It is going to become a familiar sight this season: Kevin de Bruyne picking the ball up in the middle of the pitch, lifting his head and playing a defence-shredding pass through for Erling Haaland to race away from his markers and slot a clinical finish past a despairing goalkeeper.
Who said there is no place for a striker in a Pep Guardiola side? For Manchester City, the early evidence suggests the addition of a classic No 9 is not going to disrupt Guardiola’s passing machine. If anything the champions look even more dangerous with someone running in behind and, if there is a consolation for West Ham after they opened their campaign with a limp 2-0 defeat, it is that they will surely not be the last side to suffer against De Bruyne and Haaland.
There were 65 minutes on the clock when they finally clicked. First came the vision of De Bruyne, whose pass ripped West Ham apart, then the deadliness of Haaland. The Norwegian’s run was perfectly timed and, as he added to his first‑half penalty by sliding the ball past Alphonse Areola, it was difficult not to conclude that City’s star signing is already on the same wavelength as his new teammates.
For City, the focus over the summer was staying motivated. In a sense Guardiola has followed Sir Alex Ferguson’s formula of renovating from a position of strength, selling Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, but the principles remain intact. It is about evolution rather than revolution and this was more or less the same City, albeit with one crucial difference: an attack led not by a twinkle-toed midfielder, but a muscular target man whose primary function is scoring goals.
The eyes were instantly drawn to Haaland. It even seemed that there were questions for the 22-year-old to answer after some nervy finishing during City’s defeat to Liverpool in the Community Shield. For instance, would the physicality of English football be too much for him? And just what did Guardiola have in store for the former Borussia Dortmund striker? A stint at left-back? A tactical role on the right flank?
The answer, of course, was to put Haaland through the middle, with Phil Foden and Jack Grealish on the wings, De Bruyne floating ominously and Ilkay Gündoğan pushing forward from midfield to unsettle West Ham’s low block.
The effect was that City’s superiority was absolute. They started slowly, almost going behind when Michail Antonio headed over, but soon took control. For West Ham, who turned up with Kurt Zouma as their only fit centre-back, there was no way out of their own half.
West Ham wanted to hit City on the break, with Jarrod Bowen’s runs in from the right flank a concern for João Cancelo, but a lack of quality let them down. Manuel Lanzini and Pablo Fornals were quiet and, while Declan Rice tried to drive his side on, West Ham’s captain mostly found himself forced back.
A City goal was coming. After 21 minutes Foden cut in from the right and crossed for Haaland, who crept away from Ben Johnson and grimaced after bungling his header. It was a poor miss from Haaland, though he would eventually find his touch.
A crowd of 62,500 had roared David Moyes’s side on at the start, but the atmosphere quickly faded. At times there was even the sense of the Moyes project growing a little stale.
With Antonio unable to hold the ball up for a passive West Ham, the pressure became incessant. The game was bent to Guardiola’s tactical will. Moyes sighed as he noted how City’s full-backs, Kyle Walker and Cancelo, constantly moved inside to support Rodri in defensive midfield. West Ham had not prepared for City to do that and Moyes cut a resigned figure after being asked if he could have done anything to alter the pattern of play. “I’d loved to have done that,” the Scot said. “Have you got an idea?”
West Ham’s midfield screeners, Rice and Tomas Soucek, had no control. City always had men over and the ploy eventually brought a reward. Gündoğan turned and played the pass, Haaland beat Johnson again and Areola, who was on for the injured Lukasz Fabianski, brought the forward down.
It was a clear penalty and there was no doubt in Haaland’s mind when he grabbed the ball. The finish was unerring, a left-footed strike arrowed into the bottom-right corner, with Areola sent the wrong way.
West Ham, who started with none of their summer signings, needed a fresh approach. They improved in the second half and Moyes gambled, introducing his new £35.5m striker, Gianluca Scamacca, for Antonio.
There were brief flickers from West Ham. Saïd Benrahma, also on as a substitute, gave Ederson something to do. Rice shot over.
Yet City always looked likely to score again. Gündoğan went close and the game was safe when De Bruyne took charge. The pass was a thing of wondrous beauty and, as Haaland peeled down the inside-right channel and worked the ball on to his left foot, there cannot have been a single person who thought he was going to miss.