difficult not to pity David Moyes and his Sunderland players given how close they came to turning Guardiola’s grand entrance into an ordeal. “I realise now how difficult it is,” was the verdict from the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager.
Guardiola’s body language on the touchline certainly did not offer the impression of a man who liked what he saw and there was a considerable element of fortune about the game’s decisive moment when Paddy McNair, one of the Sunderland substitutes, turned a right-wing cross into his own net. McNair had been on the pitch only four minutes and, having just signed from Manchester United, the Northern Ireland international will have to hope the rest of his Sunderland career is a less harrowing experience.
His new team-mates can be desperately disappointed bearing in mind the way they refused to capitulate following Sergio Agüero’s early penalty, culminating in Jermain Defoe turning in a 71st-minute equaliser to move to joint 10th on the list of all-time Premier League scorers.
Defoe has 144 top-division goals and, with a touch more ambition, Sunderland might actually have put more pressure on Willy Caballero, City’s occasionally accident-prone goalkeeper, on a traumatic day for Joe Hart that saw him relegated to the bench. All summer there have been rumours Guardiola has misgivings about the England international. His team selection provided the hard evidence and there have to be doubts now about whether Hart will remain at the club.
Yaya Touré could also be forgiven if he were filled with insecurity, considering he did not even merit a place among Guardiola’s substitutes and there were times when the club’s supporters must have felt slightly dizzy trying to keep up with all the changes. Guardiola had tweaked City’s tactics in a number of ways and, having started with a 4-1-4-1 formation, it was fascinating to see the switch to 3-2-4-1 when they were attacking.
Those were moments during the match when Fernandinho dropped back from midfield to play in between John Stones and Aleksandar Kolarov as an additional centre-half. Bacary Sagna and Gaël Clichy, full-backs by trade, moved inside to become converted midfielders and the other five outfield players pressed forward. No other side in English football plays this way.
It is plainly a work in progress and Guardiola will have to hope his players are intelligent enough to understand what he wants because, if so, it feels as if a slick, sophisticated operation is being put in place. This, however, was not the day it gelled, or even close.
Sunderland have not won any of their opening Premier League fixtures since 2009 but the visiting players also had a new manager to impress and they knocked the ball around confidently at times. It also felt like a good time to encounter City when the home side had a new-look defence, a different set of tactics to negotiate and a goalkeeper trying to justify his selection and prove he can be trusted.
The harsh reality for Guardiola is that Hart and Caballero are both error-prone and, having preferred the Argentinian, there were a couple of anxious moments in the first half when the goalkeeper’s misplaced kicks threatened his own team. Caballero, to give him his due, also kept out Defoe with a smart reflex save but the most effective goalkeepers have a presence that inspires confidence and he has rarely shown that during his time in Manchester.
On a brighter note for City there were encouraging signs Raheem Sterling has reacted positively to Guardiola’s arrival. Sterling was operating in a new role on the right and it was his run that led to Patrick van Aanholt conceding the penalty after only three minutes. Sterling had cut inside Van Aanholt and the full-back’s sliding challenge, at full speed, was mistimed and risky. Agüero aimed his shot low and hard to Vito Mannone’s right and, though the goalkeeper dived the correct way, he was beaten by the accuracy and power.
For the remainder of the match, the surprising part was how slow everything seemed. Stones had an accomplished display but Nolito rarely threatened on the left wing and Kevin De Bruyne was strangely subdued. Sunderland had Donald Love making his debut at right-back. Lamine Koné excelled at centre-back despite all the hullaballoo about his future and Moyes had Lynden Gooch, on loan at Doncaster Rovers last season, in midfield. Yet the team who finished fourth from bottom last season held their own and it was rare to see City, with David Silva captaining the team, creating so few chances on their own ground.
Defoe’s goal was a typically astute piece of centre-forward play, running on to Jack Rodwell’s through ball before slipping his shot beneath Caballero, and Sunderland did not deserve the misfortune that turned the match back in favour of the home side. Jesús Navas, a 59th-minute replacement for Nolito, drilled in the cross and the ball flicked off Mannone, struck McNair and ricocheted into the net. Guardiola had his first win, just not in the style that might have been expected.