John Stones is enjoying the season of his career as his emphatic strike took Manchester City to a 20th consecutive victory. If Riyad Mahrez’s feet bedazzled West Ham’s defence to create the opening to find him, then Stones’ instantaneous shot that burst Darren Randolph’s net was supreme.
The centre-back’s goal – his fourth of the campaign – arrived on 68 minutes and means Pep Guardiola’s irresistible side are now unbeaten in 27 in what was also the Catalan’s 200th win for the club: this coming in just 273 games, the shortest time for a manager at a top-flight team.
West Ham’s winless run against City now stretches to 12 matches.
“After 50 minutes we knew we were not going to paint something beautiful – we were lucky but it was all about getting the three points – the mathematics matter at the end of the season,” Guardiola said. “There are many of these [types of] games: we didn’t create much but we didn’t concede anything. What we have done is amazing but of course we don’t have [any] titles [yet].
“But what we have done now is like a title – to be able to do 20 is maybe one of the greatest achievements we have done together in our careers.”
Guardiola had shuffled his pack to give Sergio Agüero a fourth start of an injury-blighted season. The 32-year-old is yet to complete 90 minutes, although with Kevin De Bruyne also selected this was the first time in 12 months both players had started in a league XI.
While João Cancelo, Rodri, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus were on the substitutes’ bench, David Moyes made two changes from West Ham’s win over Tottenham. Randolph made a second league appearance – for Lukasz Fabianski – and Ben Johnson, who would prove nervy, came in for Jarrod Bowen.
West Ham could be pleased with a beginning that featured Ederson selling Fernandinho short near the penalty area before Tomas Soucek caught the City captain. After that, City had an opening game of keep-ball. This ended with Agüero being slipped in by Oleksandr Zinchenko in the left channel.
The same player later swept a cross-field pass into Mahrez as he and his team found some rhythm. This receded, though, as West Ham disrupted City and launched a dangerous attack. Jesse Lingard’s shot was parried by Ederson, Soucek turned the ball back towards Michail Antonio, he challenged with Ederson, the ball ricocheted to Lingard again, before Stones blocked his second effort. The central defender was once more the saviour when Pablo Fornals’ raking pass was headed away by Stones to prevent Antonio breaking clear.
With nearly 30 minutes gone, Zinchenko floated in a cross that Aaron Cresswell nodded out for City’s first corner of the game. It would result in their first goal. De Bruyne’s delivery was eventually returned to him and from his sweetly struck second ball into the area, Rúben Dias rose to head beyond Randolph.
West Ham now had to contend with an opponent in total control. Zinchenko, Mahrez, Stones and Kyle Walker were a whir of blue who nudged the ball around expertly. The visitors lacked this expert touch when Lingard’s pass came to Antonio square before Ederson: the striker shinned wide and Moyes blew out his cheeks in disappointment.
The manager was to feel the opposite emotion in the minutes before half-time. Agüero dawdled in possession, Declan Rice mugged him, the ball went to Vladimir Coufal, and his cross from the right was hit first by Lingard then into the net by the lurking Antonio.
This was the first time City had conceded at home since a Dias own goal in the 1-1 draw with West Brom on 15 December. That was also the last occasion Guardiola’s side failed to win.
De Bruyne, despite his assist, was finding his radar awry. A misplaced pass led to Antonio claiming a corner and the City midfielder’s next ball was wild, too. But, his class was evident when he slalomed into the area and rolled a pass beyond Randolph that Agüero was inches away from.
This was the latter’s last action as Jesus replaced Agüero for the final half an hour. Foden followed five minutes later, as he arrived for Ferran Torres.
Stones struck shortly after and City were able to soak up late West Ham pressure, escaping when Issa Diop missed with a close-range header, Soucek unable to scramble home.
Moyes said: “We just didn’t take the moment at the end.”
Next up for Guardiola’s winning machine are Wolves, here on Tuesday. It will be a surprise if victory No 21 is not recorded.