It took a late, late winner from Kyle Walker to see off Southampton, and there is not the same kind of fluency running through City this campaign
No one who saw Southampton’s shambolic performance against Leicester a week ago would have predicted Pep Guardiola’s joy at merely picking up three points against the same side.
The Manchester City manager swung between frustration and delight as his side struggled to open up a side that shipped a record nine goals in their Premier League last outing.
At one point during the game, he turned and issued a primal scream so loud that the top tier of the Colin Bell Stand could hear his anguish.
City did not have a shot on target until Sergio Aguero’s 70th-minute equaliser – the longest wait for a strike on goal in nearly three years.
And when Kyle Walker became the unlikely hero 15 minutes later, Guardiola jumped towards his bench in relief.
A team that had equalled the record for the Premier League’s highest defeat eight days later when they were humiliated on their own ground had held out until the final five minutes.
Guardiola was generous about Southampton’s heartening reaction to their embarrassment rather than criticising his own side’s lack of creativity.
“I knew the Southampton players would have pride,” he said.
“They suffered against Leicester, they are human beings and I knew they would not want anything like that to happen again under any circumstances.
“They wanted to win the duels, defend their goal by beating aggressive. We knew it. A big compliment to my team. It was not easy and we did it.”
But it was another warning that City are not quite producing the brilliance that has won back-to-back title with record hauls of 100 and 98 points.
They lost at home to Wolves last month and Guardiola was unhappy with his team’s laboured first half performance against Aston Villa a week ago.
Add in their shock defeat at relegation-threatened Norwich and it’s a dip from their extraordinary form of the past two campaigns.
If they are to challenge a Liverpool side that have dropped just two points all season then they need to increase their standards and fast, starting next week against their title rivals.
For most of the afternoon it looked like both sides would slip up. Then, at one stage, that City would cut Liverpool’s lead to three points. Then four… and finally it remained at six.
Liverpool’s ability to keep winning games late on means City can’t afford many more slip-ups.
“When we win, Liverpool still win,” Guardiola said.
“When they win many games in the last minute, it is because of special character.
“The first season we won the treble, we won four or five games in the last minute.”
He admitted it was not easy for his side to create chances against Southampton.
The visitors regularly had all 11 men in the box and they threw legs, heads and torsos to block every shot and steer away every cross.
City shifted the ball from side to side to try to find a breakthrough but it was like trying to pick holes in the South Africa rugby team that beat England in the World Cup final earlier in the day.
But too many of City’s key players were unable to deliver that killer pass.
Kevin De Bruyne, who has nine assists this season, barely created an opportunity in the opening 70 minutes.
Bernardo Silva’s radar was also off while Raheem Sterling and Ilkay Gunodgan were crowded out.
“There was no space in the penalty area, my friend,” Guardiola explained.
“We had to be patient, second ball, crosses. We needed more people in the box and, in the second half, Gabriel Jesus did that.”
Southampton were bolstered by a rare blunder inside 13 minutes from Ederson.
The Brazilian failed to gather Stuart Armstrong’s low shot and when the ball spilled clear, James Ward-Prowse was quickest to pounce and steer in the loose ball.
Ederson has started the season in brilliant form was a rare misjudgement from him.
It was just his third error in the Premier League but when he makes them, they tend to be expensive – City failed to win the other two games he made errors in.
But it gave something to the visitors and they even had Nathan Redmond making eager runs on the counterattack. The winger played just as Guardiola infamously told him to in their bizarre exchange two yeas ago.
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Aguero finally found a way through firing in Walker’s low cross before the full-back became the matchwinner with his late goal.
It was a result that is so often seen as the trait of champions – winning without playing well.
City will take it. But Guardiola’s side look more like champions when they are dominating teams rather than scratching late victories.
The manager caused some fuss after the game, mentioning to the BBC that Sadio Mane not only had a special talent for scoring goals but also for “diving”. Those comments are likely to get plenty of examination in the next seven days but the real test comes on the field at Anfield.