BRIGHTON, England — Three thoughts from Manchester City’s 2-0 win away at Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League.
1. City hold nerve at Brighton
After their title rivals had lost their heads, Manchester City kept theirs. Victory at Brighton did not come easy to the Premier League title favourites, but at least they did not concede three goals like each of Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea have done on opening weekend.
Sergio Aguero’s 70th-minute opening goal, set up for him by first Kevin De Bruyne and then David Silva seizing on a Dale Stephens mistake, and an own-goal by Lewis Dunk six minutes later from Fernandinho’s cross set City up for a winning start, just as they were struggling to break Brighton’s resolution.
There was little sign here of Pep Guardiola rethinking his approach to English football over the summer. City played the patient, technical passing football with which the Catalan made his name, and his starting lineup was adventurous; Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus started together ahead of twinned playmakers De Bruyne and Silva. Spanish magician Silva has chosen to begin the season with the same close-cropped hairstyle as his manager.
As expected, the visitors utterly dominated possession but they did not totally dominate Brighton until the goals came. Chris Hughton had set his team up to soak up pressure, hoping to attack on the counter, though winger Izzy Brown, on loan from Chelsea, lasted just 23 minutes before he was forced to limp from the field with a muscle injury.
For all the time they had on the ball, it took until the half-hour mark for City to create a genuine chance. Jesus had the ball in the net, but was correctly ruled to have handled the ball with his second touch after De Bruyne’s pass. The Brazilian, legally this time, soon after forced Brighton goalkeeper Mathew Ryan into an excellent, point-blank save after Aguero’s drifting cross, before Jesus jabbed the rebound wide.
Until scoring, Aguero had not looked especially sharp. His 52nd minute miss of a chance he would typically lash in suggested early-season rustiness. And City’s failure to capitalise on their dominance of the ball might have been costly. Danilo had to hurriedly clear danger when Ederson flapped at a Markus Suttner cross, before Shane Duffy and then Dunk and Davy Propper had successive efforts. City had repeatedly failed to properly clear a corner.
Eventually, though, they recovered their step before then finding their range.
2. Brighton no soft touch
time was celebrated by the ground being swathed in blue and white flags. This was Albion’s first match in England’s top division since 1983. Since then, the club has escaped extinction and survived the old Goldstone Ground being sold to developers with no home to go to before a “temporary” 12 years at the Withdean Stadium.
The Amex Stadium, home since 2011, is Premier League ready and rocked with noise throughout. A pre-match film on the stadium’s big screens reminded of the club’s amazing journey after the coastal city had been awash with replica shirts. As kickoff approached, the stands rang out with chants of “Albion, Albion” and “Seagulls, Seagulls” that drowned out a pre-match interview with former goalkeeper Michel Kuipers.
Hughton’s team set off with the intention of harvesting that fervour by firing straight into their aristocratic opponents with some Championship-style tackling, but soon found themselves on the back foot, only to eventually gain some territory at the end of the half, and in that flurry of chances before Aguero’s goal.
City were certainly discomfited by Brighton’s drive and endeavour. Their doggedness against the Premier League’s most gifted opposition suggested they are unlikely to be a soft touch for anyone.
3. Guardiola’s billionaires still looking for a blend?
The sight of Claudio Bravo on the City bench was a reminder of last season’s goalkeeping calamities. Premier League debutant Ederson, the world’s most expensive goalkeeper at £35 million, was under the spotlight his Chilean backup wilted under last season, though his new team’s dominance meant this was not a match to fully test his mettle.
He did, though, save his first shot comfortably, a looping header from Dunk in the 45th minute. Such a simple thing appeared beyond Bravo last season, and though Ederson’s lack of commitment to Suttner’s cross in the 55th minute and the chaos that followed suggested he was not totally comfortable, a clean sheet is a good start.
Wing-back partnership Kyle Walker and Danilo were fellow debutants costing a combined £81.5m, playing outside a trio of central defenders in Vincent Kompany, John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi. Danilo, on the left, took every available opportunity to cut in on his favoured right foot while Walker was always an outlet on his flank, though Silva and De Bruyne both seemed hesitant to use him. Playing through the middle seemed the order of the day, rather than using the flanks, which seemed a waste of two high-quality and willing wing-backs; Walker looked especially keen to get forward.
Meanwhile, Eliaquim Mangala being sat alongside Bravo conjured memories of another of City’s many forgotten men. Three at the back cleared the cupboards of central defenders, and the Frenchman is current first reserve in the absence of any further summer additions. Added to that, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane started on the bench, as did £43m Bernardo Silva, a late sub for Aguero, after Sane replaced Danilo with 22 minutes left on the clock and Sterling had replaced Jesus ten minutes earlier.
City truly have a true embarrassment of riches but his team’s toils at Brighton suggested that Guardiola is still seeking a blend.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.