It was probably fair to say that history was against Watford and so, unsurprisingly, was the present day. In 13 previous matches in all competitions against Manchester City going back to 2013, they had lost 13, shipping 50 goals and taking some hidings along the way – an 8-0 and a couple of 6-0s, including the one in the 2019 FA Cup final.
This was another pummelling in all but the scoreline, City’s superiority stamped across every facet of the game and, given what had gone before, it felt faintly ridiculous when, after the substitute, Cucho Hernández, had reduced the deficit to 3-1 in the 74th minute, Joshua King blew a glorious chance for 3-2.
Credit Watford for their fighting spirit, even if Pep Guardiola felt it crossed a line with Craig Cathcart’s cynical 85th minute hack at the substitute, Gabriel Jesus. The City manager would remonstrate with the referee, Simon Hooper, over that at full-time. “It looked like [an] orange [card], at least,” Guardiola said.
Until the late and inconsequential twist, it had been a procession, City taking advantage of Chelsea’s defeat at West Ham to surge to the top of the table for the first time this season. On this and recent evidence, they will take some shifting.
Bernardo Silva was the outstanding performer and he produced the moment of the match, cutting inside from the right and bending a shot into the far, top corner for 3-0. He had previously added to Raheem Sterling’s early header and City measured their disappointment purely in quibbles. They should have scored many more, with Jack Grealish particularly wasteful, while Ederson remained stuck on 99 clean sheets for the club.
There was one pre-match statistic that had gone against the grain. In nine previous Premier League meetings with City, the Watford manager, Claudio Ranieri, had won eight and drawn one. It was always going to be a tough ask for him to continue that run, with the early exchanges making plain the gulf in class between the teams.
City’s dominance at the outset was almost indecent, Watford chasing shadows as the visitors manipulated the ball with familiar smoothness. Aymeric Laporte had a header cleared off the line by João Pedro from a Phil Foden corner and Sterling opened the scoring moments later. The only mercy for Watford would be that City were not four or five goals up inside ten minutes. They created the chances.
Playing as the false nine, Grealish headed another Foden corner straight at Daniel Bachmann when completely unmarked before he took a poor first touch after more probing by Foden. Sterling also extended Bachmann with a curler. The move for the breakthrough was ignited by Silva, whose crossfield pass was made to measure for Foden. When he crossed, Sterling was all alone to head home.
Guardiola asked Silva and Ilkay Gündogan to wander up front whenever they saw fit and they did so regularly, the first half becoming an ordeal for Watford, who could not cope with City’s speed of movement and thought. Apart from an Emmanuel Dennis shot on 17 minutes, which Ederson saved easily, it was one-way traffic. Watford came to crave even the briefest sequence of possession. They barely got that.
Silva scored the second from a tight angle, picking up the scraps after initially releasing Gündogan and seeing Bachmann get out to block. Before that, Grealish was denied by the goalkeeper with a deflected shot while he lifted another one high and, after it, Foden sliced when he should have done better.
What makes this City team so ruthless and dispiriting to play against is their hunger out of possession. They were not without the ball for very long but when they were, they rushed men around it, showing their physicality and commitment, with Rodri most prominent.
Ranieri switched to 4-2-3-1 for the second half, with Pedro in the No 10 role and, although Watford were better, City continued to create chances. And how about the show of strength when Guardiola introduced Riyad Mahrez and the fit-again Kevin De Bruyne on 67 minutes?
Grealish did not look happy to come off. He had just skimmed the crossbar with a deflected shot – it was not his night – although, by then, City were 3-0 up thanks to Silva. Sterling also worked Bachmann, Foden hit the near post, Gündogan shot high and it was really was a shock when Hernández burst clear to beat Ederson at the second attempt.
“Scoring goals is the most difficult thing in football and we are not specialists but we are playing really well,” Guardiola said. “What is important is to create the chances we have done.”