Ederson key as Man City 'win ugly' for the first time vs. Shakhtar
Despite Manchester City's huge wins in recent weeks, where Pep Guardiola's team managed 22 goals in five games with only one in reply -- and that was against the second-string side -- questions have still been asked about their defensive quality.
Somehow, quite ridiculously, many have witnessed the club's free-flowing attacking displays and concluded they've still looked a little shaky at the back, even as opponents have been blown away and the clean sheets have been stacking up.
With the 2-0 victory over Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday, Guardiola's men put in perhaps their most grown-up performance of the season so far. The Ukrainian champions were a stern test for City, unlike the majority of what they've faced so far in 2017-18, and it took the home side a lot of patient and professional play to be able to ease into the lead.
In dispatching Liverpool and Crystal Palace 5-0 or battering Watford 6-0, for instance, there was a child-like freedom and innocence to the matches. City were streaming forward and enjoying themselves, not really concentrating on what the opposition were doing. They'd not had to, dominating possession to the extent that goalkeeper Ederson could have brought a deckchair and a newspaper to relax in the City goal and still not conceded.
City were so intent on causing maximum damage and exerting full control, they were squeezing the life out of the game by winning the ball back very high up the pitch. Once they were in charge of those matches, the opposition were struggling to get any sort of foothold in response and it was a comfortable 90 minutes, with plenty of goals.
But Shakhtar were different. While there can be no question that City deserved to win the game given the chances they created, especially in the second half, there were spells that showed how the visitors had earned a 2-1 victory over the much-fancied Napoli in the first gameweek.
As Guardiola's side tried their trick of strangling the game high up the field, Shakhtar instead were able to respond and deal with the pressure. It allowed them occasional routes through to Ederson's goal, which, with a better final ball or less decisive goalkeeping, could have caused the home side more problems.
It is games like this where the new goalkeeper is crucial to the Guardiola style. In the past, with Willy Caballero or Claudio Bravo between the sticks, City would be forced further back, as neither was overly keen on leaving their line in the so-called "sweeper keeper" mould. Throw in dodgy shot stopping from the Chilean and it's little wonder the team crumbled under pressure at times.
In Ederson, however, there's someone who will mop up as the last line of defence and who is capable of pulling off excellent saves when needed, too. It's left the City rear-guard full of confidence -- and even when Shakhtar had a lot of the ball in the first half, there was less of the nervousness that underlined Guardiola's first year at the club.
In the past, City have had real problems regaining control of matches their opposition were dominant in early on. Displays like the one on Tuesday suggest that's no longer an issue.
Once in front early in the second half, City managed the game well. They were able to turn the screw on the visitors without allowing them more space to operate in through the midfield. The attacks were still fast-paced and built on a speedy breakaway or a defence-splitting through ball from Kevin De Bruyne or David Silva, but there was an element of restraint about them too.
City didn't over-commit in search of killing the tie, even if they still carved out a number of great opportunities after the break -- including a missed penalty, and another nailed-on spot-kick that the referee somehow failed to see.
This is perhaps as close to winning ugly as a Guardiola side will get. The victory came through bossing the middle, staying in an excellent shape and players all being aware of their roles both on and off the ball. This was a win less about City's swashbuckling forward line and more about their teamwork to suffocate their opposition.
They were instead a more compact and solid unit. It was the sort of performance that goes unnoticed, considered unremarkable by fans and pundits in the context of the high scores that City have been handing out since the beginning of September. Yet it was a display of maturity and control, the like of which were a staple of Roberto Mancini's Premier League title-winning team and which have been absent for all too long.
A record of six clean sheets in nine matches, and only one goal conceded in the other three matches, suggests there's no fluke to City's improved control of games. With a trip to Stamford Bridge up next, perhaps this sort of display against a determined Shakhtar team could be the perfect warm-up.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney