Manchester City are 14 matches unbeaten, the scoreline of this victory not reflecting the conveyor-belt of chances they created. In the end all that separated the sides was Phil Foden’s impressive goal near half-time – the substitute Raheem Sterling blasted an added-time penalty over – and as Brighton had seriously pressed as the final whistle approached City ended relieved to collect a vital three points.
This was the first of two games Pep Guardiola’s side had in hand and in winning they rise to 32 points, four behind the leaders, Manchester United.
“In the last 20 minutes we struggled because they are really good,” Guardiola said. “Now it’s on top Palace [here on Sunday].”
Graham Potter arranged his team in a 4-3-1-2 that featured Leandro Trossard and Percy Tau at the tip. The problem they had was the regular one when facing City: how to use whatever parsimonious possession they were allowed to hurt their opponents.
A favourite move of Guardiola’s side has two or three slick passes exchanged around the area that open up a defence and create a close-range opportunity. A Kevin De Bruyne one-two with Ilkay Gündogan offered a perfect illustration: suddenly the Belgian was in on Robert Sánchez’s goal but after De Bruyne took a stride and unloaded the keeper saved well.
City bombarded Brighton. A Riyad Mahrez diagonal was turned back from the left post towards Foden but Joel Veltman cleared the danger. De Bruyne stood the ball up for Mahrez near the opposite upright but his right foot let him down. Then a De Bruyne pass was touched back by a stretching Adam Webster to Sánchez who picked it up causing Darren England, the referee, to award an indirect free-kick 10 yards out.
De Bruyne hit this at an onrushing Alexis Mac Allister and so again his team were denied but Brighton were having to concentrate relentlessly against the City wave. Even when Bernardo pickpocketed João Cancelo and City claimed a corner this was turned into a home attack: Ederson grabbed the delivery and Guardiola’s men raced upfield, the indefatigable De Bruyne firing at Sánchez.
Finally came Foden’s sweet finish, the youngster receiving a De Bruyne pass, cutting infield, then deliberately wrongfooting Sánchez by beating him at his near post with a right-foot shot. This was Foden’s 10th of the campaign, making him City’s top scorer in all competitions.
“Phil Foden is 20 years old, look at the starts,” said Guardiola. “The amount of games, the assists compared to the bigger stars in football. He can play both sides, in the middle as a false nine. He is so clever in front of goal. That is why he deserves to play.”
Despite calls for players not to hug due to Covid, John Stones – followed by others – had embraced Foden. Guardiola said: “The situation is critical and I respect the protocols of the Premier League [but] it is difficult. I don’t know if we will be able to do it. In the moment when you score a goal and one guy runs and the others don’t go to celebrate with him, it is weird and uncomfortable.”
Potter offered a similar take. “It is difficult but should be manageable – we know how serious the situation is,” he said.
City continued to purr, enjoying a level of control akin to toying with their opponents. Foden had another attempt blocked and, moments later, the 20-year-old was denied a penalty when going down under a Veltman arm.
Brighton now saw a Davy Pröpper effort hit at Ederson. City shrugged this off and found a higher gear but still remained profligate. Mahrez missed the target, Gündogan saw a shot saved, and Bernardo Silva hit the left post.
Next, Pröpper’s skid along the turf to connect with a Bernardo ball only barely missed in another warning that Brighton would not be bowed. The catalogue of City attempts was added to by Cancelo and De Bruyne before Brighton threatened towards the close. And, at the death, came Sánchez upending De Bruyne for the penalty opportunity Sterling spurned. “Next time Raz will be better,” Guardiola said of the forward.