Perhaps it was the return to a ground where they brought up the only century of Premier League points in a season. Maybe it was the challenge posed by a Southampton side in such fine form that they could have gone second themselves.
Whichever, Manchester City produced their best result of the campaign. They could savour their return to St Mary’s, scene of their last game in the 2018/19 campaign, and shrug off the absence of a specialist striker, with both Gabriel Jesus injured and Sergio Aguero benched.
Raheem Sterling got the goal and a rampaging Kevin de Bruyne provided the inspiration in a high-class match, played at great pace. “It was an absolute top game, a great commercial for the Premier League,” said Ralph Hasenhuttl. “We played better than in the summer than when we have won 1-0 [against City].”
The visitors’ clean sheet was an endorsement of the centre-back partnership of Ruben Dias and John Stones as Southampton excelled while in some ways the scoreline was deceptive: City posed enough threat to get other goals.
“We have to survive being solid,” said Pep Guardiola. “We accept our momentum in front of goal is not good. We create three, four or five one-on-ones and we have to score.”
The one they did muster was superb, classic City in how quick and clinical it was. Bernardo Silva found the overlapping De Bruyne, the Belgian’s mastery of angles apparent in a precise cutback and Sterling added the finish. “I know I haven’t been at the level I should be,” said the scorer, who only had one goal in his previous 10 games.
The move stemmed from Ederson’s long clearance as Southampton’s high pressing game meant half their team was taken out of the game. But it also felt the consequence of the weight of the pressure a purposeful City applied. Alex McCarthy had made a spectacular save from Joao Cancelo and the offside Rodri had a goal disallowed.
But, as Sterling said: “We had to dig deep and find something within.” Theo Walcott spearheaded Saints’ response. Ederson parried his shot while, from the winger’s cross, Danny Ings headed wide. The striker felt he deserved a penalty for Dias’ raised foot; Mike Dean disagreed. Jannik Vestergaard twice threatened with headers from corners. Saints suffered other setbacks, with Oriol Romeu collecting a booking that incurs a ban and Ings suffering a hamstring injury. “Hopefully it is not a big injury,” added Hasenhuttl. “It was a risk to [pick] him.”
City could have extended their lead. “Unfortunately, we could not finish in the second half,” added Guardiola. Ferran Torres flashed a shot wide, Bernardo Silva scuffed an effort after a second brilliant De Bruyne cross. Remarkably, De Bruyne has still only scored from the penalty spot in the division this season and his wait continued when McCarthy held a low shot, while the goalkeeper made a flying save to deny Ilkay Gundogan. Riyad Mahrez volleyed over in stoppage time. But one goal sufficed. “Good result,” Guardiola concluded.