Their relentlessness flies in the face of last season’s inconsistency. Many put their improvement down to City’s stars simply having had longer to grasp Guardiola’s methods and what he is asking of them. Ilkay Gundogan believes the leading factor in their development is more simple
“The big change is not doing any mistakes, at the back especially. We conceded a lot last season from stupid mistakes. We’re defending great, not conceding a lot of chances and have continued playing good football at the front.”
City are indeed a lot tighter at the back. Guardiola received criticism when his summer splurge did not include the recruitment of a centre-back, but instead, the manager has moulded John Stones into the kind of defender many felt he had the potential to become. Stones has achieved that largely, as Gundogan says, by cutting out the mistakes. Last season, only five outfield players in the Premier League made more mistakes that led to an opposition shot, with three of those four errors punished with a goal.
Despite the criticism Stones received last term, Guardiola recognised that patience would pay. That was not the case with the goalkeeper behind him.
Claudio Bravo was a wreck last season. Recruited to replace Joe Hart because Guardiola did not fancy the inconsistent England keeper with his feet, Bravo was a disaster with his hands. No No.1 had a lower save percentage and given City faced fewer shots than anyone in the league and only three shots on target more than champions Chelsea, the fact they managed only 10 clean sheets was a damning indictment of their rearguard.
City already have seven this season, and while Stones’ development has played a large role, so has the arrival of Ederson.
There were a few eyebrows raised in the summer when Guardiola made Ederson the most expensive goalkeeper ever. The then-23-year-old had made his first appearance for Benfica only a year prior to ending Gianluigi Buffon’s reign as the world’s costliest keeper and the City boss identified Ederson as a target only halfway through his first full season.
At Benfica, Ederson apparently earned the nickname ‘The Bull’ because the ball played the role of the red rag being charged. That is not to say the recently capped Brazil stopper is reckless, despite initial fears on his City debut when he came hurtling from his box only to be beaten to the ball by Romelu Lukaku, who seized on the mistake to score the opener in a friendly victory for United in Houston.
As Guardiola would no doubt have forcibly encouraged, that mistake did not prompt Ederson to reconsider his approach or hesitate the next time a decision had to be made whether to stay or go. Four games into his Premier League career, his judgement and speed denied Sadio Mane a clear run on goal, costing himself a nasty facial injury in the process.
A big deal has been made of Guardiola’s preference for a goalkeeper that doubles as a playmaker, and Ederson’s nous and athleticism in being able to cover the ground behind a high defensive line obviously makes him perfect for the current City system. Despite being the least troubled No.1 in terms of shots on target faced, no keeper has swept up more often than the 17 times the Brazilian has had to act as cover.
But just as crucial are the more traditional goalkeeping qualities Ederson possesses and the air of calm he has brought with him from Portugal. No wonder Stones was so jittery playing in front of a keeper who last winter appeared to have become the first hologram ever to play in the Premier League, such was his inability to block the few shots aimed in his direction.
Ederson’s presence and composure has certainly helped settle Stones and co. “He has settled quite good. He is calm. Always the same behaviour,” said Guardiola, with his understated, unruffled tone reflecting his keeper’s mentality. The 24-year-old is apparently as laid back off the pitch as he is in goal and the quiet authority he has exuded since arriving at City dovetails perfectly with their insanely high tempo passing and pressing.
More than anything, that’s what City paid £35million for: peace of mind. In that respect, there are comparisons to be drawn with the other top-class custodian in Manchester, David de Gea. While we need a far larger sample before we judge him against the Spain keeper who makes a reasonable claim to being the world’s best, Ederson has so far at City been flawless with feet, hands and mind.
As the season wears on, especially if City go far in the Champions League, we will gather further evidence as to whether Edison is capable of pulling off the type of barely believable match-saving stops that make a world-class No.1 like De Gea stand out from the mere mortals of goalkeeping.
But for now, Guardiola and City are just thrilled to have a keeper they can trust implicitly. It’s been a while